EXCLUSIVE: Battle heats up for African rugby presidency as winds of change blow
IMBALANCE of power and grossly uneven distribution of financial resources will be the rallying point at Africa Rugby’s elective annual general meeting (AGM) next month as incumbent president Khaled Babbou faces a stern test from two challengers pledging far-reaching reforms for the continent in the world’s fastest-growing team sport.
Tunisia’s Babbou, first elected in 2019, is the latest on the list of Rugby Africa presidents of Francophone and Arabic Africa origin, who have dominated this influential post since the continental body was founded in 1986.
Now, Ghanaian Herbert Mensah and current Rugby Africa vice-president Andrew Owor, from Uganda, have entered the race in a spirited bid to end that dominance. The two experienced administrators promise to usher in fresh ideas, policies and equality across the continent.
Never before has the governance of rugby in Africa come under such close scrutiny from a cross-section of stakeholders on the continent, regarding the growth and status of the game – essentially the global standing of African rugby in comparison with the rest of the world.
A wide-ranging investigation by The NewsHawks over the past four months has revealed a marked change in dynamics at Rugby Africa, pointing to a hotly-contested election in Cape Town on 18 March.
Contacted, Babbou referred us to Africa Rugby’s Algerian general manager, Azzouz Aib, who had not responded to questions at the time of publishing. Both Mensah and Owor were rather evasive over their candidature, but close associates of theirs have disclosed that the two are well and truly bidding to unseat the Tunisian as winds of change appear to blow through the continent.
The bone of contention, for the greater part, has been how money is dispensed by World Rugby, the sport’s global ruling body.
“The inequality in which World Rugby give only US$2 million for 37 (African) states per year and yet a single Rugby Europe nation like Georgia get a minimum of about US$5 million a year, is not right at all,” said a national federation head who is supporting one of the two challengers.
Another well-placed insider spoke of how the politically dominant regions, the Francophone and Arabic blocs, have not represented the rest of the continent fairly, as widely desired, on the global platform.
Africa, he remarked, has for far too long been reduced to an inferior and insignificant player in the lopsided voting system of World Rugby.
“There are many aspects, it’s a historical one,” he commented.
“Rugby Africa has for long been controlled by Francophone, and North Africa Arab. It has implications on how they deal with World Rugby on African issues. We only have two votes as a continent whilst elsewhere, individual nations have three votes each. It’s a black-white issue in that regard. It’s totally unfair, and we cannot develop. There are similarities in what happens in the Pacific, where the islands have limited money and the big money goes to the big nations. There needs to be a change, and the change must come from the top.”
Africa Rugby has 37-member nations, and a fairly large number of them are increasingly becoming more vocal in the affairs of the confederation despite their smaller size and profile in the sport.
An outspoken president of one of the continent’s minor nations bemoaned the lack of game time under the present administration, noting also the traditionally better teams’ decline compared to some of the world’s second-tier to third-tier teams.
“Our competitions over the years have decreased to almost nothing, many countries have not played rugby for three years because of lack of funding,” he said.
“This is why we need to bring about change and a new fresh inflow. It’s not just us the emerging nations that have issues. The top nations like Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Namibia must be seen to be able to compete better than the current South American and smaller European teams that are doing better than us. The Portugals and the rest, who are emerging, are doing better than us. For that you need a completely different type of leadership and philosophy to take you to another position.”
Babbou’s executive has also come in for heavy criticism over the controversial decision to stage Africa’s crucial World Cup qualification competition in Marseilles, France, last July.
“Where are the benefits there? Babbou has got to account,” said another federation head. “This is a story on its own – Marseilles. The theme of the new group must be Africa for Africans.”
The surprise move to play an important African tournament in Europe could be seen as another indicator of Africa Rugby’s attitude towards the game on the continent – the confederation’s glaring failure to treat African rugby as an entity on its own.
“Apart from that, it also exposes how the administration arm of Africa Rugby wields more power than the Ex-Co (executive committee). It appears playing in France was more of a decision of the Ex-Co, rather than that of the directors of Africa Rugby. This definitely would not have happened under Bougja’s leadership,” he added.
Abdelaziz Bougja is the immediate past president of Africa Rugby, credited with negotiating valuable broadcasting rights and commercial deals for the continental body during his tenure. Most of them have not been renewed thereafter.
The Moroccan’s term yielded a number of competitions across Africa, and Bougja himself had a broader presence on the continent, travelling to a wide range of countries to drum support for national federations from their governments.
Babbou will be measured against his predecessor in this regard, and his challengers in Cape Town in March are said to be exploiting those weaknesses to their advantage in their lobbying.
The main challenger, it appears, is Mensah. The Ghanaian tycoon’s disadvantage could be that he hails from an upcoming rugby-playing nation on the continent.
But then the seasoned administrator has impeccable credentials in the sport. Mensah played rugby competitively at schoolboy level in England in the early 1980s, in addition to county rugby appearances while studying at Sussex University.
A self-made entrepreneur, Mensah travelled to Zimbabwe in the early ’80s from his UK home in his young days for business interests in the tobacco industry. On those trips, he rekindled his relationship with rugby and ended up playing for Old Hararians, the Southern African country’s most successful club in history.
The speedy winger from Ghana drew keen attention with his scintillating performances for the great Old Hararians side, at a time rugby was roaring into racial transformation in Zimbabwe.
The young Ghanaian was duly called up to Mashonaland, Zimbabwe’s biggest provincial side, for a warm-up match with touring Italy ahead of the European side’s high-profile two Test-match series against the African hosts in 1985.
The only black player in a strong Mashonaland side, Mensah scored a try in the 24-13 win over the Azzurri in Harare in front of a capacity crowd at the revered Police Grounds.
And now in his present role as president of Ghana Rugby, the football-mad West African nation has made enormous strides in rugby, which is now the fastest-growing sport under Mensah’s stewardship.
Mensah is also a successful past CEO and chairperson of Ghanaian football giants Asante Kotoko, two-time African Champions League winners.
He is said to have the backing of the bulk of French-speaking countries in West Africa as well as that of East, Central and Southern African federations.
Owor, on the other hand, is looking to capitalise on his wide network gained from being Babbou’s number two over the past four years.
The Ugandan is a distinguished former international player for his country, and has gone on to enjoy quite a successful administrative career post-playing days, rising quickly to head the East African nation’s rugby board.
Owor was initially believed to be supporting Mensah’s candidature but, swayed by his own clout from the experience of being in the corridors of Africa Rugby since 2019, the ambitious Ugandan – who is the youngest of the three in his 40s – has decided to independently run for the big post.
There is concern, however, that Mensah and Owor going into the tight race separately could split the sub-Saharan African bloc’s vote in favour of the determined Babbou, who will not let go without a fight.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwean rugby boss Aaron Jani – a member of the current Africa Rugby executive committee – had been mentioned as a possible contender for either the top job or the deputy role. He is however said to have ruled himself out of the race due to “unfinished business” with the Zimbabwe Rugby Union.
Win or lose, one has to relinquish their position with their home board, post-elections.
Out of contention, such influential figures as Jani – holding their cards close to their chests – might prove to be the kingmakers in what is likely to be the tightest contest in history for the control of African rugby.