Infantino’s African victory

Ahmad

The election of Ahmad Ahmad as new CAF President boosts Gianni Infantino’s power. The key question remains: Was there foul play in the process?

By Pål Ødegård

No one could safely predict the outcome before the votes were cast. But in the end it turned out to be a landslide victory for the relatively unknown Ahmad Ahmad from Madagascar. Issa Hayatou, the Cameroonian FIFA senior vice president and CAF ruler for over 29 years, was swept from the field. African football had never seen any election like it in the 60 years CAF has existed. Previously, all its presidents had in effect been ‘crowned’ by their predecessor, and the few who dared challenge Hayatou in the past, was quickly marginalized in elections. Ahmad’s victory in Addis Abeba was also a huge boost for FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who’s looking to ensure his own re-election as FIFA president in 2019. The African confederation is after all FIFA’s largest confederation with 54 votes. The question, which Issa Hayatou bitterly raised both before and after the CAF presidential election, is whether the FIFA President interfered unduly in the elections of a regional governing body, something which break FIFA’s own statutes.

The unknown
Only a selected few saw it coming when Ahmad Ahmad Darw from the relatively modest African federation of Madagascar launched his candidacy in January this year. Certainly not Issa Hayatou, who in the midst of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), immediately blocked Madagascar from holding the U17 AFCON for ‘not meeting technical requirements’. It was a characteristic iron fist move from Hayatou, and the rest of the campaign leading up to the elections on the 16th of March in the Ethiopian capital was to be full of controversy and dirty tricks.

Ahmad who? That was the question many asked themselves. The 57-year old had a modest playing and coaching career. In his home country he was better known as a politician. He had been both a sports and a fishing minister, and was still a senator until renouncing this position after winning the CAF election.

Within African football, Madagascar is a minnow, and currently sits 135th in the FIFA ranking. Ahmad had since 2013 represented the Southern zone (COSAFA) on CAF’s executive board, but he was regarded as a ‘silent’ member and showed no signs of upsetting the status quo. The real reason for his unexpected rise seems to stem from 2015, when Gianni Infantino visited the island as he started his own campaign to become the president of FIFA. Another who had been present was Fatma Samba Samoura. The current FIFA general secretary from Senegal had been a resident United Nations coordinator, and had helped the country tackle a political crisis which had paralyzed the local economy.

“We got along well, and he liked my skills as a mediator, and told me he would contact me when he had secured his own election”, Samoura told Senegalese media when the Swiss-Italian FIFA president, to everyone’s surprise, appointed her as his second-in-command at FIFA in May last year.

This appointment was probably the first nail in the coffin for Hayatou. The Cameroonian had never really been challenged in his 29-year rule, as he successfully created a loyal bloc of the Arab and Francophone nations against the smaller Anglophone bloc. Losing influence in francophone Senegal, wasn’t apparent to him at first. But when both Infantino and Samoura intensified visits to African nations at a time when Ahmad needed momentum, Hayatou’s seemingly secure throne was under threat. A FIFA football symposium in Johannesburg in February had long been scheduled, and Infantino announced he’d visit two other African nations along with South Africa. He ended up visiting nine (South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, Chad, Ghana, Niger and Mauritania), while Samoura also toured several countries on the continent. All this happened as COSAFA, the Southern confederation within CAF, sent out a statement on 12 February giving their support to Ahmad Ahmad to become the next CAF president. That meant 14 votes in the bag for the Malagasy. Then Liberia, Nigeria, Djibouti and Sierra Leone followed suit. It was a pattern familiar to when Aleksander Čeferin successfully went from obscurity to become UEFA’s president last September. He first saw the Nordic countries and then the entire Eastern Europe giving him official support, creating a tidal wave which made many other federations join the bandwagon. As this magazine reported at the time, there were many indications that the FIFA president had meddled in the elections, something which violates article 19 in the FIFA statutes, which states:

“19.1 Each member association shall manage its affairs independently and without undue influence from third parties.

19.2 A member association’s bodies shall either be elected or appointed in that association. A member association’s statutes shall provide for a democratic procedure that guarantees the complete independence of the election or appointment.”

The party
A violation of these rules now seems to have been broken in the lead up to the CAF presidential election as well. Infantino and Samoura never publicly stated any support of Ahmad while touring Africa. But no one had any doubt about the real mission of their trips to see federation officials and state leaders across the continent. Most notoriously, both acceped an invitation to the birthday party of the Zimbabwean federation (ZIFA) president Philip Chiyangwa, who recently had become the president of the COSAFA zone. He was also Ahmad’s campaign leader. 24 other presidents from various associations across Africa were present at the party. This prompted CAF’s general secretary Hicham El Amrani to file a letter of complaint to Chiyangwa where he accused the biirthday party of being much more than a mere celebration, and rather meant to ‘destabilize’ the confederation. According to CAF, it was especially alarming that Chiyangwa had invited several presidents outside the COSAFA region, and done so using COSAFA’s letterhead.

It was not a meeting sanctioned by CAF, but clearly a gathering concerning its business, El Amrani wrote. He also notified that disciplinary actions would be discussed at the next CAF executive committee meeting. Philip Chiyangwa, a Robert Mugabe supporter and real estate millionaire in Harare, answered that it was simply a birthday party, and that he could invite whoever he’d like without CAF’s permission. He even demanded a public apology from CAF. The extravagant party was even uploaded on Youtube. The footage includes Infantino dancing alongside Chiyangwa, before the latter, who likes to call himself the ‘king of selfies’, recorded a selfie video with the FIFA President. Infantino seems to enjoy himself as he points to Chiyangwa and says “he’s the man”.

A little over a year ago Chiyangwa wasn’t even involved in football, and his only experience in sports was a stint as a boxing promoter. His knack for flamboyance has a history and in 1998 he managed to lure Michael Jackson to Zimbabwe. The deceased pop star didn’t throw a concert, but discussed business opportunities with the country’s longtime dictator Robert Mugabe. Chiyangwa is one of Mugabe’s closest allies, and as part of the central committee of the regime, he was the architect of expropriating British farms, and forcing all whites out of the country. He said he “would do a Rwanda” on those not complying. Nowadays Chiyangwa posts Youtube videos of himself strutting his wealth. In one he shows his mansion, which he calls ‘The White House’, with its 33 bedrooms and 25 lounges. In others, he shows off his expensive cars. One, a Hummer worth US$ 800,000, is called ‘The Transformer’, and has been modified to resemble a nightclub on the inside, complete with neon lights and a bar cabinet. And in one of the latest leading up to the CAF elections, he sits inside another luxury car singing along to a local pop tune. Chiyangwa changes the lyrics on the refrain, and while holding up two fingers, sings “Oh lord, please carry me! Carry me please! That’s the same route … to remove Hayatou!”

The observers
Arriving in Addis Abeba, his entourage looked like the cast taken from the motion picture ‘Lord of War’, dressed in suits and wearing sunglasses indoors. They asked the press officer for complementary whores while waiting to be accredited as ‘observers’. They were reluctant to talk to Josimar, but when asked whether Ahmad had sufficient support, one replied boldly that Hayatou was played out of the park already in Nigeria last year. This refers to another meeting Infantino attended upon an invitation from the Nigerian football federation in July 2016. Here he was accompanied by Fatma Samoura and 17 African association presidents. According to inside sources, it was at this meeting that the plan to use Ahmad to take control of CAF was hatched.

“You are crazy, I told them”, Ahmed said to BBC Sport, but was quickly persuaded to run. Another member of his campaign team, Dennis Issidra (a South African football agent rumoured to become the next general secretary at CAF) said to BBC Sport:

“[Infantino] could not go back and support people who didn’t support him [in the 2016 FIFA elections] – it doesn’t make sense. But he did not interfere – he stayed as the president – but in his heart he liked the change”.

The consigliere
According to a CAF insider, Dennis Issidra also campaigned heavily for Gianni Infantino before the FIFA presidential election in 2016. In Addis Abeba it was hard to not make the conclusion Infantino had a big hand in the CAF presidential election. The delegates had been spread over two hotels in alphabetical order, at Sheraton and Radisson. But Ahmad, his campaign team, and several delegates loyal to him, instead chose Hilton as their base. On the night before the election, 35 association presidents held a secret meeting there. It was rumoured that the Comoros FA president participated only to leak the info to Hayatou, but as the following day would show, it had little effect. Earlier the same day, many delegates hung around the lobby of the Sheraton, hovering like flies around Infantino’s ‘consigliere’ Mattias Grafström. The Swede has been the FIFA president’s closest and most trusted adviser since the days Infantino was a mere bureaucrat at UEFA. Wherever Infantino goes, Grafström follows. When Josimar asks whether FIFA interferes in the CAF elections, he just shrugs. Grafström had also been part of the delegation in Nigeria the year before, along with another aide close to the FIFA President – Véron Mosengo Omba. He is  a director of Member Associations and Development at FIFA who oversees funding to Africa and the Caribbean. Omba was fired by FIFA in 2004, but was later taken under the wing of Infantino at UEFA.

“I’ve known Infantino for over twenty years”, he tells Josimar as the delegates are ready to enter the dining hall of the Sheraton. Mosengo Omba has also come under criticism for shutting down all of Africa’s four development offices recently. Two new ones will open, one in Senegal, Fatma Samoura’s home country, and one in South Africa, led by Danny Jordaan who is one of Ahmad’s biggest supporters. And as InsideWorldFootball revealed days before the election, most of the staff never received any severance payments as was stipulated in their contracts, and in accordance with local labour laws. The same article also accused Mosengo Omba of interfering in the CAF elections on behalf of Ahmad.

“Nonsense. Fewer offices doesn’t mean that development in Africa will be worse. We simply make it more effective this way”, Mosengo Omba tells Josimar when asked whether the purge has been a move to force federations to vote for Ahmad.

“What African football needs is change. These are new times, and everyone must adapt”, Mosengo Omba continued while dodging the question about interference in the election.

The lobby
Reporters were forced to wait outside as the delegates and guests were enjoying their gala dinner. As they emerged later on, it was clear a lot of lobbying had taken place inside. The mood among the officials now filling the Sheraton lobby was palpable. Infantino and Hayatou left the dining hall together and discreetly took an elevator up to a hotel room.

As reporters asked the others delegates, the answers repeatedly included the word ‘change’.Those who had been in Nigeria the year before were all in a cheery mood, the only exception being Amaju Pinnick, the Nigerian FA President. His career rested one hundred percent on Hayatou being the loser the next day. Sources tells Josimar that it was Pinnick who instigated the secret plot to get rid of Hayatou and that he did so at the FIFA Congress in Mexico City May last year.

It wasn’t only the next CAF president the delegates would vote for the following day, but also seats in the executive committee, plus FIFA Council positions. Pinnick was one of those who ran for a seat in the executive committee.

The election
Ahmad Ahmad’s speech was well written and rehearsed, advocating formidable change and progression. His manifesto requested a complete audit of the CAF administration, especially its finances. Many CAF administrators had reason to fear for their jobs. Hayatou pitched his speech towards uniting Africans against Western colonialism, indirectly blaming Gianni Infantino for meddling in local affairs. But his last ditch rally call didn’t sway many.

Neither did a Bloomberg article published hours before election day. The article claimed Ahmad was under investigation by FIFA’s ethics committee for asking for bribes from the Qatari World Cup campaigner Mohammed Bin Hammam in 2011. The year before Ahmed had sent emails to Bin Hammam’s aide Najeeb Chirakal reminding them that they had promised him money to help him getting re-elected as the head of the Malagasy federation. They agreed to exchange the money via a bagman in Paris. It is unknown whether the money actually got exchanged, but both Bin Hammam and Chirakal are now banned for life by FIFA. 

During the campaign similar stories had emerged. Several of those applying for a FIFA Council seat mysteriously withdrew their candidacies. According to reports, and a leaked letter to CAF, FIFA’s Review Committee had found South African FA chief Danny Jordaan, Zambia’s Kalusha Bwalya and South Sudan’s Chabur Goc Alei ineligible for these positions. FIFA never published any statements, but it was obvious they had been notified to withdraw to avoid embarrassment. All of them were in the Ahmad camp, and many pundits suggested this was a trick from Hayatou to keep those sitting on the fence in line.

It seemed the other camp had tried similar methods. An email to a CAF member from FIFA’s Review Committee stated that it had forwarded documentation on a 1 billion dollar media rights deal between CAF and French broadcaster Lagardére onwards to the Ethics Committee. The Review Committee’s chairman Miguel Poares Maduro stated in the same email that it was in any case too late to reopen the eligibility process which regarded Issa Hayatou and Hicham El Amrani so close to the elections (the letter was dated the 9th of March).

The fall
In the end Hayatou fell. And it was a humiliating defeat he struggled to accept as he left the congress hall while vocally blaming Infantino for having interfered in the elections. His loyal supporters, now only a handful, were all devastated. Benin FA’s Mouchafou Anjorin threw up in a bathroom while Guinea Bissau’s football president sat in a side room crying. His friends who hoped to continue on the executive committee were also wiped out. Instead Ahmad’s strongest supporters filled them. And Ahmad himself was thrown in the air by his campaign team when the victory was clear. Liberian Musa Bility, one of Ahmad’s staunchest supporters, told the world press that “We have seen changes in FIFA and in Europe..everywhere in football the last 18 months there has been changes. We could not allow ourselves to be left behind. We want to be on the train of change”. Sierra Leone’s Isha Johansen was just as euphoric. If Hayatou had won, she would probably have been ousted from football politics for supporting Ahmad. Instead she became the first female executive member of CAF. “Regrettably [Hayatou] had to exit this way, and even more that many in his administration had to interpret the needed change as something disrespectful. There’s lots to do now. We need to deliver to the world what this promised ‘wind of change’ is really all about”.

For African football, change it will be. The question is in which ways, and if Ahmad will deliver on the transparency he preached in his manifesto.

Gianni Infantino was visibly happy at the farewell dinner after the elections, and many predict he now has come a long way to secure his own re-election as FIFA president with most of CAF behind him. This is if Ahmad’s reign lasts, and there really isn’t anything to the story he’s under investigation by FIFA’s Ethics Committee. Infantino has not given any assurances that he’d support the chairmen of this committee at the next FIFA congress in Bahrain in May, where Cornel Borbely and Hans-Joachim Eckert seek to get a four-year extension to their mandate.

The same old brand new
The administration in Zurich has seen scores leaving their jobs there after the Swiss-Italian took over, and rumours go that the chairmen of the ethics department is next to get the axe. Infantino and Samoura never made remarks of open support for Ahmad – even if it was plain to see for everyone.

Upon his homecoming to Zimbabwe, Phillip Chiyangwa boasted like a rap star how his plan had worked, and admitted that his birthday party was in reality a gathering to plot Hayatou’s downfall. In front of local reporters the COSAFA and ZIFA president said openly that “the council for removing Hayatou was the one you saw at the birthday party. Those were the architects that determined to remove him. I was holding 14 votes. I am the biggest confederation on the African continent, I am the biggest controlling unit and that is why I put the person there. The victory that has been achieved so far was my own art, and that particular artistry is now what we find going forward. So I have totally silenced this guy. I challenged not only one person, but the entire executive”.

Phillip Chiyangwa can probably thank Infantino for being in football politics in the first place. When he won the ZIFA election in 2015, his opponent Trevor Carelse-Juul filed a complaint to FIFA’s development officer for the Southern region of Africa, Ashord Mamelodi, that Chiyangwa had made several donations to teams and bribes to the electorate committee members leading up to the election. But Mamelodi were one of the officers axed when the four development offices were shut down, and the Southern one was relocated to South Africa in January by Kjetil Siem, hired as Infantino’s strategic director last year. Siem himself now seems to have been demoted to working with ‘digital strategies’. And when Carelse-Juul got his answer, which said FIFA weren’t going to pursue the allegations against Chiyangwa, it came from Infantino’s friend Verón Mosengo Omba. The answer simply said that FIFA would not pursue the matter.

Phillip Chiyangwa has stated that he one day wants to fill not only Ahmad’s seat at CAF, but also Infantino’s at FIFA. It looks highly unlikely at the moment. But as every so-called independent control organ at FIFA now seem to be increasingly undermined and filled with loyalists to the president, its ethics committee might want to properly investigate how ‘change’ in its organization is conducted. Because even if radical change is welcomed in world football politics, there is an increasing worry that the means to achieve this change might be as corrupted as it was under the old guard.