Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Johnson-Sirleaf or Weah?

In a few hours, Liberians vote for a president to take over from the transitional government which ended years of political unrest and civil war. The people will vote for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf or George Weah. There haven't been any elections this year that I've felt ambiguous about, until this one. UK general elections - Lib Dems, German federal elections - SDP/Greens, Iranian presidential elections - Hashemi Rafsanjani. I err on the side of socialists, liberals, and progressives, but the Liberian question is a tad complicated. Ellen Sirleaf is the Havard educated former World Bank and Citibank economist and politician. George Weah is the high school drop-out former world footballer of the year. Sirleaf seems the obvious choice, after all I sneered at Schwarzenegger in California, cringed at Bush in 2000 and 2004. In my not so humble opinion, both of them are intellectual lightweights, not enough grey matter between the ears to deal with the important business of governance. But what I've learnt from them both is that personalities (e.g. pint sharing appeal) and overarching visions (e.g. cutting taxes) win elections, but advisors run governments.

I'm very uncomfortable with Sirleaf's past support for Charles Taylor. There are some lapses of judgement that cannot be forgiven and supporting a warlord is one of them. When people are desperate for power they cleave to anything, including people who embody the things they hate about their immediate society. One doesn't have to be in political office to make a difference, especially in Africa where politics is a blood sport. Wanting to be in power sometimes means allowing blood to be shed, inadvertently or not. Politicians should be wary of this. Sound preachy? Well, it is.

My mama was gonna to go to Liberia with a contingent of Nigerian women to support the Ellen Sirleaf campaign. Obasanjo's government in Nigeria has created some kind of feminista movement for women's empowerment. A lot of the West's commentary on Nigeria's so called rejuvenation has highlighted the involvement of women in key decision areas - finance, solid minerals, due process etc. There's a lot to be said for women in position of power being a major catalyst for change, not in Nigeria alone, but across the continent. This is obviously a plus point for Sirleaf.

I've watched Weah for a few years. I enjoyed watching him at PSG and Milan, he was part of the Bosman era revolution that created international dream teams in football. More significant is the work he's done with UNICEF, and funding Liberia's football team during the civil war. But most impressive for me was his decision, in 2000, to intervene on behalf of a Channel 4 documentary film crew arrested on treason charges, and his work in disarming and educating child soldiers. He might not have a Harvard degree, but what more would he need to do to demonstrate commitment and ability? Personally breast feed every baby in Liberia?

Now we need a caveat. If the people vote Weah and he's hopelessly incompetent, what do we do? It means we've been taken in by populism, and the power of the satelite dish (Liberians couldn't know about his footballing exploits in Europe without it.) All democracies should have checks and balances, and this is where they should be used. Vetoes and impeachment, methinks!

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