Liberia's Peaceful Election Was Remarkable, but New President George Weah Must Keep His Promises

Liberia's protracted presidential election came to a climax this week, with new president George Weah's inauguration on January 22.

Although candidates challenged the result of the first round and the supreme court stepped in twice to resolve the litigation, the political actors committed themselves to rule of law throughout the process. The remarkably peaceful transition we saw this week is momentous for the Liberian people and businesses seeking stability.

Liberia scored a milestone with the ex-footballer's election considering the country's history of political conflict. That said, the incoming Weah administration inherited deficits in human and physical capital that will take plenty of political will and leadership strength to fix.

Top challenges include providing much needed infrastructure and stemming the economy's reliance on aid and remittances, which make up a third of the GDP. Global prices of Liberia's two main exports, iron ore and rubber, remain below pre-2014 levels and local businesses are struggling with the weakening Liberian dollar pushing prices up as imports grow more expensive. The double-digit inflation that's persisted since November 2016 has also put more pressure on incomes amid high unemployment.

In addition to these fiscal strains, there's a wide gap in infrastructure, mainly in terms of roads and electricity.

Liberia has only about 800 kilometers of paved roads out of 10,000 kilometers. Last year, fringe candidates such as Alexander Cummings struggled through muddy roads to access voters in the countryside, while Weah and his main opponent Joseph Boakai sometimes bypassed that by helicopter.

Futhermore, less than 5 percent of citizens have access to electricity, mostly in the capital Monrovia.

Liberian President George Weah
Liberia's outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (L) listens to Liberia's President-elect George Weah, during Weah's swearing-in ceremony on January 22, 2018 in Monrovia's stadium. To the cheers of a crowd fired by his promise to bring them jobs and prosperity, former football star George Weah was sworn in as president of Liberia on January 22, completing the country's first transition between democratically-elected leaders since 1944. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

One of outgoing president Johnson Sirleaf's legacies is improving democratic institutions as exemplified by the recent election, but her administration is also widely accused of corruption. For instance, in 2016 a Global Witness report said U.K. mining firm Sable bribed senior government officials, such as national security chief Fombah Sirleaf (Sirleaf's stepson), in order to influence a change in the country's concession laws.

Nepotism is rampant in Liberia's bureaucracy, with decision-makers hiring relatives to key positions. That's why Weah's campaign rhetoric about tackling government corruption was one of the main factors that endeared him to the young Liberians craving for a change.

In 2013, the international community noticed Liberia's education crisis when all 15,000 students seeking admission into the University of Liberia failed the entrance test. Even the then-president Sirleaf admitted that the education system was in a mess.

Liberia has one of the highest percentage of out-of-school kids in the world―less than 40 percent finish primary school―and overhead gulps more than 80 percent of the education budget.

In January 2016, the Sirleaf government began privatizing the management of public schools to drive enrolment and improve performance, but the impact of the experiment is still being evaluated.

Liberia elections
People celebrate in the street after the inauguration of Liberia's new president on January 22, 2018 in Monrovia. To the cheers of a crowd fired by his promise to bring them jobs and prosperity, former football star George Weah was sworn in as president of Liberia on January 22, completing the country's first transition between democratically-elected leaders since 1944. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

All this points to a need for government efficiency marked by decisive policy-making.

However, the concern is that the Weah administration will be limited by weak policy-making based on the evidence from his political record and connections with his predecessor.

Weah has run for president twice since 2005 and has been a senator since 2014, but he has put forward no major legislation in parliament or articulated a clear policy direction yet, although his campaign promises (e.g. free education) suggest a populist inclination that will be tested by the realities of governance.

It also looks unlikely that Weah will probe the Sirleaf administration or roll back existing programs given that he talked about building on the gains of her government, and received her tacit support for his presidential bid.

His tough talk about anti-corruption will mean stepping on toes and investigating allies close to Sirleaf, some of whom helped him become president and who maintain close relations with him today. Meanwhile, capital investments will be hinged on export inflows while reforms to diversify the economy take time to materialize.

It is safe to anticipate more continuity than change given this background, but what is certain for now is that Liberia has made progress with its democracy and has laid the stepping stone for further national development.


Adedayo Ademuwagun is a country risk analyst at Songhai Advisory, a bespoke business intelligence consultancy focusing on investments in sub-Sahara Africa. Follow him on Twitter.