Who sets Africa’s agenda? Its elected leaders? Or Europeans?

“We must find an African solution to our problems”Kwame Nkrumah (Prime Minister of Ghana, 1957-1966)

Anyone with an acute sense of history will remember how, in the late 1980s, the master-servant relationship between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Western financial institutions, on the one hand, and financially troubled African nations on the other, led to the imposition of flawed ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ (SAP) that devastated the economies of the countries that borrowed money under these onerous SAP terms and conditions. 

African governments could only obtain loans from international banks after they had their economies re-engineered, by the IMF’s European and American economists and econometrists, who barely knew the continent and the countries they were taking life-changing decisions about.

The warped policies that resulted from the IMF’s monetary and economic think-tanks inflicted devastating wounds on the continent, from which many nations are yet to fully recover.

A painful lesson, from this horrendous economic misadventure, was that Africa’s nations must deal with their own economic problems and chart the right course for themselves, only seeking international help that assists them in meeting their own development targets.

This is for the simple – but obvious – reason that outsiders cannot understand Africa’s problems – and the solutions to those problems better than Africans can, as they live with and bear the harsh brunt of these problems.

It is in this historical context that FIFA President’s Gianni Infantino’s $1 billion ‘Master plan for African football’, as announced in Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, should be put under intense scrutiny and even taken with a huge pinch of salt.

Under this grand plan, a stadium meeting FIFA’s specifications would be built in every country.

“We want to bring it (Africa) to the highest of heights and show the world the outstanding talent and amazingly gifted players your continent possesses,” said Infantino.

“To do this, we want to implement a three pillar approach: refereeing, infrastructure and competitions, in close co-operation with CAF, all of its 54 member associations across Africa and other stakeholders. I am positive that we will make African football reach the top level where it should be because the quality and potential are definitely here.”

Infantino also wants to establish a pan-African league with the best 20 clubs, an idea that a far more prosperous UEFA is fighting against, on its own turf.

It is poetically ironic that as UEFA Secretary General, Infantino led the fight against the big European clubs pushing to impose this idea, because of the financial damage it could cause to European football’s eco-system, as a whole.

“We have to take the 20 best African clubs and put them in an Africa league,” said Infantino. “Such a league could make at least $200 million in revenue, which would put it among the top 10 in the world.”

The ‘Lubumbashi Declaration’ had big thoughts from the FIFA President. But for whose benefit are they?

The announcement of these plans, whilst visiting TP Mazembe, currently celebrating its 80thanniversary, has certainly taken the wider African football community by surprise, because there was clearly no consultation outside of CAF’s Cairo bubble.

When Africa had its football symposium, in 2017, in Morocco, to articulate the course the continent should take for its development, the pathway now being laid out by Infantino was never discussed or stated by Africa’s football leaders as its preference.

There is no doubt that African football is in need of decent infrastructure. But the bigger problem, at the moment, is the poor maintenance of the infrastructure that currently exists throughout the continent.

As any experienced chronicler of the African game knows well, existing stadia, even in some of the continent’s biggest football nations are rotting away, with Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, being a prime example.

The two main stadia in the country – the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos and the Abuja National Stadium, have been in a state of disgraceful disrepair, for several years.

Gernot Rohr, the manager of Nigeria’s national team, told me that during a recent meeting with Sunday Dare, Nigeria’s Sports Minister, he was promised that the football pitches in both stadia, neglected for years, would be fixed within three months, which would be by the end of February 2020.

We shall see if that promise, serially broken by Dare’s predecessors for several years, is finally kept.

Nigeria’s situation is replicated in countries like Ghana, Cameroon, Angola, Gabon and others, where expensive stadia were built to host the AFCON without the needed sustainability and long-term maintenance questions being asked and answered, which subsequently results in expensively built stadia rotting away.

There is clearly no point in building more ‘White Elephant’ projects when existing ones are not looked after. It’s far more important for African nations to maintain the football infrastructure it has rather than build new ones that will end up going the tragic way of the old.

An African Super League, as proposed by Infantino, might – and I say might – enrich the 20 clubs involved, with the right marketing and television contracts.

But how does that cascade down to the 54 leagues across the continent, most of which are in dire need of “root and branch” development?

Football in the continent cannot thrive if the leagues across it remain in an unhealthy state. Developing and implementing strategies for financially strong and well-governed leagues is of the utmost importance.

Should FIFA really care about African football, they should help with this urgent problem – but only after the governors of African football, and in consultation with the wider community, have developed their own roadmap.

Since Fatma Samoura assumed office, at the CAF headquarters, as FIFA’s General Delegate for Africa, while still playing her role as the world body’s Secretary-General, the question as to who decides and drives Africa’s football agenda – and for whose benefit – remains an unexamined question.

This is because since Samoura assumed her additional position in August, she has refused, so far, to subject herself or the work she is doing in African football to wider public scrutiny, outside of the power bubbles of Cairo and Zurich.

In a quest to hear and articulate FIFA’s position, regarding governance reform in CAF, I asked Samoura, on October 2, for an interview (she has not granted any interview concerning her African stint, so far).

This was her answer: “Unfortunately, I’ll be in Brazil…to attend the opening of the FIFA U17 WC but if you send me the questions in writing, I’ll respond.”

These are the questions that I have put to Samoura, through her communications adviser Naoise King (our go-between, for several weeks) following her initial promise:

  1. What have been the biggest challenges, as FIFA’s General Delegate for Africa, since she assumed office on August 1st? How has she tackled them?
  2. There is serious criticism that FIFA is behaving in a colonial fashion, by involving itself in the daily affairs of CAF. Why has FIFA felt that it is imperative to do the job that the CAF President and the members of his executive committee were elected by Africa’s 54 federations to do – which is to govern CAF, resolve its problems and chart a solid future for the organisation?
  3. Madam Samoura’s involvement in the centralisation of the 2022 and 2026 World Cup qualifying TV rights, for Africa, has opened her up to “conflict of interest” issues. She signed the offer letter to the 54 African federations as FIFA SG, while she is the FIFA General Delegate to Africa, at the centre of CAF governance reform. How does she justify her involvement in this process, considering the two hats that she wears?
  4. The second Vice-President of CAF, Fouzi Lekjaa, revealed, at a CAF executive committee meeting in June, that CAF will have deficit expenditure of – $6m (minus USD 6 million) by the end of 2019. This has led to speculation that the Confederation of African Football is in a very bad financial state. What are the state of CAF’s finances now, when it had a $150 million cash reserve in March 2017?
  5. FIFA officials, in conjunction with their CAF colleagues, recently met with Lagardere Sport, CAF’s marketing agent, on the fringes of the “FIFA Best” event in Milan, Italy. I have spoken to my sources inside Lagardere and they are telling me that FIFA is trying to strong-arm them into modifying or giving up their 12-year $1 billion contract with CAF. Why did FIFA have a need to meet with the officials of Lagardere?
  6. At the recent FIFA Council meeting, a report was delivered on Madam’s [current] assignment in Egypt. What exactly was said to the members of the Council, who are being briefed about it for the first time?

While the passage of time and some investigative reporting, on my part (which has been on this website) has provided the answer to the fifth question, I am, on December 4, yet to get any answers to the five other questions asked. That speaks volumes about the existing levels of transparency or rather, the disturbing lack of it.

As an FA President, who sits on a key FIFA committee, said in a conversation we had on Tuesday, “it appears that we, the federations that make up the Confederation of African Football, are just passengers in what is going on at the moment.”

“We are not consulted. And it’s even worse when you are not a member of the CAF exco. We just hear of the things that are being done. It is clear that we, the federations, who make up the congress of CAF, which is supposed to be the supreme body of the organisation, really don’t matter in the scheme of things.”

“From where I am standing, the leadership of African football has been captured by FIFA and they are in no position to take any independent position for the continent, at the moment.”

His position, which is a gravely disturbing one, is hard to fault in the prevailing circumstances.

How can African football fight for its interests and political dignity on the global stage, when its leadership have all but confessed their inability to discharge the responsibility they were given in Addis Ababa in March 2017, at the headquarters of the African Union?

As Emmanuel Maradas, the former Editor of the defunct African Soccer Magazine, poignantly observed, over drinks in North London, several months ago, “CAF is 62 years old as an organisation. If you were the father or mother of a 62-year-old person and you saw they were still running around like helpless babies, to seek help to solve things they should be able to manage on their own, would you be happy or sorrowful about such a situation?”

It is a deep and serious question that President Ahmad and his executive committee members should ponder deeply, as the year comes to a close.

Pan-Africanist Frantz Fanon wrote, in his famous book “The Wretched of the Earth” that “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”

Posterity shall be the ultimate judge of the category to which the present generation of African football leaders belong.

As Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, said, “Three things cannot long be hidden – the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. Follow Osasu on Twitter @osasuo