Osasu Obayiuwana: Cash, Bin Hammam and Africa

So, the world is surprised and shocked by what informed followers of the African game and its politics have known, through the grapevine, for ages – that Mohamed bin Hammam, the former president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), spent significant sums of money to create a sphere of political influence amongst the continent’s federation presidents.

The spread sheet and emails published by the Sunday Times of London, revealing the sums spent on lavish Qatari and Malaysian vacations for several FA chiefs, as well as the other ‘financial favours’ the Qatari dished out – at the request of several African FA bosses, who eagerly asked for them – has certainly embarrassed those that received the largesse.

It was one thing to know – as I and other well informed writers of the African game did – that there was a gravy train. But it was certainly another matter to have the hard evidence that the Sunday Times published, which put all doubts to rest.

But, as interesting as the facts uncovered by the Sunday Times were, they failed to lead the paper to the right conclusion.

Bin Hammam’s purchase of influence across Africa had very little, if anything, to do with Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup and everything to do with his quest for the FIFA presidency in 2011, as every association/federation president in Africa had a needed vote at the elective congress in Zurich.

With only members of the FIFA executive committee voting for the World Cup host, what sense did it make for the Qatari, now banned for life, to have lavished money on dozens of FA bosses, when only three Africans could play a role in whether his country would be given the nod to host the World Cup?

As would be recalled, Nigeria’s Amos Adamu, the continent’s fourth FIFA exco member at the time, was barred from the 2018/2022 vote, following the Sunday Times investigative report in 2010, which filmed him demanding cash in exchange for his support.

All members of the FIFA executive committee serve their own strategic interests when they cast a vote; those interests, more often than not, have nothing to do with what other national associations in their continent want.

It is naïve to assume that the opinions of federation presidents from Somalia, the Comoros, Sudan or Namibia, as well as others that took Bin Hammam’s cash, swayed African members of the FIFA exco in one direction or the other.

For the Sunday Times to nail the Africans on the FIFA executive committee to the cross, they would have to prove, with irrefutable evidence, that CAF president Issa Hayatou, Ivorian Jacques Anouma and Egypt’s Hany Abou Rida received bribes in exchange for their votes. They haven’t done that yet.

What the Sunday Times investigation actually proves – which is, not surprisingly, of no interest to them or any Western media organisation for that matter – is that Bin Hammam, over several years, bought his way into becoming a key figure in the politics of African football, particularly at CAF elections.

At the 2011 CAF/FIFA executive committee elections in Sudan – which took place in the months leading up to the FIFA presidential poll in Zurich – the Qatari, arriving in the North African country on the eve of the vote, was certainly more than a friendly, politically non-aligned visitor in Khartoum.

At the end of the polls, several candidates, who sought and obtained the moral and financial support of Bin Hammam – who had a loyal following amongst the voting federation presidents that benefitted from his largesse – got elected.

Contestants that refused to go down this route had a much harder time.

“As Africans, it should be a source of great worry when people from outside of the continent are able to play a decisive role in who gets elected to the leadership of African football,” one of the losing candidates said to me at the time.

“Do Africans have a say in the elections of other continental confederations? What happens in our football should be decided by us and not by others who do not have our best interests at heart.”

Bin Hammam’s withdrawal from football, following his life ban from FIFA, abruptly ended his political influence in the continent and the flow of cash to his acolytes, who certainly felt his absence from last year’s congress in Morocco.

But what really stops another from filling the trough Bin Hammam left behind, if it serves their political/electoral interests, even at the continent’s expense?

Rather than admit a lapse in judgement by some of its members, who are responsible for bringing African football into further disrepute, CAF’s General Assembly, which sat in Sao Paolo on June 9, expressed nothing but contempt for the revelations made by the Sunday Times.

Describing the reporting as being “deliberately hateful, defamatory and degrading”, they demanded that CAF’s executive committee should “file a lawsuit, if necessary, so that the authors of this… defamatory campaign against African football leaders are brought to book.”

Watching the high and mighty of the African game take on the Sunday Times in court would be a fascinating prospect.

But the threat is nothing more than hot air, as a libel case would only bring further scrutiny to those running the African game – which is the last thing those caught with their pants down would want.

As my favourite French saying goes, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” (The more things change, the more they remain the same).

That the underbelly of politics is at the top of the game’s agenda, rather than the quality of football expected at the World Cup, which is upon us, is a sobering and sad state of affairs.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1534319059labto1534319059ofdlr1534319059owedi1534319059sni@a1534319059nawui1534319059yabo.1534319059usaso1534319059.

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.