The stakes were high in the 2017 general elections. Liberia’s 2.2 million
registered voters were to elect a new president and 73 new members of the House
of Representatives. Not less than
20 presidential candidates were eager to move into the Executive Mansion
after the expiration of the second mandate of the incumbent president, Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf, who had reached the constitutional limit of two terms.
On October 10, 2017 Liberia went to the polls. Voter turnout was high (75%),
possibly also because of the 73 vacant seats in the House. After the 1.6 million
votes cast had been counted, the two leading presidential candidates were – as
expected - George Weah, leader of the most important opposition party, the
Coalition for Democratic Change, CDC – who had won 38% of the votes, nearly
600,000 votes – and
President Joseph Boakai, the presidential candidate for
the ruling Unity Party, UP – with close to 450,000 votes (29%).
Since no candidate won a majority in the first round of the presidential vote a
second round was to follow. A confusing period followed, marked by allegations
of elections fraud and
a hectic legal battle. The runoff was postponed but finally held on December
26. For various reasons voter turnout was much lower than in October, only 55%,
representing some 1.2 million voters. Voting was calm and few incidents were
reported. No doubt, the presence of many national and international elections
observers – an estimated 8,000 – contributed to fair, transparent and democratic
elections. However, above all, the Liberian people should be congratulated for
the peaceful manner in which the elections were held.
George Weah overwhelmingly won the runoff, with 61.5% of the votes cast in his
favor (732,158 votes). The 51-year old CDC-leader won decisively in 14 of
Liberia’s 15 counties. Joseph Boakai only won his home county (Lofa County). A
little more than one out of every three voters voted for the 75-year old
UP-candidate (457,579 votes or 38.5% of the electorate), not enough to win the
Mansion. Joseph Boakai conceded defeat after the National Election Commission
the final election results and immediately
congratulated the winner, George Manneh Weah. After losing the 2005
presidential elections to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and unsuccessfully running as
Vice President alongside Winston Tubman, the presidential candidate for the CDC
in 2011, George Weah, a former soccer star turned politician – he was elected
senator in 2014 – had finally reached his goal.
George Manneh Oppong Weah was a world famous professional footballer before
becoming a politician. His career’s zenith was in the 1990s: African Footballer
of the Year in 1989, 1994 and 1995; African Player of the Century in 1996; FIFA
World Player of the Year (1995); winner of the Ballond’Or, the list is long. He
is the first and to date only African player to win these awards. In Europe he
played for the world’s most famous clubs: AS Monaco, Paris St Germain, A.C.
Milan. He thus earned millions of dollars, which allowed him to help victims of
the civil wars and to support Liberia’s national football team during the civil
war(s) when warlords plundered the country and public funds were syphoned off,
notably during the presidency of
warlord-turned-president, Charles Taylor. Relations between the two were far
from harmonious. At one point
Charles Taylor even targeted Weah whom he suspected of undermining his
popularity. But George Weah stayed out of politics – and out of the warring
factions - until the 2005 presidential elections.
From rags to riches
George Weah was born in Claratown, one of Monrovia’s largest slums (1966),
where he grew up, raised by his grandmother. He was a school dropout but became
famous and very wealthy as a successful international soccer player. As a result
he was very popular in Liberia (and not only in his own country), notably among
the country’s youth who adore him and see him as their idol, a hero, fondly
calling him 'King
Fifteen years ago Weah began showing political ambitions. He finished high
school (2007), went to college in the US, obtained
a degree in business management (2011) and ran
successfully for the Senate, beating one of President Sirleaf’s sons, Robert
Sirleaf (2014). While a senator, he kept a low profile, even to the extent of
being criticized. According to his critics, Weah was often absent, and when
present his behaviour did not atrract much attention.
Weah, the politician
Notwithstanding the foregoing, as a senator for Montserrado County, Liberia’s
most populated country, he was in an excellent position to target the
presidency. His main competitor in the 2017 elections, Vice President Joseph
Boakai, was a 75-year old veteran politician. In retrospect, he was too old to
be a serious contender, despite his vast political experience. ‘Sleepy Joe’,
Boakai’s nickname after his propensity to fall asleep during meetings, was
apparently easily beaten. But two other factors may also explain Weah’s victory
in the 2017 presidential elections.
Weah had learned from his defeats in
2011 that strategic alliances and political backstage deals are important in
realizing goals. After all, in the 2005 presidential elections he had won the
first round, with 28% of the votes, but he was defeated in the runoff by Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf who had strategically allied with other parties and defeated him
with 60% of the vote. Maybe this explains his strategic alliance with Winston
Tubman, a veteran politician, in the 2011 presidential elections. However, the
Tubman-Weah ticket was unsuccessful. Allegations of election fraud during the
first round were a reason for the CDC to boycott the runoff, easily won by
Sirleaf. It is also interesting to note that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded
Nobel Peace Prize on the eve of the first round.
In light of the foregoing it is not surprising that early in 2017 Weah’s
Congress for Democratic Change entered into a strategic alliance with two other
political parties: the National Patriotic Party and the Liberia People’s
Democratic Party. From now on the acronym CDC stands for
Coalition for Democratic Change.
The National Patriotic Party (NPP) is the political party that brought Charles
Taylor to power and the political heir of the NPFL, the National Patriotic Front
of Liberia. The NPFL was the rebel group that started the civil war in 1989.
Standard-bearer of the NPP in 2017 was
Jewel Howard Taylor, ex-wife of Charles Taylor, First Lady of Liberia during
his presidency, and since 2005 senator for Bong County. By creating an alliance
with the NPP, George Weah and the CDC hoped to win the votes in this – in terms
of population – important county in the center of Liberia, after so many years
still a stronghold of Taylor supporters. In exchange Jewel Howard Taylor was
offered the vice presidency.
Political observers immediately reacted by expressing fear that this may create
an opportunity for Charles Taylor to influence Liberian politics. Suspicion
increased after it was discovered that Taylor was making phone calls from his
maximum securitiy prison in the UK to his political supporters in Liberia.
During one of these calls, during a political NPP rally,
George Weah even talked to the former president. Last but not least, and
adding to an already important level of mistrust, during the election campaign
Jewel Howard Taylor stated that it was important to finish Charles Taylor’s
The second alliance, with the Liberia People’s Democratic Party (LPDP), is also
interesting. The LPDP is a small political party, created and led by
former Speaker of the House, Alexander Tyler, who defected from the ruling
UP after being sidelined in the House. Tyler has
a dubious reputation being involved in a number of high profile corruption cases,
Sable Mining bribery scandal.
A secret deal?
In addition to these open alliances with political parties, Weah and the CDC
secretly entered into backstage discussions (negotiations?) with president Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf – at least, that is what rumors want us to believe. Unlikely?
Untrue? Maybe. There is no proof of any explicit or tacit agreement but there is
important circumstantial evidence, as we will see.
So, according to these unconfirmed rumors, George Weah and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
succesfuly agreed on a common position. The incumbent president would not
support the official candidate of her own party but Weah’s candidacy, whereby
the latter promised not to prosecute her for the corruption and nepotism that
took place during her presidency and for which she could be held responsible.
Moreover, the secret deal would also include Weah’s promise not to create a war
crimes tribunal and to not re-open a public discussion on Sirleaf’s role in the
start of the country’s civil war.
As is widely known and as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has on various occasions
acknowledged, she played an active role in the start of
the 1989 military uprising against then president Samuel Doe. However, she
has always downplayed the importance of it, emphasizing that her support was
limited to a modest financial contribution and that she left the NPFL in the
early years of the civil war
ending her collaboration with Charles Taylor as soon as she found out that he
was a merciless criminal – a statement that her opponents and critics