In-coming Liberian head of state has battled a tough and impoverished childhood, rose to the pinnacle of world football, almost single-handedly held Liberia’s national football team together and fought gamely to stand where he is today, but will he be any different from the usual mediocre African leadership?
When his story is definitively written, Africa’s children will draw special inspiration from the life of George Oppong Weah who will be inaugurated as Liberia’s President on January 22.
He is the first professional sportsman in the continent to ascend to the highest office in his country. Weah only has had two careers – football and politics and in each of them, he has scaled the highest summit.
You cannot earn a higher individual accolade in football than to be voted the Fifa World Footballer of the Year and winner of the Ballon d’Or – the European Footballer of the Year.
Weah won these titles in 1995, becoming the only African so far to claim them. In 1989, 1994 and 1995, he was voted African Footballer of the Year. It was thus not surprising that in the closing years of the 20th century in 1996, enough experts voted him African Player of the Century. You can’t get better than that.
In politics, you cannot go higher than to be elected president of your country in a free and fair poll accepted by your opponents. He just has.
Weah was the giant upon whose shoulders Liberia’s national team, the Lone Star, stood. They fell woefully short of his abilities and never once qualified for the Fifa World Cup.
But he did his best to help them. He was their captain on the pitch and their inspirational big brother off it who used the earnings from his exploits in Europe to bankroll them in their fruitless campaigns for Africa Nations Cup and World Cup glory. He did most of this during Liberia’s darkest civil war period.
Liberia’s failed efforts consigned Weah to a special league of the world’s greatest footballers never to play in a World Cup. That league has among them stars such as Northern Ireland’s George Best, Ghana’s Abedi Pele and Wales’ Ian Rush.
Hugh McIllvaney once described Northern Ireland’s travails when an injured George Best couldn’t play in a critical European Nations qualifier thus:
“The sight of Best hobbling on crutches from his hospital bed to take his place on the stands would have been enough to lift Irish morale.” In the case of Weah, I think such a sight would have been enough to lift Liberia from the dead.
Weah’s is an extraordinary achievement for a deprived child who hailed from the desperately impoverished Grand Kru County of Liberia’s south east.
The son of a mechanic father and small-scale trader mother learnt the ropes of football in Monrovia’s tough streets where his extra-ordinary speed with the ball first became evident.
He buried himself in the game and never finished high school. But a famous coach named Arsene Wenger would soon notice that speed and that talent and sign him for Monaco. The rest is history:
Weah has invited Wenger to his presidential inauguration after clearing all obstacles in a journey that could put fiction to the shade. This odyssey includes a losing presidential bid on account of not having a university degree.
At this stage, of course, we cannot tell how Weah might use football in particular or sport in general to uplift the lot of his people. We cannot yet know the size of his ambition.
The world’s sports industry is worth some $91 billion this year: what portion of that might be in his sights? Will he even attempt to go in that direction? Things change and it doesn’t automatically follow that one will take the glittering career of one’s youth into the senior years.
But anybody who has been to that neighbourhood – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – and seen its beauty and poverty, its potential and its threats, would be surprised if he didn’t try to use the power of what he knows best to turn around its sorry fortunes.
When, for instance, Ebola hit, Liberia was utterly helpless; only foreign assistance could save it. It also has a massive unemployment and poverty problem. And yet Africa’s oldest republic, besides its enormous mineral and agricultural potential, has an impressive human resource base from which Weah could tap.
Weah’s success has given us a chance to look into what people with a sports background and who have occupied State House have done with it.
Sports is a massive employer. And from the time the ancient Greeks postponed their wars to enjoy the Olympic Games, it has proven to be a great national unifier.
Presidents have exploited its power to the hilt. Some, like the Argentine generals who hosted the 1978 Fifa World Cup, used it to whip up nationalist fervour and divert attention from national crisis that they themselves created.
It is a pity that in a talent-rich nation like Kenya with world conquering ability it hasn’t been harnessed robustly to foster national cohesion, create employment and fight evils like religious radicalization among the youth.
If anything, a chronically-underfunded sports sector in Kenya has often seemed like an afterthought, even a nuisance, to authorities who are nonetheless quick to pounce on hard-won individual success to unleash a propaganda blitz that it is a national accomplishment.
And in our ethnically-divided society, it has also been used by manipulative politicians to cynically promote feelings of belonging and alienation.
So what did African presidents with a personal involvement in sport do when they entered State House? Let us examine just two cases none, of course, who came anywhere close to Weah’s achievement.
One was a great man – the other a buffoon. Nelson Mandela. He has said many things but this one is well remembered because of how he used the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa to bridge racial divides and forge a rainbow nation against heavy odds:
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
He ruled for only one term. But during that time, a newly re-admitted South Africa to the comity of nations won not just the rugby World Cup but the 1996 Caf Africa Cup of Nations as well. His inspirational presence saw South Africa become Africa’s first nation to host the Fifa World Cup after he had left office.
In his youth, Mandela was a boxer. Although every sentence of his superbly written autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” is engaging and one is almost unable to put down the book, his views about the sport are illuminating. He wrote:
“I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match. Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, color, and wealth are irrelevant. I was never an outstanding boxer. I was in the heavyweight division, and I had neither enough power to compensate for my lack of speed nor enough speed to make up for my lack of power. I never did any real fighting after I entered politics. My main interest was in training. I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress.
“After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle.
After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again.”
Mandela may never have been South African heavyweight boxing champion.
But of the world leaders who used the power of sport to transform their nations, even snatching them from the jaws of a catastrophe, he was a champion who will be remembered for generations to come.
Ugandan dictator Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada. Amin, under whose reign an unknown number of 100,000s of Ugandans died - with many victims being fed to crocodiles in the River Nile - was an accomplished sportsman. He was Uganda’s national heavyweight boxing champion in the 1950s. He was also an accomplished swimmer and rugby player.
Amin was a disaster to his country and to humankind. But this much has to be said because it is a fact: he promoted sports with a single-minded focus.
Some of Africa’s best footballers, boxers and athletes flourished during his brutal rule. Since his ouster, Uganda hasn’t known great hurdlers like Olympic gold medallist John Akii-Bua and world light middleweight boxing champion Ayub Kalule not to mention the unforgettable Uganda Cranes football team of 1978.
But if his bloodthirstiness seared the conscience of humanity, his buffoonery shocked even the most creative fiction writers.
Read this Reuters dispatch from Nairobi published on page one of The Standard newspaper on August 2, 1978 and make what you will of it: “Ugandan President, Idi Amin, has announced that his senior wife will command the country – while he takes part in a four-day motor rally with his junior wife, Sarah, according to Radio Uganda. Sarah will share the wheel of a “historical personal car” which President Amin has owned since the military take-over in 1971, the radio monitored here said.
“The President will wear what the radio called his well-known red jacket. It is the first time President Amin has announced that one of his wives will be in charge of the country. Madina has never been known to have political pretensions.”
Back to George Weah. Taking custody of the keys to State House, Monrovia has ignited a lot of interest from people around the world who marvelled at his accomplishments on the football pitch and then at his evolution into a first rate politician.
My hope is that he will turn out to be a transformative leader. Africa has enough mediocre presidents.