Liberia’s Weah under pressure to deliver after dominant election win

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MONROVIA, Dec 29 (Reuters) – Now that George Weah has
emphatically won Liberia’s presidency, an even more daunting
task awaits: delivering tangible benefits to expectant
supporters in the face of a gutted economy and waning donor
support.

Weah was met by hundreds of screaming supporters on his
arrival at his party headquarters on Friday. Many have waited
over a decade — since his failed bid for the presidency in 2005
— to see a man they consider their own come to power.

Those supporters come with high expectations that the former
soccer star may have to carefully temper if he is to hold onto
his widespread support, particularly among the West African
country’s disaffected youth.

“People are expecting too much of him, but we know he will
do us proud,” said Diane Fbarh, a 24-year-old accounting student
as she waited for Weah to appear at his party headquarters on
Friday. “I don’t think he will let us down.”

Weah, who grew up kicking a raggedy soccer ball on the dusty
streets of the capital Monrovia’s Clara Town slum and later
played for top European clubs, successfully tapped into
dissatisfaction with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s 12-year presidency.

Johnson Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for
helping cement peace after civil wars from 1989-2003 but has
been criticised over persistent poverty and corruption scandals.

The challenge of lending substance to vague campaign
promises is steep in a country that ranks 177th out of 188 on
the U.N. Human Development Index.

Chronic problems with electricity delivery leave most of the
country without power and even downtown Monrovia is frequently
in the dark. Much of rural Liberia is effectively cut off from
the capital when summer rains flood the pitted dirt roads.

Hit hard by a 2014-16 Ebola outbreak that killed thousands,
low prices for chief exports iron ore and rubber and declining
foreign aid, Liberia’s economy has sputtered and relies on
overseas remittances for more than a quarter of GDP.

The economy contracted last year and the International
Monetary Fund last month revised down its GDP growth forecasts
for 2017 and 2018 due to sluggish commodity prices and the
drawdown of the country’s U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Johnson Sirleaf’s administration was also dogged by several
corruption scandals. She suspended her son and 45 other
government officials in 2012 for failing to declare their assets
to anti-corruption authorities and faced accusations of
nepotism. She denied those charges.

‘GOVERNMENT OF INCLUSION’

Weah, 51, has vowed to form a “government of inclusion” in a
country still riven by divisions based on ethnicity, class and
political affiliation, but opponents have criticised his lack of
political experience and education.

“It boils down to the team he puts together. He needs people
with integrity and skill to implement change,” said political
analyst Robtel Neajai Pailey.

“He needs to focus on two or three things. He can’t do it
all — that would be impossible,” Pailey said.

Vice President Joseph Boakai conceded defeat to Weah on
Friday, urging his supporters to rally behind the
president-elect. But Boakai’s supporters remained sceptical.

“It is a bad thing that Weah was elected,” said Victor
Smith, an IT consultant “He lacks the experience. He never gave
a platform. He doesn’t have the skills to be a leader.”

Besides a tweet he sent out after results were announced on
Thursday, Weah has yet to address the public. His press team
says he has been busy taking congratulatory calls from world
leaders.

On the domestic front, the hard work will begin soon.

On Thursday, Johnson Sirleaf announced plans to immediately
form a joint presidential transition team to coordinate the
transfer of power and ensure Weah receives regular national
security briefings.