MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Former international soccer star George Weah was sworn into office Monday as Liberia's new president, taking over from Africa's first female leader of this post-war, impoverished West African nation.
The 51-year-old, who was FIFA's 1995 player of the year, took the oath dressed in all white at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex to cheers from tens of thousands Liberians.
"I fully believe that the overwhelming mandate that I received from the Liberian people is a mandate to end corruption in public service; I promise to deliver on this mandate," he said. "As officials of government it is time to put the interest of our people above our own selfish interests. It is time to be honest with our people."
Weah, who has been a senator and run for the presidency before but is relatively new to national politics, inherits a weak economy along with poor health and educational sectors.
"I do not promise you quick fixes or miracles. Instead my pledge to you today is that my administration, with your help, will make steady and deliver progress toward achieving the hopes and aspirations that you cherish in your heart for Mama Liberia," he said.
Weah then switched seats with his predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was president for 12 years, lifting Liberia from the destruction of back-to-back civil wars and facing the challenge of the Ebola crisis that killed thousands here.
After Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor, Sr., swore in Weah, Liberia's flag was lowered and folded to signify the end of the presidency for Sirleaf, who stood with Weah on a raised platform. A new flag was unfolded and hoisted to signify the start of Weah's new administration.
This is Liberia's first peaceful transfer of power from one government to another in more than 70 years.
Many of Weah's critics are still skeptical about his ability to deliver in a country that is faced with youth unemployment and other challenges. His running mate, Vice President-Elect Jewel Howard-Taylor, has political experience that surpasses his. She was married to the nation's former leader Charles Taylor during his time in power. After they divorced, she was elected senator in 2005, building a political career in her own right.
Thousands of people stormed the sports stadium early Monday to see the new president sworn in.
Weah's new government should launch a "self-sufficiency in food program" to boost agriculture and tackle the problem of unemployment, said James Mulbah, an agricultural extension expert.
"Any country that does not feed itself, you are at the mercy of those that will feed you, that has been the problem in this country and it has continued to exist," he said.
Liberians should not see Weah as "a magician" who can solve all Liberia's problems alone, said Florence G. Dukuly , a public administrator.
"Liberians have this dependency syndrome," depending on the government to do all, she said. "We have to help him make it."
The stadium's playing pitch was transformed by a huge, raised platform from where guests were entertained by live performances. Liberia's red, white and blue colors adorn the VIP block and giant-sized portraits of Weah and Taylor are planted along the perimeters.
Young supporters of Weah's Congress for Democratic Change party carried out a national clean-up ahead of the ceremony.
"We are all overwhelmed with joy," said Janjay Jacobs, a former midfielder and now coach. He said Weah can bring growth and development to Liberia.
"He has been a very inspirational person, very much motivating, never gives up in any situation," Jacobs said. "If all odds are against him, he still stands up for what he believes in."
AP writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.