Liberian President-elect George Weah, on Tuesday, set modest goals for his six-year term, calling for Liberia to start exporting crops and repairing decrepit infrastructure, in his first interview since winning election last week.
Weah rode a wave of youth support to capture more than 60 percent of the vote in last Tuesday’s run-off, but he will need to manage expectations as he attempts to revive one of Africa’s worst-performing economies.
Later this month, he will replace President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, in Liberia’s first democratic transfer of power since 1944.
Seated outside his unfinished new house on a quiet dirt backstreet near the capital Monrovia, where a concrete sign announces, “Friends of Weah say welcome”, the 51-year-old ex-soccer star began to tentatively fill in some of the gaps in his vague campaign promises.
“I want for us to be self-sustained so we can export,” he said, appearing at ease in a dark blue dress shirt and gold watch. “The government has a responsibility to have agricultural programs so people are able to grow their own food.”
“Ghana exports, our neighboring countries export – we have the capacity to export,” he continued. “They export and we can do the same.”
Liberia spent years recovering from civil wars from 1989-2003 that killed hundreds of thousands of people and then was hit more recently by low prices for its chief exports, iron ore and rubber, and an Ebola outbreak from 2014-16.
More than 60 per cent of Liberians depend on agriculture for their livelihood and multinationals like Malaysia-based Sime Darby have invested heavily in palm oil plantations. But the sector has languished due to low productivity, forcing Liberia to import more than 80 per cent of its staple foods.
Meanwhile, Weah, on Saturday, said the country is open to investment and pledged to tackle entrenched corruption, in his first speech to the nation since decisively winning an election.
Speaking in front of reporters and aides packed into a small conference room at his party headquarters, Weah thanked his predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for enabling Liberia’s first democratic transition in over 70 years but said he was determined to usher in sweeping changes.
“Those looking to cheat the Liberian people through corruption will have no place,” said Weah, 51, alluding to a series of high-profile scandals that have tarnished Johnson Sirleaf’s 12-year presidency.
Weah, a former soccer star who became the only African to win FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995, scored a landslide victory over Vice President Joseph Boakai in Tuesday’s run-off.
He faces sky-high expectations from his base of young supporters, who want him to fix rampant unemployment and poverty, but deep scepticism from others who see him as lacking the experience and knowledge for the job.
His campaign was thin on policy specifics and he will now be faced with the messy realities of reviving an economy gutted by low prices for chief exports rubber and iron ore and dwindling foreign donor support.
Weah said he would assemble his cabinet in the coming days ahead of his inauguration in mid-January and work to expand the country’s revenue base. “To investors, we say Liberia is open for business,” he said.
He also urged Liberians overseas – whose remittances account for over a quarter of national GDP – to return home, calling for national unity in a country that was devastated by civil war from 1989 to 2003 and remains riven by divisions based on ethnicity, class and political affiliation.
“We are not enemies,” he said in comments addressed to his political opponents. “We welcome you with open arms as we try to build our country.”
“Two days ago the world watched me cry. I did not cry because I won. I cried that many people lost their lives in the struggle for change.”
The speech was closely followed across the country of five million people.
“The main thing I took from him was that Liberia is open for business,” said John Davies, a 30-year-old businessman. “We need Liberians to come home and work for our country.”