Former international football star George Weah was sworn in on Monday as president of Liberia, vowing to combat corruption and bridge divisions between the rich and poor in the African country.
“It will be my task to lead this nation from division to unity. I will not let you down,” he told a crowd of thousands of exuberant supporters and regional presidents and dignitaries crammed into a stadium in the capital, Monrovia.
"I fully believe that the overwhelming mandate that I received from the Liberian people is a mandate to end corruption in public service; I promise to deliver on this mandate," he said. "As officials of government it is time to put the interest of our people above our own selfish interests. It is time to be honest with our people."
Weah, 51, rode to a landslide run-off victory last month on the back of heavy support from young people and the poor.
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.
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.
Weah, who has been a senator and run for Liberia's presidency before but is relatively new to national politics, inherits a weak economy along with poor health and educational sectors.
"I do not promise you quick fixes or miracles. Instead my pledge to you today is that my administration, with your help, will make steady and deliver progress toward achieving the hopes and aspirations that you cherish in your heart for Mama Liberia," 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.
After Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor, Sr., swore in Weah, Liberia's flag was lowered and folded to signify the end of the presidency for Sirleaf, who stood with Weah on a raised platform. A new flag was unfolded and hoisted to signify the start of Weah's new administration.
This is Liberia's first peaceful transfer of power from one government to another in more than 70 years.
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.