Liberia: BFF CEO Enlightens African Audience on Use of Sports For Peace & Development

Soccer star George Weah and student Augustine Arkoi in 1996 in Seoul, South Korea

Monrovia –The President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Better Future Foundation (BFF), Augustine Arkoi, has given multiple perspectives on how sport, as an institutional and identity necessity could be used by young people to promote peace, religious harmony, and social change in Africa.

Serving as a panelist at the 1st Education through Sport Summit in Africa held from April 3– 6, 2021 in Casablanca, Morocco, Mr. Arkoi stressed that sport is not only a strong agent for social change and development but also an effective medium through which feuding communities in Africa and beyond can reconcile their differences and work together for development, peace and harmony.

At the Summit which had as its Theme: “Unlocking the potential of African youth through the power of sport,” Arkoi recalled how during Liberia’s back-to-back civil war that spanned more than a decade, heavily armed warring factions would seize fire temporarily at the battlefront whenever Liberia’s national soccer team – the Lone Star, played against another country’s national team.

The BFF CEO further told the forum, which was held in a hybrid way (partly digital and partly presentational), that Sport for Change is a strong formula that BFF and its partner organizations in Liberia continue to use as a formula and a cross-cutting mechanism in all of their peace-building and development programs, stressing that “Sport is like water that does not discriminate as everyone needs it for survival and sustainability.”

The summit was interspersed with many activities including a Sports Education Hackathon, TIBU STEM Festival, using sport as a lever for learning science, technology, engineering and maths, an S4D Grassroots festival which took place in 54 countries of Africa simultaneously, as well as conferences, workshops, and training articulated around 4 themes: “Girls and women in sport; Innovation in sport; Sport for development; and Sport for social change.

The BFF Founder, who is also a leading Liberian civil society campaigner and activist spoke on the sub-theme “Social Change through Sports” and drew examples locally from BFF-Liberia’s perspective and his personal experience, showing the link between sports and social change.

In this connection, Mr. Arkoi historicized that in a bid to foster a harmonious community living in Paynesville district and elsewhere on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia’s Capital, the Better Future Foundation, Inc. (BFF), organized a two- day interfaith youth service program which brought together youth members of the Baha’i, Christian and Islamic faiths from 22 to 23 April 2006.

 He told the continental forum that “This activity was planned to energize and excite the interest of the youth of various faiths to discuss the issue of religious tolerance and its impacts in preventing conflict within communities through sports, following a serious violent disturbance that had erupted in the area nearly two years earlier.

He further recalled that on 28October 2004, young people in Paynesville district of Monrovia, including in the Red-light Market and Jacob Town suburbs, went on the rampage. Paynesville is the most populated district of Monrovia and hosts almost an equal number of Christians and Muslims and other faiths as well as members of all ethnic groups of Liberia and foreign residents. 

“The conflict then spilled-over into other parts of Monrovia and in its wake, several churches and mosques as well as religion supported educational institutions were razed by fire by the then angry youth of the opposite denominations. The youth of these faiths had always gone with suspicion and mistrust for the other side without any foreseeable solution to the division created by the incident. Many people were injured and one person was killed,” the BFF CEO, among other things, told the forum which was held simultaneously across the African continent.

He indicated that commitment to promoting harmonious community living among people of all faiths in Paynesville district was demonstrated through joint interfaith youth service programs and through collective initiatives by youths from the different faiths, acting as one for the common good of their community and that sports served as a conduit to achieving such commitment.

“The interfaith youths formed an all-girls kickball team and a male soccer team and played matches against teams belonging to the resident community. The interfaith youth lost the soccer game and won the kickball match – a perfect divine omen of losing halve and gaining halve,” he declared.

Arkoi: “The interfaith youths also undertook collective community services together.  Collectively they upgraded the littoral road linking Peace Island to the mainland on Somalia Drive. In appreciation of this initiative, many institutions identified with Better Future Foundation. The Government of Liberia, through the Minister of Public Works, made available three truck-loads of laterite to fill the pot holes on the road.

 The Public Affairs Officer of the United States Embassy in Monrovia then, Madam Meg Riggs, personally attended the program for the road-upgrading exercise by throwing few shovels of laterite onto the road to encourage the youth and contributed one dozen of footballs for use by the youth of the community.

This awareness through sports by the interfaith youth, he said, also attracted a whopping US$100,000 grant provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) which was used for construction of two mini- bridges linking Peace Island to Somalia Drive and Monrovia, Libera’s Capital.

He emphasized that prior to the construction of the two mini-bridges by USAID through Liberia Community Infrastructure Program (LCIP), about 500 residents of the community at the time found it challenging as it related to free movement of people, goods and services including the unfortunate drowning of two young children under a previous makeshift wooden bridge which was being used by residents to access the community.

 He added that the construction of the two-mining bridges has brought significant social and economic transformation and improved livelihood to the Peace Island Community which is now host to an estimated 20,000 people, including stores, churches, mosques and schools.

Mr. Arkoi added that “It was indeed soul-searching to note that for a group of youth who just over one year ago had teamed up on religious and/or tribal grounds to fight each other and destroy property to now form a single team to play games, to sleep and eat together in a camp for two days and to do community services such as cleaning streets and clearing garbage in the same community was a complete reversal of the status quo ante.”

Touching on his personal experience as to how sports can be used to promote harmony, peace and development, the BFF CEO recounted his previous interactions with Liberia’s former international football legend, now President, George Manneh Weah.

The BFF CEO explained that “In 1992, five scholarships were given to Liberians to study in South Korea on condition that each student payed his or her own airfare.  I took advantage of that opportunity and sought for support. 

“A philanthropist gave me a check of USD500.00 negotiable in Liberian dollars and my uncle added another USD500.00 to pay my airfare. I proceeded to an airlines agency to purchase a ticket to South Korea. In Korea, I lived in Cheonan City, one-hour drive outside the capital city, Seoul. 

“One day in 1996, I read in a newspaper that AC Millan Football Club was coming to Seoul to play a football match against the Korean National Team and the only photo posted with that article was that of Mr. George Weah, a Liberian international player with AC Millan. 

“The AC Millan team was to lodge in Sheraton Walker Hill Hotel in Seoul. Immediately, I began to make arrangements to go to Seoul with the intention to meet with Mr. Weah, my Liberian brother. When I shared this information with the head of my Department, he was so elated that he chose to give me a special assignment: I was to take balls to be autographed by Mr. Weah. 

“Please note that by that year Mr. Weah was the only football player holding the titles of the World Best Player, the European Best Player and the African Best Player. The next day, the school authorities gave me three new footballs and I left for Seoul. Upon arriving at the hotel lobby, I asked to see Mr. Weah.  My request generated a lot of curiosity in the hotel lobby.

“After a call from the front desk, some bulky security men immediately showed up to interrogate me.  But I insisted that George was my brother and he knew I was coming to see him.  Finally, they were convinced and asked the front desk to place a call to him.

“Actually, I knew Mr. George Weah as a Liberian international football star but I had never met him personally before. But I was convinced that as a Liberian brother in a faraway country like South Korea, he would be willing to meet and talk to me.

“And indeed he did and did so humbly! I told Mr. Weah that I was a Liberian international student studying in a university outside the capital city and heard that he was in Seoul so I came to him just for a courtesy greeting.  Mr. Weah immediately came down to the lobby to meet me and we sat down and discussed for a few minutes and he returned upstairs, asking me to wait.

“Immediately, in that interim a whole group of people enveloped me, asking me to autograph their papers, books, shirts, handkerchiefs … ignoring my insistence that I was not the football star!  All they knew was I was Mr. Weah’s brother and as such I was as fit as Mr. Weah to autograph their stuff.

“Mr. Weah returned with five VIP tickets for the match and gave them to me. He then autographed the three balls and we took a souvenir photograph. He obliged to autograph a few requests from the swarming group before the security guys ushered him away.

“Interestingly, AC Millan won the Korean Team 2-0 and Mr. Weah scored both goals. From that day my social status changed. I became an instant ‘celebrity’ in Korea after that meeting with Mr. Weah. 

“I returned to my campus with the autographed balls and delivered them to the Department Chair. One of the balls was placed in the Head of Department’s Office, the second in the museum and the third one ball was carried to the main campus, 30 minutes’ drive away and officially presented to the president of my university.

“On our campus, the whole notice board was dedicated to me and everyone, including the faculty, wanted to be my friend.  A Korean businessman even befriended me when he saw me with Mr. Weah on a photo.

“This very man later helped to rent an apartment for me in the Gang-nam District of Seoul and our friendship has persisted to this day. That single meeting with Mr. Weah, a sports star, in Seoul opened many opportunities for me in Korea and some of the benefits have lasted up to today. That is the power of sports!” 

Responding to questions from participants across the African continent and beyond, Mr. Arkoi made it clear that sport is color-blind and does not see religion, faith or denomination.

The BFF Head virtually told the gathering of African and international audience that sport is also the most effective tool and medium through which the barriers of poverty, illiteracy, racial and all forms of discrimination are broken to accelerate peace, security and development.

Mr. Arkoi concluded by calling on Liberia and other African governments to support the cultivation of sports diplomacy aimed at narrowing the continent’s high poverty gaps and accelerate sustainable development of the African continent.