President George Weah

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:Former international football star Georges Weah looks on at his party's headquarters in the Liberian capital Monrovia on Friday. — AFP

Politics has often injected itself into sports. George Weah’s election as the new president of Liberia illustrates that sports can also enter the world of politics.

With more than 98 percent of votes counted, Weah received 61.5 percent of the ballots while Vice President Joseph Boakai received 38.5 percent. It was a crushing margin of victory but hardly surprising. Weah is a big football star in his country and around the world; the only African selected the world’s best player. He has name recognition that greatly helped on the road to victory.

At the same time, though, some question whether Weah’s football status can offset his lack of political experience, which they say makes him unequipped for Liberia’s top job. He has been a senator for three years and had run in the presidential elections before, but apart from that he’s not a tried and tested political figure.

Weah will need to marshal all the skills that he showed with teams like AC Milan on the political playing field of a country in which corruption is rife, poverty, unemployment and illiteracy are endemic and the economy is weak.

Weah will at least inherit a country that has recovered from two back-to-back civil wars stretching 17 years and which killed around 250,000 people as many thousands more fled the fighting. These wars destroyed education and healthcare and led to the accumulation of one of the largest debts on the continent in proportion to population size, preventing the country from borrowing to fund any projects.

Much of the credit for Liberia’s relative tranquility should go to the incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who has overseen years of peace and stability since she took office in 2006. Sirleaf was so successful in her efforts she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for rebuilding Liberia after its civil wars tore it apart. She also showed strong leadership during the Ebola outbreak that killed nearly 5,000 Liberians.

Her best achievement, according to Sirleaf herself, is that she will be Liberia’s first former president who will live a normal life after leaving office, meaning she is departing while still in one piece. The same cannot be said for former president Charles Taylor who started the war 28 years ago. He was eventually forced to stand down amid huge international pressure following his indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in neighboring Sierra Leone. He is currently serving a 50-year jail term in a UK prison following his conviction.

That Liberia had a man for president like Taylor, who planned some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history, does not match its democratic history. A nation founded by freed American slaves, it was the first African republic to proclaim its independence and is the continent’s oldest modern republic.

It is surprising that Weah’s vice-president will be Jewel Howard Taylor, the warlord’s ex-wife. Her selection has proved controversial but Weah’s supporters say she merits the job and is academically sound and has experience for her new role.

After all the wars and woes, Weah takes control in the West African nation’s first democratic transfer of power in more than 70 years. His sporting background is not unusual. It’s not uncommon to see sports stars enter the political fray. Imran Khan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Kemp, Romario, Socrates, Manny Pacquiao and Bill Bradley have all tried their hand at politics with varying degrees of success. Nobody has made it as far as Weah.

He might be inexperienced but being brought up in the slums of the capital Monrovia has given Weah an affinity and a connection with the man on the street that other politicians do not have. The ambition and drive that helped him succeed in the sporting arena should also serve him in good stead.


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