/ 11 March 2024

Corruption in African sports scuppers brilliant athletes

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Uganda players huddle prior to the Vitality Netball Nations Cup match between New Zealand Silver Ferns and Uganda She Cranes at OVO Arena, Wembley, on January 21, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Kenyan athletes staged a protest at Nyayo stadium last week, delaying the selection trials for the All Africa track and field games. 

The Kenyan athletes, and many fans, were angry that national sports managers planned to take just one person per discipline in the competitions happening in Accra later this month. Kenya has historically taken three people per discipline.

“How can the government take only one athlete? What happens to the rest who have invested for this day?” asked 800m world champion Mary Moraa, who led the protest, according to Kenyan journalist Michelle Katami.

Jaded Kenyan athletics fans reacted with outrage – but not surprise.

“We all know this script. They’ll keep the rest of the slots for their girlfriends and children,” said one Kenyan on social media. Another concluded: “Kenyan sports persons are world beaters; Kenyan sports managers are a world disgrace.” 

One does not have to look far to find other examples of incompetence, negligence or corruption. In one of the most egregious, in 2016, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for sports was charged with embezzling most of the $6-million that was budgeted for the country’s Olympic team. 

Together with the team’s chef de mission, they were found guilty and ordered to pay fines amounting to almost $1-million, a sentence that caused an uproar in Kenya. Both officials paid the fines – and presumably kept the change.

The athletes’ protest last week had some impact. By Thursday morning, Kenya Athletics had somehow found room in the budget to accommodate 50 athletes for Accra, instead of the 32 initially announced.

Despite the off-track challenges, Kenya’s athletes remain among the best in the world. Faith Kipyegon holds the world record for the 1,500m and the 5,000m. Brigid Kosgei is the fastest women marathon runner in history. Eliud Kipchoge the fastest man in the same discipline. The list goes on. Imagine what they could do in an environment that supported their progress, instead of holding them back?

A case study in sports corruption

The Uganda women’s netball team is all too familiar with that unfortunate script. They could be world beaters, yet are undermined by disgraceful officials. Now ranked sixth in the world and second in Africa, the She Cranes are Uganda’s most successful national team. 

That success has come not because of the government, but in spite of it. Its tribulations are almost as legendary as its sporting prowess.

The team moved from eight to six in the world after strong performances recently in Wales and England. But the team’s fluidity on the pitch masked the months-long chaos it had lived through back home.

Appearing on TV in February 2023, the Uganda Netball Federation president Sarah Babirye Kityo blew the whistle on her boss, the general secretary of the National Council of Sports Patrick Ogwel. She said that he asked her to account for 425-million Uganda shillings ($109,000), when he had given her only 186-million shillings ($48,000).

An investigation by the government ombudsman confirmed these allegations, finding that Ogwel had received more than 100-million shillings ($26,000) in kickbacks from the netball federation – the money was skimmed off players’ allowances. 

Ogwel denied the allegations against him, and Uganda’s parliament undertook a second investigation. This time around, it was the whistleblower Kityo who ended up in prison, for failing to account for the funds that she said had been stolen. Ogwel did not respond to requests for comment.

The episode is only the latest for the long suffering team.

In 2013, the netball team travelled by road to Malawi to participate in the African Nations Cup, arriving when the games had already begun. After the gruelling 2,400km bus ride, they had to play the same day they got there. With barely any sustenance (other teams offered them water) the girls played their hearts out and managed to get third place.

An investigation found that Ogwel had received more than 100-million shillings in kickbacks, skimmed off player’s allowances.

Later that year they won the Nations Netball Cup in Singapore despite similar drama. The team missed their flight after funds arrived late, forfeited their first game and after an 11-hour journey, got to Singapore just six hours before they had to play Ireland. They won, and continued winning till they beat hosts Singapore in the final. 

The rot runs wide and deep

Ugandan and Kenyan sports officials are hardly the only ones mired in allegations of corruption, neglect and abuse.

In Cameroon, the legendary Samuel Eto’o – who now heads the country’s soccer federation, Fecafoot – is being investigated by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) for alleged match-fixing. CAF says it presumes him innocent until proven guilty, and Eto’o denies all the allegations.

Audio recordings sent to CAF indicate that Eto’o promised to promote one club, owned by an ally of his, from the country’s third division. It was duly promoted. The dossier of allegations also lays out a Fecafoot management dispute between Eto’o and his deputy Njala Quan Junior, in which the president allegedly retaliated by fixing a match to humiliate the team owned by the vice-president.

In the 2023 Women’s Football World Cup, Nigerian players threatened to boycott the games because of unpaid bonuses and allowances dating back several years. Although they eventually played (they were eliminated in the quarters by champions England), they resumed the fight once they went back home. They are still fighting.

In a 2015 report on corruption in African sports, Transparency International found serious problems with sports governance across the continent. It cited problems with elections to both regional and national associations, the management of players’ allowances and bonuses, match-fixing, and even human trafficking.

In some instances, corrupt officials are often doing a lot more harm than pocketing money.

Last October, the BBC revealed that young boys in Gabonese football had been sexually assaulted by coaches, and other older men in sports, for decades. Some of the 30 witnesses who spoke to the reporters, including former Gabon international Parfait Ndong, said national sports officials were alerted to the abuse but did not act to stop or punish it.

In 2019, Ghanaian journalist Ahmed Hussein Suale exposed widespread corruption within the national football federation, causing the federation to be dissolved. He was killed just months after the story was published.

While these may all seem like isolated examples, taken together they show a disturbing pattern of sports managers and administrators impeding the progress of the athletes they are supposed to be supporting. That so many African sports stars achieve glory anyway is a testament to just how deep this continent’s pool of talent really is – and a reminder of how much potential there is still to fulfil.  

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It is designed to be read and  shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at thecontinent.org