Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf would have a tough path ahead of her even if George Weah would get out of her way. Governing a nation without running water, widespread electricity, navigable roads outside the capital or a functioning economy would be a challenge most leaders would run away from. Johnson-Sirleaf seems to be taking the right first steps, travelling to New York and Washington for medical appointments and preliminary meetings with US officials, whose support will be critical as Liberia seeks to rebuild. Her trip has already been rewarded with a laudatory editorial in the New York Times… which doesn’t guarantee the US will keep paying attention, but is a nice first step.
Her challenger, football star George Weah, on the other hand, is making all the wrong moves. Last weekend, he made a set of inflammatory speeches that led to rioting in the streets of Monrovia. Returning from trips to meet with Ghana’s President Kufour and South Africa’s President Mbeki (two countries likely to be critical economic and security partners to Liberia in the future), Weah declared that he was the lawful president of Liberia and that the recent elections had been fraudulent. Unfortunately for Weah, the Liberian electoral commission has dismissed Weah’s charges of widespread fraud. They acknowledge that there were “errors”, but argue that these errors had “negligible effect” on the election outcome, where Johnson-Sirleaf took almost 60% of the run-off vote against Weah.
Weah certainly isn’t the first poor loser in West African politics. But he’s got a somewhat unique position. An internationally-famous football star, he’s probably the world’s most famous Liberian. And he’s unambiguously a hero to many of the thousands of unemployed – and armed – former combatants in Liberia’s long civil war. UNMIL (the UN peacekeeping Mission in Liberia) has reacted swiftly and decisively to end rioting precisely because they’re worried that any violence could spiral out of control closely. UNMIL has 15,000 troops in Liberia – the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation – and Johnson-Sirleaf, in an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel, says she believes they’ll need to remain in place for at least three more years.
Sirleaf and Weah met on Saturday and shook hands, which is a step in the right direction. But until Weah agrees to give up his increasingly desparate-looking campaign and join Sirleaf’s government, a lot of Liberia-watchers are going to be holding their breath as January 16th – Sirleaf’s scheduled inauguration – draws closer.