AFTER 29 uninterrupted years, Cameroonian Issa Hayatou’s stranglehold on African football was finally broken when Madagascar Football Association boss Ahmad Ahmad dethroned him in Caf elections held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Thursday.
Ahmad beat Hayatou 34-20.
In fact, the football industry across the vast African continent still can’t believe that a new era has dawned on the continental game because it had become virtually impossible to differentiate Hayatou from Caf and vice versa.
This opaque distinction became an albatross around the neck of Caf for most of Hayatou’s 29-year reign. Never before had an individual become synonymous with the organisation they lead since the equally lengthy tenures of the late Fifa presidents João Havelange of Brazil and French football administrator Jules Rimet.
Rimet retains the record for the longest reign with his 33 years at Fifa from 1921-1954. However, this was during an era when commercial interests played little or no influence in the game.
Commercialisation of football was spearheaded by Havelange and with it corruption crept into the game and set firm roots.
Havelange led Fifa from 1974-1998 and transformed Fifa into a multimillion dollar organisation and football turned into a commercial multibillion dollar industry.
The spoils of the game’s cash-flush industry is the reason African football was saddled with Hayatou for so long.
He no longer had anything new to offer, but the money and the power were unimaginable for him to live without.
After all, Hayatou had learnt how to use the money and the power for self-serving purposes from his mentor, the disgraced former Fifa boss Sepp Blatter, who learnt the ropes from Havelange.
Being Caf president before was just for prestige before Hayatou took over from Sudanese doctor, the late Abdel Halim Muhammad, who served two terms as president, first from 1968-1972 and then from 1987-1988.
Hayatou was well schooled in the art of manipulation and created an interwoven patronage system at Caf that ring-fenced his reign while simultaneously punishing his foes, real or imagined.
He went about carving Caf in his own image such that no African administrator could make it onto the Caf executive or powerful Fifa council without his approval.
In other words, Hayatou had reduced Caf to representing his interests and only people prepared to serve at his pleasure were appointed into the Caf executive and committees, and Fifa council.
Those opposed to his blatant personalisation of Caf suffered his wrath, which was often without mixture, and they were quickly relegated to football oblivion.
As a result, African football leaders jostled to be on Hayatou’s sunny side for more than two decades, while football in various countries continued to suffer.
Hosting the Africa Cup of Nations and other officiating appointments were used as bait or punishment by the 70-year-old strongman.
He withdrew Afcon hosting rights from countries he felt had wronged him at his whim and moved them to countries with hardly any infrastructure.
Zimbabwe previously won the rights to host the 2000 Afcon, but it was moved to Ghana and Nigeria at the 11th hour for no apparent reason. Kenya had suffered a similar fate in 1996.
Angolan Armando Machado became the first to openly challenge Hayatou’s leadership in the 2000 elections, but he was humiliated 4-47. Four years later, Ismail Bhamjee put his head on the block and it was chopped off by Hayatou’s guillotine in a 46-6 crushing defeat, and with it the end of his role in football administration.
In 2013, Ivorian FA president Jacques Anouma also tried, but there was to be no ballot after he was controversially disqualified by rules introduced to safeguard Hayatou’s continued leadership.
Calls for change only started growing louder and stronger after the forced ejection of Blatter from Fifa following corruption and kickbacks allegations.
Still no one from the bigger associations was brave enough to offer themselves to challenge the Cameroonian until Ahmad put up his hand.
While Cosafa were clear from the beginning that they would back their own Ahmad, other FAs were content speaking in hushed tones.
They were not sure what the wily old fox still had up his sleeves, but Cosafa cared less because they had been at the forefront of the humiliation. The only candidates to ever actually stand against Hayatou were from the bloc and they had nothing to lose, as they were used to the humiliation.
Ahmad may not necessarily be the best man for the job, but was very brave to risk his career because a loss would have meant his end in football.
This Caf election was about change at all costs and those that banded together with Ahmad shared one objective of ousting Hayatou.
Although Ahmad made promises, we doubt anyone listened to what he said or cared, as long as they could use him to remove Hayatou.
His strengths will be evaluated on the job.
But now that Hayatou has been removed and Ahmad installed, what next?
Does his election mean automatic reboot of the Caf administration or we will bear witness to jostling to be part of his new powerful inner circle as well as retribution against the 20 federations that didn’t vote for him, as the new administration tries to change course from the ruinous Hayatou tendencies.
We urge Ahmad to avoid building loyalty through patronage like his predecessor and to also resist being bullied by bigger FAs in his quest to reform the Caf administration and prevent political interference in the running of the confederation.
That he was elected at the African Union headquarters is significant and we hope he will be guided by the virtues and founding principles of the august body at whose home he was crowned in his new role as the chief steward of African football.
Only time will tell what the winds of change will bring to the new table at whose head sits Ahmad.