Why once popular George Weah lost presidential elections in Liberia

Outgoing president of Liberia George Weah. [AFP]

Liberians voted Goerge Weah as their president in 2017 with 61 per cent of the votes and winning in 14 out of the 15 counties to defeat the then Vice President.

The citizens’ mood was galvanised by great optimism and hope for a better governed and prosperous nation. Weah was popular not only as the only African professional footballer to win the coveted Ballon d’Or but also as the youngest president of a country ravaged by conflicts.

Key on his campaign pledges were revamping the economy, fighting corruption and mismanagement and restoring stability and justice for the Liberians.

However, five years later in November 2023, the same people, dissatisfied with his performance, denied him the opportunity to continue with the job. In fact, he was beaten by the same man he defeated in 2017 in a run-off election.

Nonetheless, Weah should be congratulated for honourably conceding defeat in very tightly contested elections. This was a plausible decision restoring the hope for a progressive nation. Liberians and the world praised him for respecting the will of the people and demonstrating faith in the country’s institutions; a rare occurrence in the continent.

Moreover, Weah’s loss is mostly considered as a demonstration of his poor scorecard. According to the Financial Times the election was a referendum on Weah’s stewardship of the country. Indeed, the result was an indication of the people’s dissatisfaction with the way he has been running the country.

To illustrate this, many commentators opine that corruption and mismanagement of the economy were major soft underbellies of his tenure. During his term, several senior members of his government were accused and prosecuted on corruption. With some getting sanctions from the US.

The biggest allegations were reports that millions of dollars disappeared from the Central Bank of Liberia orchestrated by people he appointed. It was not surprising that Liberia’s scores and ranking in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) was getting low for the last 5 years. Liberia scores went down by 6 points from 32 points in 2018 to 26 points in 2022.

Moreover, during his leadership, Liberia was one of the eight countries with worrying trends in governance according to the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG). In the IIAG 2020 report, the country recorded increasing deterioration in the indicators of Participation, Rights and Inclusion and Security and Rule of Law.

In addition, a major indictment against Weah’s administration was allegations of indulging in wastage amid hard economic times. At the height was this was in 2020 where there were protests in key towns over high and unbearable cost of living of a country where most people live below the poverty line.

Weah was given the opportunity and it was only fair and accurate to peg his re-election on his performance. Leaders usually forget what brought them to power once in position. That is why the democratic architect of any country requires leaders to be subjected to the approval of the citizen after their term. The people of Liberia have placed the bar of evaluating on responsibility of leadership as precondition for re-election very high for their peers.

The fight against corruption is a key determinant defining the soundness of any system of governance. Corruption and bad governance sup the good efforts, agenda and good intentions of any leader. They are products of bad decisions and brought by having the wrong people in position of influence.

Apparently, Weah’s loss remains a lesson to all leaders that citizens are alive to realities of how their affairs are run. At this age of information explosion courtesy of the internet and the widespread social media, the citizens are more vibrant, empowered and informed on the matters that affect their lives.

The people’s wellbeing, the country’s economic and political health are key determinants of people’s choices. Like Liberia, people will evaluate the leaders based on their performance and delivery of promises.

Entrusting individuals to high political office is a real gamble that can only be proofed by the performance of the leader.  Leaders should be judged on the basis of the decisions they make in public office.

The two key drivers of these are the policies they put in place and persons they appoint to implement the policies. Hence, political leaders should not expect miracles on the way. Responsible leaders should critically consider these two pillars to ensure decisions made are consistent with the promises, the mood and realities of the times. To ignore these will be to walk in the busy Uhuru Highway with eyes closed.

-The writer is a lawyer and governance analyst. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @inasaney