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All hands on deck to save Kenyan football stranded at the high seas

Friday March 20 2020
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An aerial shot of Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi on June 27, 2019. The stadium, popular for hosting high profile football matches in the country, has been closed since — wait for this — 2016, for renovations. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT |

By ROY GACHUHI

All hands on deck is an expression of naval origin made by the captain of a stricken ship. It required all sailors on board to stop what they were doing and immediately report to the deck to help navigate the vessel through a storm or whatever other emergency it was in.

Kenyan football is in a similar situation. It is in a life-threatening state, showing weak spasms of movement here and there, and if Football Kenya Federation is allowed to continue at the helm alone, our football will die.

Some people actually think it is already dead but to me there is still a feeble pulse. However, without further loss of time, it must be all hands on deck now before it succumbs to mismanagement and incompetence.

Never in the history of this country has our national sport been in such a bad state. Even in the amateur days when players sometimes staged coups against their elected officials, livelihoods were not an issue.

Today, players are going without food. And these are players, so-called professionals, who depend entirely on their football career to feed themselves and their families. If this is not an emergency, what is?

Imagine watching an award-winning photograph of yourself scoring a goal or saving one on the morning that red-eyed street toughs wielding huge padlocks and chains come to lock your house because you have defaulted on rent payment despite several reminders.

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You are two diametrically different people at the same time: one is a national asset who bears our flag on international duty and the other is a man who cannot provide for his family through no fault of his own but because of the incompetence, arrogance and possible corruption of others. What kind of life is this?

In all my career, I can’t remember reporting on a match where the home team gave its visitors a walkover because it could not afford to host them.

In fact, the problems I covered revolved around clubs splitting into two with each claiming to be the bona fide team.

There were walkovers all right but that was because of disagreements over who should play; sometimes exasperated referees blew the final whistle after 10 minutes just to break the deadlock. In other words, there was too much football, not too little of it.

And despite passing the hat around to raise money, teams still managed to travel to other towns, the wrangle-ridden ones causing mayhem over who the match officials should admit into the pitch. The history of our game shows that some of the best known teams, although now long dead, were actually splinter sides. Think about that kind of vibrancy.

Today, some home teams can’t raise a side. What is more, even our most popular clubs are now practically destitute. They beg their players to play after scrounging around for somebody’s lose change so as to make partial payments.

This has been made to look normal and it isn’t. It is utterly abnormal. If the federation cannot attract sponsors for the most popular game in Kenya and the world, its raison d'être ceases. It should go home at once. It is a deadweight on the country.

Football Kenya Federation is currently grappling with a debt of Sh109 owed to former Harambee Stars coach Adel Amrouche. Its president, Nick Mwendwa, who all facts show wilfully got Kenya into that hole, wants the public to foot that bill.

It is one of the most obnoxious habits by far too many public officials in Kenya. Without even the slightest pretence to any modicum of responsibility, they transfer personal misconduct to overtaxed Kenyans to deal with.

One world leader whose views I could never stomach was the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But she once made a speech on taxes whose contents I filed somewhere.

She said: “Let us never forget this fundamental truth — the State has no source of money other than the money people earn themselves. If the State wishes to spend more it can do so only by borrowing your savings or by taxing you more. And it is no good thinking someone else will pay. That someone else is you. There is no such thing as public money; there is only taxpayers’ money. And no nation ever grew more prosperous by taxing its citizens beyond their capacity to pay.”

When Nick Mwendwa asked the government to foot Adel Amrouche’s bill, the government should have responded by surcharging him with the same.

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Harambee Stars coach Adel Amrouche gives instructions to players from the touch-line during their GOtv Cecafa Senior Challenge Group A match East against South Sudan on November 30, 2013 at Nyayo Stadium. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The government has no money for such a purpose and Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed was right on the ball when she told him as much.

That money is Nick Mwendwa’s debt to pay and if he cannot do that, he should be dealt with as the law demands. Nothing less, nothing more.

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Football Kenya Federation president (FKF) Nick Mwendwa address delegates during the Special General Meeting at Safari Park hotel, Nairobi on January 28, 2020. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU |

I asked Sam Nyamweya how Kenya came by this bill which his successor at FKF wants us to pay. He told me: “Adel Amrouche had a valid contract with us. But when he was suspended by CAF, it became imperative to hire somebody else to handle the national team. That is why we turned to Bobby Williamson. But I made it clear to him that he was with us on a temporary basis pending the return of Adel.

“This is what I said to Nick. I told him that to terminate Adel, he had to pay him. To continue with him, he had to pay him. So it was a question of whether he wanted to pay him to work or not to work because either way, he was going to pay him.

“But once in office, Nick arbitrarily threw everything out of the window and brought in his own man, Stanley Okumbi. The millions FKF was going to pay Adel were a forgone conclusion from day one. It was not a question of if but when and how much.”

Kenya’s football scene is completely desolate. In a manner of speaking, the clubs and their players are dead men walking. The stadiums they play in are virtually empty.

The sponsors are gone. One of the two main stadiums in the country has not been available for more than two years and the other one is usually only free after a struggle. Its surface, when it rains, turns into a mud bath while its roofs gush in floods. And the federation has nothing to say about all this to the government even as its city-based teams travel distances out of town, digging into bare pockets to stage their matches.

The federation, reeling under a mountain of self-inflicted debt, exists to exist. Its primary goal is self-preservation, not service provision. That is why it concocted a raft of rules to disbar everyone but its own to run for its presidency.

But thank goodness there was a Sports Disputes Tribunal to call it out. As things stand in the country today, if FKF is allowed to continue at the helm of Kenyan football, we must give up on our future which will continue to belong to other Africans — Algerians, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Senegalese and practically everyone else.

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Sports Disputes Tribunal chairman John Ohaga delivers the ruling on December 2, 2019 in Nairobi. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |

This is untenable. It cannot and should not be allowed.

We cannot wait for the captain to shout ‘All hands on deck!’ He won’t. He would rather the ship sinks than part with the controls.

We must seize the deck and assume control of the vessel. The time for a normalisation committee is now because the term of the present office has already expired.

**** **** ****

I have been a voracious consumer of books by African writers. One of the novels I enjoyed the most was Elechi Amadi’s The Great Ponds. In an early scene, Ejimole, a prisoner held captive for poaching fish in the Pond of Wagaba, decries the conditions of his captivity:

“This treatment is worse than death,” he sobs.

His captor is unmoved. “Don’t be too sure,” he tells Ejimole. “At any rate, death is not always the worst thing that can happen to a man.”

What begins as a fight between two villages over control of fish ponds gradually turns into their own devastation by a mysterious disease. People die one by one and it is gut-wrenching. Nobody is able to stop the deaths. Grave after grave fills up.

From the anonymous villager to the chief, the society is grappling in the dark, trying this and that for a cure, praying to this or that god. They are helpless. The very last paragraph of the novel reads:

“But it was only the beginning. Wonjo, as the villagers called the Great Influenza of 1918, was to claim a grand total of some twenty million lives all over the world.” This week, I googled this occurrence and various sources put the deaths at between 50 and 100 million.

The Great Ponds, a compelling work of literature by one of Africa’s most elegant writers in my estimation, is now haunting me and I will admit that I can’t remember the last time I have spent days on end holed up in my house in such low spirits. A mysterious disease called coronavirus is upon us and it is consuming people one by one all over the world at a frightening rate.

It has shut down the world and I am very sad, no matter how I try to raise up my spirits. The figures of people expected to die that experts are putting across are more or less those claimed by Wonjo.

Who among us will live and who will die? And we are being told that a vaccine is 12-18 months away. The sense of helplessness is crushing. Death is not always the worst thing that can happen to a man? Of course. Doesn’t knowing if you will be one of the statistics mean just that?

Covid-19, go away. Now!

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