By Edward McAllister
MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberian President-elect George Weah on Saturday declared the country open to investment and pledged to tackle entrenched corruption, in his first speech to the nation since decisively winning an election this week.
Speaking in front of reporters and aides packed into a small conference room at his party headquarters, Weah thanked his predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for enabling Liberia's first democratic transition in over 70 years but said he was determined to usher in sweeping changes.
"Those looking to cheat the Liberian people through corruption will have no place," said Weah, 51, alluding to a series of high-profile scandals that have tarnished Johnson Sirleaf's 12-year presidency.
Weah, a former soccer star who became the only African to win FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995, scored a landslide victory over Vice President Joseph Boakai in Tuesday's run-off.
He faces sky-high expectations from his base of young supporters, who want him to fix rampant unemployment and poverty, but deep scepticism from others who see him as lacking the experience and knowledge for the job.
His campaign was thin on policy specifics and he will now be faced with the messy realities of reviving an economy gutted by low prices for chief exports rubber and iron ore and dwindling foreign donor support.
Weah said he would assemble his cabinet in the coming days ahead of his inauguration in mid-January and work to expand the country's revenue base. "To investors, we say Liberia is open for business," he said.
He also urged Liberians overseas - whose remittances account for over a quarter of national GDP - to return home, calling for national unity in a country that was devastated by civil war from 1989 to 2003 and remains riven by divisions based on ethnicity, class and political affiliation.
"We are not enemies," he said in comments addressed to his political opponents. "We welcome you with open arms as we try to build our country."
"Two days ago the world watched me cry. I did not cry because I won. I cried that many people lost their lives in the struggle for change."
The speech was closely followed across the country of five million people.
"The main thing I took from him was that Liberia is open for business," said John Davies, a 30-year-old businessman. "We need Liberians to come home and work for our country."
(Additional reporting by Alphonso Toweh and James Giahyue; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Stephen Powell)