By D. Zeogar Wilson, BSc, MSc
Former Assistant Youth & Sports Minister for Administration, former Goalkeeper of Mighty Barrolle and the National Team, Lone Star
Liberians woke up on the morning of December 24, 1989 to the news that there had been an incursion through our borders with La Cote D’Ivoire.
There were mixed reactions to this news. Some saw it as another Qweewonkpa type invasion and others felt this could be more than just that. As time went by, it became apparent that this was a serious matter as the news of internal and external displacements of Liberians begun to spread.
As the news of deaths and destruction were being reported by international news organizations like the BBC, Liberia, the oldest Independent Republic in Africa was headlined in many capitals around the world. The carnage, the deaths, the displacements and destructions were everywhere. Liberians and the world at large were astonished by the level of violence taking place before their eyes.
With all the bad news headlined around the world, there was something positive taking place about Liberia that the bad news had overshadowed; George Oppong Manneh Weah. George was making headlines in Monaco, France as a young and upcoming soccer star from Liberia. George pondered for days and months on what he could do to portray a positive image of his motherland, Liberia. He watched on television the displacement of his countrymen, he saw the deaths and destruction to his country and was in total disbelieve of what was happening. Through his struggle to find a course of action he could take, two stood up. One was what he could do to assist his fellow compatriots who were displaced in refugee camps in La Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana and Guinea.
The second was what he could do regarding the National Soccer Team’s continental engagements. George remembered that our Late President, William R. Tolbert, Jr. used the 1979 Six Nations Tournament to foster peace between Senegal and Gambia. He came to a quick realization that he could do something to portray a positive image of Liberia to help defuse the negative image as a result of the civil war.
Many Liberians in the refugee camps in these countries can attest to the level of assistance they received from the generosity of George and I need not delve into that further. George’s love for the game of soccer cannot be overly stated. He is compassionate and loves the sport without question. George quickly made contact with FIFA and CAF to find out what he could do to facilitate Liberia’s participation in continental competitions. As these discussions progressed, both institutions made George aware that Liberia was indebted in back dues prior to the civil war and the amount had increased since the conflict. Being the patriot he is, Ambassador Weah decided to put his country in good standing with both FIFA and CAF thereby clearing the way for Liberia to participate in continental competitions by paying over Two Hundred Thousand of his personal funds. Let me now provide you my readers some notable examples of his patriotism to his country and fellow Liberians.
The Diadora Contract
George’s contract with Diadora would have ended in 1996 and Diadora expressed the desire to renew his contract. Ambassador Weah would renew the contract under one condition; that Diadora signs a sponsorship contract with the National Team to supply jerseys and sporting equipment for the 1996 African cup of Nations in addition to a cash contribution and it didn’t matter if that would have reduced the cost of his renewal with Diadora. Diadora agreed and George renewed his contract. Diadora provided the jerseys and sporting equipment for the competition plus $50,000 in cash for the Lone Star for the African Cup of Nations.
FIFA’s Assistance through Adidas German
As Liberia prepared for the 1996 African Cup of Nations and other continental matches, the issue of sporting equipment and jerseys for other continental and preparatory matches would be a challenge. George contacted me at the Ministry of Youth & Sports and requested that I write the FIFA Undersecretary for Sports and request for sporting materials for Lone Star.
I said to him that FIFA would not deal with government at that level, don’t you think? He responded; just kindly write the letter Mr. Minister. I did as requested. George received a call from the Undersecretary about my letter and to inquire whether he was aware and George said yes. Two weeks after the call, Adidas Germany delivered over $100,000 worth of sporting equipment and jerseys to his home in Italy for the Lone Star.
April 6, 1996 War
As Liberians began to put their shattered lives together, no one expected another war. On April 6, 1996, Monrovia was engulfed with another devastating war and again there was internal displacement of our people.
Liberia was scheduled to play Gambia in Banjul and FIFA made contact with George to find out whether Liberia would participate and without hesitation and knowing what was happening, George said yes. He immediately made contact with his friend for many years, Mr. Adna Aldridge, on Bushrod Island and asked him to make arrangements for him to speak to the Late Wilfred Lardner (Tegane), who was then the coach of the National Team and myself.
TJ got in touch with me and I drove across the bridge through Paynesville to Bushrod Island. George called and said to me “Mr. Minister, I have told FIFA we will play in Gambia and all I want you to do is to kindly make sure you can get the team to Danane, La Cote D’Ivoire.” The Late Wilton Sangawolo was then the Chairman of the council of states. I wrote him a letter as Acting Minister of Youth and Sports because the Minister and his deputies had fled the country.
My request was for $2,000USD to facilitate the travel of the team from Monrovia to the border. I received a response through Mr. Reginald Goodridge, then Press Secretary to Councilman Charles Taylor that the government could not afford that amount at the time because there was no access to the finances because of that war. No one could get to Broad Street by then and the government was being run from Charles Taylor’s home near the Nigerian Embassy.
I galvanized the funds and chartered a bus belonging to former Lone Star player, Mr. Jonathan “Boye Charles” Sogbwe. The players and technical staff were transported from Monrovia to the Loguatuo border in Nimba County. We arrived in Danane and I booked the team in a local hotel without payment, only by telling the receptionist at the hotel that this was George Weah’s team and he would pay. The receptionist was very excited and asked will you make me talk to George? And I said yes. I immediately made contact with George and the first question he asked “Mr. Minister, is the team in Danane?” I said yes and he became speechless for a moment. He was overjoyed and said “Thank you Mr. Minister, I will handle things from here”. The team stayed in Danane for a week practicing in preparation for the match against Gambia. The team traveled to Abidjan by bus and was camped at the Grand hotel for another week before flying to Banjul, Gambia for the match. The cost of our hotel in Danane and Abidjan as well as the cost of
travel to Gambia were all at the expense of Ambassador George Oppong Weah.
After the match which we lost 2-1, George instructed me to take the team back to Abidjan and remained in camp at the Grand Hotel until our return match in Accra, Ghana in two weeks because FIFA had selected Ghana for our home games due to the declining security condition in our country.
During the match in Ghana, George chartered three buses for Liberians on the Buduburum refugee camp to go to the game and paid for their entry as well. After the game in Ghana which we won 4-0 to qualify, George took the local players and technical staff to Jamaica for a month just to relax their minds in preparation for the other games in the qualifying rounds.
Chartering of an Air Ivoire Plane to Zaire
The Lone Star of Liberia was scheduled to play Zaire in Kinshasa in 1997. The government of Liberia provided a Weasua Propeller Plane to take the National team to Zaire through La Cote D’Ivoire to pick up George and the rest of the professional players. We arrived at Abidjan airport that evening on a Saturday, the day before the game. Government officials on this plane were the late Francois Massaquoi, Minister of Youth & Sports, Messrs. Lewis Brown and Emmanuel Lomax, both of the defunct Transitional Legislative Assembly, TLA. I got off the plane and walked to George and other professional players including James Debbah, Kelvin Sebwe, Joe Nagbe, Oliver Makor, etc. on the tarmac. I greeted them and told them to get on board for the continuation of the journey to Zaire. George looked at me and said “Mr. Minister, are you serious?” and I said yes. He furthered “don’t you value your life?” I responded, what do you mean? He said “I am not riding a Weasua Propeller plane to Zaire. My insurance is not covered by th
at plane.” I asked what do we do? That was the means of travel the government provided for the team. George said “I can charter a plane for the trip if the government can guarantee my reimbursement.” I went back to the plane and told the then Minister Francois Massaquoi and he said consider it done. I wrote the note and he signed and George chartered the plane.
As the news spread through Abidjan that George had chartered a plane to transport the National Team to Zaire and the team departs on that Sunday morning, Liberians flocked to the airport in anticipation of getting to George to put them on the plane. What I admired about this situation was that, George told his fellow Liberians that he was just the captain of the National team and any decision to get on the plane was a decision for the authorities on board but not his.
One month camping of the National Team in 1997 as the Lone Star prepares to play Algeria in Ghana, George decided, in consultation with the Ministry of Youth & Sports and the LFA, to camp the local players in Banjavie, La cote D’Ivoire at his own expense to allow the players concentrate well for the game. The government of Liberia was responsible to transport the National Team by bus to Ghana from La cote D’Ivoire for the game. The Saturday before the game, the government failed to provide funds for transporting the team to Ghana. George was upset and disappointed. He said to me “D Zoe, this is not fair.
This is demoralizing for the players.” He said further “we will forfeit this game because I am not spending a dime again.” I looked in his eyes and they were red and almost at the point of sharing tears. He walked away and went to his apartment on the camp and I went to mine.
I knew I was one person he would listen to, but I was not prepared to talk to him because I was also embarrassed as an official of government. By 8:00 P.M. that Saturday night, the phone rung and it was George. He said “Mr. Minister, are you sad? Come let’s drive to the city to visit a friend.” I got up and went to his apartment on the camp and we drove to town. We went to the home of a lady and her family. He introduced me to the lady and her husband. We sat for about 20 minutes; they spoke French and we left with a box. When we got back to Banjavie as I got down from the car, he said “Mr. Minister, take that box with you.” I asked what for and he said “that is 2 million CFA for the team to travel tomorrow to Ghana and other cost. The bus will be here by 6am and you will have to pay. I stood dumbfounded and he looked at me, laughed and drove off along with Sylvester Williams, Carica, what a patriot.
Contribution to the University of Liberia
George has always had a passion for education; even if he himself did not acquire much he was willing to encourage others to pursue their education. In 1998, he purchased and shipped to Liberia a-35-seater bus for the University of Liberia and I presented that bus on his behalf to the University of Liberia administration.
Contribution to the SUP government
In his continued effort to assist needed students with their education, Amb. Weah in 1999 contributed $3,000USD to the scholarship program of the SUP led Government of Augustine Kpehe Nguafua. This amount was hand delivered by me at my home on the Smythe Road to the then President, Mr. Nguafua.
These are the best of my recollection of Senator George Oppong Manneh Weah during the civil war, the man I have known for over forty years, his story I know is the story of a true patriot and indeed George is the Patriot I know.