Boakai becomes Liberia’s oldest president, collapses during inaugural speech

Joseph Boakai, 79, was sworn in as Liberia’s new president, but collapsed during his inaugural speech due to the heat.

Joseph Boakai, the leader of the opposition United Party (UP), took the oath of office as Liberia’s new president on Monday, following his close victory in the run-off election held in November 2023. At 79 years old, Boakai is the oldest person to ever assume the presidency of Africa’s oldest republic, which was founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

In his inaugural speech, Boakai pledged to work for national unity and economic recovery, as Liberia faces multiple challenges, including chronic corruption, poverty, unemployment, and the aftermath of two civil wars that killed about 250,000 people between 1989 and 2003. “Only united people can build a nation. And where do we plan to take Liberia in the next six years? We must refocus our political energy,” he said to the crowd of supporters and dignitaries who gathered at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Monrovia, the capital city.

Boakai outlined his main priorities for his six-year term, which include strengthening the rule of law, fighting corruption, renewing the hope of citizens, and attracting foreign investment. He also vowed to review the concession agreements signed by previous governments with multinational companies, to ensure that they serve the interests of Liberia and its people.

However, Boakai’s speech was cut short when he appeared to suffer from a heat stroke, as the temperature soared to over 30 degrees Celsius. He struggled to finish his sentences and was escorted away from the podium by officials. A spokesperson for the UP later said that the president was “perfectly fine” and that his condition was not related to his health, but to the hot weather.

Boakai has repeatedly dismissed the concerns about his age and health, saying that he has a clean bill of health and that he has a pacemaker to regulate his heart rate. He has also argued that his age is an asset, not a liability, as it reflects his long and rich experience in Liberian politics and public service.

Boakai has been involved in Liberia’s political scene since the 1980s, when he served as the minister of agriculture under the military regime of Samuel Doe. He later became a senator and then the vice president under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president, from 2006 to 2018. He ran for the presidency in 2017, but lost to George Weah, a former international soccer star who became Liberia’s youngest-ever president at 51.

Boakai challenged Weah again in 2023, and this time he managed to defeat him by a narrow margin of about 20,000 votes, out of more than two million cast. Boakai’s victory was seen as a sign of the public’s dissatisfaction with Weah’s performance, as he failed to deliver on his promises to improve the economy, fight corruption, and ensure justice for the war victims. Boakai also received the endorsement of Prince Johnson, a former rebel leader who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, and who commands a large following in the northeastern Nimba county.

Boakai’s inauguration marks the third peaceful and democratic transfer of power in Liberia since the end of the civil wars, and the first time that an opposition candidate has defeated an incumbent president. It also signals a generational shift, as Boakai will take over from Weah, who is 28 years younger than him. Boakai faces high expectations from the Liberian people, who hope that he will be able to address the country’s problems and restore its dignity and prosperity.

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