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Brinkmanship Vs Lost opportunities at SLFA

By Isaac Massaquoi

An uneasy calm appears to be holding between the two factions fighting for control of the Sierra Leone Football Association since their last meeting with President Ernest Bai Koroma at State House. Once again, the president has been forced to personally intervene in the affairs of the Sierra Leone Football Association.

The State House press release announcing the peace deal was keen to stress the point that Koroma acted in his role as president of the National Sports Council. I understand that, but frankly, from as far back as I can remember the minister in charge of sports has always performed that role. Presidents have only had cause to move in during a crisis. And Sierra Leone Football is in deep crisis.

Late former President Kabbah also directly intervened once when his sports minister Dr. Dennis Bright suspended the SLFA. Facing the sometimes irrational threat of a FIFA ban, Kabbah instructed Bright to restore the SLFA and allow them run their affairs. The reasons for Bright's decision to dissolve the SLFA are well documented but, then as now, FIFA acted in a stereotypical manner.

In the current situation, Minister Paul Kamara lost his independence more than a year ago so it has had to take two meetings in as many weeks between Koroma and the squabbling football administrators to temporarily halt the civil war that has destroyed the nation's most loved sport. And there's no doubt that Koroma acted to stop FIFA from banning Sierra Leone from football. For a president who only two years ago went all over the country campaigning with a football in hand to endear himself to young people, a FIFA ban would have badly hurt whatever is left of his political fortunes.

I have to be very honest with President Koroma, he may have staved off a FIFA ban but the damage done to our football already is immense. And the only reason we are where we are today is that one year ago, justice was not allowed to take its course in that SLFA election by which Isha Johansen took power. It was a flawed election. I am not the only one saying that. People who benefitted from the process and served in the Executive Committee of the SLFA have in recent times gone on nationwide radio to confirm what people like us have been saying all the while.

I am sure when the president appointed Paul Kamara to the ministry of sports he considered the man's passion for football in particular. Kamara had served as manager of the national football team and in fact owned a first division side. Wellington People Football Club was certainly not the best in the country but they held their own very well among the big guys, producing some young boys who found their way into the rich leagues of Europe.

It is also a fact that Kamara had a very bitter experience as he campaigned for a reform of the management of football in Sierra Leone when Justice Tolla Thompson was president of the SLFA.  There's no point going over all those gory details again but that experience should help us understand why Kamara arrived at Bishop House with a puritanical zeal to clean up the SLFA quickly and then tie the national football team firmly to his idiosyncratic leash.

Before writing this piece, I spent an hour listening to bits of the many tempestuous interviews he gave to many radio stations before the controversial SLFA election. Kamara went to extraordinary lengths to virtually install the current administration at Kingtom. It was unprecedented.

Now back to the State House deal. Implementing the agreement will never be as easy and straight forward as the State House meetings themselves. Isha Johansen is hoping, perhaps praying that her brinkmanship helps her retain the crown. By getting the congress to take place in April, she intends to infiltrate and divide the ramshackle alliance that tried to impeach her recently using more carrots than stick. Otherwise, why should an SLFA president who had planned to call a congress at the end of January now push for that same congress to take place in April even amid protests from her opponents?

Mrs. Johansen knows deep down that the opposition alliance is vulnerable because of the private ambitions of some of their main characters. I have been given credible evidence, including audio recordings that confirm my suspicion that cracks are already emerging. The carrots are too juicy for some people to ignore.

Those opposing Johansen are an eclectic bunch of football administrators, club owners and people who have gained recognition and prominence from just hanging around the game either as former footballers and welfare or protocol officers. They travel abroad with the national team, they are involved in local and international player transfers and so on. That's the way they survive. They are not going to tolerate any SLFA president trying to close that supply line down.

They call themselves stakeholders. The SLFA doesn't quite like that name but I think they hold big stakes in the game. They have put a lot of money and time in football clubs. In a country where players are paid ridiculous wages, a club owner is never surprised when on the eve of a very crucial match two or three of their best plays turn up at their doorstep in the morning to say they needed money to settle family matters otherwise they wouldn't be part of the match with just hours to the game. That's Sierra Leone Football administration for you.

So clearly, the stakeholders who announced the impeachment of Mrs. Johansen recently have come to the conclusion that their vital interests were under attack now more than ever before. And unless a lot of carrots and firm promises of more are offered between now and April, Mrs. Johansen will definitely be now formally impeached at her own congress.

One year ago, these same stakeholders lost an opportunity to stamp their authority on the SLFA secretariat. For some, their abiding desire to stop Rodney Michael or anybody remotely connected to him physically or otherwise, got the better of them.

At least one of them went on radio and told the nation that Michael was the best candidate for the job but he wouldn't be voting for him. I still don't understand that logic in a 21st century world.

As for those who stood by Michael and friends, they committed suicide by pulling out of the elective congress believing the process would collapse. Now they realise they scored an incredible own goal that could confine them to the margins of football administration at SLFA headquarters for at least the next three years.

I am amazed that none of Michael's strategists was able to figure out what FIFA had in mind when they set up and paid for a so-called Normalisation Committee soon after those politically-motivated resignations by the ineffective Nahim Khadi and some of his Executive Committee members only days before their terms of office were due to expire. At least one of those Khadi men who resigned, quickly put his name back on the ballot once the so-called Normalisation Committee had cleared the way. That's the extent to which some people can go just to score political goals.

The long suffering football fans have had to watch all this unfold from the sidelines. Football has collapsed in Sierra Leone. I know Ebola played a part but let's face it, many fans had already voted with their feet from the national stadium long before the deadly disease struck mid last year. Even international matches were very poorly attended.

We stand now on the brink of what I believe is the last chance to save Sierra Leone football. The congress in April, sanctioned by State House must be done democratically. Any attempt to re-enact what happened at the police officers’ canteen a year ago would cause the whole congress to descend into a farce. That venue must be changed this time. Let the impression not be created that the police can only keep the peace in their own backyard. I know the stakes in SLAJ are not as high as those in the SLFA but all SLAJ annual meetings are normally held in open halls and we always make a point not to invite the police to secure our elections. There has never been any complaint of rigging in SLAJ.

I have never personally met Dr. Patrick Coker of the NOC who will supervise the process but some of his friends and patients have told me he is a man of good character. I believe them.

The task assigned to him by the state is not an easy one. He will be dealing with manipulative football administrators and their grassroots supporters who, for most of the time, are irascible and prone to violence. The rules of the game must be clear and acceptable to all parties. He must keep the media informed at all times by means of press releases signed by him alone.

I wish Dr. Coker all the best. Let's see how we conclude this.

© Politico 04/02/15