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Liberian soccer hero kicks off bid for president  

Liberian soccer star George Weah started his campaign to become the next president of a country ruined by 14 years of war with some fairly basic promises: get the water running and turn on the lights.
Picture taken 07 July 2005 shows former
Former football star George Weah, left, and Roland Massaquoi, a former minister in the government of exiled President Charles Taylor, during a reception gathering of presidential candidates for the Liberian election at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia on July 7. Afp / AFP/Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Liberian soccer star George Weah started his campaign to become the next president of a country ruined by 14 years of war with some fairly basic promises: get the water running and turn on the lights.

Weah’s presidential bid may have shocked Liberia’s political elite but his plain speaking is making him wildly popular in a country trying to get back on its feet after one of the most brutal conflicts in Africa’s modern history.

“You can trust me because I know you and you know me,” the former international soccer player told a crowd of thousands late on Tuesday as he launched his campaign for the October presidential election.

“We must rebuild our infrastructure. We must put our children back in school. Our farmers need ways to transport their goods and our people need relief from perpetual darkness,” he said in the crumbling capital Monrovia.

Battered country
The coastal city, besieged by rebels who randomly lobbed mortars on houses, churches and bridges before a 2003 peace deal put an end to civil war, has been without electricity or running water for more than a decade.

Squatters live in the burned out concrete shells of government buildings while power cables slashed during the war hang lifelessly from pylons dotted along potholed streets.

Weah was born in 1966 into a family of 12 children and grew up in a Monrovia shantytown. He went on to play soccer for major European teams such as Monaco, Paris St Germain, and AC Milan and is regarded as a rare success story untainted by links with former warlords.

His supporters are mostly young men in baggy jeans and basketball shirts, who nonetheless make up a significant part of the electorate in a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under 29 years old.

“Weah is a hero of the common people. He has clean hands, he has no stigma of corruption,” said Daniel D’Chea, 27, an engineering student, as a reggae band chanting political slogans launched into song.

Mass support
Supporters mobbed Weah’s jeep as he arrived outside his party headquarters. Security guards wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Battle Cry” cleared his way to the stage.

A group of around 50 young men carrying a banner reading “Value Boyz Inc.” — slang for street vendors who sell everything from mobile phone cards to cigarettes — marched through the cheering crowd.

Weah won huge roars as he promised education for all, new roads, new hospitals, “zero tolerance” on corruption and transparency in managing the country’s big mineral and timber reserves — which for more than a decade helped fund the war.

But his opponents say his career as a sportsman and his lack of higher education make him woefully underqualified to run the country. Some fear trouble among his youthful supporters if he loses the polls.

“He is so popular there are traffic jams every time he moves. If the results come out and he has not won, the results are not true,” said Cupid Saygbe, a 38-year-old businessman.

Crowded field
Liberia’s electoral commission has cleared 22 hopefuls for the October 11 election polls including veteran opposition politician Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, former rebel leader Sekou Conneh, and former minister Roland Massaquoi, regarded as a protege of exiled former president and warlord Charles Taylor.

The unofficial slogan among supporters indifferent to Weah’s lack of schooling is, “He know book; he not know book; I’ll vote for him," a rewording of Taylor’s infamous slogan in the 1997 election: “He killed my ma; he killed my pa; I’ll vote for him”.

“We need someone who can get the water going and turn on the lights,” Gabriel Baccus Matthews, a popular former foreign minister told Reuters. “You don’t need a PhD to do that.”