- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

MONROVIA, Liberia — George Weah, a swashbuckling former world soccer player of the year officially kicked off his campaign to become Liberian president on Tuesday, vowing to bring an end to decades of violence in the impoverished West African state.

“You can trust me because I know you and you know me,” the former international soccer player told a crowd of thousands in Monrovia late Tuesday.

“We must rebuild our infrastructure. We must put our children back in school. Our farmers need ways to transport their goods, and our people need relief from perpetual darkness,” he said, according to Reuters news agency.

The elections, scheduled for Oct. 11, are part of the peace deal signed in August 2003 that ended a brutal civil war. Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves more than 150 years ago, has been governed in the last two years by a transitional administration led by Gyude Bryant, a popular entrepreneur who is not allowed to run in the election.

In the poor New Georgia district last week, thousands turned out to cheer Mr. Weah, who made his name playing for top European soccer teams Chelsea and AC Milan. Surrounded by jostling fans and youths in dark “Security” T-shirts and police-style vests, Mr. Weah promised, “I don’t need political experience to give you schools. I don’t need political experience to give you lights and water, or to see that the roads are bad. I know where you come from.”

Mr. Weah has been learning the political game, however, and was nicknamed “African Pride” by former South African President Nelson Mandela. A picture of him meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair hangs in his Congress for Democratic Change party headquarters, and he has also held meetings with State Department officials in Washington, vowing to maintain Liberia’s historical ties to the United States.

In a country where there has been no electricity for 14 years and literacy only just tops 50 percent, the soccer player’s message and lack of formal education only enhance his popularity among the poor. Born one of 13 children in a shantytown outside Monrovia, the capital, and raised by his grandmother after his parents deserted him, Mr. Weah is now a multimillionaire, and has plowed much of his money into charity work and Liberia’s national soccer team. Supporters say that his current wealth proves he is not seeking to plunder the national coffers, the traditional pastime of Liberia’s leaders.

If he wins October’s contest, Mr. Weah can hardly do worse than his predecessors. The previous president, Charles Taylor, has been indicted for war crimes and is in exile in Nigeria; Samuel Doe, who came before, had his ears chopped off while being tortured to death; he had succeeded William Tolbert, who was bayoneted and disemboweled in his bed. Most politicians have links to one or more of the previous regimes, turning Mr. Weah’s lack of political experience into a campaigning advantage.

The country is currently enjoying a fragile period of stability, patrolled by 15,000 U.N. soldiers, the world’s largest peacekeeping force. The election commission has cleared 22 presidential hopefuls for the contest, including Roland Massaquoi, seen as a protege of the disgraced Mr. Taylor, and former rebel leader Sekou Conneh.

However, Mr. Weah’s main rival is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The ex-World Bank official and political veteran is favored by the middle classes and many former rebels after Mr. Conneh’s estranged wife, Aisha, backed her campaign. If elected, the Harvard-educated Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, 70, would be Africa’s first female president. Charles Brumskine, an American-educated lawyer, and Varney Sherman, a corporate lawyer close to the transitional government, are also seen as strong candidates.

However, after a scuffle with Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s supporters last week, some observers are worried that Mr. Weah’s popularity has attracted political opportunists and youths with a history of violence. It is a charge emphatically rejected by Mr. Weah, who told supporters at a rally outside his headquarters last week: “Even if someone slaps you on your right jaw, turn your left jaw and do not engage in violent acts.”

Mike McGovern, the West Africa director of the International Crisis Group, warned, “Every single candidate in these elections is surrounded by people who want to enrich themselves. There’s definitely room for caution, real caution, in his [Mr. Weah’s] case and all the other candidates … personality is often emphasized in politics, but what Liberia needs is widespread institutional reform in the security forces, judiciary and economy.”

The capital, Monrovia, is a city still badly scarred by years of a frightening civil war in which heavily armed children and teenagers — often dressed in bizarre wigs and dresses — slaughtered one another. At least a quarter of a million died in the conflict. Mr. Weah’s own family home was burned down in 1996 after he apparently angered Mr. Taylor.

Apart from doubts over his political experience, Mr. Weah has been dogged by questions over his nationality. While playing for Paris Saint Germain and Monaco in the early 1990s, he took a French passport and technically he should have had to reapply for Liberian citizenship, which takes two years.

Leaning against the pool table in Mr. Weah’s front room, his spokesman dismissed the issue as a smear campaign by candidates jealous of Mr. Weah’s popularity.

“Character assassination is the biggest problem we face,” said Acarous Gray, Mr. Weah’s spokesman. “George Weah was spreading the good news about Liberia when all anyone could think of was war and destruction.”

As an ambassador for UNICEF, he campaigned to demobilize Liberia’s boy soldiers, prevent HIV/AIDS and urged children to stay in school. The man of spectacular goals and simple messages has so far led a sure-footed campaign, but the corruption and destruction wrought by Liberia’s former leaders have made even former teammates worry power might go to his head.

Dionysius Sebwe, who played under Mr. Weah while he managed the national team, complained that he ostracized those who questioned his tactics. Under Mr. Weah, he claimed, Liberia could suffer “ineptitude, poor leadership, and despotism.” Most Liberians dismiss such fears, however, and say the man known as “King George” is so popular that balloting is hardly necessary. “No elections; Weah already in the mansion,” they chanted at one of last week’s Congress for Democratic Change party rallies.

His followers, indifferent to Mr. Weah’s lack of schooling also chant, “He know book; he not know book; I’ll vote for him” — a less-sinister version of Mr. Taylor’s infamous slogan in the 1997 election: “He killed my ma; he killed my pa; I’ll vote for him.”

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