Away from the adoring crowds, an elusive George Weah is leading Liberia into the unknown

Away from the adoring crowds, an elusive George Weah is leading Liberia into the unknownAs the morning sun beat down on a small training stadium in Monrovia,the capital of Liberia, a steady trickle of black SUVs with tinted windows appeared in the heavy humid heat, meandering between the stands and the pitch before coming to a halt in precision formation. George Weah, the former World Footballer of the Year and president-elect, had already alighted in his bright red football kit. Then out stepped his team, the Weah All Stars, streaming onto the pitch to play their final game before the former AC Milan star's long-awaited inauguration. The invite-only match against the Armed Forces of Liberia, packed with diplomatic corp and press, was a relatively muted affair in comparison to the campaign trail, which attract the kinds of die-hard supporters who propelled the country's biggest star to power. Standing outside the gates of the ground, clinging to a Liberian flag, a ticketless Benjamin Karr, in his 20s, gave a taste of the kind of adoration and hope that has propped up the former footballer so far. “He’s going to bring healthcare, good education and infrastructure and development and we need it to come for our youth to work. He will do that because he loves the country and he loves the people,” he told The Telegraph. On the streets of the capital, Liberia is still in thrall of its superstar president-elect, voted in three weeks ago and due to finally be inaugurated on Monday in the first democratic transfer of power in the country since 1944. The party has continued since George Weah was elected president at the end of December Credit:  THIERRY GOUEGNON/ REUTERS Flag-sellers still line the streets as optimism runs high and Weah’s party’s headquarters have been a riot of colour and noise, more akin to a festival than a political base, for months. But behind the jubilation that a national icon is taking over, there are reasons to be cautious: Weah, 51, faces a tanking economy, a fraught coalition tarnished by the country’s dark history, and an increasingly sceptical press to whom he has given almost nothing away. For a man who has given his fair share of interviews since becoming the only African ever to have won the coveted Ballon d’Or football award and FIFA World Player of the Year, he has become surprisingly elusive. Journalists from around the world have arrived for the inauguration party and left with nothing – with the BBC, no less, among those to suffer abrupt cancellations from Weah's office. In rare but short comments to the gathering press pack before the game on Saturday, Weah remained tight-lipped: “I believe that with the help of the Liberian people I will be successful,” he declared, before taking his place up front. Some believe his phobia of the media could well be a fear of making statements that he finds himself unable to deliver on, leading to unwanted repercussions at home. George Weah faces trouble with his coalition, the economy and his political inexperince Credit:  THIERRY GOUEGNON/ REUTERS He is inheriting an economy that has suffered from shocks caused by a slump in global iron ore and rubber prices as well as the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15 which saw the death of over 4,000 Liberians. The Liberian dollar is depreciating rapidly in value against its US counterpart, which the country also uses, meaning life is getting increasingly expensive and the poorest are hardest hit.  And this is where Weah’s popularity is most concentrated. Supporters are convinced that he will bring jobs and reduce the cost of rice, the staple food, by half. Quite how he will bring about the desired changes is unclear. In The Telegraph’s many failed attempts to pin down Weah for an interview, one source within his camp said: “We have a strategy and we have tactics, and one of our tactics is to tell no one our strategy.” Another reason for Weah’s elusiveness could be a lack of confidence in his own leadership abilities. Unlike Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist and the first elected female head of state in Africa, who defeated Weah on two previous occasions before stepping down, he is not considered an intellectual. Nor is he a gifted orator, by his own admission, and close friends were surprised when he stated his intention to run for the presidency in 2005 – feeding the theory that he has been propelled to the top by others keen to profit from his poster-boy popularity is strong in certain camps. But perhaps the most immediate issue as Weah looks to name his cabinet on Monday, is the fragile coalition agreement that is unlikely to be a happy marriage. Weah’s own Congress for Democratic Change is joined by vice president Jewel Howard-Taylor’s National Patriotic Party, founded by her ex-husband Charles Taylor, who served as president from 1997 to 2003 after leading a rebellion against the government of Samuel Doe. Taylor is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence in HMP Frankland in County Durham for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. No one has ever faced trial for the atrocities committed during Liberia’s own civil war which ended in 2003, and reconciliation is a word on the lips of many.  The Liberia People Democratic Party is the third partner in the coalition and headed by the former House of Representatives speaker, Alex Tyler, who is implicated in an ongoing bribery case involving British company Sable Mining. 15 curious things you didn't know about Liberia Whatever the outcome, Weah’s presidency is an anomaly in Liberia’s chequered history, not just because of his celebrity status. Politics in the country has traditionally been dominated by the minority Americo-Liberian elite who are descended from freed American slaves. Weah’s humble beginnings combined with his native ancestry could not be further from the norm. “He represents those who are down the drain. He’s their role model, and we have to let the people’s voice be heard,” one Monrovia resident Renee Murray told The Telegraph. Christian Grant, another one of the thousands of fanatical young Weah supporters, is also optimistic. “I think there will be a brand new Liberia and that’s our dream,” he said. “Things will improve and children will go to school. Job facility will flow. That’s what we expect our president to do and we know that he will do more than that for us.”



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