Magazine article African Business

Weah Struggles to Live Up to His Promises: Former Footballer George Weah Was Elected President of Liberia on the Back of Generous Policy Pledges but Two Years Later the Country Is Beset by Problems

Magazine article African Business

Weah Struggles to Live Up to His Promises: Former Footballer George Weah Was Elected President of Liberia on the Back of Generous Policy Pledges but Two Years Later the Country Is Beset by Problems

Article excerpt

When Henry Costa landed in Monrovia in December from a trip abroad, he was given a rock-star welcome by hundreds of supporters. In an ostentatious open top car, he sped into the city.

However, Costa is not a musician or a politician, but one of the loudest critics of Liberia's President George Weah, who is currently facing the greatest crisis of his short presidency. Costa's arrest in January, for allegedly falsifying a travel document, will energise, rather than deter, his supporters.

In July, his Council of Patriots rallied thousands of people. Since December, a new wave of protests has seen 3,000 people regularly fill the streets of Monrovia demanding Weah sack his entire economic team.

The former radio host's support reflects Liberia's economic decline since Weah assumed office two years ago. Under the leadership of the former international footballer, who promised to restore power to the people, inflation is bobbing around 30%, unemployment is high, the central bank is short of foreign reserves and civil servants have gone months without pay.

Still, the president's supporters have expressed no willingness to compromise. In December, Bhofal Chambers, an MP from Weah's Congress for Democratic Change party, accused the protesters of "treason, terrorism and subversion." Throughout the crisis, Weah's allies have framed the demonstrations as a quiet coup by a political elite determined to undermine the authority of a political outsider.

But how did it go so wrong for a president who won 70% in the 2017 presidential run-off promising an unvarnished, more collaborative style of leadership?

"Weah's economic management has been notably lacklustre; however he is only partly to blame for the situation," says Eric Humphrey-Smith, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. "He inherited a huge operational deficit at the Liberian central bank and a hefty public wage bill that obstructed state-led investment."

The World Bank has projected the Liberian economy will contract by 1.4% in 2019. One of the world's poorest nations, Liberia has an annual GDP per capita of just $688, according to the IMF.

Disgruntled Liberians will have their say at the ballot box later this year, when half of Liberia's senators will run in midterm elections. Some ministers have suggested the country is too cash-strapped to hold the vote, but the US and other international partners would likely not accept a delay.

"Ordinary Liberians are facing the brunt of high inflation," says Ibrahim Nyei of SOAS, University of London. "There is exchange rate volatility meaning the price of commodities changes every day." Small business owners who buy in greenbacks and sell in Liberian dollars are struggling to make ends meet.

Liberia was one of a trio of countries, alongside Guinea and Sierra Leone, hit hard by the 2014 Ebola outbreak in the region. In Liberia alone the disease killed 4,800 people and deterred investors. Liberia's small but vitally important tourism sector has not recovered from the outbreak. GDP growth fell from over 8% in 2013 to zero in 2015.

However, while Ebola hit local businesses, the current economic malaise is largely self-inflicted, analysts say. And while his predecessor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf--who won a Nobel peace prize for guiding Liberia's post-war reconciliation --could fall back on international goodwill, Weah cannot.

Policy pledges

Nyei says the president promised too much during his election campaign, with a series of policy pledges and guarantees of infrastructure. …

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