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Soccer Star Leads Liberian Presidential Race


In the second in a series profiling the leading presidential candidates in Liberia's upcoming polls, our West Africa Bureau looks at ex-international soccer star turned politician George Weah. Though tabbed as the favorite in next month's vote, Mr. Weah continues to face doubts over his qualifications.

Hundreds of enthusiastic Liberians pack into a marketplace in the capital Monrovia, waiting for the arrival of the man many expect will be Liberia's next president.

George Weah has been on a whirlwind tour of post-war Liberia, driving across a country without electricity or running water in a shiny Hummer four by four.

The millionaire soccer star, who was chosen as international player of the year in 1995, is trying to translate his success on the field into a political campaign that he hopes will put him in the president's mansion.

Many analysts are placing him as the favorite among a field of more than 20 candidates. That, many say, is due to people like this man at the Monrovia rally, who says he has had enough of a Liberia marked for decades by recurring civil war and rampant corruption.

"You see, we have suffered too long! You see, the past war caused a lot of criminality, made people scatter here and there. By the grace of God, he will be the president of our country."

Mr. Weah has been campaigning on a ticket that promises to get the country back on its feet. Among other things, he says, if elected, he will ask the U.N. peacekeeping mission currently operating there to stay, at least through the end of his first term.

"The basic necessities, when its there, then people can know there is hope. You know where you bring light and water to people and assure them you are going to do something," Mr. Weah says. "But, of course, after a war, it is not easy to just move like that."

In the country's last election in 1997, Liberians elected rebel leader Charles Taylor. Many had hoped voting into power the man responsible for much of the killing would put an end to the civil war. But fighting resumed when new rebel groups attempted to topple Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Weah, who left his homeland in the 1990s to pursue his sports career, is one of the few candidates running for president never to have been involved in the politics of the conflict. His message, he says, reflects that.

"It is time for the world to get together for a better place, for a better place for our children, for the generations to come. Because all we see is people dying everywhere through war and insurgency," Mr. Weah says. "I think its time to stop all that."

Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most of its infrastructure has been destroyed. Unemployment tops 85-percent.

The job of getting the country back to pre-war levels will be enormous. And Mr. Weah's critics say the task requires more than a sports star.

But a researcher with Lieden University's Africa Center in the Netherlands, Stephen Ellis, says Mr. Weah's image as a political outsider is perhaps his biggest asset as a candidate.

"It is precisely his lack of experience which makes him attractive to many Liberians, because George Weah does not bare any of the responsibility for the horrible events of the last 25 years," Mr. Ellis says.

But expatriate Liberian social commentator George Fahnbulleh says even Mr. Weah's meager qualifications, which include a stint as an honorary ambassador for UNICEF, have been overblown.

"Mr. Weah's popularity is due to the fact that he is a soccer player, okay, that is it. He is a soccer player," Mr. Fahnbulleh says. "I hear the commentators inflating Mr. Weah when they address him as Ambassador Weah. Look, Angelina Jolie is a U.N. humanitarian ambassador. She does not run around the world calling herself Ambassador Jolie."

Mr. Fahnbulleh says, he fears Mr. Weah's political inexperience could lead him to be manipulated by others, an eventuality, he says, that could drag the country down even further.

Liberia's first elections since the end of fighting are currently scheduled for October 11. Liberians will be voting in the first round of the presidential race, as well as choosing members to a new parliament.

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