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Made on the pitch: Football, power and politics

Last updated 2 months ago | By Rodgers Eshitemi

Jubilee candidate in the 2019 Kibra by-election McDonald Mariga. [David Njaaga, Standard]

Legendary Dutch footballer Ruud Gullit once said football (sports) and politics don’t mix, but there are myriad different ways where the two are intricately intertwined.

While politics often manifests itself through sports across the world, sports have frequently been used as either a political propaganda or to pass a political message.

That is why it is not alien to see sports federations’ bosses develop a sense of invincibility as they became accustomed to rubbing elbows with country presidents and powerful politicians.

Even as some managers use sports to venture into the murky waters of politics, sportsmen like Manchester United striker Marcos Rashford have used it to express their positions regarding certain issues in the society.

Rashford’s recent campaign of free school meals forced the U.K. government to reverse their earlier policy and extend a scheme providing food vouchers for poor families through the summer.

Today, football in Kenya, the country’s most popular sport has been leveraged and used in the name of politics and striking a unique relationship.

From ODM leader Raila Odinga to Wiper’s Kalonzo Musyoka and Amani’s Musalia Mudavadi, the trio is still associated with football in one way or another.

Odinga and Kalonzo are patrons of Gor Mahia and Sofapaka respectively, while Mudavadi once served in the same position at AFC Leopards and is a founder member of the defunct Volcano United.

“When I was AFC Leopards patron, I used to pay salaries for these players and I can tell you, it’s not easy. So, there should be a well-thought-out arrangement. It should not be politically driven but guided by the club’s management,” Mudavadi said last week as he cautioned AFC Leopards against getting too cosy with politicians, which may in the end, prove counterproductive in their transformation efforts.

But flipping back through history, Kenya has had a good number of politicians who curved their niche through sports, particularly football.

Many others have used the football dais to create a massive discipleship that would propel them into active politics.

Martin Shikuku, Joab Omino, Kenneth Matiba (all deceased), Peter Kenneth, Alfred Sambu, Chris Obure just as a mention, are some of the renowned politicians who used football through Kenya’s Football Association (FA) to gain power and political prominence.

A few of the politicians flourished, but majority left the game worse than they found it.

But it has not been rosy for other top Kenyan footballers in their quest for political power.

Former Kenyan international and Uefa Champions League winner McDonald Mariga vied and lost in the Kibra constituency by-elections, AFC Leopards chairman Dan Shikanda (Makadara constituency), Gor Mahia chairman Ambrose Rachier (Gem constituency), former Gor Mahia goalkeeper Jerim Onyango (Ugunja ward) and Harambee Stars assistant coach Zedekiah Otieno (Kariobangi North ward) all wanted to follow into the footsteps of Liberian president George Weah.

Weah, a former Fifa World Footballer of the year winner, failed to ride on his sporting fame to win public trust before eventually winning the presidential seat on his second attempt.

Asked by journalists why he was contesting for the seat that fell vacant following the death of former Kibra MP Ken Okoth, Mariga who contested on a Jubilee Party ticket, said then:

“I am vying for the seat so that I can give back to the community. I have lived in Kibra so, I know what people really want.”

Even as Webuye West Member of Parliament Dan Wanyama (former volleyball team and 1999 All African Games captain) blamed inexperience and trickiness of the terrain for Mariga’s loss to Imran Okoth (ODM) in last year’s Kibra elections, he believes the former midfielder has a great future in politics.

“Mariga didn’t win in Kibra because the terrain we were in was very tricky and complicated. But as far as I’m concerned, he really tried and any other person would not have pulled off what he did,” said Wanyama.

“You saw he even beat seasoned politicians like Owalo (Eliud) and Butichi (Khamisi). His name itself just gave him an upper hand, and were the elections held elsewhere (not Kibra), things would have been different.” 

“We should also understand that Mariga has never been in politics and you must learn to engage in this field. He had challenges but with time, he started picking up. Had we gone just the normal campaigning period, he would have pulled a surprise.”

“In my view, Mariga has a chance going forward. Remember, it was the only election during that period and if it was a general election, those people who went to campaign for the ODM candidate would be in their own constituencies also seeking for a comeback.”

While some politicians led by Nairobi County Governor Mike Sonko have always made headlines giving/rewarding national teams or clubs incentives ahead and after crucial international fixtures, others like Makadara MP George Aladwa have tried to rebuild their political career through football management (AFC Leopards Secretary General 2013).

Wetlands MP Tim Wanyonyi and his Kiminini counterpart Chris Wamalwa both once served as AFC Leopards’ trustees as Gatungu MP Moses Kuria was the patron of Mt. Kenya United (formerly Nakumatt).

Nakuru Town East MP David Gikaria is the immediate former FKF’s National Executive Committee member for Rift Valley.

But Wanyama (a member of the parliamentary service committee on sports), who is against the trend of individuals using sports to gain political mileage, claims that most sportsmen and women have an advantage in politics due to their fame.

“What happens is that sometimes, the fame you had while in sports trickles down to the hearts of the people. And once you retire from active sport, it’s the people who will prop you up. This is advantageous because you will not have hectic time to market yourself.”

“What I have found with the electorate is that they would rather vote for someone they know as opposed to when you are entering politics from somewhere else like the private sector.”

“Those who want to get into sports management to popularise themselves and then use it as a springboard to get to politics, should stop. Our sports institutions are suffering because their focus is somewhere else. Apart from individuals like Sambu (Alfred), Khang’ati (Alfred), Kenneth (Peter) and Matiba (Ken) who have succeeded on both fronts, most of those administrators hardly get political seats.”

Former Kanduyi MP Alfred Khang’ati served as Kenya Volleyball Federation (KVF) President/Secretary General and CAVB vice-president before venturing into politics in 2007, while former Malkia Strikers coach Paul Gitau unsuccessfully contested for the MCA seat in Kileleshwa ward.

Former Kenya Professional Boxing Commission chairman Reuben Ndolo also dived into politics and clinched the Makadara parliamentary seat in 2002.

Apart from footballers and volleyballers, a good number of athletes have also tried their hand in the dirty game of politics.

Just like Dan Wanyama, the 2000 Boston Marathon winner Elijah Lagat also served for two terms as Chesumei MP. Lagat lost to his former high school teacher Wilson Kogo in the 2017 elections.

Wesley Korir, the 2012 Boston Marathon winner, failed to retain his Cherangany constituency seat after losing to Joshua Kutuny in 2017.

It was the same scenario for former world 3,000m steeplechase record holder Wilson Boit Kipketer who lost his Kabiemit Ward seat.

Former 800m Olympic champion Wilfred Bungei, Amos Korir and Sammy Kosgei all lost the Emgwen Constituency race in Nandi County.

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