Ex-footballer Weah cleared to stand as election campaign kicks off

Campaigning kicked off on Monday for Liberia's first election since the end of its bitter civil war, with 22 people from former footballers to ex-rebels to veteran opposition leaders vying to be chosen president in the 11 October poll.

The National Elections Commission (NEC) cleared the former captain and coach of Liberia's national soccer team, George Weah, to stand as a presidential candidate over the weekend, dismissing a complaint over his citizenship.

Rivals had called for Weah, the first African to win the prestigious World Footballer of the Year, to be disqualified from the race, saying he had adopted French citizenship whilst playing soccer in France from 1989 to 1999.

Critics point to Weah's lack of experience in the political arena, but he is wildly popular among Liberians, especially the youth who have latched on to his success story as a counterpoint to the 14 years of civil war in which they grew up.

"The evidence addressed by the complainants is not sufficient to prove the dual nationality of... George Weah to render him ineligible to contest the 2005 elections as presidential candidate," the NEC said in its ruling, a copy of which was obtained by IRIN.

The 38-year-old former footballer who is now head of the Congress for Democratic Change welcomed the ruling.

"I am happy about the decision taken by the NEC because those people who brought this case against me did not know what they were talking about in the first place," he told reporters.

Since a peace deal in August 2003 ended 14 years of civil conflict, Liberia has been run by a transitional government, composed of representatives from all the main warring factions and civil society.

The presidential and parliamentary elections in October are designed to seal the West African country's transition back to democracy and Liberians are eager for that new chapter to begin.

"We are happy that after fighting among ourselves for 14 years, we are now going to elections that will decide the future of our country. Gone are the days of war," said Mulbah Kpawilly, a 30-year-old unemployed resident in the capital, Monrovia, where political party stickers and posters have started springing up.

Second bid for presidency for Johnson-Sirleaf

One of Weah's main rivals at the ballot box is likely to be veteran opposition politician Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of the Unity Party, who finished a distant runner-up to former president Charles Taylor in Liberia's last elections, held in 1997 during a break in the civil war.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hopes it will be second time lucky

Johnson-Sirleaf served as finance minister in the government of President William Tolbert in the 1970s and went on to become regional head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Africa before throwing herself back into the domestic political fray.

Allies of former president Taylor -- who has been in exile in Nigeria for the last two years but is widely accused of meddling in Liberian politics from afar -- have scattered in all directions.

Some have defected to Johnson-Sirleaf and Weah, others have branched out to mount presidential bids of their own and some have stayed with the ex-president's National Patriotic Party (NPP).

The NPP has picked Roland Massaquoi, a one-time agriculture minister and senior Taylor strategist, to run on its ticket in October. His choice was controversial, with some party members saying Taylor had made telephone calls during the nomination process to influence the voting.

Charles Brumskine, the deputy head of the Senate for part of Taylor's rule before falling out with him, is bidding for the presidency on behalf of the Liberty Party, while Nathaniel Barnes, who served as Taylor's finance minister, is standing as the candidate for the Liberian Destiny Party.

Several of the warlords who fought Taylor are also throwing their hat into the electoral ring.

Sekou Conneh, the leader of the main rebel movement Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), whose advance on the capital in 2003 helped force Taylor into exile, is running for the Progress Democratic Party that he formed this year.

And Alhaji Kromah, who led the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) that was one of the key rebel groups during the first half of the civil war, is also standing. Kromah came third in the 1997 elections.

Too many candidates?

With many Liberians complaining that there are too many people running for political office, alliances have started to be made.

Varney Sherman, a corporate lawyer and friend of Liberia's current interim leader Gyude Bryant, is standing as president on behalf of the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia, which brings together four political parties.

1.3 million Liberians have registered to vote in October's elections

The electoral commission said there were a total of 22 presidential candidates and 22 vice-presidential candidates.
There would be 206 candidates campaigning for 30 seats in the Senate, and 512 people would be competing for the 64 seats in Liberia's lower house of parliament, the commission said.

Election officials said they had rejected the nominations of 17 people -- five presidential candidates, three vice presidential candidates and seven would-be contenders for the lower house.

"Reasons for rejection ranged from the failure to submit applications by some... candidates to signature requirements not being met," the NEC said in a statement.

Campaigning runs until 9 October but a ban on public demonstrations, imposed last week, has yet to be lifted.

Some foreign diplomats as well as Liberians have expressed concern about whether the losers in the October polls will accept the verdict delivered by the 1.3 million voters.

The 1997 elections delivered Taylor to power, with many people voting for him out of fear he would restart the war if he lost the poll. But his government failed to invest in national reconstruction, idle and impoverished ex-combatants were sucked back into fighting and civil war resumed in 2000.

"Liberia now is not prepared to vote for any former warring leader as president. We experimented with that in 1997," said student Arthur Paykue.

This time around there is a 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force on the ground, who have been in the country for the last two years helping with Liberia's post-war transition. And residents hope that will be enough to deter the losing sides in the October elections from returning to violence.

"These elections are about our future," said Mary Nimely, a market vendor in her 50s. "Whoever wins, we want all those that lose to work with that person to make Liberia better."