By James Giahyue
MONROVIA (Reuters) – George Weah, the former international soccer star who won the presidency of Liberia last month, promised a crackdown on endemic corruption as he was sworn in on Monday in the country’s first peaceful change of power in seven decades.
Thousands of exuberant supporters and regional presidents and dignitaries crammed into a stadium in the capital, Monrovia, to watch as Weah, who rose from the city’s slums to become one of Africa’s greatest footballers, took the oath of office.
As a former AC Milan and Paris St Germain striker and 1995 world player of the year, “King George,” as his fans call him, was no stranger to having crowds cheer him on in packed stadiums.
But he noted the huge hurdles ahead as he succeeded Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
“It will be my task to lead this nation from division to unity. I will not let you down,” Weah told the crowd.
Weah, 51, rode to a landslide run-off victory last month on the back of heavy support from young people and the poor.
Making his speech in flowing white African robes, he promised to deliver on his key campaign promises, especially tackling the malfeasance that his predecessor is widely seen as having failed to address during her 12 years in office.
“It is my belief that the most effective way to directly impact the poor, and to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor is to make sure that public resources do not end up in the pockets of government officials,” he said.
Founded by freed American slaves, Liberia is Africa’s oldest modern republic. But it has been plagued by years of unrest and bloodshed, including two civil wars that were notorious for their brutality and use of child soldiers.
Johnson Sirleaf, who was constitutionally barred from running again, was credited with shoring up peace but criticized for failing to tackle graft or do much to lift Liberians out of poverty.
In a nod to his opponents, Weah sought to turn the page on what was a bitter election battle, delayed for months by legal wrangling but which did not descend into bloodshed despite hot tempers on all sides.
“We must not allow political loyalties prevent us from collaborating in the national interest,” he said. “Blood should never be the price tag for democracy. … This transition was achieved by … (the) democratic will of the Liberian people.”
But Weah will also have to manage expectations, which are sky high following his win.
“Today is a great day for me and my country. I expect job creation and development,” said Agnes Echoing, deputy director of Liberia’s lottery authority, seated in a wheelchair.
The ceremony was attended by the presidents of Gabon, Ghana, Togo, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Congo Republic, Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso.
Later on Monday, Weah’s office released a statement saying that several officials, including the ministers of education and internal affairs as well as the head of the national police force, would maintain their posts until further notice.
All other agencies and ministries will be managed by the government’s director of human resources.
The head of the military, Major General Daniel Ziahnkan, was retired and will serve as defense minister, subject to Senate confirmation.
(Additional reporting by Alphonzo Toweh; Writing by Joe Bavier and Tim Cocks; Editing by Ed Osmond and Peter Cooney)