MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Liberian President George Weah conceded defeat late Friday after provisional results from this week’s runoff vote showed challenger Joseph Boakai beating him by just over a percentage point.
Elections officials said that with 99.58% of ballots counted from Tuesday's election, Boakai was in the lead, with 50.89% to Weah’s 49.11%. The results were a dramatic reversal from the election six years ago when Weah easily beat Boakai in the second round.
“The Liberian people have spoken and we have heard their voice,” Weah said in an address to the nation, adding that Boakai “is in a lead that we cannot surpass.”
“I urge you to follow my example and accept the result of the elections,” he said, adding that “our time will come again” in 2029.
The concession speech given even before official results were announced in Liberia comes at a time when there have been growing concerns about the decline of democracy in West Africa. The region has seen a spate of military coups over the last several years, including one earlier this year carried out in Gabon in the aftermath of a presidential election.
Weah said he had “the utmost respect for the democracy process that has defined our nation.”
The 57-year-old former international soccer star won the 2017 election after his promise to fight poverty and generate infrastructure development. It was the first democratic transfer of power in the West African nation since the end of the country’s back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that killed some 250,000 people.
But Weah has been accused of not living up to key campaign promises that he would fight corruption and ensure justice for victims of conflict.
Tuesday's second round lived up to expectations of an extremely tight contest following the first round last month in which Weah got 43.83% of the votes and Boakai 43.44% to move on to the runoff. Boakai later managed to win endorsements from the candidates who finished third, fourth and fifth.
Boakai, 78, served as vice president under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female leader. He appeared to have an upper hand in the vote because of the many Liberians aggrieved over the unfulfilled promises of Weah to fix the country’s ailing economy and stamp out corruption, said Ryan Cummings, director of Africa-focused Signal Risk consulting.
The outcome of the second round so far shows “public disaffection with his (Weah’s) administration with Boakai considered a viable alternative for a lot of Liberians,” Cummings said.
Weah is the only African to have won international soccer's Ballon d’Or. He played as a forward for Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, Chelsea and Manchester City during an 18-year club career. His 23-year-old son, Tim, now plays for Serie A club Juventus and the U.S. national team.
Associated Press writers Chinedu Asadu in Abuja, Nigeria and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.
Mark M. Mengonfia, The Associated Press