June 7, 2019 / 9:13 PM / 2 months ago

Thousands protest in Liberia against corruption, economic decline

(This June 7 story corrects paragraph 8 to show petition was circulated, not handed over to justice minister)

People carry a banner depicting Liberia's President George Weah as they march during a protest to voice discontent towards the presidency of Weah, whose policies they see as having failed to curb economic decline and mitigate corruption, in Monrovia, Liberia June 7, 2019. REUTERS/James Giahyue

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Thousands of Liberians took to the streets of the capital, Monrovia, on Friday to protest against the corruption and economic decline that many blame on their once hugely popular president, former football star George Weah.

In a stark contrast to the wild celebrations that greeted Weah’s election victory in 2017, throngs of chanting demonstrators bearing signs calling Weah a “traitor” gathered near the president’s official residence.

Among protesters’ main gripes: a stagnant economy in which most still live in deep poverty and a scandal in which the country last year lost $100 million in newly printed bank notes destined for the central bank.

“Weah is not governing our state the right way,” said Ishmael Hassan, who voted for Weah in 2017 but has since become disillusioned. “The economic situation in our country is going down the drain.”

Liberia’s economy was hit hard by a 2014-16 Ebola outbreak that killed thousands, low prices for its chief exports, iron ore and rubber, and declining foreign aid.

The International Monetary Fund in March revised down Liberia’s economic growth forecast for 2019 to 0.4% from 4.7%. Inflation peaked at 28.5% in December, pushing up the price of everyday items.

Many believed Weah, who grew up in a Monrovia slum before becoming a celebrated striker in some of Europe’s biggest football teams, would bring a new dawn. Instead, he faces the same criticisms of corruption that dogged his predecessor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

A petition circulated by the protest’s organizers on Friday accused the administration of misusing public funds, violating press freedoms, and failing to adequately fund health and education programs.

The petition accuses Weah himself of constructing “scores of luxury homes” after he declined to publicly declare his assets.

“I supported this government, but the way things are going, we want to save the state,” said protestor Bob Blue.

Reporting by Alphonso Toweh and James Giahyue; writing by Cooper Inveen; editing by Edward McAllister and Sonya Hepinstall

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