Soft-spoken and unhurried, Moses Zeh Blah, is a mechanic and former guerilla fighter who likes to drive around Monrovia in his brand new Mercedes four-wheel-drive car with a single bodyguard.
He often stops by to visit the shops of his friends in Liberia’s influential Lebanese community, which has a stranglehold on the nation’s commerce.
Not your typical African president.
But Blah, 56, has found himself thrust into the position of head of state – for a couple of months at any rate – by the misfortunes of those above him.
Back in 2000, he was recalled from his post as ambassador to Libya to become vice-president upon the death in office of Enoch Dogolea. And three years later, Blah unexpectedly found himself sitting the presidential chair with the green sash of office over his shoulder.
His boss and long-time comrade in arms, Charles Taylor, was forced by rapid rebel gains, his indictment by a war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone and pressure from the United States to resign and go into exile in Nigeria.
Blah was sworn in as Liberia’s 22nd president on 11 August, but he is likely to be the most short-lived. As part of a peace settlement to end 14 years of near constant civil war, Blah has agreed to step down in October, after ruling the country for less than two months.
He will hand over the reins of power to an interim government headed by a civilian with no links to any of Liberia’s warring factions.
A short and dumpy man, Blah made his name as one of Taylor’s most loyal military commanders during the eight year bush war that culminated with his boss being elected president in 1997. But 18 years of devoted service did not put him above suspiscion.
Last June, Blah was briefly sacked as vice-president and placed under house arrest after being accused of plotting a coup against Taylor. However, he was released and reinstated a few days later.
A modest man, he likes to wear a safari suit and a black hat, Blah continues to live in a bungalow in Monrovia’s eastern suburbs, rather than the grandiose Executive Mansion in the city centre.
His shyness and his apparent lack of political ambition has gained him a degree of acceptance from Liberia’s war-weary public. It remains to be seen whether Blah has the guts and determination to stand up to the power-hungry warlords and scheming politicians who are vying to replace him. His wealthy and influential Lebanese friends are likely to come in handy.
Blah was born on April 18, 1947 in Toweh Town in Nimba County near the northeastern border with Cote d’Ivoire.
He is a member of the Gio ethnic group, which dominated the fighting forces of Taylor’s rebel movement , the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) which subsequently formed the backbone of the government army when Taylor became president.
Blah started work as a mechanic with Liberia American Mining Company (LAMCO) which operated an iron mine in Nimba County before the country lapsed into civil war in 1989.
He obviously had talent, for LAMCO sent him on a training course to Hamburg, where he picked up a working knowledge of German.
He also speaks French and Arabic, picked during subsequent sojourns in Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Libya.
In 1983, Blah fled into exile in Cote d’Ivoire as a result of the systematic persecution of his Gio tribe by the then president Samuel Doe. He later moved to Burkina Faso, but ended up in a guerrilla training camp in Libya in 1985, alongside several other Liberian exiles, including Taylor,Prince Yormie Johnson and Samuel Varney.
After four years of instruction at the Tajura Military Academy in Libya, these four men led a guerrilla force of 200 men across the Ivorian border into Nimba County on Christmas Eve 1989 to oust Doe’s unpopular regime by force of arms.
Taylor was the undisputed leader of the NPFL. But whereas Johnson and Varney split away to form a rival guerrilla movement, Blah remained loyal to his master.
Within a few months, he had risen to become the NPFL’s military commander in southeastern Liberia. He remained a Commanding Officer of this sector until 1994 and became popularly known as “C.O Blah.” He then put aside his uniform for three years to help run Taylor’s political organization, the National Patriotic Party.
In 1997, Taylor was elected president in polls supervised by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS ) – which then as now had a peacekeeping force in Liberia to help restore order. Blah was rewarded for his services with the post of ambassador to Libya, whose head of state, Muammar Ghaddafi, had always been Taylor’s staunchest backer.
Recalled to Monrovia three years to fill the vacant post of vice-president, he was frequently in the public eye, supervising debates in the Senate and working on restoring water and electricity supplies to the capital.
A non-smoker, he is married with 15 children.