How George Weah came to be known as Liberia’s man of the people
As he seeks re-election in a few days, the incumbent president's popularity is doing the heavy lifting.
As he seeks re-election in a few days, the incumbent president's popularity is doing the heavy lifting.
September 2023. Liberia. The West African nation is in full election season mode. General polls are scheduled for early October 2023 and running for re-election as president is George Manneh Weah, erstwhile global football superstar and philanthropist. At a party rally President George Weah steps out to the podium, and the crowd goes wild: “Muyan! Muyan! Muyan!” In that crowd, shouting, is Jacob Kollie, a 27-year old bike rider in Monrovia.
“I am a cdcian (the name members of Weah’s party are called) to the core,” Kollie declares. “I love Weah, he is like me, he came from the streets. He doesn’t look down on us, the man is humble, and he employs youth in his government. I am just riding bike to hustle, but I want to play football, anywhere Weah goes I will follow him.”
Weah’s journey to the presidency started in Clara town, a low income area in Monrovia, where he was born and raised. Growing up in a low income household, Weah first learnt to play football using rags which were molded into a ball, building the skill-set of his generational powers through humble beginnings. Often lauded for his pace, stamina, technical ability, and brilliant attacking instincts, Weah started his football career playing for Mighty Barrolle and Invincible Eleven, the two clubs that dominated Liberia’s local footballing leagues.
After winning numerous trophies and writing his name in Liberia’s footballing circles, Weah moved to Cameroon where he played for Tonnerre Yaounde. It was at that club that Claude Le Roy, then coach of the Cameroon national team, noticed and recommended him to legendary football coach Arsene Wenger, who eventually signed George Weah to French club Monaco in 1988, after visiting cameroon to watch his then newest discovery.
In Europe, Weah shined even brighter, quickly becoming an even more skilled and productive attacker under Wenger’s guidance. In 1991, he won the Coupe de France with Monaco, and in 1989, he was named African Footballer of the Year. In 2018, George Weah, now president, awarded Wenger and Claude Leroy ‘Knight Grand High Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption’, for their development of African Football.
George Weah had a successful stint in Monaco before moving to Paris Saint-Germain in 1992, where he would go on to win Ligue 1 in 1994 and lead the UEFA Champions League in scoring that same season. In 1995, he signed with Milan, where he would spend the next four seasons and win the Italian Serie A on two separate occasions. At the end of his career, he moved to England, returned to France and finally retired from the Emirati club Al Jazira in 2003
Weah also gave significant contributions to the growth of the national team in Liberia as he paid out of his own pocket for the national team’s kit, to give the players spending money, and for the national football team to travel to matches during the Liberian civil war. He also led the country’s “golden generation” of players, including Christopher Wreh, James Debbah, and others, to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1996. Unfortunately, Liberia never went far in the competition.
As a footballer, George Weah earned legendary honors including African player of the year, the FIFA World Player of the Year and the prestigious Ballon D’Or. Till date, Weah remains the only African player to have won the Ballon D’Or. “When I started playing football, I never thought I would ever win the Ballon d’Or and emerge as the best player in the world,” Weah said of his seminal achievement. “I just had a passion for the game and I worked hard. Every day. I would rather train than eat or sleep.”
Asides his footballing exploits, Weah has also endeared himself to his supporters as a result of his work as philanthropist. During and after the Liberian civil war, Weah worked with UNICEF to provide relief for many Liberians. In 2005, when Liberia returned to democratic elections after its war, Weah emerged again, this time he was running for president. Despite winning the first round of the elections in 2005, Weah eventually lost the presidency to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who became the continent’s first female president. During the elections, Weah lost out in part to voters saying he was unqualified as he didn’t have a university degree.
Not letting defeat get the best of him, Weah went back to school and obtained his high school diploma in 2006, aged 40. He then proceeded to DeVry University in Florida, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business management in 2011 and a master’s degree in public administration two years later. In 2011, he ran for public office and lost again, this time as a vice presidential candidate. However, in 2011, Weah’s party, Congress of Democratic Change, boycotted the second round citing irregularities. In 2014, he ran and won a senate seat in Montserrado, a county that hosts the capital of Monrovia and is the most populated in Liberia. Building on that, he entered into a coalition with three other parties forming the Coalition of Democratic Change, and won the presidency in 2017, largely with the help of his youth base who stood with him.
Speaking on why Weah has been able to maintain his youth base, Joshua Kulah, a Liberian lawyer and political science lecturer says; “Weah has been able to garner and maintain his youth base because no other political actor in the country has been able to relate to young people as much. From his story from the streets of Monrovia to world fame, George Weah has been one of the silver linings in Liberia’s story. As a result, young people, a lot of whom are struggling and working to meet his heights, can relate and connect to him in a way they can’t relate with others.”
In August 2018, President Weah declared that the University of Liberia and all other Public Universities in Liberia will now be tuition-free for all undergraduates. University students at the time had been protesting a recent rise in tuition fees—from an average of about $40 to $65 per semester—claiming it was unaffordable. Since resuming the presidency, Weah’s government has also paid the WASSCE exam fees for all 12th graders.
According to World Bank statistics, the gross national income per capita stood at just $570 in 2020, thus for many Liberians, mostly youth, education is expensive. As a result, Weah’s free tuition policy aimed to address this issue in order to lower dropout rates and enhance enrollment and retention. However, critics argue that, while the tuition-free policy has boosted access to education for many young people, it has also diminished quality by reducing university funding, as tuition fees were a key source of finance.
As a result, the university’s educational quality and educational infrastructure quality have declined. For instance, University students demonstrated against poor infrastructure to facilitate online learning during Covid lockdowns. Meanwhile, professors at the University of Liberia, the country’s largest public university, have gone on strike repeatedly over unpaid wages, infrastructure issues, and bad working conditions.
Weah has also been able to connect to the youth through music. His relationship with music is a long one, in March 1998, in collaboration with the Italian Committee for UNICEF, Weah launched a CD called ‘Lively up Africa’ involving the singer Frisbie Omo Isibor and eight other African football stars. The proceeds went to children’s programs in the countries of origin of the soccer players involved.
At the height of the coronavirus in Liberia, President George Weah also recorded a song to inform Liberians about the coronavirus, which was then broadcasted throughout the country and was able to reach remote areas which led to sensitization on corona. In 2014, when Liberia was affected by the Ebola virus, he did the same to raise awareness. However, his music has not been restricted to just sensitization. Under the artistic name of “Rabi”, music has been ‘unofficially’ released covering various topics on happiness, betrayal, and he even did the theme song for a beauty pageant.
In February 2023, he released a song called “Talk Talk” where he allegedly shades top opposition figures Alexander Cummings and Joseph Boakai. While the song didn’t refer to the two men explicitly by name, lyrics throw jabs at a ‘Mr B’ and ‘Mr C’: “Mr. B wants to become president, Mr. C wants to be president, but all they do is just sit and talk the talk.”
Despite his love for music, the structural problems of Liberia’s music industry still remain. Firstly, for artists, streaming is an unpredictable source of revenue due to the lack of internet and data service availability in many parts of rural Liberia. With 2.8GB available for $5 in areas with internet connectivity, it is well-known as one of the most costly data prices in the sub-region. As a result, music lovers turn to illicit downloads or free streaming services like Audiomack. The music industry also lacks proper infrastructure and distribution channels, which makes illegal downloads the norm
Liberian artists also can’t tour their cities and towns because the country’s roads aren’t very good. This makes it harder for them to make money. This bad transportation network has resulted in a concentration of shows in Monrovia, the nation’s capital city, which lacks proper show venues—for example, the biggest indoor venue can only accommodate about 700 people. Despite this, compared to the campaigns of other candidates, George Weah has had a greater level of support from Liberian artists, who have even organized concerts and written campaign songs to influence voters.
At age 51, George Weah made history as the first former professional footballer to become president of an African state. His feats lend to his consideration as an inspirational figure. For a man who followed his dream, rose through the slums of Monrovia to reach global football royalty status – earned on the streets of France – and is now the President of Liberia, it’s no surprise that he’s viewed through gilded lens by the youth populace, which also happens to be the main bloc that voted him into the highest public office in the country.
Even with the myriad criticisms he’s faced, from early concerns over leadership style to the (in)effectiveness of his economic policies and his recent long stay abroad, it’s clear that George Weah’s legend still has a massive sway over many Liberians. At age 56, he is hoping to replicate his 2017 victory. With Liberia’s population being majorly youth, Weah will be hoping that his largely youth base will stick with him and get him over the finish line.
“I will vote for Weah,” Kollie says. “I have children. I will vote for him so my children know that they are on the street now, but they can be something one day. If Weah can do it, then they can do it too.”