West Africa offered many reasons to be cheerful in 2017

George Weah, the former world footballer of the year, has achieved his great goal by winning the presidency of Liberia. There are concerns about his bedfellows and time will tell whether he can meet the hopes of supporters desperate for change. However, this is another personal triumph for a decent man born in a slum who has travelled such distance in life.

Much attention focused on a former footballer’s success in politics. Yet Mr Weah’s triumph means 2017 was bookended by two electoral breakthroughs in west Africa, all the more resonant as demagogues and despots abuse democracy elsewhere.

Mr Weah succeeds Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, to become Liberia’s 25th president. Ms Sirleaf was lauded in the West, even sharing the Nobel peace prize, although I was struck by her unpopularity as symbolic of a distant, technocratic elite when visiting three years ago. Yet this is a democratic transition of power, the first for decades in this nation.

Ms Sirleaf took over in the aftermath of a civil war. Her predecessor, Charles Taylor, is serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes. The two before him were killed in office — one dying in a coup, the other tortured in front of a beer-swilling warlord then beheaded. This handover sends a powerful signal, regardless of Mr Weah’s performance on the political field.

Democracy is being assailed even in Europe, yet this region of Africa is emerging as a bright spot. We have seen peaceful transitions after electoral battles in bigger nations such as Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria. Next is Sierra Leone. Perhaps most strikingly, at the start of last year we saw a long-serving dictator ousted in the Gambia, despite digging in after electoral defeat, following military threats from neighbouring countries.

These positive moves were not reflected across the continent. There are hopes South Africa can be saved from kleptocracy after Cyril Ramaphosa took over the governing ANC. But from the Democratic Republic of Congo through to Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, there were serious setbacks for democracy last year. The coup in Zimbabwe removed a tyrant only to replace him with a bloodstained associate.

Yet at the dawn of this new year, Mr Weah is a symbol of change. The likes of Liberia with its evolving political culture underscore how those corrosive and tedious heart of darkness clichés so prevalent in the West should be discarded. Africa is a complex and diverse continent, buffeted by local concerns, regional influence and global turbulence. In that way, as in so many others, it is little different from our own.

Ian Birrell is a freelance writer.

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