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Opinionista

In a region blighted by instability and sit-tight leaders, George Weah is a breath of fresh air

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Azubuike Ishiekwene is the editor-in-chief at Leadership Media Group.

The football legend didn’t wait for the referee’s final whistle. All it would have taken to plunge Liberia into another round of crisis was for Weah to stoke the ethnic fire. He didn’t.

Liberia and Sierra Leone have a common historical legacy and often tend to imitate each other in war and peace. But events in the past two weeks suggest that while Liberia may be turning a new, refreshing page, Sierra Leone remains trapped in its troubled past.

First, the good news from Liberia, whose capital, Monrovia, was named in honour of America’s fifth president, James Monroe. After one six-year term, President George Weah, announced even before Liberia’s electoral commission finished counting the votes in the 17 November run-off elections, that he was done. The football legend didn’t wait for the referee’s final whistle.

He called the leader of the opposition, 78-year-old Joseph Boakai, to congratulate him in an election that finished with a narrow 49.36% to 50.64% margin that a crooked sitting president could have upturned.

Meanwhile, Liberia’s neighbour, Sierra Leone, is boiling after an attempted coup on Saturday night forced the government of President Julius Maada Bio to impose a nationwide curfew. Some unofficial reports have blamed last June’s shambolic elections as the trigger, threatening the moment of relief that Weah’s gracious exit had offered west and central Africa, which have been the theatres of nine military coups or attempted power grabs in three years.

Yet, it would be a huge disservice to allow the mutineers in Freetown or elsewhere on the continent to rain on Weah’s parade. In a region blighted by instability and sit-tight leaders, the Weah moment is a breath of fresh air.

In the past three-and-a-half decades, Liberia suffered two civil wars, 1989 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003. In both, about 250,000 persons were killed and more than a million displaced in what has been referred to as one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts.

Waiting has also taught Weah to manage Liberia’s cauldron of ethnic politics, its weakest point of inflexion.

The conflicts, fuelled by diamonds, were deeply rooted in the country’s ghastly identity politics. Liberia was one of the four independent African states by 1945; the others being Egypt, Ethiopia and the Union of South Africa.

But it was only independent in name. Liberia was a vassal of the American Firestone company, the tyre and rubber manufacturer that owned plantations there. Like Sierra Leone, Liberia later became home to blacks who worked in these plantations or those repatriated from America.

But that’s not the whole story. The Americo-Liberian elite, a small but powerful group, held economic and political power for more than 100 years until they were brutally overthrown in the 1980s by a barely literate master sergeant, Samuel Doe, with the backing of the US.

To the consternation of the US and the shock of the world, Doe ruled with an iron hand, which got more vicious as the years went by. He replaced Americo-Liberian oppression with that of his own Krahn ethnic group. The Gios and Manos in Nimba County were his most horrific victims. They were hunted down and murdered for sport.

It was in these circumstances that Charles Taylor rose up as defender and ethnic champion. Most of his early recruits were from Nimba County from where he later launched a countrywide rebellion that led to the murder of Doe in 1990 and the wrecking of Liberia with serious destabilising consequences for Sierra Leone and west Africa. Liberia is still struggling with the effects of that brutal war.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency from 2006 to 2018 was thought to be Liberia’s best chance at a reset. Weah was determined to launch an earlier presidential bid that may have disrupted Sirleaf’s presidency.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Liberia: Lessons learnt after moving the poster child of death and destruction in the right direction

Regional leaders, fearing Liberia’s fragile state, prevailed on him to wait. After watching bands of mostly jobless and potentially vulnerable rural youths fall under the spell of Weah’s star power, Nigeria’s president at the time, Olusegun Obasanjo, advised the former World Footballer of the Year to suspend his ambition and return to school.

That decision may have been unpleasant then, but it seasoned Weah and prepared him, when he finally took the helm in 2017, to manage the fraught and delicate balance in a country that has suffered some of the worst depredations of Ebola and Covid-19. More than half of the 5.4 million population live below the poverty line, a perfect excuse for political instability.

Older and wiser

But waiting may have done more for Weah than giving him a chance to return to the classroom. Given the slight margin of defeat in the last elections, for example, had he not grown older and wiser, he might have yielded to the temptation to unleash the capricious hand of the state against his relentless second-time challenger, Boakai.

Waiting has also taught Weah to manage Liberia’s cauldron of ethnic politics, its weakest point of inflexion. All it would have taken to plunge Liberia into another round of crisis was for Weah to stoke the ethnic fire.

He didn’t.

Of course, drugs and corruption were also major election talking points, with the opposition Unity Party mocking Weah, whose chief of staff, solicitor-general and head of the ports authority were reportedly sanctioned by the US on corruption charges in 2022.

A university professor told Al Jazeera that “corruption is an unending story and will influence votes, however the deciding factor will be issues around the economy which affect Liberians directly”.

Yet, the ethnic fault lines in the voting pattern, heightened by politics, also explain the government’s inability to implement the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission since 2009. The country is still deeply divided.

And no one knows this more than Weah, who picked Taylor’s wife as running mate to boost his electoral fortunes among sections of native Liberians. Conceding to Boakai even before counting closed defused tensions and gave the country hope for stability in a blighted region.

Even though conceding defeat doesn’t immediately solve Liberia’s deep underlying problems, it gives the country a good chance to continue the hard work of rebuilding.

Weah wasn’t lacking in bad examples to follow. Guinea, Liberia’s northern neighbour, is under military rule, as are nearby Mali and Burkina Faso. Except for the late Jerry Rawlings of Ghana who exited at 53, African statesmen hardly retire at 57 or even 75 for that matter. The relics in Cameroon, Uganda and Equatorial Guinea are worth counting.

All it would have required was for Weah to use the familiar playbook: Denounce the election, alter the constitution, sack some people in high places as a warning, or just improvise any subterfuge to undermine the elections. And he would be sitting pretty, calling the shots and daring the world to remonstrate – knowing he was never the first, and may not be the last.

If he had chosen this path, there is little evidence that the AU or even Ecowas would have lost sleep. They were silent when Senegal’s Macky Sall toyed with extending his tenure, before he pulled back from that travesty, which in any case, Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara has managed to get away with.

The regional bodies made all the right noises about coups in Guinea, Niger, Sudan, Gabon and Mali and even threatened military action, only to leave Nigeria’s president and Ecowas leader, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, eating his own words.

Weah has chosen a different path, he has done the honourable thing. Even though conceding defeat doesn’t immediately solve Liberia’s deep underlying problems, it gives the country a good chance to continue the hard work of rebuilding. And just as important, it offers Liberia’s neighbours and the continent as a whole a redeeming example. DM

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