From slums to football star and president, Liberia's George Weah

His victory in 2017 sparked high hopes of change in one of the least developed countries in the world, which is still reeling from civil war and the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic.
Liberia's President George Weah
Liberia's President George Weah

MONROVIA, LIBERIA: From Liberia's swampy slums to international football star and then president, George Weah is contesting a second term in a run-off on Tuesday, defending a controversial record and facing determined opposition.

Weah won in 2017 with more than 61 percent of the vote, and again faces a second round this time after nearly tying with old rival Joseph Boakai in last month's first round.

Weah, 57, led a vigorous campaign for a "first round victory" but has had to defend his record in office.

Critics have accused his government of corruption and him of failing to keep a promise to improve the lives of the poorest.

His victory in 2017 sparked high hopes of change in one of the least developed countries in the world, which is still reeling from civil war and the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic.

Weah had spent the previous decade building political credibility, including three years in the Senate, to match his sporting icon status.

"I can guarantee that the years 2024 and beyond will be better for all Liberians," he told his ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) at their national campaign launch in September.

Posters of Weah and his running mate Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of jailed former president and warlord Charles Taylor, can be seen in the streets of Monrovia.

In the capital's Clara Town, where Weah was born, youngsters still idolise the first African player to win both FIFA's World Player of the Year trophy and the Ballon d'Or.

"I'm 100 per cent behind George Weah," said Marcally Mulbah, sitting on his motorbike chatting to friends. "He's a man of peace."

Twenty-two-year-old student Godgift Pewee sports CDC party bracelets and recalled Weah playing soccer with him at the opening of a sports complex in the area.

Pewee said Weah is tolerant and has jailed no one for political reasons.

Janga Kowo, a long-time friend of Weah and now Comptroller General of the West African country, told AFP that Liberians still love their president.

"President Weah is the most approachable Liberian leader ever," he said.

"Socially, this is a man who connects with the Liberian people, that is why the Liberian people will continue to show love to him."

'Worsening conditions'

But on a nearby street strewn with plastic rubbish, Saturday Gbalah, 42, said the president had lost his "connection" to the people.

"I loved George Weah," he said, and went to vote for him on crutches. But today "conditions are worse", with the price of rice and other basic foods spiralling, Gbalah said.

Weah is Liberia's 25th president after taking over from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had maintained a peace desperately needed after a war that killed an estimated quarter of a million people.

He was largely absent from Liberia during the 1989-2003 civil wars, playing for a string of top-flight European teams, including Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan and Chelsea.

But as president, Weah has not set up a war crimes tribunal despite international and domestic demand.

A member of the Kru ethnic group, Weah was raised by his grandmother in the Gibraltar district, a reclaimed swamp and one of Monrovia's worst slums.

He had pledged to govern for the poor, to create employment and invest in education. Critics say he has failed.

He came under fire last year for a prolonged absence from Liberia -- 40 days at conferences and summits as well as time at the World Cup, where his son played for the United States.

Bad governance is another issue raised by the opposition. Despite the president's pledges to tackle corruption, it has increased on his watch.

Liberia sits 142nd out of 180 on Transparency International's 2022 corruption index.

"There is a mismatch between words and action," said Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, director of the Ducor Institute for Social and Economic Research.

Despite legislation introduced in July, opponents accuse Weah of failing to halt drug trafficking.

At the campaign launch, Weah said he had built roads and hospitals, paid secondary school students' exam fees and opened parks and sports facilities.

"This will be replicated throughout the 15 counties (of Liberia) after you have given us a new mandate," he vowed.

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