I’m afraid of President George Weah

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By Tunji Ajibade

George Weah won the presidential election in Liberia last week. Everyone has been sending him congratulatory messages, including President Muhammadu Bhuari. I congratulate Weah too, but I worry about the people of Liberia because of him. Of course, he doesn’t carry guns as former Liberian leaders, Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, did. But, he’s a president his countrymen and political leaders across West Africa should be wary of.

Liberia’s history is intimidating. This isn’t just because the nation has experienced gruesome wars, even though that’s enough to make a journalist remember a few things about the hazards of the trade. For instance, I was a new arrival in the newsroom of The Guardian newspaper in Lagos in the 1990s, a decade when the pain of the killings of two Nigerian journalists in the Liberian Civil war was still fresh. Krees Imobibie was of The Guardian, and Tayo Awotunsin belonged to the Daily Champions. I could feel the sense of loss in the air at The Guardian over the sad occurrence, just as I witnessed the frenzy that the introduction of colour pictures in Nigerian dailies for the first time was generating both in the industry and in The Guardian’s newsroom. Some of these developments made me ask questions, (where I sat with my Political Desk editor, Mr. Akpo Esajere), of the newspaper’s executive officers that sometimes came into the newsroom to interact such as Mr Femi Kusa who, as the Executive Director (Publication)/Editor-in-Chief, actually signed the earliest letter that introduced me as a foot soldier in the news hunting business (a letter that I still keep with much care).

I state that Liberia’s history is intimidating. I mean this in the sense that it has always been there as a nation, like a living great-great-grandfather. It’s one of only two sovereign countries in the world created by US and ex-Caribbean slaves, the other being Sierra Leone, established by Great Britain. In 1847, Liberia proclaimed its independence from the American Colonisation Society. Now, it’s 170 years old. I must have been about 13 years old when I read a book of about 120 pages on the history of Liberia, especially the performance of its past presidents. Liberia’s constitutional development was also one out of the five English-speaking West African countries that I had had to study in my late teens as an ‘A’ Level (HSC) student of “Government” at Ibadan Grammar School, Ibadan; not to mention other references to Liberia as a student of Political Science. From this knowledge, I came away with the distinct impression that Liberia was one nation that should have done wonderfully well for itself. Today, however, it’s one of the poorest nations on earth. Liberia had all the time to be healthy, but its bad leaders made it unwell.

Most Liberian presidents were men who liked the grandeur of palace life, the pomposity of being ‘Americanas’ in relation to the natives, the splendor of living like kings, but kings who had no vision of where they wanted to take their people. Then, those kings had a habit, some of them tended to want to rule for countless number of years. The last one of such was removed by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe in 1980. Doe didn’t have the presence of a leader whose instinct for excesses might be mitigated by a good education. That summarises his rule. So I hadn’t been amused when another low-ranking barely educated soldier such as Yaya Jameh came along in The Gambia. I had looked at Jameh’s earliest pictures as the leader of some coup plotters in Newsweek and Time Magazines and reached my conclusions. His years in power proved me right.

I like to be proved wrong when I reach a conclusion about a person, or a leader. But it doesn’t always happen. In all the years that Doe spent in power, he never rose above being petty; he butchered humans as he liked. In the end, those whose lives and relations he had treated with disregard rose and paid him back. His coup and years in power were the foundations for the civil wars that Liberia experienced later. Liberia’s journey was harrowing and costly, with many Nigerians, civilians and soldiers, losing their lives in order to restore stability. So, the reader can understand why I worry about that country.

I worry about Weah too. When a past election had the outgoing President Sirleaf Johnson and George Weah in front of the pack, I was concerned that Weah might become president. Why? He didn’t have suitable education to preside delicately over a nation that had been battered by war. Weah’s lack of education has always been an issue in every election campaign. He had dropped out of school on the path to becoming a football star. But stardom isn’t the only requirement to preside over the affairs of a nation; especially a nation that’s often pulled apart on the basis of ethnic affiliations. Philanthropy that Weah has used to attract voters isn’t it too. But in that impoverished nation, he got away with it.

Yes, it’s not every highly-educated president that administers well. It’s also not every leader that doesn’t have high education that has ruled badly. But in Africa, being uneducated and being in power are potentially doubly toxic.  This is an environment that easily turns even the best educated leaders into brutes. Sycophants play a role, greed and weak institutions play another. I had never felt at ease regarding Weah from the previous decade when he was mentioned as being interested in the presidency of Liberia. I was hugely relieved when he lost twice to Sirleaf Johnson. In the 2017 election, I was even more concerned, because I didn’t see his rival, the outgoing Vice-President as a threat to him. Liberia has been devastated by bad leaders; leaders who start well but become power-drunk along the line. I don’t see Weah not going in that direction too. To me, he’s potentially a president who could bring that nation back to the days of the Samuel Does who wanted to be presidents forever.

Some argue that a leader can remain in office for as long as his people want him, or vote for him. We know that argument doesn’t reflect reality, and examples abound to show that one-man show is counterproductive in the end. For instance, a week before the military struck in Zimbabwe, every analyst would say President Robert Mugabe (ruler for almost 40 years) was much loved by his people, that they wanted him to rule forever. But when the coup happened late 2017, Zimbabweans crowded the streets, celebrating the military as their saviour. After Mugabe resigned, many Zimbabweans were still afraid to talk openly on TV about their land that Mugabe’s wife appropriated to herself, one out of many other atrocities. We also have the example of Cote D’ivore where Félix Houphouët-Boigny ruled until he died in office; then civil war and instability followed. A sit-tight leader is ever an early warning signal of the chaos that shall soon come.

In all the years that some held up Muammar Gaddafi of Libya as the epitome of leadership, I wasn’t so persuaded. His kind of hold on Libyans from 1969 had all the signals of the chaos that would follow. No one rules for so long, no matter what he might have achieved, without shedding blood and laying the seed of tomorrow’s confusion. Some blame that of Libya on the intervention of Western countries. They forgot that Gaddafi had been battling with Libyan rebels who were against his rule, (paying civilian recruits from Nigeria’s neighbouring countries), before he incarcerated his disgruntled citizens on such a scale that that western countries imposed the No-Fly Zone. It’s instructive that payment of dollars to impoverished recruits from neighbouring nations which Gaddafi introduced is what Boko Haram terrorists also use in tormenting Nigeria. Gaddafi-supplied arms still flow across the West African region. These are outcomes of having a president who’s not polished enough to know when to decently step aside.

Does Weah seem like a president who’ll one day yield to some unpolished instinct, change the constitution so that he can rule forever, suppress the opposition, and thereby lay the foundation for another round of civil war in Liberia? Yes, because I don’t read him as being different from Doe or Jameh. I wait to see him prove me wrong. – Punch

– Jan. 5, 2018 @ 3:11 GMT |

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