The 2017 Liberian Presidential election had all the trappings of a major step in the process of democratization, but instead opened a period of democratic decay and tyranny. Since the end of the civil war, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had overseen a slow transformation of Liberia as the first female elected head of state in Africa, rebuilding the country and advancing the peace process, even winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Sirleaf, constitutionally barred from running for a third term, made no steps to undermine or remove her term limits, instead gracefully leaving the Presidency. The 2017 election saw the victory of George Weah, an opposition candidate, marking the first peaceful transfer of power in Liberia since 1944. By all rights, the outcome of the election and the peaceful transfer of power was a momentous occasion in a nation that had been wracked by civil war less than two decades ago. However, as the post-election honeymoon period has waned, it has become clear that the Weah Presidency is not all it first seemed. Rather, George Weah’s presidency has been a disappointment that has seen corruption, scandal, and a burgeoning cult of personality. Instead of continuing Liberia’s path towards democratization, George Weah has modelled his administration after corrupt personalists, putting Liberia’s fragile democracy under great strain.
George Weah came into politics largely as an outsider, originally a soccer star with a celebrity following. In 2005 he ran for President of Liberia, though he was defeated by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and mounted a similar failed vice presidential bid in 2011. However, in 2017 he won the Presidential election overwhelmingly with the support of Sirleaf. Weah’s platform was centered around economic improvements for the poor and a rejection of past corruption, promising sweeping changes and increased democratization.
After taking office Weah has shown that despite lofty promises he is much like those who came before him. Soon after taking office, President Weah cut his Presidential salary by 25%, a largely symbolic action and protest of Liberia’s endemic corruption, but did little of substance. Rather, he dodged declaring his assets as part of an ongoing national corruption probe, and used his position and influence as President to distribute patronage. This includes focusing infrastructure programs on his childhood home, ensuring key jobs went to his brothers, and favoring his own personal business interests. More troublingly, President Weah also replaced the head of an anti-corruption initiative in a move widely condemned as illegal. Finally, there is an ongoing scandal over the disappearance of containers full of Liberian dollars, estimated to be worth about one hundred million United States dollars. The whereabouts of the disappearing money are still unknown despite the disappearance being first reported in September 2018, and there is an ongoing cash shortage in Liberia. The Weah Administration has proven itself unable to deal with the corruption crisis, often taking part in corruption itself.
Alongside routine corruption, the Weah Administration has also begun to embrace more outrightly authoritarian politics. Weah has brought supporters and allies of former dictator and war criminal Charles Taylor into his administration, with Jewel Howard-Taylor, the dictator’s ex-wife, serving as Vice President. Howard-Taylor is joined by other key figures such as Charles Bright and Emmanuel Shaw, former advisors to Charles Taylor known for their personal corruption. With Taylor’s advisors on his team, it is no surprise then that Weah has undermined the post-civil war Truth and Reconciliation Committee and has refused to follow its recommendations. The Weah Administration has also begun to build a cult of personality around the President. This can be seen in statues of him throughout Liberia as well as cheering crowds that spontaneously appeared to sing the President’s praises when BBC News went to Liberia to interview him. Additionally, Weah plays with a local soccer team in Monrovia, named the Weah All Stars after himself. The Weah All Stars have not yet lost a single game and no other player has ever interfered with President Weah whenever he has the ball. Despite being in his fifties, Weah continues to live his fantasy as a soccer star, constantly winning to the cries of adoring fans. Truly, the Weah All Stars is a mockery of the President’s previous soccer career, with more in common with President Trump’s self aggrandizement than the cult following the Kim dynasty, but it is clear that Weah is attempting to build a cult of personality. Yet behind the President’s ridiculous soccer games and transparent corruption there is a much darker and more repressive side to his administration. In response to rampant corruption, Liberian citizens have protested the Weah government. During such protests, President Weah has shut down social media, his administration claiming that it was necessary due to “security concerns.” Such a tactic is troubling, and while there is yet to be widespread violence the cracks appearing in Liberian democracy are plainly visible.
Once an international soccer superstar and a promising reformer, President Weah has become something else entirely. Now mired in corruption and with troubling ties to authoritarians, the President Weah has transformed from populist outsider to corrupt insider. President Weah has proven himself complicit in corruption, an ally of authoritarians, and has embraced authoritarian practices as part of his regime. Ironically, Liberia’s first peaceful transfer of power, rather than furthering democratization, has only opened the door for democratic decay.
BBC News. 2018. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Liberia’s President Expelled from Her Party,” January 14, 2018, sec. Africa. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-42681795.
BBC News. ———. 2019a. “George Weah’s Liberia Scorecard One Year On,” January 22, 2019, sec. Africa. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-46947032.
BBC News. ———. 2019b. “The President Who No-One Dares to Tackle,” February 19, 2019, sec. Africa. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47278792.
Busari, Stephanie. n.d. “Social Media Blocked as Liberians Protest ‘Corruption and Creeping Dictatorship.’” CNN. Accessed March 12, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/07/africa/liberia-protests-george-weah/index.html.
“George Weah | Biography & Facts.” n.d. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed March 12, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Weah.
“Liberia’s President Weah 100 Days in: Promises Made, Promises Kept?” 2018. African Arguments. May 2, 2018. https://africanarguments.org/2018/05/02/liberia-president-weah-100-days-in-promises-made-promises-kept/.