By Jonathan Power
It was late 2003, the Liberian war was winding down after taking the lives of 250,000 civilians, spawning a small army of deadly child soldiers, and I was sitting at lunch in Monrovia inside the president’s palatial office and residence with the American ambassador on my right and George Weah, Fifa’s World Footballer of the Year, on my left.
When I introduced myself to the ambassador he made it clear he didn’t want to talk. He wasn’t happy having ended up with a journalist next to him. Every 15 minutes an aide would rush up to him with the latest news on the fighting. We could hear the sound of rifles cracking. I asked him if he was nervous. He ignored me. But Weah was more than ready to chat.
“What brings you to Liberia?” he asked. “I’m a journalist for the International Herald Tribune”.
“That’s a great paper. I used to read it when I lived in Paris and Milan. How did you get here?”
“I flew in on Obasanjo’s plane. (The president of Nigeria). What do you do?”
“I’m a professional footballer”.
“Oh, I don’t know much about football. I prefer cricket.”
It took a long time for the penny to drop. Later, friends had to tell me I’d been talking to one of the greatest footballers of the world. The eleven-year-old son of a friend even today re-plays some of his matches on U-tube. Last week Weah won the election for president of Liberia. He enjoys phenomenal popularity especially among the poor in the urban shantytowns in which he grew up. He has spent a substantial part of his own fortune to put thousands of children through school and to pay the traveling costs of the national football team. He won a handsome 60% of the vote.
Weah was one of the silent but influential peacekeepers that President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria was depending on to change the political climate. Obasanjo, the most astute of all African presidents, had forged a peace by luring President Charles Taylor to a luxurious house in Calabar on the Nigerian coast.
No questions were to be asked about his hidden wealth. It was a quid pro quo for Taylor abandoning Liberian politics and also the politics and wars of Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast in which he was the chief gunrunner, diamond smuggler and stirrer up of mayhem. Taylor was arguably the most brutal of all the warlords that Africa has produced. He had his war-lord predecessor as president tortured to death on camera.
Liberia, the country carved out of West Africa by freed slaves returning from America, has long been one of Africa’s poorest. The retiring president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state (and Nobel Peace prize winner to boot) has done a lot to right the ship after decades of civil war. But there is a long way to go before normality will be the country’s everyday condition. Power is still almost non-existent outside the capital, the health care system is in pieces following the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the schools are manned by teachers who have no training.
Despite the slow economic and social progress, Liberia has taken to democracy. It was a sober election with no ballot stuffing, intimidation or demonstrations and a graceful concession by Weah’s opponent.
I recall Obasanjo’s speech at the lunch at which I met Weah. “You must forgive each other- the only thing that can bring peace is love.” Obasanjo was a fervent Christian. I looked around the large dining hall. It was full of ex-murderers in dark suits and ties. But something rubbed off and with Ms Sirleaf at the helm, Liberia has progressed without violence or without locking up those opposed to the new dispensation.
As for Charles Taylor, he is now serving a 50-year sentence in a British jail, having been convicted by the Sierra Leone affiliate of the UN’s International Criminal Court. He thought Obasanjo would honour his deal. But as I discovered in conversation on his plane back to Nigeria that time, Obasanjo had some reservations and caveats from the beginning. One was if Taylor broke his promises- like not keeping in touch with his old warlord pals- the deal was off.
After nearly three years of living in exile, Taylor picked up some vibes that he had made Obasanjo angry. One night he got into his Land Rover and drove to the Cameroon border. But Obasanjo’s soldiers were waiting for him.
In Liberia, there was an audible sound of relief from high and low. Their country could not be threatened again. They could not be threatened again. People smiled. People forgave. People worked. And George Weah is now running to kick the ball. I suspect that although it is a long kick it will go straight into the net.
Jonathan Power was an International correspondent for the International Herald Tribune for 17 years and currently reviews books for the New York Times.