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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Liberia presidency: Former AC Milan footballer George Weah sworn in 

People queued for miles outside the Samuel Kanyon Doe stadium near the capital, Monrovia, to witness the next step of Weah's extraordinary personal journey from slum to presidential residence

Liberia's George Weah raises his hand during his presidential swearing-in ceremony at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Monrovia on January 22, 2018. Thierry Gouegnon / Reuters
Liberia's George Weah raises his hand during his presidential swearing-in ceremony at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Monrovia on January 22, 2018. Thierry Gouegnon / Reuters

Former footballer George Weah was sworn in as president of Liberia on Monday, marking the first democratic transfer of power in the west African country since 1944.

People queued for miles outside the Samuel Kanyon Doe stadium near the capital, Monrovia, to witness the next step of Mr Weah's extraordinary personal journey from slum to presidential residence, via the highest echelons of European football.

Mr Weah’s election win — in which he took 61 per cent of the vote — was the culmination of a 13-year struggle for political credibility that began with him losing a presidential runoff in 2005 and saw him become a senator in 2015.

But with expectations for his presidency high, the former AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain striker now faces the formidable task of transforming the fortunes of a country that consistently ranks poorly on indicators of education, health and development.

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He inherits a struggling Liberia from president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ms Sirleaf maintained harmony following a bloody civil war that killed some 250,000 people. Yet her domestic agenda stalled, while allegations of corruption and nepotism dogged her 12-year presidency.

Pressure will be on the new president to deliver for his core supporters — the poor and unemployed — as well as the country’s youth, who make up 60 per cent of Liberia’s 4.6 million people. In a vague election campaign that focused more on slogans of unity and change than on policy, two of the more substantive promises Mr Weah made were to create more jobs and improve education.

Then AC Milan striker George Weah cries for help after injuring his left hand during a match in Milan on September 11, 1996. Carlo Fumagalli, File / AP
Then AC Milan striker George Weah cries for help after injuring his left hand during a match in Milan on September 11, 1996. Carlo Fumagalli, File / AP

Now in power, he faces a host of challenges, however. Liberia’s economy has buckled in recent years, as the price of rubber and iron — the country’s chief exports — has plummeted. Meanwhile, the Ebola virus, which swept through the country between 2014 and 2015, caused even greater turmoil, killing thousands of people. And foreign aid to Liberia has declined, even as its need has increased.

Finding remedies to the country's economic troubles will be vital for Mr Weah to succeed.

“He will need to sustain positive relations with donors, attract foreign direct investment and build much needed civil infrastructure,” Elizabeth Donnelly, deputy-head of Chatham House’s Africa Programme, told The National.

With little political experience of his own, Mr Weah’s success may depend on the cabinet he assembles. Yet the names touted so far — including personal friends and Sirleaf allies — have dismayed analysts.

“The list so far is clearly tilted towards repaying political and personal debts of gratitude, suggesting continuity rather than a new dawn in Liberian politics,” said Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.