Birth of Leopards, ‘Sirkal’ during ‘season of mischief’

By Robin Toskin: Friday, November 8th 2019 at 00:00 GMT +3 | Football
AFC Leopards fans follow proceedings during their Kenya Premier League match against Gor Mahia at the Nyayo Stadium on October 23, 2016. [Stafford Ondego/]

Ahead of the 87th fixture between Gor Mahia and eternal rivals AFC Leopards in the Kenyan Premier League on Sunday, former AFC Leopards chairman Dr Walter Masiga has re-ignited the conversation around the “season of mischief” that occurred sometime in 1981 and which would change the history of both clubs.

Keen to forge a united Kenya, former President Daniel Arap Moi directed that all football clubs drop tribal names – an ultimatum that posed a serious existential threat to both Gor Mahia and Abaluhya Football Club.

While Abaluhya Football Club were left scouring the country for a name, eventually settling on the mouthful ‘All Footballers Co-operative (AFC) Leopards’, Gor Mahia chairman at the time, David Opar, turned to their political leadership to save the inimitable moniker they are known by today.

“It took the persuasion of the likes of Dr Robert Ouko and Okiki Amayo (then KANU chairman) to save Gor from changing to Gulf Olympic Rangers, which had been mooted had the worst came to the worst," Gor Mahia CEO Lordvick Aduda said yesterday. "These eminent leaders convinced President Moi that Gor Mahia was a name of a person and not a tribal grouping." 

“President Moi assented and on the day he was leaving for Nigeria, midway through the airstairs, Mzee turned around and declared ‘let Gor Mahia name remain’. The news was received with applause and shortly thereafter the name ‘Sirkal’ (government) was born,” Aduda said. "That is how Gor Mahia got the name Sirkal." 

Abaluhya Football Club were not so lucky. The Luhya tag had to be shed. Dr Masiga says in his newly released autobiography: The Old Lion of Africa, an autobiography, club officials had to act fast to appease the then dreaded Special Branch operatives.

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In the autobiography, the renowned scientist associated with the eradication of Rinderpest in Africa, describes the directive as a sad chapter in the history of both clubs. Dr Masiga had joined Abaluhya Football Club management in 1980 and was elected chairman the following year and the responsibility to craft a new name for the team lay squarely on his shoulders.

“We put out an advertisement asking our supporters to propose names for the club. We received more than 250 proposals, but all the names had the word ‘Abaluhya’ in them,” Dr Masiga, the uncle of AFC Leopards legend Dr. JJ Masiga, recounts.

“At around the same time, I attended a parents’ day at the Kenya High School, where my daughter was studying. There I met Hon Nathan Munoko and Hon Burudi Nabwera.

“We have a bit of a dilemma at the club,” I told them. The president has directed that all football clubs must drop tribal names.

“As soon as I was done explaining, the two spontaneously started chanting a Luhya battle cry that used to be sung whenever the community was victorious on the battle field: “Nifwe ingwe, nifwe ingwe’

Aah, nifwe ingwe!” (We are leopards, we are leopards. Aah, we are leopards).

“I knew right away that we had finally found a new name. In an executive committee meeting, the issue was discussed and we agreed on the name ‘Leopards’.

“When we called a general meeting at the Upper Hill School hall to announce the new name, the membership was unhappy at the loss of the word ‘Abaluhya’ but explained that while the official name was All Footballers Co-operative, members were allowed to give it their own interpretation.

“My friends,” I said, “What do you want me to do for you? I have given you a name but nothing stops you from calling the club any name you want!”

There was loud applause when the supporters realised that the Abaluhya Football Club by any other name was still the Abaluhya Football Club.

“It was a season of mischief. Gor Mahia, which was hitherto a predominantly Luo club, was also keen to retain its name. To go around Moi’s directive and pacify Special Branch operatives, they had to come up with a new name, with ‘GOR’ as the acronym. They settled for what sounded to me a very awkward name: Gulf Olympic Rangers.”

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