Rodney D. Sieh, the recipient of numerous press freedom awards around the world for his bold and courageous journalism, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Liberia’s biggest-selling independent newspaper and website FrontPage Africa. Under Sieh’s leadership FrontPage Africa has set a new standard for journalism in Liberia with groundbreaking reporting that has brought down senior government figures and exposed corruption at all levels.
His latest book, George Weah, The Story of Africa’s Footballer President – An Unofficial Biography, now an Amazon bestseller, tells the gripping story about the rise of George Weah, one of the world’s greatest football icons and how he came to the decision to run for the Liberian Presidency, the challenges he has had to deal with since his election in 2017 and the many missteps that have dogged his reign since transitioning from footballer to president.
The book which paints a complex picture of Liberia, a nation which was founded by freed African American slaves, gives readers insight into the current challenges of a country that is still dealing with the ashes of a brutal civil war and its transition to democracy.
Journalist Bankole Thompson, the executive dean and editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, whose endorsement of the book appears on the back of the cover has been invited to serve as the moderator for the launching of the book in Washington D.C. on Saturday, April 1. He spoke with Mr. Sieh for the institute’s Encounter Series which features diverse leaders and public figures who are shaping society across the global spectrum.
PuLSE: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
RODNEY SIEH: I hope readers will walk away gaining a clear understanding about the subject, George Weah and how he defied the odds as a former world best footballer to become President of one of the poorest nations on the face of planet earth. More importantly, I hope the subject himself will appreciate the research, the work and effort put into this project and see it not as an attack on his personality or his governance lapses, but as a learning tool.
The book goes to great length in highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly of a man who, from all indications is not flawless but rather complicated in the sense that his government, which ran on a pro-poor agenda and on the backs of a youth movement, is still struggling to deliver on numerous fronts.
I was able to interview several former colleagues who played with him, traveled to places he played in a bid to unravel what I believe is one of the best books out of Liberia for years. There are a lot of explosive discoveries, some he may like, others he may not. But overall, I wanted to present an objective and honest picture of how this man came from the slums of Gibraltar, rose to become a world best footballer and now, perhaps realizing the difficulties of heading an entire country, far removed from his playing days on the football field.
PuLSE: How important it is for you to chronicle the current president of Liberia in the context of what is happening in Liberia right now?
RODNEY SIEH: It is very unusual for a journalist or author to write about a sitting president in Africa – and this presented a challenge for me.
We have seen in countries in the West where this is done and where heads of state are open to the idea. But this wasn’t the case. Finding the right people to interview, in a society where many are afraid to talk out of fear of offending the President. I had to do a lot of convincing to get people to talk. Even the President himself was unwilling, thus the Unofficial Biography
Despite the challenges, I felt the story was important enough to explore. Five years ago, I had no idea this would come to fruition. I was having lunch in Washington, DC with my friend, Helene Cooper at The New York Times, who is also a Liberian, and she thought it would be a great idea – and I should consider it. The finish product is what you see now.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that I wrote the book because Liberia is heading into an election year and thus, I’m capitalizing on what is about to unfold. The fact of the matter is, this is what makes journalism great, it gives us the ability to dissect, to analyze and to go into subject matters that defy the norm.
Regardless of how the upcoming election plays out, the book will stand the test of time, it will offer an opportunity for Liberians and the rest of the world to take a deep look into a country with a rather complicated history, a country that has gone through some turbulent times and not still struggling to continue its transition from war to peace, and successful democratic transitions.
PuLSE: There has been a clarion call for true democracy in Africa, which includes respect for the rule of law and the need for a free and independent press to be a model around the world. Do you think the book will ignite those conversations around democracy on the continent of Africa?
RODNEY SIEH: I am really hoping it does because there have been so much chatters about democracy in Africa, so many nations have gone to war over the lapses in judgement by rulers and leaders that continues to cause heartache and chaos for those languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder.
It is only through political discourses that these issues can be highlighted. It is important for Liberians to understand what’s at stake in the upcoming elections. This is why discourse is necessary. We’re talking about a country where debates are not encouraged in the buildup to elections, where candidates rarely appear before constituencies to face the grilling of voters about their intentions for them, their expectations, and platforms, if any.
We’re talking about a continent were leaders are elected on a patronage system, where poverty has blinded the poor and neglected, and forcing them to settle for bags of rice and money in exchange for their votes.
We’re talking about a nation where politicians manipulate voters into turning in their voting cards for money, pile them in pickup trucks and carry them to cast their votes. Sadly, this has been Liberia’s history, a history of one-party dominance for more than a century resulting in a bloody coup d’etat on April 12, 1980 that ended decades of Americo-Liberian rule.
We’re talking about a nation engulfed in a class system that is unending. Today, the same country, which accused Americo-Liberians of political dominance is now largely dominated by the indigenous. Sadly, the country remains entrenched in corruption and bad governance. The President, the Vice President, the head of the Senate and the lower house of the national legislature are all from the indigenous background but the politicians there are doing the very things that led to the execution of twelve members of former President William R. Tolbert’s government. This is why the circle of impunity continues to linger and Liberia continues to remain poor, sadly to its own detriment.
PULSE: And the challenges of the media under the George Weah administration?
RODNEY SIEH: Definitely, the book goes to great length to explore media challenges under the Weah administration and how it draws similarity to other countries on the continent. Part of what makes the book great is that it highlights the level of intolerance exhibited by President Weah, even before he became president. We live on a continent where journalists are often subject to intimidation and threats. Most times brought on by sycophantic followers behind leaders or rulers like Weah, who prey on his vulnerabilities that their support enhances his distrust of the media and growing levels of intolerance.
What many people fail to realize is that, the lack of good governance and intolerance to opposing views are among the primary reasons countries go to war. By highlighting those issues in the book, it offers the perfect opportunity for Africans to put governments on notice.
PULSE: What do you want the American public to know about contemporary Liberia, given the country’s historic relationship with the United States?
RODNEY SIEH: Liberia and the United States of America share a historic bond, one which goes back for more than a hundred years. Often, many Americans have misconceptions about Liberia and its people. It is my hope that this book dispels much of that and Americans will get to understand Liberia, under President George Weah.
It is important to note that Liberia’s history has been a recurring theme of bad governance, corruption and greed by its leaders and the US has been at the center of it all, pumping in millions of dollars in aid to governments which have failed to make it matters to those struggle at the bottom of the barrel. Nevertheless, the country remains rich in resources, an unheralded tourist haven that is yet to be transformed to benefit the country.
PULSE: Last year was the Bicentennial of the arrival of the first free Black Americans to Liberia. How important is that history in the context of your book?
RODNEY SIEH: I tried my best to draw a lot of what’s happening now in the context of Liberia’s rugged past. Readers will find out that much of what is happening now, have similarities to the past. For example, as far back as 1871 during the reign of Edward James Roye, issues of corruption were prevalent.
Roye served as the fifth president of Liberia, from 1870 to his overthrow in 1871 and subsequent death. Roye was removed from the presidency on October 26, 1871, in what some allies called a coup d’état. Exactly 108 years later, the April 12, 1980, coup took place. So, as you can see, the pattern continues and this is why it was important for me to put many of these historical issues into context.
PULSE: Your book is going to be read by foreign policy wonks in Washington D.C. and international aid experts focused on Africa, other parts of the developing world and Liberia in particular. How should they receive this book?
RODNEY SIEH: I want many in the international community to see this book as a cautionary tale in regard to what many African countries experienced over the years and are currently going through. It is important for donors to assist countries like Liberia but they must also ensure that the monies donated either through grants or loans trickle down to the poor and needy. It is important to take away the fact that Liberia, after hundreds of years of independence remains one of the continent’s most troubled nations with so much potential at its disposal.
PULSE: Do you expect this book to be a factor in the coming Liberia presidential election later this October?
RODNEY SIEH: As a journalist, it is a good thing to see stories making an impact. However, my hope is for Liberians to see beyond the book being a tool against the re-election of President Weah, but one that speaks to the heart of Liberia’s never-ending problems. Why the mistakes continue to recur, what can leaders do differently to make meaningful impacts on the country at large and to improve the lives of their people. How leaders can avoid the trappings of power and the pitfalls associated with sycophantic followers singing their praises to their own detriment.
This has been one of the recurring themes of bad governance that is crippling not just Liberia, but Africa as a whole. The October elections, in my view should be a referendum on governance lapses and voters should demand accountability and responsibility and hold candidates’ feet to the fire to ensure that the circle of impunity ends once and for all.