RURAL LIBERIA: For 18 days, beginning February 12 and ending March 2, President George Manneh Weah and a sizable entourage of government officials and supporters of Government descended on the countryside, caravanning through villages, towns and cities of six counties—Bong, Nimba, Grand Gedeh, River Gee, Maryland and Grand Kru.
Elected December 2017 and inaugurated January 2018, the President who won 65 percent of the national suffrage had not returned to the populace to thank them for the overwhelming mandate of national leadership the people entrusted into his care. Twice he did postpone leaving the capital, the seat of power, over critical concerns, including the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. But, finally, on the morning of February 12, amid resources constraints and hails of opposition censures, President Weah mustered the courage, parked his luggage firmly, swarmed by throngs of officials and supporters, and set out from Monrovia into the woods where 80 percent of the national population resides.
With Monrovia’s heightened propaganda fervor raging, and following a relatively unimpressive showing at the polls in the just-ended midterm senatorial and other bi-elections, some pundits, and perhaps the visitors themselves, were of the view that there would be dispassionate welcome and hospitality from the rural populace who had not seen the President they elected three years ago.
But it seemed the rural masses of Liberians needed not to see the President in person to appreciate all he had done for them and the nation at large before according him and his entourage their unreserved hospitality and affection. Because, before stepping out of Monrovia for the first time to show face in the hinterland, and in mere three years of his first term, the President had already touched many lives, putting a lot of smiles on the faces of countless communities and villagers.
Whether it was in Sonoyea and Kokoya in Bong, or Saclepea and Bahn in Nimba, or in Peleken in Grand Gedeh, or in Kanweaken in River Gee or Sasstown in Kru Town, President George Manneh Weah’s first nationwide tour in the countryside was not just about thanking the rural people for electing him; it was not only about a leader dedicating a horde of projects and breaking grounds for many impactful fresh initiatives; it was also largely about an immensely gratified people showcasing their incalculable love and solidarity for a caring, down-to-earth president.
Impressive, Colorful Welcome
The rural populace’s demonstration of appreciation and gratitude for the President and Government during the tour reached competition proportion, leaving independent observers who closely followed the presidential caravan into the countryside still struggling to compare figures and sizes of crowds as to determine the scale of winners amongst all six counties. Every county from Bong to Grand Kru, through Nimba, Grand Gedeh, River Gee and Maryland, copiously clamored to welcome and celebrate the President and entourage; they did all they could to show they were the best in terms of hospitality and solidarity.
There were some observers who maintained, and rightfully so, that the six-county tour didn’t seem to be the normal, traditional welcome for presidents and VIPs visiting interior people. The show of affection and solidarity displayed can be measured not only from the voluminous sizes of crowds, the banners the people displayed, songs they sang, and the slogans they chanted; it also seemingly flowed from the depth of clear hearts as shown by the tears of joy some of the masses shed, and the odd hours some remained awaked not to let the president pass by without seeing him off and welcoming the entourage.
As the presidential caravan moved from cities of counties through villages and towns, there were not only welcome signs fresh and visible all over the place; there were also throngs of locals, including kids, youth, women and the elderly, on hand clamoring to see and meet the president, signing their hearts out and chatting, “George Weah! George Weah! George Weah!” Where night caught up with entourage as they cruised on, swarms of villagers were still awake even up to 8pm to 11pm by roadsides in frenzies of welcome celebrations.
There were reports that, in many cities and towns visited, unofficial holidays were declared by the citizens themselves who did not want to leave the interactions and welcome activities with government officials and partners alone. It was said the citizens carried out self-mobilization in a bid to form a full part of ceremonies.
In Bong County, which was the first stop, students and young as well as women and older folks lined the tarmac highway from the borders with Margibi to the capital Gbarnga. Even veering from the main highway to outlying villages and town, such as Sanoyea, Kokoya and others visited, the presidential visitors bumped into crowds of locals waving banners and posters and singing and chanting pro-Weah and pro-government slogans.
That was the case for all of the counties. Nimba, already highly populated, demonstrated its strength in numbers to extremity. Whether it was in Ganta, or Sanniquillie, or Bahn, or Saclepea, and many other towns and hamlets of this second populous province in the country, the people jostled; streets were jammed; the crowds of locals ballooned in ecstasy of celebratory welcome, with local entertainment centers and music sellers playing pro-Weah and pro-CDC music to deafening pitches.
For the people of Grand Gedeh who consider President Weah their own son owing to the special bond that had existed between the President and former President Samuel K. Doe (for the former President’s love and support underpinned the current president’s stardom in football), the situation was an epic triumphant return home. Grand Gedeans and those residing in their borders put up a show that many were asking if even the dead were risen to join their kinsmen in the tsunamic welcome and celebration of the President’s welcome.
As the presidential convoy moved deep in the woods of the Southeast, and that is the ancestral region of the President, the entire trip took on a new look rooted in familial (biological parent-and-son) spirit and solidarity, thus defining the nature, strength and size of the welcome ceremonies. In Rivergee, Maryland and later Grand Kru, as was witnessed in Grand Gedeh, the clamors and stampedes to show love and care became tenser and more obsessive. Groggy with emotions, some shed tears, and many spoke tersely.
Building Relations, Giving Back to Communities
But, as one observer put it, the trip was not just about the incredible display of hospitality and affection for the president and entourage by the locals; it was also strongly about both the visitors and hosts exchanging or sharing perspectives on how peace can be maintained, national unity fostered and development and poverty-alleviation programs cascaded.
Ideally, the President was not in any rush to cut off meeting schedule or shorten any meeting time during the tour. He made the entourage spent not less than two days in any of the counties visited, and he did not limit his sojourn in the counties to their capital cities. He moved to major outlaying towns, spent a day or two as to provide amble time to engage with the locals.
Holding town hall meetings was one of the engagement strategies. The town hall meetings provided the locals adequate time to voice out their concerns and to prop the president on things they wanted clarified. It also allowed the President to debrief the citizens on government’s development achievements since his ascendency and initiatives in stock for the people in the coming months and years.
During the myriad engagements with the citizens, the President had the time to sermonize peace and unity, and accentuated the need for the locals to conduct themselves peacefully and strive to unity and harmony. He told them development and transformation which everybody seeks will be impossible to achieve in the absence of peace and harmony.
And rather spontaneously, the Liberian leader address most of the heartfelt concerns of the locals if not all, putting smiles on the faces of the needy, including indigent women, physically challenged people, chiefs and zoes. He also responded positively to institutional requests such as supports to schools and hospitals.
Pressed by conditions facing Liberian rural people, both those expressed by them and those seen physically by him, President Weah just could not hold back the urgency needed to do something.
On the spot with conversation with the people, the President relieved hundreds of people, proving and/or promising to provide, for instant, vehicles and motorbikes for the physically challenged, chiefs and elders. He instructed the appropriate agencies to commence building decent housing for those living in shanty huts, providing solar lights for towns in darkness, constructing feeder roads for those disconnected as a result of bad roads, or commencing building or renovating clinics, hospitals, schools, city halls amongst other things.
In all, the trip was a rare nationwide tour of a Liberian president, something that took instant and short-term benefits for the long marginalized rural people and communities, gave the president the clearest firsthand insight of situations rural Liberians face, thus increasing his response mindset and capacity and harnessing a strong bond of relations not merely between Monrovia and the rural parts but also between him and the rural masses.