In March, 2017, Ahmad Ahmad, a little-known Malagasy football administrator and former Minister of Fisheries, became the most powerful person in African football. In a surprise win, Ahmad had ended Cameroonian Issa Hayatou’s 29-year-reign as president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) – a tenure that was scarred by allegations of corruption and nepotism.
Ahmad was the change candidate, who won over the support of a powerful, but relatively new, generation of football administrators, such as the president of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), Amaju Pinnick. And it wasn’t just the continent that was excited for what he could bring.
"He had the support of FIFA as…they wanted to change the image [of CAF],” Romain Molina, a French investigative journalist, told VICE World News. “They built this propaganda, saying it's a new time for African football.”
With Gianni Infantino fresh into his reign as FIFA president, Hayatou was one of the few remnants left of the regime of his predecessor, Sepp Blatter. Infantino was on a journey to salvage the reputation of football’s governing body. Ahmad’s success was received as a big victory for African football, and the island nation of Madagascar.
"It was a big event for Malagasy people; they were happy and proud," a Malagasy journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, told VICE World News. "Of course there were some people that never liked him, It's always like that in politics but most of the people were happy and proud because he's the first Malagasy to get so high in sports."
And then everything changed.
“His story is having a bad ending."
On Monday, after several corruption allegations, FIFA banned the 60-year-old – who also acts as one of its vice-presidents and a council member – from taking part in any football activities at any level for five years, and fined Ahmad 200,000 Swiss francs (£165,000).
"The adjudicatory chamber of the independent Ethics Committee has found Ahmad Ahmad, the President of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and a FIFA Vice-President, guilty of having breached art. 15 (Duty of loyalty), art. 20 (Offering and accepting gifts or other benefits) and art. 25 (Abuse of position) of the 2020 edition of the FIFA Code of Ethics, as well as art. 28 (Misappropriation of funds) of the 2018 edition" FIFA's statement said.
Ahmad’s downfall began almost exactly two years after he took office, when Amr Fahmy, a former CAF General secretary, sent a dossier to a FIFA ethics committee spelling out Ahmad’s alleged indiscretions.
He was accused of spending more than $400,000 on new cars in CAF's Cairo headquarters and in Madagascar, where a satellite office had been set up for him; making $20,000 payments into the private bank accounts of Africa's football leaders; harassing four unnamed female CAF employees; and violating established hiring statutes.
Then there was a deal made in December 2017 with the French company Tactical Steel – a little-known gym equipment manufacturer – to provide outfits for a CAF competition. The deal reeked of nepotism. The contract was taken off of Puma and awarded to Tactical Steel, whose owner, Romauld Seillier, is friends with Ahmad's attaché, Loic Gerand. In negotiating the deal, calls were made directly from the president’s office.
"False, malicious, defamatory (and) part of a vendetta," Ahmad said in response to the allegations. The next month, Fahmy was sacked and replaced by Mouad Hajji. CAF's finance director at the time, Mohamed El Sherei, was also dismissed. In connection to the Tactical Steel dealings, Ahmad was called in by French anti-corruption authorities in Paris as "part of a probe into corruption, breach of trust and forgery". He was released without charges.
Nigeria's Pinnick, reportedly out of sorts with Ahmad's dealings, also fell out of favour with the Malagasy, culminating in his ousting as CAF's first vice-president, the same day the president signed an agreement with Infantino to confirm the controversial secondment of FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura as a 'General Delegate for Africa' for six months, in a bid to improve on governance and kick off a full forensic audit of CAF.
Instead of being disappointed at losing his CAF position, Pinnick was one of those that recognised at the time that Ahmad’s future was anything but certain “Pinnick told me that, 'This is not the best time to be around Ahmad Ahmad,’” journalist Kelechi Nkoro told VICE World News of a conversation he had with the NFF boss at the time. ‘Trust me it's a blessing in disguise', Pinnick assured Nkoro.
At the end of Samoura's tenure in February, a damning auditory report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) questioned Ahmad administration's governance and trails of unusual payments. All were dismissed by the 60-year-old as “unfounded allegations''.
Two months ago, Ahmad stated his intention to run for a second term in March's election. His decisions was welcomed by many federations, but also received plenty of opposition, with Nigeria, Algeria and South Africa among the eight countries that opposed his reelection.
Authorities at CAF and FIFA are reluctant to speak about the investigations as it’s believed they are still ongoing. "Trust me he won't be the only one,” Molina said. “In a couple of weeks or months, very important people in African football will be suspended. I'm 100 percent sure of that."
The ban effectively rules out Ahmad from standing in March's election. In a race against time, he has taken his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS). For now, the spotlight has shifted to the next set of contestants for the CAF presidency.
Patrice Motsepe, a successful South African billionaire businessman; Jacques Anouma, Ivory Coast federation boss; Augustin Senghor, president of Senegal FA; and the head of the Mauritanian federation, Ahmed Yahya, are set to battle for power.
South Africa, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Botswana have already declared their support for Motsepe, the brother-in-law of South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who has never held a national football role but is the president of the Mamelodi Sundowns, who currently sit second in South Africa’s top tier Premier Soccer League.
“His football and business success is well-documented,” Danny Jordaan, a CAF vice president and executive committee member, said. He sees Motsepe as a "revolutionary choice" and is confident of his victory.
“It’s not just endorsing him," Pinnick said. "We will work night and day in ensuring he gets elected. And I can assure you 100% that Patrice Motsepe will be the next president of CAF.”
Alongside ridding the organisation of corruption, the next administration will be expected to secure mega broadcasting deals for continental competitions and Motsepe's business acumen is an obvious lure. And with securing the job seen as a matter of politics, his familial connections are expected to come in very handy.
Nothing is guaranteed until voting happens in March, though. All FIFA claims to want is a united CAF family. "I don't think (they) have a big role in this,” Molina added. “They are [just] happy to remove Ahmad, so they would take any solution."