Liberians and international football stars have joined together in celebrating George Weah’s presidential victory in the country’s first democratic transfer of power in decades, as the former striker vowed to usher in a period of change.
Idolised in Liberia as “Mister George”, Weah is to be sworn in on January 22, replacing Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2006 took the helm of the West African country first founded for freed US slaves.
The electoral board confirmed Weah’s run-off victory on Friday evening, as his rival, Vice President Joseph Boakai, conceded defeat.
Weah, 51, who starred in top-flight football at Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan in the 1990s and briefly at Chelsea and Manchester City before entering politics in 2002, won 61.5 percent of the ballot, taking 14 of Liberia’s 15 counties.
“My fellow Liberians, I deeply feel the emotion of all the nation. I measure the importance and the responsibility of the immense task which I embrace today. Change is on,” Weah said on Twitter.
A victory speech, however, was postponed after crowds of energetic supporters gathered around a podium for Weah’s address grew too boisterous, an AFP correspondent said.
Boakai said he had called Weah to congratulate him and appealed for unity, saying: “My love for the country is far (more) profound than my desire for the presidency.”
The White House called the vote “a major milestone for Liberia’s democracy” while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres applauded “all Liberians for the successful completion of the elections process, which was conducted in a peaceful environment”.
– ‘Don’t forget your roots’ –
The tumultuous events of the past 70 years in Liberia, where an estimated 250,000 people died during back-to-back civil wars between 1989-2003, have prevented a democratic handover from taking place since 1944.
Sirleaf’s predecessor Charles Taylor fled the country in 2003, hoping to avoid prosecution for funding rebel groups in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Two presidents who served prior to Taylor were assassinated.
The Sirleaf administration guided the nation out of the ruins of war and through the horrors of the 2014-16 Ebola crisis, but is accused of failing to combat poverty and corruption.
Weah’s former club Paris Saint-Germain tweeted its congratulations to the “world football legend on the latest chapter of his brilliant career!!!” while former Chelsea star Didier Drogba, Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure and Marseille’s former Cameroon midfielder Stephane Mbia also sent their best wishes.
Weah, who grew up in grinding poverty, is already facing pressure to improve the lives of millions of Liberians.
“I think the Liberian people will expect… Weah’s presidency to (have a) pro-poor, pro-growth policy that will put the people at the centre of national development,” said political analyst Vita Ishmael Tue.
He added that he expected Weah’s presidency to see power “given to the people; the provision of education, youth training for disadvantaged and vulnerable youths that are on the streets and who see themselves in him”.
Clinton Taryor from Weah’s CDC party urged the new leader: “Mr. President, don’t forget your roots. We are not behind you because you’re handsome or because you are a star…. Some of us are behind you because we know that you walked in our shoes.”
Weah, the only African ever to have won both FIFA’s World Player of the Year and the coveted Ballon D’Or, missed out on the presidency in a 2005 bid.
His latest campaign was not without controversy, however.
He has drawn some criticism for picking Jewel Howard-Taylor, the powerful ex-wife of former warlord and president Charles Taylor, as his vice-president. Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence in a British jail for war crimes.
Weah also had the backing of a notorious former warlord Prince Johnson, who sipped a beer as his men tortured former president Samuel Kanyon Doe to death.