Monrovia, Liberia: Soccer icon, George Weah, the first African to win the Ballon D’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year, has been elected President of Liberia. The former AC Milan, Manchester City and Chelsea striker, reportedly won 12 of the 15 counties in the West African country.
His opponent Joseph Boakai, who has been vice-president for the last 12 years, won only two counties.
Weah’s footballing fame helped secure significant support among the youth of Liberia, where 60pc of the population is under the age of 30.
He had topped the first round of voting in October but without reaching the 50pc needed to win outright. The runoff was delayed twice after allegations of voting fraud and irregularities.
Weah will take over from Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who beat him in an election in 2005.
The 51 year-old moved to Moving to Europe in 1988 and spent 14 remarkable years with Monaco under his acknowledged ‘father figure’ Arsene Wenger, Paris Saint-Germain and Milan before short stints at Chelsea and Manchester City, finishing his European career in Marseille.
It was during his five years at the Rossoneri from 1995 to 2000 that he confirmed his reputation as one of the world’s most fearsome strikers, winning the Ballon d’Or in 1995 and FIFA World Player of the Year in 1996.
Weah joined Chelsea in 2000 on loan and had an immediate impact, scoring a header on his debut in a derby game against Tottenham.
He scored five goals in 14 matches for the club, starting the 2000 FA Cup final against Aston Villa as they beat the Midlanders 1-0.
Weah was voted African Footballer of the Year three times, won Italy’s Serie A twice, the French league once and various domestic cups in both countries.
The country’s 2.1 million registered voters are choosing the successor to Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,
Africa’s first female elected head of state, who is stepping down after serving two six-year terms, as mandated by Liberia’s constitution.
Sirleaf has led Liberia through a period of peace in the aftermath of a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. But the country remains plagued by corruption and is still trying to recover from the Ebola situation that killed 5,000 people in 2014 and 2015.
It will be the first time since 1944 that a democratically elected leader will hand over power to another elected leader in Liberia.
Johnson Sirleaf, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, will step down after 12 years at the helm of Africa’s first republic, whose back-to-back civil wars (1989-2003) and Ebola situation (2014-16) have stunted growth and left Liberia among the world’s poorest nations.
A peaceful transition from one elected president to another would be the first in living memory after seven decades of coups, assassinations and exiled dictators.
While ordinary Liberians are grateful that peace has held through Sirleaf’s two terms in office, living standards in Liberia remain dire for most and became the focus of the campaign.
Liberia ranks 177 of 188 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index and 174 of 190 nations in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, and every candidate has laid out their plans to change the nation’s gloomy outlook.
Vice President Boakai made infrastructure, especially road building, central to his campaign.
But he faced accusations his government did too little on corruption and spent two terms pressing for donor funds abroad rather than innovate at home.
Sirleaf, in her defence, said in an October 2 speech that “if we did not have those (UN) agencies and those programmes here, with our limited resources we would not have achieved the things we wanted.”
Liberia’s most famous son, footballer-turned-senator George Weah, attracted huge crowds everywhere he campaigned and had a faithful youth following in a country where a fifth of the electorate is aged 18 to 22, but was blamed for issuing vague promises and for his long absences from the country.
Some also questioned Weah’s pick for vice president – Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of Liberian warlord and former president Charles Taylor.
Charles Taylor is currently serving time in Britain for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, and rumours swirl he is issuing orders by phone from his jail cell. Weah denies contact with him.