MONROVIA (Reuters) - Now that George Weah has emphatically won Liberia’s presidency, an even more daunting task awaits: delivering tangible benefits to expectant supporters in the face of a gutted economy and waning donor support.
Weah was met by hundreds of screaming supporters on his arrival at his party headquarters on Friday. Many have waited over a decade - since his failed bid for the presidency in 2005 - to see a man they consider their own come to power.
Those supporters come with high expectations that the former soccer star may have to carefully temper if he is to keep his widespread support, particularly among the West African country’s disaffected youth.
In a farewell address on Friday to the senate, where he has served since 2015, Weah struck a unifying note but steered clear of policy specifics, as he did throughout the campaign.
“We all are colleagues, we are Liberians. It is time for us to work together to move the country forward,” he said.
Weah, who grew up kicking a raggedy soccer ball on the dusty streets of the capital Monrovia’s Clara Town slum and later played for top European clubs, successfully tapped into dissatisfaction with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s 12-year presidency.
Johnson Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for helping secure peace after civil wars from 1989-2003, but she has been criticized over persistent poverty and corruption scandals.
The challenge of lending substance to vague campaign promises is steep in a country that ranks 177th out of 188 on the U.N. Human Development Index.
“People are expecting too much of him, but we know he will do us proud,” said Diane Fbarh, a 24-year-old accounting student as she waited for Weah to appear at his party headquarters. “I don’t think he will let us down.”
Chronic problems with electricity delivery leave most of the country without power and even downtown Monrovia is frequently in the dark. Much of rural Liberia is effectively cut off from the capital when summer rains flood the pitted dirt roads.
Liberia’s economy has been hit hard by a 2014-16 Ebola outbreak that killed thousands, low prices for its chief exports, iron ore and rubber, and declining foreign aid. Remittances from Liberians living abroad account for more than a quarter of gross domestic product.
The economy contracted last year and the International Monetary Fund last month lowered its GDP growth forecasts for 2017 and 2018, citing sluggish commodity prices and the drawdown of the country’s U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Johnson Sirleaf’s administration was also dogged by several corruption scandals. She suspended her son and 45 other government officials in 2012 for failing to declare their assets to anti-corruption authorities and faced accusations of nepotism. She denied those charges.
Weah, 51, has vowed to form a “government of inclusion” in a country still riven by divisions based on ethnicity, class and political affiliation, but opponents have criticized his lack of political experience and education.
“It boils down to the team he puts together. He needs people with integrity and skill to implement change,” said political analyst Robtel Neajai Pailey.
“He needs to focus on two or three things. He can’t do it all - that would be impossible,” Pailey said.
Final vote totals on Friday showed Weah with 61.5 percent of the vote. Vice President Joseph Boakai conceded defeat, urging his supporters to rally behind the president-elect. But Boakai’s supporters remained skeptical.
“It is a bad thing that Weah was elected,” said Victor Smith, an IT consultant “He lacks the experience. He never gave a platform. He doesn’t have the skills to be a leader.”
Weah’s camp said he spent much of Friday taking congratulatory calls from world leaders. In a statement on Friday, the White House congratulated Weah and called the election “a major milestone for Liberia’s democracy”.
On the domestic front, the hard work will begin soon.
On Thursday, Johnson Sirleaf announced plans to immediately form a joint presidential transition team to coordinate the transfer of power and ensure Weah receives regular national security briefings.
Additional reporting by Alphonso Toweh and James Giahyue; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Catherine Evans, Larry King