This has been the question that has polarized the country for the last 10 years. The elephant in the room that is so big, no one has been courageous enough to tackle it. Yet, at least half the country believes the answer is yes — an increasingly disenchanted youth population that has always believed that Weah identifies with their various backgrounds and represents their hopes and aspirations.
In 2005, Madam Sirleaf’s selling point and her trump card against Weah was the seemingly perfect combination of education and experience. She also won the votes of women across the country. But even then, it was a close call.
Weah had a card too — one that was no doubt powerful, but seemed to fall short at the time. That card was the love of the people. Every time he made an appearance, he blocked traffic. The city shut down. He was an independent outsider, not a recycled politician, and by God, a soccer superstar! People loved him, particularly the youth population.
But at a time when Liberia was just emerging from 15 years of civil war, the odds were firmly stacked against him. Many felt we needed an experienced hand at the wheel — one who could speak the languages of Economics, Finance, International Business and Development; one who understood the inner workings of the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank. It was clear that Weah had neither the credentials nor the experience Madam Sirleaf had that many Liberians hoped would turn Liberia around and give us a face lift in the comity of nations.
How would Weah negotiate a World Bank loan? Debt relief? Concession agreements? What would be his economic strategy? Would he prioritize education? Even at campaign rallies, he had trouble, in fact seemed unwilling to control his supporters. In 2005, several reporters were beaten up and their equipment damaged. A major part of the problem was that he hardly ever spoke. Surrogates such as Cole Bangalu and Eugene Nagbe (both of whom have since jumped ship and defected to the Unity Party camp) spewed incendiary rhetoric on Weah’s behalf while the political leader and presidential candidate himself remained mute. Is that how he would rule the country?
These were the questions that were staring us in the face.
At the same time, Madam Sirleaf herself had skeletons in her closet. Education and experience notwithstanding, she had funded the civil war. Her hands were dirty, to be sure. Yet Liberians were willing to waive the memories, let bygones be bygones and resiliently forge ahead.
And so by a very narrow margin, she won the 2005 presidential elections.
In 2011, Weah ran again. By this time, he had acquired an education; yet the leadership experience was still lacking. The likes of Arcarous Gray, Mulbah Morlu and George Solo ran Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party, which has since been characterized by in-fighting among executives. This has been particularly worrisome for the educated minds in the country as a poor indication of his ability to lead a war ravaged nation into peace and unity. Even in his own party, Weah seems not to be able (or willing) to lead hands-on.
Madam Sirleaf, for her part, had scarcely fulfilled any of her campaign promises from 2005 — electricity and running water, and the fight against corruption. Besides debt relief (masterfully handled by then Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh and completed by her successor Augustine Ngafuan), and five years
of lasting peace (thanks largely to the presence of UNMIL), Liberians had little to show in the way of development. Their lives were not improving at ground level. Nonetheless, Madam Sirleaf managed to convince Liberians that a) her first term was about laying a foundation for the development that would follow in the second term; and that b) one should not change horses in mid-stream.
And so she won a second term.
Said second term now has still failed to fulfill the promises of 2005. No electricity; no running water; corruption at an all-time high and with impunity; the nepotism of which she accused both the Tolbert and Doe administrations as a political activist; the country’s education system a mess under a highly educated female president; agriculture lying by the wayside in a richly fertile land; Liberians economically disenfranchised in their own country under a Harvard-trained economist.
And now to add insult to injury, the mysterious deaths of political opponents.
It is too sad to take.
Those who voted for Madam Sirleaf; who put their necks on the chopping block for her; who trusted and believed in her education and experience; who hoped even against hope; are embarrassed and devastated.
And so the shameful question loyalists have been forced to ask is “What happened?”
Of course, here lies the irony. Is love of people and country better, after all, than education and experience? The Sirleaf administration boasted some of the most qualified, credentialed and experienced men and women in Liberian history. But look what happened to NOCAL under Randolph McClain of DuPont. Look what happened to the Justice system under UN-trained Benedict Sannoh. Look what happened to agriculture under Drs. Chris Toe and Florence Chenoweth. Look what happened to the country as a whole under Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf!
So we go back to the question of the day. Can Weah really do better than Ellen as he recently told a Ghanaian news station?
That is not to say that because one educated president failed, Liberia does not need an educated president.
Looking at the political landscape going into 2017, Weah’s biggest challenge would undoubtedly be former Central Bank governor Mills Jones. Surely, Jones has shown all of the right signs so far, championing the cause of the ordinary Liberian especially in terms of economic empowerment.
Nonetheless, Weah will run for president; and his very large following is nothing to overlook. Can he do better than Ellen?
Sure. It is not impossible. Just because a man is not a tapper doesn’t mean he does not know what good palm wine tastes like. Just because a woman cannot cook doesn’t mean she does not know what good palm butter is supposed to taste like.
Same with Weah. He would need to distance himself from the mouth pieces he has used so far and surround himself with the right people for the job in every sector — education, the economy, agriculture, etc. And show zero tolerance not just for corruption but for non-performance. Articulate his expectations and ensure they are met — and this is where he seems to have problems. The question becomes what has Weah learned over the last 10 years, and is he willing and able to lead?
Let us hope that Liberians will assess these questions critically and choose the right leader come 2017.