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BEYOND BORDERS

Back to Liberia – a tale of George Weah, the people and the future

February 6, 2020

By Sulaiman Momodu

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The Author

My recent visit to Liberia brought flashbacks of Liberia’s long journey from war to peace and the ultimate sacrifices many people had made for the land of liberty to once again live in peace.

Liberians are loving people, but over the years, the country has experienced untold tests and trials. The question? What does the future hold for Liberia?

During my sojourn in Liberia for nearly a decade, I covered the visits of high-level delegations, the country’s huge debt cancellation process, the disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration activities, as well as the country’s peace and recovery process. Another question – is Liberia making any progress?

Over the past two years, Liberia has been battling with crisis after crisis. As I write this piece, the country is contending with a fuel shortage. What’s going on in Liberia brings back memories of what one of my teachers used to say to the school’s footballers in our class. “Whether you dribble in the air and score in heaven, if you fail my exams, I will fail you,” he warned. Essentially, the teacher stressed on performance in class and not popularity.

Liberia’s president is George Manneh Oppong Weah. He is a football legend. During his career, he was a striker. Speed? Yes. Dribbling skills? Superb. For about 15 years, Weah played for clubs in Europe – France, Italy, and England. On the pitch, he dribbled and thrilled football enthusiasts. For his skills, he won several awards. Some Liberians called him King George.

From very humble roots, in 2018, after some years of preparations, including returning to the classroom to improve on his education, something his critics were always excited to cite as his deficiency, Weah became president defeating then Vice President Joseph Boakai.

Prior to becoming president, Weah had also served as a senator. While Weah may be popular, especially among the football-loving population, some Liberians had argued that some of those who surrounded him did not come across as people who would provide any meaningful leadership for a country that is yet to fully recover from the throes and trauma of a civil conflict. Weah’s contributions as a senator did not also impress many people.

While working in Liberia, I was privileged to meet or interact with the country’s leaders, including Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (when she was president). I also met some members of the opposition, and above all the ordinary people from Zwedru to Zorzor. Let me also add that I visited all the 15 counties of the largely posh green country from Montserrado to Maryland as the United Nations and other partners did what they could to contribute to the peace and development of a country of about 4.5 million people that was once battered by civil strife with two of its presidents tragically murdered.  William Richard Tolbert was killed in 1980. A decade later, another president Samuel K. Doe was horribly butchered as his naked remains were paraded on the streets in the struggle for power.

In Zwedru, Grand Geddeh County, I had visited an unfinished mansion by Doe. Absolutely massive. It was never completed when civil war broke out. Today, the palace lies in ruins. After Doe, Charles Taylor, who lived dangerously, entered the stage amid singing and dancing by some Liberians – “You kill my ma, you kill my pa, I will vote for you”. Today, Taylor is behind bars albeit not for crimes committed in Liberia, but in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

During my recent brief visit to the impoverished West African state, I stayed in a hotel where the receptionist had assured that I could pay my hotel bills using my visa credit card. I was delighted. However, when it was time to check out, it turned out that the machine was dead. Depressing! Although this was clearly a system failure, I had an obligation – to pay. To compound a potential embarrassment, at the nearest ATM to my hotel was a very long queue where many people were waiting for hours to get what little they could to keep their pots boiling. In Monrovia, long queues outside banks are a common sight. “How will I get out of this situation?” I wondered. In short, I managed to pay my hotel bills and left the country. Clearly, not all is well is Liberia. The Liberian government says “it inherited a collapsed economy” but some people put the blame squarely on Weah’s government.

As a footballer, Weah demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that he is a patriot. He supported the country from his own resources and won the hearts of the people. Over the past months, Liberia has been going through serious challenges, including delays in payment of salaries, inflation, protests, strike actions, scandals, cuts in salaries, issues with donors – the list is endless.

Recently, amid bitter disagreements between Weah and some executives of his ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), Weah’s foremost critic, Henry Costa aired a recording on his talk show in which the chairman of the president’s party, Mulbah Morlu, was accusing his boss of extramarital affairs with female government officials. Morlu later said it was “beer talk”. Weah himself downplayed it saying it was “mere angry talk” and that it was the work of “blackmailers and racketeers”. Some Liberians say the situation in the country has gone from the toilet into the septic tank. The situation no more smells, it stinks.

A few weeks ago, the Government of Liberia described Henry Costa a “fugitive from justice” on allegations that he used fake traveling documents.  Costa, who has been organising protests in Liberia, was briefly arrested in Sierra Leone while returning to USA and set free.

Beset by woes and reports of corruption, Weah has asked his people, most of whom are running out of patience, to give him chance to fix the country. Although efforts have been made to construct and rehabilitate some roads, during my visit, I saw roads such as in Bushrod Island riddled with potholes making vehicular traffic a complete nightmare.

In a nearly two-hour annual address to the 54th National Legislature in late January this year, Weah renewed his pledge to fight corruption and that there “will be no sacred cows”. Many people are not impressed.

Liberia is a “God-fearing” nation. Weah is a Christian. I have personally been in church services which he had attended. Also, during the presidential elections, he visited the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos where believers are usually reminded to make the Word of God the standard for their lives. As a footballer, Weah was loved, and he knows that as a believer, God usually tests people’s character when in power or when they have acquired wealth. Will Weah remain the darling of his people?

I love the lyrics of the Liberian national anthem. All hail, Liberia, hail…Long live Liberia, happy land! The truth? Liberia is not a happy land. Weah, who has now served for about two years as president, has a mammoth task to fix the economy and once again inspire his people through servant leadership and leading by good examples in both words and deeds. But can he? I wish Weah and the people of Liberia all the best.

About the author: Sulaiman Momodu lived and worked in Liberia for the United Nations as the country transitioned from war to peace. He had also worked for the UN in Ethiopia and Switzerland.