In 1969, without knowing that they were giving a cunning political animal ideas, bureaucrats at the Ministry of Co-operatives and Social Services announced that in the near future, football teams with tribal names would be excluded from Football Association of Kenya-run tournaments.
Specifically, the teams targeted were Abaluhya, Gor Mahia and Ramogi.
Aish Jeneby, the feisty deputy Kenya Sports Officer, released a press statement inviting stakeholders in football for their views on how they wanted to see the game run.
At that time, well before Fifa asserted its iron grip over its affiliates, football was being run by a government-appointed Caretaker Committee.
This committee was slated to give its recommendations on how the game should be managed before handing over to an elected office by December of that year. Ministry officials decided to use that period to re-engineer the landscape of the game in the country.
Acting for his bosses, Jeneby said: “If any of the business firms, government ministries and departments, Armed Forces and other interested parties wish to participate in FA of Kenya tournaments, they should write to the Kenya Sports Officer. Those in the provinces should communicate with our provincial Community Development Officers giving details of their interest and any suggestions which might help in the organisation of such tournaments in Kenya.
“As soon as we hear from the interested parties, a meeting will be held to explain the future plans of such tournaments. If the firms made sure that their players turned out for them in tournaments, tribal sides would be weakened. Some firms have already stated their willingness to participate in our tournaments.”
Jeneby explained that the government didn’t intend to ban the tribal teams but only to weaken them so that they could die a natural death. The plan was to encourage companies participating in FA tournaments to force their players to choose between their employer and their community-based clubs.
On hearing of this plan, the late Kenneth Matiba pounced on it, implemented it at Kenya Breweries where he was Managing Director and Tusker FC was born.
Abaluhya were the first off the blocks in denouncing the government move. They said their membership was open to everyone, as could be seen from their constitution.
Then they went on to curiously analyse which tribes were good at what. “The Kalenjin provide track athletes, the Asian community hockey and cricket players, and the Kikuyu the boxers,” said the Abaluhya statement which dismissed the government plan as an exercise in futility because “even if they implement it, the majority of the players in the commercial teams will still be from the Luhya, Luo and Coastal communities.”
As far as Abaluhya were concerned, the problem with Kenyan football was not tribalism but the FA’s incompetence, bad refereeing and Government disinterest.
Gor Mahia then took over. Mahallon Danga, their indefatigable secretary, told the media: “It is said by the authorities concerned that tribalism can be eradicated by giving commercial sides more of a chance in big time soccer. This is not true. We feel that the advent of commercial sides in major tournaments will lead to the deterioration of Kenya soccer standards. Tribal sides like Abaluhya, Ramogi and Gor Mahia have been responsible for the rise of soccer standards in Kenya and abolishing them would prove disastrous for the country.”
Almost every club with an ethnic base joined in the condemnation chorus. The caretaker committee subsequently convened a conference in Nairobi attended by a cross-section of stakeholders, including ethnic-based and commercial clubs, representatives from government departments and the armed forces.
Jonathan Njenga, its chairman, told the assembled delegates: “The decision to invite commercial sides, Government departments and the armed forces to compete in FA of Kenya tournaments was not meant to stamp out tribalism but to inject more interest in the game across the country. At present, interest in soccer in Kenya is dying mainly because a few clubs monopolise matters in all tournaments. If players were spread out into commercial and other sides, there would be more of a balance, and hence more interest.”
He was met with a chorus by the naysayers. Many told him tribalism would only change in form, but not in substance. The commercial sides would proceed to be dominated by players from one ethnic community despite the company’s neutral-sounding name. Others wondered what exactly was wrong with tribalism. Still others dismissed commercial firms as being solely motivated by profits and not the improvement of the standards of the game.
After this, the government quietly engaged the reverse gear and nothing more of the plan was heard. Significantly, it must be pointed out that this was a move, whatever its merits and flaws, by ministry bureaucrats with no political agenda of any kind. It was their idea of improving local football as they saw fit.
But one man whose every breathe was politics must have been quietly impressed. And in his plans to rule Kenya, he filed this scheme securely at the back of his mind.
Vice President Daniel arap Moi succeeded Mzee Jomo Kenyatta as President of Kenya in 1978 against a backdrop of huge ethnic balkanization of the country.
The Gikuyu Embu Meru Association, or Gema for short, was practically the ruling party under the ageing president. Its officials had no time for him and many were the humiliations and indignities he suffered in their hands.
Moi had barely warmed the presidential chair than he moved to decapitate the heads of those who had sought to check his political career. In 1980, he convened a leaders’ conference at the Kenya Institute of Administration. Hardly anybody remembers anything that came out of that conference other than a single decree: that all tribal associations disband themselves and that associations with tribal names change them to reflect “a national outlook.”
As political organisations like Gema and Luo Union fell like dominoes, the Kenya National Sports Council announced that the directive applied to sports associations as well. All clubs with ethnic names, therefore, were to change them to reflect the new order.
Goan Institute became Nairobi Institute. Sikh Union became Simba Union. Maragoli FC became Imara FC. Ramogi FC became Lake Warriors. Gema FC became Transcom FC — the list was endless.
And in November 1980, with immense suffering and great reluctance, Abaluhya FC became All Footballers Cooperative Leopards Sports Club — or AFC Leopards for short, as it is still known today. To many faithful, something akin to death had just occurred and tears flowed. It was a time of overpowering emotions.
As Kenya’s absolute ruler, President Moi was Number One everything good. He was Farmer Number One, Teacher Number One, Sportsman Number One etc. You crossed him at your peril. Thus, sorrowful club officials could only praise his “immense wisdom” and pledge their total loyalty to him and to his Nyayo philosophy of peace, love and unity.
But Gor Mahia, riding high as national and East and Central Africa Club Cup champions, said theirs was not a tribal name. They said it was the name of a person and they should be allowed to keep it. In December 1980, Jeremiah Nyagah, then the Minister for Culture and Social Services, agreed with them and said Gor Mahia should keep its name.
This was music to Green Army ears. But not so fast. The KNSC, under chairman Charles Mukora, soon started piling pressure on the team to change its name as Nyagah went silent, probably unsure about whether there was a hidden hand behind Mukora’s intransigence.
In March 1981, Gor Mahia members convened a special general meeting at the Kaloleni Social Hall. Like their Abaluhya FC (AFC) counterparts before them and in the self-same venue, Gor Mahia faithful had come up with their own version of Gor. The name Gulf Olympic Rangers, or Gor for short, was floated to placate the mystery forces in government who were pursuing them.
But as soon as he uttered the name, David Opar, the club chairman, fainted on the podium. He had started telling members of the immense frustrations the club was enduring “despite flying the country’s flag high” when he broke down weeping. Then he collapsed. He was carried out of the hall for first aid. Responders used their shirts to fan him back to consciousness.
Meanwhile, chaos reigned in the hall. One member asked: “What is the difference between Bata FC, Brollo FC and Gor Mahia FC? Why should the other names be accepted and not that of Gor Mahia? All belong to people!” Strong point.
The meeting broke up without coming to a resolution. All this time, months into the controversy, President Moi kept his counsel. He was a man who commented on even the most mundane happenings in far flung villages, such as the doings of a witch doctor named Kajiwe at the Coast and how he was disturbing the local women. But in this case, he just let people stew in their recriminations.
Then, on March 11, returning from a visit to Nigeria, he made another of his (in) famous saviour-from-on-high declarations: Gor Mahia were to keep their name! On landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, he decreed that there was nothing tribal about the club’s name.
Chants of “Nyayo! Nyayo! Nyayo!” rent the air. The president had a habit of declaring a debate closed but in this case, he didn’t interrupt the praises sung to him. As on so many occasions in his long political career, he was enjoying the last laugh. The campaign against tribal names had nothing to do with nationalism and everything to breaking the backbone of his old nemeses, Gema.
He succeeded and its leading lights, such as one Kihika Kimani, who had described him as a passing cloud, went to jail.
The Gor Mahia episode brought to heel a querulous constituency. It made them sing his tune, as he liked to say.
Compared with 1969 when civil servants were genuinely thinking about the country’s football, this was just raw politics.
Yet, in the fullness of time, there has been a convergence. Since the 1980s directive, Kenya football has been dominated by commercial clubs and sometimes, one from the defence forces. But despite their relative financial strength, they have not been able to build any substantial following.
Conversely, AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia, even at their lowest, still rule the terraces. Today, few dozing prey may bother waking up on hearing that AFC Leopards, whose shaky canine teeth lost bite decades ago, are on the prowl. But Leopards are still wildly more popular than the well-endowed Tusker.
And as popularity goes, even Shabana will easily consume Tusker when they make their Premiership return. Stima, whether Western or from anywhere else, can never electrify the fans. But Feisal, Mwenge, Hakati and Meru Bombers will. And if Tusker has been drawing paltry crowds since 1973, the case of bankers and soldiers is even more bleak.
Do community-based football clubs hold the key to raising our passions and standards? Maybe.