After bearing witness to years of civil war and the devastation of the Ebola virus, the youth of Liberia can scarcely remember a time when their country was not in crisis. Now young people are stepping into a rebuilding process that aims to create a stronger state. The photographer Hugh Kinsella Cunningham found a nascent beauty industry exists in Monrovia to cater for this generation, and fashionable youth can be seen asserting their image, reflecting pride and hope for their country and culture
It was not the first time George Weah had packed out a football stadium, but perhaps it was the most significant.
Liberians queued for miles to see the inauguration of the former footballer as their new president, celebrating their country’s first peaceful, democratic transition of power in 47 years by dancing as they waited.
Expectations are sky-high for Weah, who grew up kicking a ball about his poor suburb of Monrovia and became an international star and Liberian hero through a distinguished football career at Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, winning the Ballon d’Or and Fifa’s world player of the year.
“I have spent many years of my life in stadiums but today is a feeling like no other,” Weah, dressed in white and mopping his forehead with a handkerchief, told an ecstatic crowd at Samuel Doe football stadium in Monrovia. “I have taken an oath before you and before almighty God. Rest assured I will not let you down.”
It was a moment Weah had been anticipating for more than a decade: he first ran for president in 2005, but lost to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank executive who became Africa’s first female head of state. In 2011 he ran as Winston Tubman’s vice-presidential candidate but they again lost out to Sirleaf.
“This victory would not have been possible without the youth of this country, the women of this country who made their living selling in the market,” Weah said. “This is your government.”
More than half of Liberians live in poverty, and it was these people who filled Weah’s rallies and turned out to vote for him, full of hope that his charmed life might somehow rub off on theirs.
“People believe George Weah has the magic wand,” said Ibrahim al-Bakri Nyei, a Liberian political analyst.
Bakri Nyei said Sirleaf had used her “remarkable leadership” to rebuild Liberia’s image and protect free speech and freedom of association, but her weakness in fighting corruption had been the downfall of her Unity party.
“People voted against the Unity party because of its failings on the economy and on fighting corruption,” he said. “The majority of George’s supporters are people living in squalor, in slum conditions. Communities are thinking that everything will be transformed, that they will have equal opportunity, better education, better healthcare. They see in George someone who is close to their life situations as he came from a slum community.”
In his first speech as president, Weah played to the gallery on corruption. “The way to directly affect the poor is to ensure our resources do not enter in the pockets of government officials. I promise to deliver on this mandate,” he said.
Sirleaf herself admitted last year she had failed to tackle corruption, blaming her defeat by what she had called “public enemy number one” on the “intractability of dependency and dishonesty cultivated from years of deprivation and poor governance”. Her popularity was further eroded by accusations of nepotism for appointing her sons to top government positions.
After 12 years in power, surrounded by west African presidents and dignitaries in dark glasses, Sirleaf was dwarfed by her gold and red velvet throne. To her right, on another but decidedly inferior golden throne and wearing a sunhat, sat Joseph Boakai, her vice-president; to her left sat Weah.
Weah and Sirleaf chatted together, but she appeared not to say a word to Boakai, whose presidential campaign she refused to support.
“Looking over the horizon I see a new era,” a boy in a shiny blue suit and red bow tie propounded with a theatrical flourish as Weah and Sirleaf looked on, adding that Weah promised “hope for every Liberian child, whether rich or poor”.
Beyond Weah’s own life story, Liberians have reason to believe their lives are about to be dramatically improved: Weah has said so repeatedly. Last month he vowed that “transforming the lives of all Liberians is a singular mission and focus of my presidency”.
VIPs futilely flipped their programmes to keep off the heat. African presidents including Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana were in attendance, but South Africa’s Jacob Zuma pulled out at the last minute, sending his water and sanitation minister instead.
Speaker after speaker took turns at the podium in a stadium named for another president who came from humble beginnings. Samuel Doe, who took power in 1980 in a military coup, also tapped into a seam of frustration at the failure of the ruling elite to improve the lot of the people, but his rule was dictatorial and autocratic, said Bakri Nyei.
“Doe took over through the barrel of a gun … but George worked his way through from a soccer career,” he said.
As she sold soft drinks to Weah fans, Nymah Kollie, a 28-year-old mother of two, said she wanted the new president to help local businesses and improve education for her children. “I want the [exchange] rate to come down so we will make profit and send our children to school,” she said.
Liberia’s two bloody civil wars have been over for long enough that most analysts do not foresee a resurgence of violence, but the new government does not represent an entirely fresh start. Side by side with Weah was his vice-president, Jewel Howard-Taylor, the former wife of the warlord and former president Charles Taylor, who is serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes in Durham prison.