Liberian President and former international football star George Weah announced Monday that he would run for a second term in October, rejecting mounting criticism that he is out of touch with a population facing steep price rises and food shortages.
“My fellow citizens, I will be coming to you shortly to ask you to renew… for a second time the mandate that you gave me six years ago,” Weah said in his annual State of the Nation address.
Weah pledged “a mandate of opportunity, a mandate for transformation, a mandate for development”.
He also defended his first term, saying: “Let me assure you that the state of our nation is strong. The state of our nation is stable… The state of our nation is peaceful and secure. We intend to keep it this way.”
The election is slated for October 10 in the West African country, which is still recovering from back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that killed some 250,000 people.
It was also ravaged by an Ebola pandemic and the nation of five million people, one of the poorest in the world, has been hit hard by the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
About half its people live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures.
Weah came to power in 2018 after winning an October 2017 election, capitalising on his iconic status acquired after becoming the first and only African to win football’s most prestigious individual award, the Ballon d’Or, in 1995.
The 56-year-old was absent from Liberia for more than a month late last year, prompting criticism.
He went abroad at the end of October for a string of political gatherings in numerous countries — and to watch his footballer son represent the United States at the World Cup in Qatar.
Weah had shared pictures and video of himself with his son in Qatar on Twitter, speaking of being a “proud daddy” as the US national team qualified for the knockout stages.
But images of Weah enjoying himself in the stands in Qatar — where he was a “guest of honour” — while Liberians struggle did not go down well with many compatriots venting their anger on social media.
– Liberia on ‘autopilot’ –
The opposition denounced what it saw as the president’s globe-trotting between Qatar and international summits in Morocco, Egypt, France, Monaco and the United States, with former vice president Joseph Boakai saying Liberia was “on autopilot”.
“We continue to witness other acts of poor leadership, irresponsible behaviour, lack of concern, impunity, and wanton misuse of our finances,” the Unity Party heavyweight added, suggesting that others could have represented the country in Weah’s place.
Until December 8 the president was not seen in his homeland, where people have been battling soaring prices and shortages of basic goods.
The day before, several hundred Liberians had demonstrated peacefully at the call of opposition groups to denounce Weah’s alleged incompetence and indifference to the plight of ordinary Liberians.
Fighting corruption had been one of Weah’s major campaign promises, but in September he accepted the resignations of three close allies after the United States accused them of corruption.
Weah had initially suspended the men from their roles after Washington imposed sanctions on them over allegations tied to multimillion-dollar contracts and at least $1.5 million in diverted public funds.
Graft remains endemic in the country, with the watchdog Transparency International ranking Liberia 136th of 180 countries in its 2021 corruption perceptions index.
Founded as a colony in 1822 by former US slaves, Liberia became a republic 25 years later — Africa’s first.