By Akeem Soboyede
The news about George Oppong Weah’s election as president of Liberia was an especially pleasant one to round-off the outgoing year.
However, perhaps unknown to many of the young supporters whose votes propelled him to victory during the country’s recent run-off election, Weah’s road to Liberia’s impressive Executive Mansion was beyond unpleasant, and one paved with rivers of blood.
Let us start from April 12, 1980, when a segment of the country’s armed forces launched a coup in the early hours of that day and butchered the-then incumbent president, William Tolbert. The especially bloody coup, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, was justified—and inspired—by the utterly clannish argument that it was time for the “indigenous Liberians” to take over “their country” from freed black American slaves who had been transported to Liberia to start a colony in their home continent. Ever since those first slaves settled on Liberian soil—a settlement that took on greater urgency after the end of the American Civil War in 1865—peoples of the indigenous tribes whom the freed American slaves met there ceaselessly fussed about how the newcomers completely dominated all facets of life in the new territory and wielded unlimited political power and influence.
All that ended on that bloody day in April 1980, when soldiers who hailed from the “indigenous” tribes of the country invaded the Executive Mansion in the early hours of the morning and not only shot then-President Tolbert (an “Americo-Liberian”, like many members of the ruling class in the country then) to death but also disemboweled him.
For those who want to get a clearer picture of this much-regrettable era in Liberia, I suggest they google the name “Cecil Dennis” and also “you tube” the term “execution of Liberian former leaders”. I believe the first picture that will come up of Dennis is that of a soldier pointing a gun at him during his public execution only a few days after the 1980 coup, just minutes before the Liberian Foreign Minister was shot at the stakes in a very notorious public execution, along with other members of William Tolbert’s government, including the dead president’s brother, Frank, who was only days before then President of the Liberian Senate, and the country’s Minister of Justice, among other top officials. Dennis’ very public death—let’s say murder—along with those other Liberian “men of power” up until that point was even more emblematic: just a few months before his execution picture, he had met former US President Jimmy Carter in the White House and, years earlier, erstwhile President Gerald Ford, also in the American seat of power.
The violent deaths of the Tolbert brothers, Dennis and other members of the “Americo-Liberian” ruling class in Liberia eventually led to a series of unfortunate events that turned the entire country into a giant river of blood; in December 1989, less than ten years after Doe’s coup, Charles Taylor invaded the country to launch a rebellion against Doe’s government. Curiously, Taylor had been one of the few “Americo-Liberians” that had supported Doe’s coup and had indeed served in his government. But he had fallen out with Doe after the latter (of all people!) accused him of corruption and hounded him out of the country. The bloody sequel to Taylor’s act of rebellion was the infamous Liberian Civil War—even “wars”—in which a plethora of individuals and characters became etched in the worldwide imagination, through newspaper and cable news headlines / stories that dutifully chronicled the carnage in that country. For those of us who worked in Nigeria as journalists at that time, two of those names, Krees Imodibie and Tayo Awotusin, continue to be etched in our collective memories: they were journalists who crossed into Liberia just a few weeks after Taylor’s invasion started, to cover the events, and then got cut down in its fierce cross-fires.
We also all watched on video as troops belonging to the armed faction of Prince Yormie Johnson very early on in the Liberian Civil War captured, tortured and killed President Samuel Doe, with the garish spectacle of Doe’s ears being cut off on camera while he lay squealing on the floor still the stuff of many nightmares. It also did not do Liberia any good that it became the country of drug-crazed child soldiers, massacres of internally-displaced refugees who had sought protection in churches and other places of worship, along with other demonic indignities.
Through the Liberian ordeal that spanned from December 1989 to at least April 2003 when Charles Taylor was forced to give up the power he had seized over the corpses of many Liberians (anyone remember the campaign chants of “He Killed My Pa. He Killed my Ma, But I will Vote for Him” that preceded Taylor’s election as Liberia’s President in 1997?), one man stood out as the beacon of light and hope in Liberia: George Oppong Weah. While Johnson, Taylor and others of their ilk were either preoccupied with the “herculean tasks” of drawing and quartering Samuel Doe or raping, slaughtering and dehumanizing their fellow Liberians, George Weah was making waves on the world soccer stage—and generating positive publicity for Liberia. The trend continued after he joined French club Paris Saint-Germain in 1992, winning the French Premier League title with the club just two years after, in 1994, and topped the goal-scoring charts during PSG’s UEFA Champion’s League run in 1994-1995.
But Weah was not done with his great run of generating positive news about himself and his beloved Liberia: in 1995, he joined the Italian Seria A Club, AC Milan (at a time the Italian Seria A was the best soccer league in the world to watch, not the English Premier League, as is now the case!), making such an immediate impact that at the end of that year’s campaign, Weah dribbled off with the highest award in the world of professional soccer, FIFA’s Ballon d’Or (yes, the same ones won later by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, soccer’s top superstars today).
I am equally not surprised that the votes of Liberia’s youth (those usually in the 18 – 49 age demographic) propelled Weah to power in the recent Liberian run-off presidential election. In the desperate years of the country’s very bloody and bitter civil war, when despair ruled the land and the country epitomized everything wrong with the African continent and its leadership cadre, only George Weah and his exploits on the world stage comforted many Liberians. Through the soccer star’s extraordinarily-individual efforts, many Liberians inside and outside the country fervently believed the best in their country and in its future potential as a stable and self-sufficient land in the comity of nations, not a warring laughing-stock of disparate tribal interests, as another African country—Somalia—has remained, despite the fact that its civil war started just about the same time as the one in Liberia.
Even more impressive, especially in retrospect, Weah actively embraced his people and country during their darkest days. While his fame grew well beyond Liberia and encompassed the whole world, the soccer star in turn continuously embraced his beleaguered countrymen without hesitation. Weah stridently made calls for peace among the warring factions during Liberia’s Civil War, while also urging the presence of peacekeepers that would impose a peace; the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, was believed to be a response to such calls. I also recall reading reports of Weah funding the expenses of Liberia’s national soccer team, the Lone Star, in those parlous times, especially the team’s international matches. This, in addition to his contributing large sums of money to assist displaced Liberians who had found refuge in other countries during the war, especially the country’s infamous former child soldiers.
I equally remember vividly when I started living in the US state of Minnesota in early 1999, a state that has a large Liberian expatriate community (largely because of the country’s civil war); many Liberians I encountered then would hardly talk about their country’s civil war nor its attendant and well-documented atrocities, however one tried to pry information about their personal experience out of them. But immediately one mentioned George Weah’s name, it was always as if Christmas came early, even in January! One knows the rest…
Just as George Weah put his beloved country on the world map in a very positive way at the same time others were thrashing it—in the name of crass personal vendettas, conduct steeped in deprivation-of-others, mayhem, murder, strange / satanic sexual escapades and quests, along with selfish political rivalries, to say the least—one implores him at this time to put the interests of all Liberians—whether Americo-Liberian or indigenous (which Weah is)—above those of himself and his “inner circle” of supporters. His country’s bitter past dictates this, as well as the grace and eloquence of conduct he had shown years earlier at the highest levels of world soccer, while entertaining millions and uplifting Liberia at the same time.
The ascendance of 51- year old Weah (he shares the same birthday with Nigeria, incidentally) to Liberia’s Presidency is also a lesson to others on the African continent that they must truly give Africa’s youth a chance at leading their countries, and not stymieing same under the chimera of the-youth-continuously-growing . The latter attitude only encourages and engenders the unfortunate recycling of politicians in their 70s, 80s and even 90s (as in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe!) who aspire to and then seek return to offices and positions in which they have barely delivered on past promises, while relying instead on discredited and dangerous practices and policies of the past that only deepen the despair of citizens they falsely profess to love or care about.
Maybe, just maybe, Weah’s historic election is what African countries need to start making a meaningful impact in the comity of world nations.
* Soboyede is a former Editor with THISDAY Newspapers in Nigeria and a US-based attorney