Liberia’s new president will have to tackle some very old problems

“Here’s what we will do…”
“Here’s what we will do…”
Image: Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon
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For the first time since 1944, Liberia will have a democratic transfer of power as former soccer star George Weah is sworn in as the country’s new president today (Jan. 22).

Weah won the presidency after run-off elections last December with 61.5% of votes. He takes over from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president, who steps down after two terms of six years each.

Weah’s ascent to the presidency after a short period as a senator and a long, illustrious career as one of world soccer’s most decorated stars, has been well chronicled. But beyond that, after finally winning the presidency at his third time of trying, Weah is faced with his toughest challenge yet.

Weah’s direction in office will be dictated by his first major decisions in office, including picking his cabinet members. Despite winning the presidency on the back of a campaign which pitched him as an outsider of the Liberian political establishment, Weah’s links with Liberia’s old order—mainly characters from Liberia’s brutal civil war—will be watched closely. Jewel Taylor, a senator since 2005 and ex-wife of former warlord and president Charles Taylor, will be Weah’s vice-president.

Weah also won the endorsement of veteran politicians in Liberia including the unpredictable and politically risky Prince Johnson, who’s known for his role in the execution of former president Samuel Doe in 1990 amid the civil war. Johnson has served as a senator from Nimba county since 2005. He also ran for president in 2011, finishing behind Winston Tubman—who contested with Weah as his vice president—and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the first round of voting.

Despite promising to pick a team based on their expertise, given the need to reward establishment figures who supported him, “political horse trading” may take precedence in Weah’s cabinet selection says Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst with Maplecroft, a UK-based consulting firm.

That decision could also set the tone for Liberia’s relationship with international aid donors. These international donors, Liewerscheidt says, “will be watching nervously for signs that former warlords are influencing the new government.” An “alignment with dubious characters from Liberia’s war-torn past,” Liewerscheidt says, “might curb the enthusiasm of key international donors.”

This is important given Liberia’s recent weak economic growth, maintaining relationships with international donors is seen as crucial to fund several projects.

Not much, in terms of specifics, is known about Weah’s policy plans and that could allow him some flexibility to weigh options and make decisions in the first few months in office. Regardless however, Weah has to tackle some obvious big-ticket problems. One of those is unemployment—a biting problem for many of the country’s young people. Perhaps as a sign of his intentions, after winning the presidency, Weah seemed to be calling for more private sector investment saying Liberia is “open for business.”

But Weah will also have to solve problems in the public sector he will be leading as corruption remains an enduring problem despite his predecessor’s public anti-corruption stance. Sirleaf Johnson herself provided an insight into the scale of the problem when she admitted, in a recent interview with Foreign Policy, that she had “underestimated the cultural roots of corruption” in Liberia.

In fact, Liberia had the second highest illicit financial outflows relative to trade in sub Saharan Africa. Between 2005 and 2014, the midpoint estimate of illicit outflows compared to Liberia’s total trade was a whopping 83%, according to a 2017 report from Global Financial Integrity.