After two brutal civil wars, a devastating Ebola outbreak, and a presidential election steeped in controversy, Liberia saw its first peaceful transition of power since 1944 on January 22 when former soccer star George Weah was sworn in as the country’s twenty-fifth president in the stadium where he once played.
Weah replaces Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had served as president since 2006. She was Africa’s first democratically-elected female leader, and the success of her term leaves Weah with big shoes to fill. A darling of the international community, Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in promoting women’s rights and maintaining domestic peace.
Liberia was founded 200 years ago by the American Colonization Society, which supported the migration of freed American blacks to Africa. However, migrants neglected to make peace with the indigenous Africans of the regions where they settled, and discontent between the groups has been simmering ever since. In fact, the first civil war was triggered by the assassination of former president William Tolbert, who was of American descent, by Samuel Doe, who is of indigenous descent.
Weah’s biggest challenge will be continuing this tradition of peace. Before Sirleaf’s presidency, the country had been mired in a brutal 14 years of war involving power struggles and rebellions against oppressive regimes. In total, it leftover 250 thousand dead and forced another 1.5 million to flee. The years of peace under Sirleaf have been a significant departure from the country’s bloody history, so all eyes are on Weah to see if he can maintain this peace. In his inauguration speech, he promised to protect Liberian democracy and work towards economic progress. So far, he has named his ministers of finance, defense and foreign affairs.
Weah’s ascent to power is particularly meaningful for Liberia’s poor, as he grew up in one of Monrovia’s biggest slums. They hope that his rags-to-riches origin will lead his administration to fight endemic poverty, a problem that Sirleaf was never able to solve.
It remains to be seen whether or not the country will continue on its trajectory of peace and growth under Weah. If his behavior during the election is any indication, though, it seems that he is willing to work within Liberia’s democratic institutions, unlike some previous strong-arm presidents. When his opponent called the election’s legitimacy into question, Weah allowed the election to be delayed on multiple occasions. Liberians are generally optimistic about his electoral victory and have given him the nickname “Liberia’s Hope.”