Former international soccer star George Weah was sworn into office on Monday as Liberia’s new president, taking over leadership of this post-war, impoverished West African nation from Africa’s first female president.
The 51-year-old, who was FIFA’s 1995 Player of the Year, won the runoff vote on December 26 against the outgoing vice president.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served for 12 years, lifting Liberia from the destruction of back-to-back civil wars that ended before her tenure and facing the challenge of the Ebola crisis that killed thousands.
Weah, dressed in all white, stood at the podium amid tens of thousands of cheering Liberians, taking the oath of office around midday on Monday.
Weah, who has run for the presidency before but is relatively new to national politics, inherits a weak economy along with poor health and educational sectors.
Liberians held prayer services for 48 hours leading up to Monday’s inauguration of Weah, who served three years in the senate more than a decade after retiring from a glittering international football career in which he played in France, Italy, the UK and elsewhere.
Many of Weah’s critics are still skeptical about his ability to deliver in a country that is faced with youth unemployment and other challenges. His running mate, Vice President-Elect Jewel Howard-Taylor, has political experience that surpasses his. She was married to the nation’s former leader Charles Taylor during his time in power. After they divorced, she was elected senator in 2005, building a political career in her own right.
Evangelical preacher Nathanial Zarway prayed, asking God to grant George Weah “the grace and favour he needs to make a significant difference that will surprise the world.” He was giving an opening prayer at Sunday’s service attended by Weah, his wife Clar and Sirleaf at the Centennial Memorial Pavilion in downtown Monrovia.
The congregation responded with a resounding “amen” when the preacher shouted “God, don’t let him fail you and don’t let him fail the Liberian people who have reposed their confidence in him.”
A similar prayer service was held in a leading mosque on Friday. Weah, who once went by a Muslim name Ousman, attended.
In the lead-up to the inauguration, Weah played in a pre-inaugural exhibition soccer match on Saturday, featuring his Weah All Stars team, which was comprised of his former national teammates.
Weah scored the first of two goals against Liberian army’s soccer team.
“Her Excellency Madam Ellen (Johnson Sirleaf) will be bringing down the flag, while I raise the flag; it is a new day for Liberia,” Weah said of Monday’s activities. “It is a smooth transition, no-one (is) running around the streets,” he said.
Weah said he was happy about the calm that has characterized the transition process so far.
“This tells you that we came from a war to peace,” he said.
© Associated Press