ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Issa Hayatou sat in the lobby of the Sheraton Addis Ababa, alone and pensieve. It was around 11pm on Tuesday. The lobby was not exactly empty, but definitely not as busy as before. His look was blank. Inscrutable.
It was impossible to know what he was thinking. Now and then a football official would spot him, saunter over and pay respects. But it was clear the 70 year old wanted to be alone. Soon, he got up, rather sprightly, and walked away into the lift, and up into the catacombs of the hotel.
For the first time in almost three decades, the Cameroonian faces the sternest test to his legitimacy as head of African football. There is a standing joke here that in his previous seven victories, the Cameroonian would have been asleep by 10pm, getting much needed rest while his lieutenants did the canvassing for him.
An extraordinary election
This time, the very unpredictable nature of this potentially historic ballot means he has been up every night making sure things go his way; that the lobbying goes according to plan; that the required numbers are secured for another term in office.
“For the first time we have a contest. For the first time we have an election where the challenger has covered some serious ground,” said Duro Ikhazuagbe, a journalist with This Day in Nigeria.
“It is worth noting that in the past Hayatou did not come against a wind of change such as he is now, and I think that is what bothers him, too,” offered Tony Ubani of Vanguard Nigeria.
Hayatou’s electoral record is formidable. In 2000, the effervescent Armando Machado from Angola alleged that the Cameroonian was persona non grata among African football officials.
By the end of the poll the verdict was a resounding 47-4 thrashing. A former Hayatou ally, Ismail Bhamjee of Botswana, also defected, went solo and managed to get on the ballot paper. His reward was a 46-6 mauling.
“I know I have the trust of my people. I know what I have done for Africa, and Africa will not disappoint,” said Hayatou, in a quiet, commanding tone. Speaking at a symposium here at the African Union Headquarters, he reminded delegates seated it was he, who had best represented the interests of the continent at the global level since taking power in 1988.
“We need change in key areas, yes. But which of you can stand up and say you can do so with a wave of the finger? The change we need is happening, and we met keep our eyes on the prize,” he said.
The change agent, Gianni?
Someone who knows a lot about change is Fifa boss Gianni Infantino, whose shadow has loomed large over these polls. The Swiss-Italian has done everything in the background to back Ahmad Ahmad, the Madagascar FA boss challenging Hayatou. “The people want change, and that is clear,” Ahmad, 57, told Joy Sports on Wednesday.
“We need a new direction because now the continent is really underachieving.”
He was a figure of calm on Wednesday evening at a gala dinner to fete delegates and guests to these polls at the Sheraton. And when his ally, Infantino entered the lobby, an air of celebrity was palpable as they courted votes through the pristine surroundings. But both men were careful not to be seen together too often, preferring to give an impression of aloofness.
As with all political arenas, pretence is the order of the day – at least when in public. Infantino had selfie opportunities, handshakes, loud guffaws, and quiet, conspiratorial winks; they all melted into each other as everyone exuded an air of friendliness.
The reality is anything, but. Because Africa, under Hayatou’s direction, had opposed Infantino at last year’s Fifa elections after the ousting of Sepp Blatter, there has been disquiet between the world football governing body and the continent. “Look here, we will not allow anyone from Europe to cause confusion in Africa,” said an impassioned Nascimento to me on Wednesday, clearly speaking of Infantino’s influence.
The president of the Guinea Bissau FA, he has been one of the few vocal supporters of the incumbent in a race where many have been unable to openly declare their vote.
“We know where the people who oppose Hayatou are getting their confidence from, but what I can tell you is that they will be surprised when the results come,” he said.
Who votes where?
Ahmad’s camp have been almost cocksure about getting 30 of the 54 votes available. That’s an incredibly ambitious number, especially against a seasoned warrior like Hayatou. Yes, Southern Africa’s COSAFA have pledged to go behind Ahmad. So have Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and, it turns out, Ghana.
But Hayatou loyalists like Fousena Leiba Djagba, a permanent fixture on the African football political scene, believe the talk from the opposing camp is just bluster. “Hayatou has not gotten this far by chance, and to be beaten so badly in elections. His power is in his ability to sway people when it matters.”
That time will be on Thursday afternoon local time. In a surprising move, the agenda for the day changed as the elections will be held as the first item on the itinerary. Standard practice has been that it is normally the last. No explanation has been given for the change.
The Nyantakyi angle
Ghana FA boss Kwesi Nyantakyi has been very busy in the last several days. Widely seen as someone who will wield power in some form very soon, the Ghanaian has the ear of key football actors on the continent. Long seen as a Hayatou pet, it seems Nyantakyi has shifted camp.
On Wednesday, he was seen many times in the company of pro-Ahmad loyalists, even attending COSAFA meetings at the Radisson Blu hotel. It therefore was not a surprise as news gained grounds that should the Malagasy win the polls, Nyantakyi is a heavy favorite to become a CAF Vice President.
“I will speak only after the elections,” he said when asked of his stance, with that disarming smile of his.
What is clear as we monitor the posture and utterances of the politicians here is that whoever gets the mandate to lead Africa would have worked very hard for it. The tension around the hotels where the football elite have been ensconced in Ethiopian capital has been unmistakable.
And it’s likely that in the postmortem, after the scale of betrayal and intrigue has become clear, there will be some classic political bloodletting.
Assisting Joy Sports editor Gary Al-Smith is covering the 39th CAF General Assembly and elections in Addis Ababa for the Multimedia Group.