The Last Stand of Issa Hayatou

by | Feb 28, 2017

Issa Hayatou’s 2017 has been mixed…and will get more mixed as his Confederation of African (Caf) football presidency comes under electoral threat at, some say, long last.

The 70-year-old (remember the age) was a happy man in Libreville, Gabon on February 5th when his native Cameroon beat Egypt 2-1 in the best African Cup of Nations (Afcon) final for many-a-year…although you wouldn’t necessarily have noticed as his “smiling” during post-match celebrations matched Roy Keane smiling on the disturbing imagery scale.

However, he has good reason to look as miserable as…well…usual. Fifa’s senior vice-president, a role which made him acting Fifa president recently, began 2017 embroiled in that most Fifa of situations, a broadcasting rights scandal. And he is now involved in the hardest-fought presidential election of his…eek…29-year Caf presidency.

High hopes of electoral victory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 16th are pinned on…Ahmad. Or Ahmad Ahmad. Or Ahmad Ahmad (sic). There is, mercifully, more credibility about his candidacy than certainty about his name. And Ahmad, the 57-year-old Madagascar FA president, has already garnered significant public backing.

This, plus the current mood for change across football’s continental confederations, justifies these hopes. And Ahmad appears to have Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s backing, which some might consider a game-changer in confederation elections. Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin, for instance.

Hayatou’s autocratic leadership has derived largely from the Sepp Blatter playbook. And he utilised the chapter entitled “Power and how to keep it” to win the last Caf presidential election, in 2013.

In September 2012, Caf election rules were amended to restrict presidential candidates to Executive Committee (ExCo) voting members. Because…er… Purely co-incidentally, it disbarred two major challengers, Cote D’Ivoire’s Jacques Anouma and South Africa’s Danny Jordaan.  Anouma was on Caf’s ExCo as a Fifa ExCo member, therefore NOT a voting member. And even Jordaan’s South African FA presidency, to which he was elected in 2013, was insufficient.

Although the amendment was passed 44-7, the huge majority was accredited, by Liberian FA (LFA) president Musa Bility, to Caf “fear tactics,” which made it “brave for anyone to question the way African football is being run.” The LFA challenged the amendment at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), as an appeal to Caf would not be heard until the election itself was due. However, CAS rejected the appeal as Caf’s appeals system wasn’t exhausted…unlike observers of the affair.

Hayatou was therefore elected unopposed, which seemed rather closer to the point of the exercise than his post-victory desire for “only those who have held positions of responsibility within (Caf) to run for president.”

Yet he has suffered from political machinations too. For all his latter-day Blatter-esque manoeuvrings, he was one of the good guys when, in 2002, he challenged the gnomic Swiss liar for Fifa’s presidency on an “integrity, credibility and transparency” ticket.

Blatter’s then one-term presidency appeared under as seriously threatened as Hayatou’s is now, after the bankruptcy of Fifa marketing partner International Sport and Leisure (ISL) and Blatter’s attempt to mask its debilitating effect on Fifa finances.

But Hayatou was helpless as Blatter globe-trotted on “Fifa business” which involved no campaigning whatsoever, oh no. Blatter had won the 1998 election in a ‘variety’ of ways, including garnering considerable African support. Despite (because of?) his then 14-year year Caf presidency, Hayatou couldn’t count on all 50+ African votes. Worse, England’s FA supported him. Blatter won 139-56.

And Hayatou didn’t read the playbook’s final chapter, “Hanging onto power too long.” In February 2012, he announced his intention to stand in 2013, despite on-going health problems, “I will accept if my faculties allow me.” And he added: “If God permits me four more years, I will rest.” Twelve months later, with all opposition rule-amended away, he declared: “This will be my last term.” However, he indicated last October that he was “thinking maybe I’ll be a candidate.” And Caf announced his candidacy last month.

The first indication that Hayatou might be in electoral bother came when his own rule amendment was challenged by a motion to last September’s Caf Congress in Cairo. It was a no-hoper, as it needed 75% of the votes cast. But it was only defeated by 32-16…over twice the opposition in 2012. Bility complained again, (as he does) calling for a secret ballot, not a show of hands, again fearing that fear itself would swing the vote. But, despite having to reveal itself, the opposition was strong enough to, correctly, suggest a hard-fought 2017 presidential election.

The hardest fighter to date, though, is Ahmad’s “election agent” Phillip Chiyangwa, a “highly-ambitious Harare businessman,” president of Zimbabwe’s FA (Zifa) and the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (Cosafa), a 14-nation body…just over a quarter of Caf’s electorate.

He said: “I spent one year at Zifa and already I have regional autonomy and power, I’m now boss of the region. Soon I will be boss of the continent. Don’t be surprised when that happens. You didn’t know I was working on…Cosafa, now I’m working on Caf. Fifa hasn’t been run by a black person…that’s my ultimate goal. I had to use the tactics I was taught by the grandmaster and here I am.”

Admirable stuff…arguably. Except for references to “a scorched-earth approach.” Which, to Southern Africans, was a disturbing clue to the grandmaster’s identity. Chiyangwa’s uncle…Robert Mugabe. “We want to control continental football; like our President controlled Africa as African Union chairperson,” Chiyangwa happily admitted. Ulp!

Ahmad’s election manifesto struck a humbler tone (it could hardly not), fashioned from considerable Malagasy political experience as ex-sports minister and current Senate vice-president. His “vision/mission” centred on “reconciliation,” football as “a lever for economic development and a tool to reach social stability for young people,” a (Blatter-esque?) desire to “gather as one the big football family,” and promises of “well-suited environments on the cutting edge of African football’s contexts and needs” which would “put a stop to those white elephants.”

However, Ahmad may be touched by Fifa’s financial scandals. The acclaimed book The Ugly Game – The Qatari plot to buy the World Cup referenced “Ahmad Darw,” who said that banned-for-life Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam “had ‘promised to give me a help’ with his own re-election” as Madagascar FA president, during Caf’s Qatari-sponsored 2010 Congress…part of the Fifa ex-vice president’s “buying” of African support for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid.

On the Inside World Football website on January 13th, Andrew Warshaw referenced “allegations in 2014 that someone of his name was linked to financial wrongdoing in his association with (bin Hammam).” Warshaw added: “It has never been proven that Ahmad Ahmad was that person” but acknowledged that “Ahmad’s candidature could face severe scrutiny” as a result.

And Ahmad failed by one vote to gain one of Africa’s two new seats on Fifa’s ruling council. But six weeks of Chiyangwa might have closed that gap.

Five days after Ahmad announced his candidature, Caf’s withdrew Madagascar as African under-17 championship hosts “following the reports of Caf’s inspection teams.” The precise reasons weren’t given, adding to the belief that it was a Hayatou power-play. Ahmad admitted Madagascar was “not completely ready” but didn’t believe “the tournament had to be withdrawn from us.”

But this setback was mitigated on February 11th, when Cosafa presidents met in Johannesburg to unanimously back Ahmad and resolved “to only support sitting (FA) presidents (in) Caf or Fifa elections,” directly opposing Hayatou’s afore-mentioned rule amendment.

And Chiyangwa upped the ante considerably by inviting presidents from Cosafa and beyond to his “Birthday and Cosafa Presidency Victory Celebrations.” This was clearly an Ahmad campaign rally; its impact amplified by inviting Infantino, although Chiyangwa supporters suggested that, as this invitation was issued four days before Ahmad’s candidacy was announced, it could not have been so (as if Ahmad awoke on January 9th, thought “I fancy being Caf president” and in three days sorted all the admin).

More pertinently, Chiyangwa was elected on December 17th, his birthday was February 3rd, Infantino was in Southern Africa for a Fifa executive summit from 21st-23rd February. And the “celebrations” date? February 24th.

Caf smelt a rat from their Cairo HQ 3,300 miles away and on February 11th, Caf secretary-general Hicham El-Amrani instigated pompous correspondence with Chiyangwa, “reminding” him that he had no “authority to convene” the meeting, “without CAF approval,” as “convening a meeting with (leaders) outside the Cosafa zone is deemed…an attempt to destabilize CAF.”

Chiyangwa was delighted with the publicity “taken aback, to say the least, by the tone of your letter and the clear insinuation that such an informal gathering of my family and friends…would be considered…an attempt to destabilise Caf.” And he claimed that “considering the clear misapprehension of my noble intentions…an apology is warranted.”

The meeting DID rally anti-Hayatou troops, even if the Zimbabwe Newsday newspaper headline Ahmad gets Infantino backing hardly matched the story. Fifa secretary-general Fatma Samoura’s presence made Infantino’s attendance appear rather formal. And 24 FA presidents came, including two who publicly backed Ahmad, Nigerian Federation president Amaju Pinnick and Bility.

Bility’s endorsement, inevitably, was “colourful,” telling Newsday: “Caf is not a kingdom. There could never be a better time to honour life president Hayatou” (LIFE president?) “and bring this era to an end. I’m standing up for change. Either we perish fighting…or live like chickens.”

Pinnick wasn’t clucking but was, correctly, more bet-hedgingly circumspect, acknowledging Hayatou’s still-possible re-election. “I will definitely work with him if he wins,” he emphasised, “but my prayer is (for) a bridge builder and that person is Ahmad.”

Hayatou’s clearly-effective survival instincts haven’t yet emerged in specific tactics (like banning Aquarians from the presidency?). And support remains among beneficiaries of his past patronage. But the not-a-rally’s success prompted another pompous Caf letter to Chiyangwa, whose garish meeting glad-rags were audible from Cairo to Cape Town and were sufficiently photogenic to fulfill even his publicity-ravenous desires.

“Let us extend a belated wish to you for your birthday…and again offer our congratulations on your election as president of Cosafa,” El-Amrani wrote through gritted teeth. He was “somewhat surprised” that Chiyangwa went “to great lengths to educate me on Caf statutes and Fifa regulations. For your information, I am well versed with both.” And, having “noted with much surprise your ambitious wish to have Caf present to you apologies,” they said the “matter” would be on Caf’s pre-election ExCo meeting agenda in Ethiopia.

El-Amrani’s urge to get the quill out is clearly inspired by Hayatou’s fear of Chiyangwa’s effective electioneering…and what Hayatou might face in four years if he beats Ahmad…yes, Caf’s rules now allow Hayatou potentially three more terms (NB: be assured that the irony of Chiyangwa railing against Hayatou’s attempted longevity, while 93-year-old Uncle Robert ponders Zimbabwe presidential re-election, has NOT been lost).

On February 20th, the Botswanan Weekend Post’s Mosimanegape Tshoswane claimed Hayatou was “sure of all eight votes from Central region” (Uniffac), including his native Cameroon, and called the 11-nation “eastern bloc” (Cecafa) “known bonafide soldiers of Hayatou.” Which would make the “score” 19-14 to Hayatou, with the five-nation northern region (Unaf) and the 16-strong West African region (Wafu) to declare, although Pinnick and Bility are from the latter.

Infantino, should he choose to exert his influence (cough), could therefore be as important a king-maker as Chiyangwa. His words to the entire presidential electorate at Fifa’s “executive summit” were behind closed doors. But smart monies are on “I understand the desire for change” being six of them, as the official reasons for the unprecedented event, including Fifa’s 48-team World Cup and development structure discussions, weren’t universally believed.

One summit picture showed Infantino addressing an audience including a particularly glum-looking Hayatou, a picture which “British/Nigerian football journalist Osasu Obayiuwana captioned on Twitter: “Look at Hayatou’s face as Infantino talks. Unfriendly foes.”  At the time of typing, Infantino is still glad-handing his way around the continent, which will not cheer Hayatou up.

The sense is that the electioneering is hotting up…between Hayatou and Chiyangwa, if not Ahmad. And 200% will be there…well, watching on a computer screen thousands of miles away…as it unfolds.

Next article: More pompous correspondence. Hayatou’s broadcast scandals, past and…present? And his “history” with the Mugabes, as Zimbabwe’s “free” press, by pure co-incidence, turns on him. Nigeria splits down the middle between NFF president Pinnick and…everyone else. And, doubtless more intrigue still to emerge.

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