Liberia Update: Striker for President

Liberia is currently burdened with a generation of boys for whom toting around an AK-47 — and actually using it in war — is all they have known. I was in Liberia during the previous generation, when things were pretty bad, but not _that_ bad. Back then, if you were a boy in Monrovia, you played football, and anything else you might have to do was a distraction from being on the field. Likely as not, that field was a rough rectangle of muddy ground tenuously claimed from the bush, and the ball could be anything from a deflated hand-me-down to a tin can. But it wouldn’t matter. My brother, not me, was the one out on the field with the neighborhood kids every day, but I seem to remember that they had a decent enough ball. And I joined in often enough to recall the dynamics of that style of football — teamwork and coordinated plays took a back seat to fast footwork and individual elan. It’s the style that made Pele a worldwide celebrity back in his day. None of this is particular to Liberia — across the Third World, football is played and revered in just this way. America’s obsession with baseball, basketball, and American football all seem rather bizarre and iconoclastic on the global stage.

All this explains why George Weah is the strong favorite to become Liberia’s next President in 2005, despite the fact that he has zero political experience — or, for that matter, much education. In his day, Weah was a worldwide football celebrity. He achieved fame playing for AC Milan, was the FIFA player of the year in 1995, and rounded out his career as a striker for Chelsea and Manchester City. After that he funded and captained Liberia’s national team, and worked with UNICEF to help disarm and rehabilitate Liberia’s child soldiers. Weah’s status as a celebrity in Liberia is hard to frame in American terms. The fame of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods doesn’t begin to cover it. For a country building up from ruins, with nothing but tragedy and death in its past, Weah is a towering symbol of national pride. He is an icon.

But will he be any good as a President? If he’s judged in comparison to Presidents past, all he’ll have to do is not run the country into civil war or loot its treasury for personal gain, and he’ll be doing fine. The fact that he has already amassed a personal fortune as a football star suggests that he’s not in this for the money — that his “heeding the call of the people” explanation may, in fact, be genuine. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more thankless job than leading this country at this time, so either he’s running with the best of intentions, or he’s hopelessly naive. Or both.

Still, I can’t help but feeling a little optimistic. If Weah himself can resist the lure of corruption, the collective admiration of Liberians for him will by itself go a long way toward fostering unity and peace. Weah has so far been mute on matters of actual policy, so a lot depends on who he surrounds himself with. Not surprisingly, there’s at least one “dark rumor”: as far as that goes:

Some observers believe Weah may be a stooge for old-school Liberian politicians, and that there are certain to be questions raised about funding for his campaign, with whispers that a Dubai sheikh could mysteriously bankroll his candidacy to the tune of £200,000. Kollie [Weah’s campaign manager] happily confronted and dismissed such claims as “trash politics” yesterday and vowed that Weah would never accept “foreign money” for his campaign.

That’s just a one-source rumor at this point, so I’m holding off before putting any stock in it. In Liberia, the two scenarios — International Financiers Back Glamour Candidate, or National Icon Unites Entire Country — are equally plausible. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.