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Race to run Africa’s football confederation has just heated up. What’s at play

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South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe’s intention to contest for the presidency of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will make for an interesting run up to the March 12 election. Until he announced his intention it appeared that Ahmad Ahmad, the Malagasy who currently leads the organisation, would be a shoo-in.

He had already secured support from 46 of the 54 member countries. Motsepe’s entry is bound to instigate a rethink.

The president of CAF has immense powers, which include representing the continent at the highest committees for global football decision making at the International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA). He or she serves on the FIFA Council and as an Executive Vice President of FIFA. CAF presidents set the direction for football on the continent. They serve a four year term and the highly coveted position often attracts support based on regional coalitions and language alignments.

At present there are three contestants besides Ahmad and Motsepe. They are the Ivorian Jacques Anouma, a former member FIFA’s executive committee; Augustin Senghor of Senegal; and Mauritania’s Ahmed Yahya. Two others have withdrawn: Tunisia’s Tarek Bouchamoui, was reportedly blocked by Tunisia’s Football Federation, and Nigeria’s Pinnick Amaju, who is backing Motsepe.

The drama has only begun. More can be expected before the election on March 12. Political alignments and coalitions can be expected to change quickly as the election draws close. The changes may also be influenced by alleged horse trading of positions and favours.

This particular election is clouded by the fact that there are investigations into Ahmad. In addition, the organisation is at a crossroads after losing the primary sponsor for its premier competitions.

The president elected in March will face several major tasks. The most important will be to sign a respectable media contract for its continental competitions and to restore confidence in the organisation.

Ahmad Ahmad

Ahmad became president after a late coalition against the prolonged leadership of former president Issa Hayatou of Cameroon. Ahmad, elected as president in March 2017, has been in office for four years. He has been a member of CAF’s Executive Committee since 2013. But he has run into problems during his tenure. These include accusations of impropriety in a CAF equipment supplying contract awarded to a company owned by a friend of his. PricewaterhouseCoopers also reportedly found unreceipted expenditure of $24 million.

There have also been reported sexual harassment complaints. Ahmad has denied these accusations.

In the boardroom, there were bungled decisions following an ill-tempered African Champions League final between Morocco’s Wydad and Tunisia’s Esperance, and a decision to pull out of a marketing contract with Largadere Sports and Entertainment without a substitute marketer in place.

FIFA has investigated some of these issues and results are awaited. FIFA also sent its secretary-general, Fatma Samoura, to straighten out the finances.

These missteps make it clear that Ahmad Ahmad will have challengers as he seeks a second term in office. A previous ally, Amaju has publicly announced support for Motsepe.

Ahmad is not a novice to politics. He is vice-president of his country’s senate and at CAF he has dealt with adversaries summarily and co-opted supporters. To gauge support from within CAF’s executive, he recently demanded and received written support from 46 of the continent’s 54 associations for his second run for office.

Yet he’s not sure to return as president of CAF. FIFA’s investigation results are pending and could have severe consequences. This includes long term or life banishment.

What’s more, his tenure has rubbed up some members the wrong way. For instance, in July 2019, Ahmad engineered the removal of Nigeria’s Amaju Pinnick from the CAF vice-presidency position. Nigeria has now joined four other countries – Sierra Leone, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana – to declare support for Motsepe.

The other contenders

Ivory Coast and some of the French speaking countries are likely to rally behind Anouma. It’s not his first attempt to get this job. He tried in 2012, but was politically out-manouevred by Hayatou. Hayatou introduced a rule that barred non-voting members of the CAF board from running for the presidency. It prevented Anouma from contesting.

The rule was eliminated under Ahmad, opening the door for Anouma to put his name forward.

Motsepe appears in a much stronger position than Anouma – at least at this early stage. Anouma is considered part of the old guard that held sway during the long years of Hayatou’s rule. Nevertheless, Motsepe still faces major obstacles. While his club, Mamelodi Sundowns, is an example of successful club ownership, it hasn’t proved his football administration skills.

As a mining executive he clearly has the business background. But the CAF job requires political rather than business manoeuvring. The question is: would he be able to combine his business skills with politics?

Ahmad Yahya is an intriguing option. At 44, he is a shipping magnate and heads the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Under his leadership, Mauritania has played in the African Nations’ Championship as well as the more prestigious Africa Cup of Nations. These two achievements were quite unexpected for the country.

Beyond the field, he has built a modern headquarters for his federation and an academy, received a CAF award for leadership excellence, and received accolades from FIFA as an exemplar for African football.

Yet his candidacy may be considered early and his ability to navigate the thorny landscape of African football politics could be challenged.

Ahmad must still be considered the front runner. To pass him will require his opponents working together to support a single opposition candidate and canvass around the continent within a short period to have a chance of having a new CAF leader in March.