The remarkable feat of George Weah

Former football player and winner of Liberia’s presidential elections George Weah leaves after a meeting at the offices of his party’s headquarters in Monrovia on Decembre 29, 2017, a day after the second round of the elections. Former star footballer George Weah was named winner of Liberia’s presidential election on December 28, 2017, easily beating his challenger in the country’s first democratic transfer of power in seven decades scarred by civil wars, political assassinations and an Ebola crisis. SEYLLOU / AFP

Remarkable. That about sums up the incredible feat of the newly elected Liberian president, George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah. Bedecked, not burdened, with six names, he is sure to stand out among African and world leaders.

Let me begin this by offering you the obvious information about him. Weah is a former professional footballer. It bears repeating that he is a remarkable man and achieved remarkable feats in the world of soccer. When he retired from professional football, he left his large footprints, not on the sands of time but on the soccer marbles for all time.

His enviable records are not likely to be equalled, let alone surpassed now or in the near future; if indeed, ever. He won all the awards that soccer had to offer: FIFA player of the year, African footballer of the year, 1989, 1994, 1995; African player of the century, 1996. And he also became the first African footballer to win the Ballon d’Or award in 1995.

When he hung his football boots Weah did the unexpected for a professional footballer. He turned his attention to politics and political power at the highest level in his country. He is a brave man too. Retired footballers are usually contented with spending the rest of their lives as footballer commentators or trying to put something back into the world’s most popular game by founding and running football academies to catch future footballers young. It is their way of refusing to be mothballed because the applause has since receded into silence and they have become the have-been.

Not Weah. He founded his own political party, Congress for Democratic Change. He set his eyes firmly on the leadership of his country. In 2005, he threw his hat in the ring and contested the presidential election against Mrs Ellen Sirleaf, who became the first female president in Africa.

Weah lost but he did one important thing. He went back to school, DeVry University, to prepare himself intellectually for the leadership of his country. He needed no one to tell him that no one equates the glamour and the glamourous life of the footballer with intellect and leadership outside being the captain of a football team.

Indeed, when he ran for office that year, the well-heeled in politics did not take him seriously. They saw him as no more than a popular and successful footballer chipping at the granite of political power with a pen knife. Politics is in a different world of its own – complex and complicated – and only those tutored at the feet of the masters can master that game and that world.

But Weah ran again in 2011. He lost for the second time. Those who thought the leader of the Congress for Democratic Change had had his fingers burnt and learnt his lessons and would leave politics to the politicians, were badly misunderstood his ambition and his determination. Fact is, he trusted the people. He was their man.

Weah lowered his sight for a strategic reason. He was elected into the Senate in 2014, not because he had given up his presidential ambition but because he felt he needed to be better prepared for the third time.

He returned to the ring last year and beat the vice-president, Joseph Boaki, to gain the trophy that passeth all trophies. Just like Sirleaf made history as the first female president in Africa, Weah has also made history as the first footballer in the world to be elected president, not of FIFA, but of a country.

His feat in politics is primarily personal to him but it is difficult to think about it and not feel a sense of pride that the tiny former war-torn West African country, ravaged not too long ago by the Ebola virus, appears destined to play a role on the continent larger than its size and its population.

The election of Sirleaf bench-marked the place of African women in politics. Her successful completion of her two-term tenure celebrates a country at peace with itself despite its glaring economic difficulties. The fact that no other African woman has followed her footsteps into the state house of another African country must not be taken as evidence that her election was an aberration.

The door she has opened will not be shut again in the face of African women without inflicting some grievous damages on our collective political psyche as Africans. Another woman would walk that path in another African country. Keep hope alive, brother.

Weah has shown that you do not have to serve the grand political godfathers to realise your political ambition. His decision to form his own political party was to properly arm himself to take on those who believed they owned the turf. It reminds me of our own President Muhammadu Buhari. He was drafted into ANPP and given the party flag as its presidential candidate in 2003. Twice he stood on that platform – and lost. By 2007, the party leaders had deserted him and flocked to the PDP, its main rival. The party itself had been reduced from controlling seven states and restricted to only three states. Buhari read the handwriting on the wall and for his next shot at the presidency, he formed his own political party, Congress for Progressive Change, CPC.

I do not take it that forming one’s party necessarily guarantees success at the polls but as we have seen here and in Liberia, it helps under the right political atmosphere.

We, Nigerians, should not be ashamed to admit that what happened in Liberia would not happen here in a long, long time, given the nature of our party politics. We have some remarkable young men here too who made their marks with their feet in the soccer world. I do not know of anyone of them who is in politics. It may not be for lack of ambition for political power; it most likely stems from their appreciation of the fact that things are done differently here.

With all his fame and glamour of Kanu Nwankwo as a footballer now retired, the party moguls would still be cynically dismissive of him should he express an interest in seeking election as a local government chairman in his state.

The unsettling difference is this: in Liberia, the people own the electoral process. In Nigeria, the party big men own the electoral process. They choose and cynically ask the electorate to rubber stamp their choices in the farcical elections that befuddle all understanding.

However you look at it, there is no hiding the fact that it is a shame that the most populous country in Africa has serious problems with its concept of democracy and the universally accepted democratic ethos. Democracy recognises the electorate as the custodians of political power.

Here, the people are denied the full right to exercise that power. Reminds me of the NPN slogan: ‘Power to the people’; to which the cynics added, ‘on election day.’

Is Weah’s election a challenge to our own popular retired footballers? It should be. If Weah could do it, our men too could do it, not as anointed heads of the party big men who own the parties but as men of the people able to go over the heads of the party big men to win the trophies of political power. They too can parley their success and popularity into political power at whatever level their hands can reach. After all, there is a natural affinity between politics and soccer. Both are built on dribbling.

To be honest, I do not think Weah’s election would cause a rush among retired footballers on the continent to jostle for political power but it nevertheless holds out hope for the rest of us that despite the domineering attitude of the party moguls and the sit-tight leaders, it is still possible for the ordinary people to make some rational decisions untainted by the murky colour of money. Don’t ask me when that day will push its way through the clouds here.

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