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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Former footballer George Weah faces hurdles in bid to become Liberia's next head of state   

Critics say the former Milan striker and world footballer of the year lacks the intellectual qualifications for Liberia's top job

Liberian presidential candidate for the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), George Weah (C) leaves a polling station after casting his ballot in presidential elections run-off in Monrovia on December 26. Ahmed Jallanzo / EPA
Liberian presidential candidate for the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), George Weah (C) leaves a polling station after casting his ballot in presidential elections run-off in Monrovia on December 26. Ahmed Jallanzo / EPA

Former Chelsea striker George Weah is bidding to become the world's first football star to be elected as a head of state, as voters in Liberia went to the polls on Tuesday.

Weah, 51, who was one of the world's best players in the 1990s, is the favourite to win in the tiny West African state's third presidential elections since its devastating 14-year civil war.

The vote is to choose a successor to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the former World Bank economist who made election history herself by becoming the first woman to be elected as an African head of state in 2005.

Tuesday's polls were a run-off vote after an 11-candidate first-round race in October. In that, Weah won 38.4 per cent of votes compared to runner-up Joseph Boakai, Sirleaf's current vice-president, who took 28.8 per cent.

With neither candidate getting an outright majority, Weah and Boakai are now in a second-round head-to-head that was delayed by nearly three months because of court challenges to alleged fraud in the first vote.

A victory for Weah would cap a remarkable rag-to-riches story which started with him growing up in Clara Town, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

Having begun his football career playing $10 a match games for local clubs, his remarkable striking and dribbling skills caught the attention of a Cameroonian coach, who passed his name on to Arsene Wenger, then at AS Monaco.

Signed to AS Monaco for just £12,000, Weah went on to play for a string of clubs including Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, and AC Milan, as well becoming the only African ever to be named FIFA World Player of the Year.

It is not just his footballing success that makes him a hero in his home country. Despite enjoying a playboy lifestyle at the height of his soccer career, he made numerous trips back to Liberia as a UNICEF ambassador during the civil war years, promoting vocational training for former child soldiers and spending much of his own cash on coaching the national football team.

For the many Liberians who suffered under warlord and president Charles Taylor, Weah was seen as the only one of their countrymen famous for deeds other than limb-chopping and cannibalism.

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Nonetheless, since entering politics at the end of his sporting career in 2004, he has failed twice in runs to become president in 2005 and vice-president in 2011. While most critics do not doubt his good intentions, they say the ex-slum boy simply lacks the intellectual qualifications for Liberia's top job.

"Weah is a humanitarian, yes, but he lacks credibility, moral rectitude and strategy," said Nelson S Jallah, a teacher at the University of Liberia. "Running a country isn't like running the national football team."

"It is a disservice to Liberia for someone as unprepared as he is to even consider running," added Benoni Urey, a losing presidential candidate who has now switched his allegiance to Boakai instead.

Supporters of Weah point out that in recent years, he has gained a college education as well as political experience through being elected as senator for Montserrado County, which includes Monrovia.

Yet the challenges a Liberian president faces would test even the most experienced politician. While Sirleaf is credited with doing a good job courting foreign aid donors and steering the country through the 2014 Ebola crisis, which killed nearly 5,000, Liberia still ranks as the fourth poorest country in the world. Weah's agenda has also been criticised for a lack of detail, beyond vague-sounding mantras about economic and social development.

That is where Boakai, a 73-year-old career technocrat, will hope to prevail. Although he lacks Weah's showmanship qualities - his nickname is "Sleepy Joe" for his habit of nodding off during long meetings - diplomats credit him with at least having several innovative policies. He wants to end the country's dependency on foreign aid, and also plans a new rule demanding that any government minister must educate their children locally rather than sending them to private schools abroad.

"If we are to build our schools to an international standard, our own ministers must have sufficient confidence in that school to send their own children there," he told The National in Monrovia in October.

Another potential weakness for Weah is his decision to choose as his vice-presidential running mate Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of Charles Taylor.

Howard-Taylor is now a powerful politician in her own right and claims to have little to do with her ex-husband, who is now serving a 50-year war crimes sentence in a British jail.

However, Weah is widely believed to have teamed up with her because she brings in a reliable bloc of votes from Bong Country, a stronghold of her ex-husband where she now serves as a senator.

Many are uncomfortable at the idea of the Taylor name re-entering Liberian politics at the highest level, despite Howard Taylor insisting that her ex-husband has no influence over her.

Of more immediate concern is the prospect of violence if the election does not deliver a clear winner either way, or is dogged again by allegations of fraud. While October's first round vote passed peacefully, the stakes are higher now that the contest is a stand-off between just two candidates.