Osasu Obayiuwana: Can CAF function in Egypt’s political cyclone?

With Egypt taking one uncertain but dangerous turn after another, as a result of the raging political crisis, the ‘House of African football’ is unwittingly caught up in the crossfire of a domestic conflict.

That’s an inescapable consequence of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) being headquartered in Cairo, the theatre of bloody street battles between rival supporters of the military-backed transitional government and the country’s democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, forced out of office a few weeks ago, following public protests.

But, come to think of it, the last three years – which has seen the North African country have three presidents in the same period, following the revolution that ended the 30-year tenure of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 – have undoubtedly been a particularly unsettling period for CAF, which has been ‘living’ in Egypt for over 50 years.

It’s been a topsy-turvy existence for CAF staff living in Cairo, uncertain of what to expect from day-to-day, in the midst of civil strife. And the imposition of a dusk-to-dawn (7pm to 6am) daily curfew does not make things easier.

Essam Ahmed, CAF’s deputy general secretary, clearly responding to the extremely unsafe atmosphere that made travel to work a huge risk for his colleagues, initially sent a circular to the continent’s 54 national federations on Saturday 17 August, that its headquarters will be “temporarily closed starting from tomorrow (August 18) until further notice.”

That “further notice” was just 48 hours long however, as CAF reopened their offices two days later, on Tuesday.

“It has not been easy since the latest crisis began,” a CAF member of staff told me.

“We have had to do our jobs from home over the last one week, as the situation on the streets made going to work a very unsafe prospect.

“The office has just been reopened but the truth is that the situation is so fluid and unpredictable, that it is very difficult to see how we can work efficiently.”

With the imposition of a curfew for the next one month at least, covering not just Cairo, but other major cities, like Alexandria, the death knell has certainly sounded for the Egyptian championship, which was on the verge of entering the play-offs, prior to Morsi’s removal.

But what has been most surprising – or perhaps not-so-surprising, for any knowledgeable chronicler of the African game – has been the deafening silence of CAF, on how it intends to continue managing the day-to-day business of African football from a country that is politically volatile.

With there clearly being no end, at least in the foreseeable future, to the crisis, which has done untold damage to the Egyptian economy, you would think its leadership would be compelled to think, very seriously, of whether the continental organisation could be forced to relocate, even if temporarily, its secretariat to a more stable country, should the Egyptian situation deteriorate further.

But getting a definite answer to that question, from the almighty CAF hierarchy, is certainly a hard ask.

For a start, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to seek prompt, well-reasoned answers from a governing body whose communications department, not known for its efficiency over the last two decades, has been without leadership for the past year.

Since Suleimanu Habuba ‘resigned’ from his post as Communications Director in July last year, after nine years in the job, the department, supposed to be at the nerve-centre of CAF’s relations with the wider world, has gone further adrift.

With no clear-cut, demonstrable strategy, on how to engage the media and, by extension, the wider community, on the important issues that affect the management and development of the African game, accurate analysis of CAF’s inner workings, without developing ‘direct access’ to those at its top table – which is no easy task, I can tell you – is impossible.

As one of its executive committee members admitted to me, during a lengthy conversation at the last Cup of Nations in South Africa, the prevailing attitude within the organisation, of seeing its critics as ‘enemies of the African football family’, is counterproductive.

“When people outside of CAF criticise the way the organisation is managed, the most important thing that our officials should think about is whether there is any merit in what is being said about us.

“If there is, we should think of how to tackle the criticism, by finding solutions to the problems that have been pointed out,” he said.

Respected by right-thinking followers of the African game as being one of the articulate, serious-minded people on the executive committee, he went on to say what might be regarded as heresy from the ‘old guard’, who are happy with the status quo.

“From what I have seen within CAF, there is no question that we need a serious infusion of experienced and skilled manpower to improve the quality of governance.

“That might mean bringing in people that have been critical of the way that CAF has managed its affairs in the past.

“There are many people within the organisation that would find what I am saying very hard to swallow. They are clearly happy with the way things are. But the issue must always be getting the best people for the job. Or African football will never fulfil its potential.

“Football is advancing in other parts of the world and if CAF does not hire the very best people within the continent to ensure that we can run a first-class operation, we will be left further behind.”

But even with the right calibre of staff, which CAF is clearly lacking in certain areas, no organisation can function effectively if it is domiciled in a country fraught with turmoil.

Whilst hoping that Egyptians are able, as soon as possible, to agree on a roadmap that would bring lasting peace to the troubled country, CAF’s mandarins would be failing in their duties to the continent if the crisis in its host country has not compelled them to think about its future there.

As JRR Tolkien, the writer of The Lord of the Rings observed: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

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.l1660700248labto1660700248ofdlr1660700248owedi1660700248sni@a1660700248nawui1660700248yabo.1660700248usaso1660700248

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.