End of an era: How corruption in Liberia cost George Weah the presidency

In six years, Liberia’s most famous citizen became unpopular enough to lose the presidential vote to a man he defeated in 2017.

Liberian President Weah votes in polls
Incumbent George Weah casts his vote in the first round of Liberia's presidential election at a polling station in Monrovia on October 10, 2023 [Guy Peterson/AFP]

Monrovia, Liberia – On January 22, 2018, a cheering crowd welcomed George Weah to the Samuel K Doe Sports Complex in Paynesville, outside Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. But the man once crowned the world’s best footballer was not there to add to his 75 matches for the Lone Stars, Liberia’s senior national football team.

It was his inauguration as the West African nation’s 25th president. Those present, like many Liberians glued to television sets at home and in the diaspora were brimming with hope at the expected transformation that his presidency would bring, just as his football career had given them joy and pride.

“It is my belief that the most effective way to directly impact the poor and to narrow the gap between rich and poor is to ensure that public resources do not end up in the pockets of government officials,” Weah said in his inaugural address.

Weah had gone from a slum dweller in one of the poorest areas of one of the world’s poorest countries to the only African winner of the Ballon d’Or, football’s most coveted prize, and to Liberia’s highest office. His election win made headlines across the world, and his inauguration speech seemed as convincing as his ball-striking prowess had been.

“I further believe that the overwhelming mandate I received from the Liberian people is a mandate to end corruption in public service,” Weah told rapturous supporters, many of whom had survived corruption-fueled, back-to-back civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, which killed more than 250,000 people.

Almost six years on, Liberia’s most famous citizen dead or alive has become unpopular to the point of losing the presidential vote to a man whom he defeated in 2017.

Last week, Weah, 57, conceded defeat to former Vice President Joseph Boakai, 78, after a November 14 run-off.

There are several reasons why voters denied Weah a second term, including his failure to establish a war crimes court for the country and the ripple effects of a drug epidemic. However, one issue stands out: corruption. It drove some of the biggest protests the country has seen since the end of Liberia’s second civil war in 2003.

“[Weah] promised to ‘weed out the menace of corruption’; however, greed and graft have become the hallmarks of his presidency,” said Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian academic, activist and author based in London. “President Weah squandered practically every opportunity to score the country’s most important goal of socioeconomic transformation.”

A banknote scandal

For decades, Liberia has been ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, but that notoriety reached its lowest depths under Weah. Since 2018, Liberia has averaged 29 points out of a possible 100 on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. It currently ranks 136 out of 180 countries. In the six years before Weah, Liberia had averaged nearly 39 points.

Corruption became synonymous with Weah’s government from the very beginning.

First, Weah refused to publicly declare his assets despite doing so in 2005 when he first ran for office. His officials followed suit, ignoring his mandate to declare theirs. But there was more ahead.

Just nine months into this presidency, the Liberian press reported the alleged disappearance of 15.5 billion Liberian dollars (US$96m at the time) in banknotes, approximately five percent of the country’s gross domestic product. An inquiry by Kroll, a Philadelphia-based firm funded by the United States government, revealed that the banknotes had not gone missing but had been illegally printed. The investigation also found that US$16.5m had been printed in excess and was unaccounted for.

Several officials of the Central Bank of Liberia, including Charles Sirleaf, a son of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, were charged and jailed for alleged economic sabotage, bribery, and criminal facilitation but were released, and their charges were later dropped.

Two months before the missing banknotes scandal, Weah had injected US$25m into the economy to extract the excess Liberian dollars in circulation. In a national address, Weah said the injection would curb inflation and the depreciation of the Liberian currency.

This, too, led to another scandal.  An examination by Liberia’s General Auditing Commission found several discrepancies with disbursements. Some of the funds had not been accounted for, and staff had not used the government-approved rate for some transactions.

The end of an era

Anderson Miamen, the lead campaigner at the Centre for Accountability and Transparency in Liberia, a partner of Transparency International, believes Liberians voted Weah out because of corruption.

“Everywhere we went, people asked questions about the situation of corruption in the country and what the government is doing about it. In the different reports that we’ve done over the years, citizens have expressed disappointment in the government’s lack of strong will to deal with corruption,” Miamen said.

After four national auditors died in just over a week in 2020, public mistrust of the Weah government over corruption heightened in the country of 5.2 million people.

First, Albert Peters and Gifty Lama of the Liberia Revenue Authority were discovered dead in a car in Monrovia on October 2. Pathologists found they died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to the car’s defective exhaust system.

Next, George Fahnboto, another auditor of the Liberia Revenue Authority, died from head wounds in an apparent car crash just outside Monrovia on October 4.

Then Emmanuel Nyeswa, head of Liberia’s Internal Auditing Agency, died on October 10, 2020. His body was found lying outside his home with head wounds in the same neighborhood as Fahnboto. The result of his autopsy was inconclusive.

The deaths of the auditors sparked outrage. The public rejected the outcomes of the autopsies while the US-based Institute of Internal Auditors asked then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to help Liberia investigate the deaths.

That assistance did not come. However, the US sanctioned three senior members of Weah’s government over corruption. Nathaniel McGill, minister of state; Bill Twehway, managing director of the Freeport of Monrovia; and Serenius Cephas, solicitor general, were sanctioned for “their involvement in public sector corruption in Liberia”. The trio resigned their posts, but no one was prosecuted.

The continued lack of consequences for the elite ultimately hurt the man at the helm, analysts said.

“We believe that it played a part in the way people voted,” Miamen said. “He didn’t really live by his word.”

Source: Al Jazeera