31 October 2005
Good Luck, King George
By Gwynne Dyer
Liberia is a country where 85 percent of the population is unemployed, and where there are virtually no functioning schools or hospitals any longer. Almost a tenth of the population died in the 14-year civil war that ended only two years ago, most of them not killed in combat but chopped to death by drugged-up child soldiers. It may be the only place in the world where the young have a lower literacy rate than the old.
For the past two years it has been a United Nations protectorate, occupied by 15,000 UN soldiers. And now they are holding an election for the presidency.
They have already held a first round of voting that eliminated 20 of the 22 candidates, and on 8 November they get to choose between the two leaders. One is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who
worked for the World Bank and who has the contacts and the skills to get the country the foreign help it desperately needs. If elected, she will be Africa’s first woman president. The other is George Weah, a retired Liberian-born football (soccer) hero who never went to school, has never held a normal job, and now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
So which candidate stands a better chance of saving Liberia from another round of slaughter, and maybe even getting the West African country back on its feet? George Weah, obviously, though it must be added that even his chances of succeeding are not very good.
“I don’t need political experience to give you schools,” Weah tell the voters. “I don’t need political experience to give you lights, and water, or to see that the roads are bad,” and a lot of them listen because his origins were as tough as theirs.
George Weah was born in a Monrovia slum, one of 13 children who were abandoned by their parents and raised by their grandparents in a hut on reclaimed swampland. It was his extraordinary skill at football that took him first to Cameroon, then to Europe, and eventually, in 1996, to global recognition as the international footballer of the year.
He is the idol of poor young men in Liberia, most of whom are addicted to football — and there are a lot of young men in Liberia: almost half its potential voters are under 30, and a quarter are actually under 23. That is why “King George”, as they call him, will probably win the run-off election on 8 November and become president of Liberia, but is this really a happy ending? What are the odds that this 39-year-old retired athlete with no formal education and no experience of either business or politics can run the country successfully, or even hold it together?
Better than Johnson-Sirleaf’s, at least. She is a descendant of the freed American slaves who founded Liberia in 1847, and though she bears no personal blame for their actions it is a crippling handicap politically.
The American ex-slaves who were resettled on the West African coast proceeded to re-created the slavery society of the American south in an African context, with themselves on top.
Local Africans were conscripted into a system of forced labour, while the vote was reserved for the American newcomers (who have never numbered more than five percent of Liberia’s population.) And despite various modifications, that two-caste system essentially stayed in place until 25 years ago.
The quarter-century of turmoil and civil war that has devastated Liberia began when Sergeant Samuel Doe, an illiterate soldier, led a revolt that overthrew Americo-Liberian rule in 1980. Battles between various military groups and warlords became chronic, the use of child soldiers in those struggles became normal, and practically all of Liberia’s economy and infrastructure were destroyed. Maybe the killing is over now, but it
depends a good deal on whether the new president can convince people that Liberia has really turned the corner.
That is where Johnson-Sirleaf, for all her qualities, cannot deliver the goods. As a 66-year-old member of the old Americo-Liberian elite, she simply lacks the street credibility that might persuade the tens of thousands of recently demobilised boy soldiers with no immediate prospect of improvement in their circumstances that there is somebody in power who understands their anger and their impatience.
George Weah is undoubtedly less well equipped than Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to run an efficient administration and rebuild the economy, but the brutal fact is that it will be years before Liberia can provide either jobs or education for all those angry young men who fought in Liberia’s wars no matter who is president. If they lose patience, the country will tumble back into the horrors that it has just recently left behind. So the new president’s main task will be to persuade them to be patient, and Weah has at least a chance of doing that.
He also stands a good chance of being killed. He left Liberia in fear of his life and settled his family in Florida years ago, after the dictator of the time, Charles Taylor, had his house burned for daring to suggest that Liberia needed UN intervention. He has come back to face a situation that is only marginally less dangerous, and he will need a lot of luck to pull Liberia through — or even to come through the experience alive.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 8 and 10. (“So…good”; “Local…ago”; and “That is here…impatient”)