On Monday this week, I read in Nation Sport that Ushuru Football Club players had gone on strike over unpaid bonuses. The National Super League leaders, who are in pole position to return to the SportPesa Premier League, have not been paid their dues from 22 wins and six draws. The players who made this disclosure did not want to be named for fear of victimisation.
I chuckled to myself and turned the page. This is how it’s done these days, downing tools like any other workers; these people are different from their parents, I thought.
Some background. Between the 1960s and 80s, the preferred method of changing African governments was to overthrow them.
As Peter Enahoro, the noted Nigerian journalist wrote, once the notice to vacate State House was written to the serving president, the messenger who delivered it would arrive inside an armoured tank. Kenya flirted with this script in August 1982 before pulling back.
Leaders set examples, and their people follow them. Thus, a change of office bearers even in very small civil societies was more likely to be effected by a coup than through democratic elections in those days.
Kenya football has had more of these than anybody I know can count.
MULTI-CAPPED KENYAN DEFENDER
But it was Abaluhya FC that should take the trophy for the team that pioneered the brutal art of coup making. It happened in 1974.
And the announcement was done in exactly the same way military coup makers did theirs.
On November 20, 1974, Nation Sport readers opened their pages to this report: “Abaluhya FC, a household name in African football, yesterday staged a players’ take-over.
The team “sacked” the present office hours after their second match in Uganda last weekend after going down 0-1 to Cotton Lint.
Jonathan Niva, the assistant national coach and multi-capped Kenya defender, made the announcement yesterday in a Nairobi office. He was flanked by two players, Noah Wanyama and Vincent Mwenje.”
Noah Wanyama is Victor Wanyama’s father. Victor, who plays for the English Premiership side Tottenham Hotspur, is currently Harambee Stars captain. In another forum, Niva could have been speaking as the chairman of some Revolutionary Council. He was a living legend in Kenya football. He started off as a left back and soon perfected the art of overlapping down the wing. This way, his heroics included scoring goals as he stopped others from getting scored.
FIRST-CHOICE PENALTY TAKER
Niva was always the first-choice penalty taker. Later, he made a name for himself as a coach for both his club and the national team. In purely technical terms, he was the complete footballer. But technical aspects are only part of the game. At Abaluhya, being a natural political animal, Niva was a divisive figure and was involved in one controversy or another at any given time.
His most famous run-ins were with the great Daniel Anyanzwa, the libero, with whom he tussled for leadership at the technical bench and Edward Wamalwa, another defender, who made the historic move to Luo Union saying he would never play for Abaluhya again as long as Niva was there. Both Anyanzwa and Wamalwa were internationals.
At the national level, Niva was the stand-in coach for Eckhard Krautzun when Kenya went to the Africa Cup of Nations tournament for the first time in 1972.
He also doubled up as a player during the tournament.
He negated his football expertise by openly favouring players from his Luhya ethnic group when making national team selections and harmony was never a by-word for his Harambee Stars camps. This cost him needless losses including a particularly huge one: in the 1978 Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup in Malawi, his team was hammered 9-0 by Zambia. University of Nairobi students cheering their team during that year’s second All-Africa University Games sighted him and started taunting him: “Niva! 9-0! Niva! Go home!” Niva made haste out of the place. He soon lost his job.
But the Lion with the Mane, as Abaluhya fans fondly referred to him, was always an ever present phenomenon in the club – to the end of his life. In 1974, he was the ubiquitous figure who knew everything there was to know at Abaluhya, much to the chagrin of team officials.
That September, the team had crashed out of the Africa Cup of Champion Clubs tournament at the hands of Egypt’s Mehalla by a 4-1 margin.
They were rocked 3-0 in Cairo and Niva’s penalty in Nairobi in the return leg was too little, too late.
Now Niva, the coup maker in the mould of the experts in uniform, read a seven-point statement while dismissing Chairman Peter Shiyukah’s administration.
The players had lost confidence in their officials who were squarely to blame for the Africa Cup debacle, he announced.
“After we lost the first leg 3-0,” he charged, “the officials were never present during the two weeks we were in residential training for the return leg. They only turned up one day before the match.” He accused them of being in the club for only their personal benefit. They surfaced only when there was a foreign trip to be made eyeing allowances, he charged.
The new interim chairman also claimed the players had not been shown the club’s statement of accounts for the previous four years and were being paid their allowances erratically. Although he released no figures, he claimed the club had raked in “a lot of money in the matches that we have played.” Going forward, the club would open a new bank account and refuse to honour any debts incurred by the ousted committee.
He accused Shiyukah of devoting more time to the affairs of the Kenya Football Federation, of whose executive committee he was a member, than Abaluhya.
Niva’s line-up of officials made fascinating reading.
Up till then, Kenyans were used to reading those names as either starting 11 or reserves during matches.
Now they were administrators! It was exactly like serving military officers taking up political positions.
They were Ali Sabwa (vice-chairman), Chris Chitechi (secretary), Johnstone Madonye (assistant secretary), Noah Wanyama (treasurer), Nashon Machio (assistant treasurer), Edward Wamalwa (team manager), Alfred Akatsa (assistant team manager), Vincent Mwenje (captain) and Joe Kadenge (organising secretary). Mwenje took up a second role as auditor.
Some commentators have made the reasonable hypothesis that by beating down the 1982 coup, Kenya was saved a cycle of coups and counter-coups.
Probably. Since Niva’s coup succeeded, instability has stalked Abaluhya, the present day AFC Leopards, to this day.
There have been more political wrestling matches than material development at the club with each period of truce being the calm before the storm.
A culture of making coups had taken root. In November 1981, Peter Onalo, a long-serving chairman of Hakati FC and survivor of repeated coup attempts, gave me a lengthy interview on life with rebellious players.
At the beginning of the 1980 season, Hakati were rated as one of the championship contenders. They were at one point six points clear at the top of the league standings.
And then disaster struck. Travelling to Nakuru to meet Nakuru Wanderers (formerly Abeingo), the team bus was involved in a crash at the Kikuyu Escarpment.
Many players sustained injuries and the club was given a month’s break from their league commitments. When they returned, they were not the same. Mid-way through the season, it was clear that they had to downgrade their ambitions.
Still, it was thought they could at least make it runners-up. Sadly, things went from bad to worse. They faded out of contention for anything. As the season wound up, it was feared they would be relegated.
As their fortunes nosedived, key players made a bee-line for greener pastures.
In my report of that time, I said: “Some, like Peter “Bassanga” Otieno, arguably Kenya’s best utility player today and Sammy “Jogoo” Onyango, the hard shooter, joined Gor Mahia. Tom Olaba, of heading fame, and Jimmy Odhiambo, joined Limuru’s Bata Bullets. In both quality and quantity, the team was literary stripped of its first eleven.”
But it stayed the course, the fruit of foresighted recruiting.
It still had James “Jacaranda” Ouma, Vincent Otieno and the indefatigable captain, Maxwell Ouma. Of the teams that had been promoted in the 1979 league, Hakati were the only ones who were not relegated again.
And now, were it not for that horrible accident, they were gunning for a place in the African clubs championship.
Yet, as if these problems were not enough, Onalo’s executive was continuously fighting off take-overs led by two players, Tito Ng’ayo and Stanely Wafula.
Together, they loomed large over their colleagues. Constantly in the news with one grievance or another, the players became as famous as their club, maybe even more.
They retained an intimidating effect on the executive committee.
MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS
I asked Onalo why they seemed indispensable. “Why don’t you just expel them?” I asked him. That’s when he gave me the explanation that made me understand.
He said: “You know they come from the area called Hakati in Western Province. The club takes its name from that place. It has a special place in our history and our psychology. This is what makes these two players feel that they are the team itself. To them, they are more equal than the others.
“They always want to have their way in any matter concerning the club. This has created serious problems.
“They have disrupted the running of the club several times. They have announced that they have taken over its leadership. It’s a bad thing for us because they happen to be very good players.”
At that time, Onalo had just announced his resignation as Hakati chairman.
He was trying his luck for the post of secretary in elections of the Kenya Football Federation.
Had he been worn down by the coup makers? No, he told me, he just wanted to do something else.
Somehow, his body language didn’t convince me.