Former World Player of the Year George Weah Running For Presidency of Liberia

MONROVIA Liberia (AP)- Liberians are flocking to the presidential campaign of a young international soccer star with little formal education and no political experience who pledges to lead his war-scarred country to peace and development after decades of despots.

Sure rival candidate Sekou Conneh a former rebel leader helped drive corrupt former President Charles Taylor into exile. And another hopeful Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has Citibank vice president and World Bank official on her resume. But George Weah was FIFA's World Player of the Year in 1995.

"As I look in your faces tonight I see that I am your future the 38-year old former Chelsea and AC Milan striker boomed to boisterous fans as he formally launched his campaign with an all-night rally earlier this week.

His supporters waved placards reading "Rescue Liberia Vote Weah."

Weah says if he wins his administration would focus on putting some 70000 former combatants to work. He also says he would lower the presidential term limit from six years to four.

Weah is among 22 candidates running in Oct. 11 elections overseen by nearly 15000 U.N. troops guarding the country's transition to democracy after the end of its 1989-2003 crisis.

Weah's opponents many with much-longer resumes of public service question whether a man with only a high school education is capable of leading this nation of 3 million out of its troubles.

Weah whose roots are in Monrovia's slums has a populist rejoinder: Liberians should look around at their crumbling roads ruined government buildings and refugee camps and ask whether the elite that held power for so long has the answers.

"Politicians have been up there and the masses have been down for many years. It is time for the masses to go up Weah told The Associated Press in an interview.

"With all their education and experience they have governed this nation for hundreds of years Weah said. "They have never done anything for the nation."

In a deeply impoverished country where only about half the adult population can read his lack of advanced degrees may be a boon.

"Degree holders where are you? Weah is already in the (presidential) mansion his supporters chanted at the election rally.

Freed American slaves resettled on Africa's West coast founded Liberia in 1847 making it Africa's longest self-governed republic.

The former slaves adopted the lordly manners and dress of their former masters and disenfranchised the local people whose lands they claimed.

A caste system was born. Descendants of the settlers known as Americo-Liberians were at the top and more than a dozen indigenous ethnic groups like Weah's Kru were at the bottom. Today Americo-Liberians are about 3 percent of the population _ and deeply resented by many of the rest.

Americo-Liberians alone prospered until President William Tolbert was overthrown in 1980 in Liberia's first coup carried out by indigenous Liberians.

In 1989 a charismatic young warlord named Charles Taylor educated _ and once imprisoned _ in the United States led a small armed band of cohorts into Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast.

Taylor son of an Americo-Liberian father and indigenous Gola mother fought government troops and his own former allies in a savage multi-fronted battle that killed 150000 and ruined nearly every countryside hamlet. In 1996 West African intervention forces quelled the fighting.

Taylor won elections in 1997 but he ruled harshly and another insurgency including many former Taylor allies erupted in 2000. By July 2003 fighting raged in the capital Monrovia.

Under heavy international pressure Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria in August 2003 and a peace deal and U.N. force were quickly implemented.

Liberia's postwar caretaker Chairman Gyude Bryant is to cede power to a democratically elected president in January. About 1.3 million Liberians have registered to vote hoping they're finally at the doorstep of lasting peace and that peace will be the key to prosperity.

Weah's ascent from Monrovia's slums to the heights of international soccer resonates with the aspirations of many Liberians and they crave his leadership.

Others though question whether Weah's soccer stardom makes him fit to run the country.

"This football legend in my opinion should not be misled into continuing his presidential bid said John Kehler a 38-year old university student. "He's quite inexperienced for the job. This is not a popularity contest."