By Lindsay Barrett
When the former European Footballer of the Year, George Opong Weah, is sworn-in as President of Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, the event will be historic, not only because of the unique antecedents of the victor, but also because his predecessor, Africa’s first elected woman President, has deliberately managed a transition that will result in the first handover of power from an incumbent to a new leader in over seventy years. The fallout of the victory of Weah has led to some unfortunate repercussions.
These include the announcement by the Unity Party, the organisation on whose ticket Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf served two full terms of six years each, that it was expelling her from its ranks because of anti-party activities. This distressing occurrence stems from the widespread public perception that Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf did not give enough support to her Vice President, Joseph Boakai. However some observers claim that Boakai lost the election not because she failed to support him but rather because he was unable to mobilise support from the vast majority of younger voters who have been seduced by the glamorous image of the sportsman.
Analysts who hold this view point out that Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf has been supportive of the process of change in her utterances for a long time. They say that she had always indicated that while she supported her Vice President’s ambitions, she was determined to allow the electorate to exercise the fullest freedom of choice in the history of her nation. As a consequence while supporters of the Unity Party might accuse her of abandoning the party, her supporters say that all she did was ensure that the process was as free and fair as possible under the circumstances and that the outcome reflects the reality rather than the ideal.
This circumstance has generated complex reactions within Liberia, with many of the lady President’s former supporters now pledging open support for the victor while some of her former detractors now claim that her actions have strengthened the democratic process to an unprecedented level. As the inauguration takes place many Liberians are hoping that the mood of reconciliation and transformation will become the major impulse of the new order. For this to take hold Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf will be expected to remain a close advisor to Weah’s Administration.
Knowledgeable historical analysts who have studied recent political processes in Liberia have suggested that the outcome of the election is reminiscent of the situation in 1943-1944 when President Edwin Barclay handed over power to the then young lawyer, William Tubman. Many of them have commented that the situation in which the outgoing leader expects to be consulted by the incoming can lead to dissonance in the polity when the younger leader feels that he or she is being dominated by the older. However the lady President has always shown herself to be a tolerant and even sometimes mischievous matriarch and some of her actions during the campaign indicated that she will be prepared to be a vibrant but critical collaborator in public affairs even while in retirement. Although she is in her late seventies and looks frail she still speaks with alert mental acuity and moves with surprising vigor. In fact a senior political figure whom we asked about her future in a Liberia led by Weah said, “Weah should watch out because Ellen is no Edwin Barclay. She will be as strong as ex-President as she was as President”.
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf (right) and George Weah perform the ground-breaking ceremony for a new road just a week before the final run-off that was won by Weah.
The popular assumption that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will continue to be looking over George Weah’s shoulder emanates from the fact that she had been a constant and active critic of the official policies of various governments long before she became President. The way and manner in which she ran the country’s affairs while in office has also shown that she has firm personal attitudes that she will not abandon regardless of how much resistance she might be confronted with. The crisis that has led to her falling out with the Unity Party can be traced to that disposition in her character.
Throughout the campaign she insisted that it was not her responsibility to intervene in disputes that arose over the membership of the elections commission saying that all disputes should be settled by the courts. She also chose to support some individual candidates who were seeking office as representatives and senators on the tickets of parties other than the Unity Party while keeping her distance from the Presidential campaign. However after the first round of voting ended with an inconclusive result when it was assumed that she would express her support for one of the two remaining candidates Weah and Boakai she surprised many by claiming continued neutrality. In a major event barely a week before the run-off George Weah joined her to perform a ground-breaking ceremony in Bong County. On witnessing this, a wide cross section of the national populace decided that she was supporting the sportsman. It can hardly be denied that this event played a part in sealing Weah’s wide margin of victory. For this reason many observers now regard the Weah phenomenon as being similar to the endorsement of succession that created the Tubman phenomenon in Liberia’s history.