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At the court of King George

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

In 2005, I went to Liberia to interview George Weah, the ex-footballer, who was a candidate for presidency. Liberians elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf instead. But in 2017 George Weah was elected the president of Liberia. My piece was published in The Telegraph. 

TIME passes slowly at the court of King George. There is shade, thankfully, under the awning beside the swimming pool, where petitioners wait. It's still hot and noisy, because this is Liberia, west Africa, where electricity and running water have not been available since 1990 and where even King George has to get his power from a loudly cranking generator.

Even kings cannot instantly fix 15 years of civil war and a wrecked country - unless they become president. That is why George Weah, known to all Liberians as King, local boy-made-good and 38- year-old retired football superstar, is running for the highest office in the land, in elections next month. He might just win.

Weah's "court" is a surprisingly modest house, hidden behind razor-wired walls on an unpaved road north of Liberia's capital, Monrovia. The house is not impressive, but the name of the road - Ambassador Weah Ave - is.

It has taken three months of phone calls for me to get here, because, though Weah's supporters claim he lives in Liberia full- time, he apparently was in America (where his wife and three children live), Paris and Rome.

I am allotted only 30 minutes by his officious Chief of Protocol.

Apart from Charles Taylor, the country's deposed former president, Weah is the only Liberian most non-Africans will have heard of, thanks to a glorious career as a striker for AC Milan, Paris St Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City. Ask any fan about Weah and they will remember his Wonder Goal from 1996, the year after he was voted World's Best Player

He took the ball from one end of the pitch to another in the 90th minute and scored for AC Milan - 14 seconds, 14 touches. His life story has been no less extraordinary. Born in 1966 in the Claratown slum area of Monrovia - his father a mechanic, his mother a street vendor - he was brought up by his grandmother. He played football barefoot on dirt streets. He left school to work as a switchboard technician before being recruited by Cameroon club Tonnerre, then by Europe's finest.

He reportedly earned $4 million from his winding-down contract in the United Arab Emirates before retiring. For all this and more, Liberians venerate him as King George. He made Liberia famous for something other than civil war.

Weah eventually turns up, walking unhurriedly. Known for speed and strength as a footballer, he's still an imposing figure, those trademark features - shaven head, goatee and bulging eyes - stony as he waits for my first question.

So, what kind of president would he be? "I will be a noble president. I am a noble man. I will be a noble, virtuous president," he says.

Those are fine words but, faced with the challenges of fixing a failed state, nobility does not go far. For example: 15 years of civil war so brutal rebels used to string the intestines of their victims across roads to make checkpoints; mass rape and looting; a post-war situation of 100,000 unemployed ex-combatants, dozens of unpunished warlords and a severely traumatised population. There are bad roads, hardly any hospitals, impoverished schools and about a million people - out of a population of 2.3 million - who still are displaced.

This must be the most thankless presidency in the world. Weah, however, thinks he can handle it. "I would sign a treaty with the international community that we would be transparent. They will see a government that stands for the people, that we have noble people," he says.

For half of our 30 minutes together he talks in this vague way. When I ask him about impunity - a huge problem in a country awash with ex-warlords - he says: "If you are guilty, you will be charged," thus sideswiping all sorts of deeply complex issues such as truth and reconciliation, post-war reconstruction and the like.

When he is not vague, he sounds coached. "We have a crisis of participation, accommodation and distribution," he says.

I don't understand this the first time I hear it, nor the second, when it is repeated word for word at a 2000-strong rally later that day in the suburb of New Kru Town.

New Kru Town is filled with Kru people, one of Liberia's 17 tribes and the one Weah was born into. It is a nearly automatic powerbase, but he still has to charm them. In the eyes of commentators, he's one of three serious candidates in a field of 53. "I've done only good for my people," he tells the New Kru Town rally. I've met those who agree. He has been a comfort to Liberians during times of war.

"I remember when the bullets were flying," a Liberian journalist tells me, "and I'd go to a friend's house and watch Weah on satellite. It was a release."

More practically, Weah funded the national Lone Star team, providing kit and plane tickets for them to fly to games. He kept doing so even after 1996, when, as a result of Weah saying publicly a United Nations protectorate might be a good idea, Mr Taylor sent his militia round to the Weah house in Sinkor. They ransacked it and raped two of Weah's cousins but Weah kept coming back, first in a private capacity, then as a UNICEF ambassador.

Weah relaxes only twice during the interview. Once when he mimes putting a condom on an improbably large penis after I ask him about what his HIV outreach work actually involved, and the second, when he talks about his Wonder Goal.

He doesn't dwell on the subject of football for long. A conversation about Brazilian legend Pele switches suddenly from, "I was blessed to share a seat with him at FIFA level," to, "Do you enjoy Liberia?" I do. "Do you believe in Liberia's future prosperity?`' I do.

"What are things you want to happen to Liberia?' That Liberians fix their country, I say. He laughs and says, "Thank you very much."

Jacques Paul Klein, the UN's head in Liberia until May, has seen Weah do his UNICEF work. "He's great with kids," he says, and "he's a very decent man. But to be president of Liberia? It's very tough. I wish he'd stood back and found a ticket he could campaign for. I don't know if he has the intellectual capabilities."

He is not alone in doubting Weah's readiness for high political office. Kofi Woods, a Liberian civil rights lawyer, whom Weah asked to be his running mate in the current elections (Woods refused) has said, "I think someone who takes the presidency must not take it to learn. (There is) a crisis of leadership and it needs someone who understands already the depth of human suffering and the difficulties we are confronted with. There's no time for learning."

Weah admits he's had little schooling but his lack of education has in itself became a selling point. His supporters now shout, "Book no book, we will vote for him." The `book people', the educated elite, have failed them in the past, so why not try something new? When I ask Weah about his perceived intellectual shortcomings he is riled. "Education?" he says, "How do you define that, anyway? Education is to be noble. Education is to be comprehensive. I believe in my people, I'm productive in society, so that's my education!"

Rumours in Liberia say Weah is being duped for his money. Even his right-hand man, Sylvester Williams, says gloomily "the campaign's not going too well. There are some crazy people involved". Weah does not think he's being duped. He's not funding anything, he says: "The money is coming from the Liberian people" - even though 80 per cent live on less than 50 cents a day.

Weah's critics say he is vindictive. Some of that comes from his refusal a few years ago to play for Lone Star, because he claimed fans had insulted his mother. Lone Star failed to qualify for the World Cup and Liberians did not forget. "He can't take criticism," says a source close to Weah who prefers to remain anonymous. "If a journalist writes something he doesn't like, he takes it personally. You can't be like that if you're going to be president."

There are rumours Weah will stand down at the last minute and transfer his support to one of the other candidates. After all, he's said in the past he wasn't interested in being president. This time, however, he appears serious. If his hero Nelson Mandela can do it, why can't he? He talks like he's already elected.

"I'll only run for two terms," he says, "because I don't want to be a dictator. Liberia's problems can be identified and fixed. Trust me."

Next month, there is every chance Liberians will do that.

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