Infighting in Kenyan football derails women’s team

The ban Fifa imposed on Kenya for government interference is another blow to women’s football there, which was making huge strides that were first stunted by the federation’s politics.

“Whoever denied us the chance to play did us wrong, may thunder strike them,” an incensed Corazon Acquino said in response to Kenya’s senior women’s national team being denied the chance to participate in the women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) because of things beyond the players’ control. 

The Harambee Starlets were supposed to take on Uganda in February in a two-legged affair in the second round of the qualifiers, with a ticket to Morocco up for grabs after thumping South Sudan 15-1 on aggregate in the first round. 

The general secretary of the disbanded Football Kenya Federation (FKF), Barry Otieno, wrote a letter to CAF stating that the federation was not in a position to host any international games because the government had formed an interim committee to run football affairs in the country. Otieno further said that they could not access their former offices at the federation’s headquarters (Kandanda House) which remain under government’s lock and key.

For the past two years, the FKF and the Kenyan government have been embroiled in a supremacy battle, and that has had devastating effects on the country’s game. This culminated in the cabinet secretary for sports, heritage and culture Amina Mohamed dissolving the federation’s executive – effectively sending packing president Nick Mwendwa.

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Mwendwa was also arraigned for alleged embezzlement of $337 700 of taxpayers’ money. This was money the government had extended to the federation for use by the various national teams.

Fifa came down hard on Kenya, suspending the country from all football activities for the second time in as many years, for the all-so-familiar but highly disputable sin of “government interference”. Also banned alongside Kenya for similar reasons is Zimbabwe.

“Notwithstanding this suspension imposed on the FKF and in line with Fifa’s zero tolerance to corruption and any other unethical conduct, Fifa reiterates its commitment to cooperating with any ongoing investigations regarding FKF officials,” Fatma Samoura, the general secretary of Fifa said, as she spelt out tough conditions for the lifting of the suspension, including reinstatement of the disbanded office.

Fifa and governments at loggerheads

Mohamed, however, did try to intervene on behalf of the Starlets but the damage had already been done as CAF had disqualified them before Fifa shut the door completely with their suspension. 

“To fellow Kenyans, we understand the frustration and the anger on this single act by someone who clearly has no patriotism or interest in sports at all. We are working to ensure that such a scenario does not take place again,” said the FKF interim committee chairman, retired judge Aaron Ringera, in relation to Kenya’s disqualification from the women’s Afcon.

Both the Kenya and Zimbabwe governments have stuck to their guns; they have vowed to clean their houses before they can rejoin the global football community. Both countries accuse Fifa of abetting corruption by shielding corrupt federation officials from scrutiny using the non-interference clause that strictly prohibits third parties from meddling in the affairs of football.

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“Apparently, Fifa does not relate to governments and stakeholders,” Mohamed said. “It considers them a

nuisance. Fifa, however, still expects the same governments and stakeholders to fund football with no transparency and/or accountability in total disregard for national laws, institutions, values and practices.

“We will continue cleaning up, putting systems of accountability in place as well as a draft constitution that is fully aligned to the Constitution of Kenya 2010, the Fifa statute and to good order and globally recognised values.” 

This suspension is a massive blow to Kenya, where women’s football has recorded notable growth in the past decade with the Harambee Starlets making a name for themselves both regionally and in the continent, unlike the men’s game which has deteriorated.

Rising despite odds

The Starlets won the regional Cecafa Women’s Championship for the first time in 2019. This was the culmination of years of hard work which included their maiden qualification to the women’s Afcon when they participated in the 2016 edition in Cameroon. They narrowly missed out on the 2018 edition after losing 3-2 to Equatorial Guinea. 

To underscore this development, Vihiga Queens, a team in the FKF Women’s Premier League, represented the Cecafa region in the inaugural CAF Women’s Champions League in Egypt.  

“As horrific as it looks, the treatment of women’s football in Kenya is fairly okay if you take the continent as a whole,” said Julia Wanjeri, a seasoned sports journalist who covers women’s football. “To have a country that runs women football leagues throughout the year is quite something.” 

Since 2016, Kenya has managed to consistently run different tier leagues for women, giving a huge platform for talents to blossom. This is evident in the number of players from Kenya joining professional ranks within the continent and beyond, compared to neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania.

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Some recent notable moves include that of Jentrix Shikangwa, who joined Turkish top-flight side Fatih Karagümrük. Shikangwa was the top scorer at the 2019 Cecafa Women’s Championship. Lilian Awour, a goalkeeper, was a notable star at the CAF Women’s Champions League. She has since joined French side Soyaux. Cynthia Shilwatso signed for Logrono in Spain and Mwanalima Adam Dogo now plays for Hakkaragicu in Turkey.

It was this rich pool of talent that Kenyans were banking on to deliver another women’s Afcon qualification and atone for the men’s failure to grace the 2021 Afcon in Cameroon. “Despite the challenges we are currently facing, Kenya will come back stronger,” said Vihiga Queens and Harambee Starlets defender Terry Engesha.

Engesha’s sentiments were echoed by Doreen Nabwire, the first Kenyan woman to play professional football in Europe, with stints in Germany and the Netherlands. “I’m still hopeful women can still make a mark at continental and global levels despite the latest setback.”

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Nicknamed Dodo, the 35-year-old former Harambee Starlets skipper is considered one of the pioneers of women’s football in Kenya. Prior to the dissolution of the FKF executive, she was at the heart of the game’s development while serving as the FKF’s development officer in women’s football. She is proud that women footballers now have better opportunities to represent their country as national teams are more engaged than before.

“Today, we have players who have only been on the scene for four years but have over 30 caps,” she said. In her career spanning 18 years, Nabwire managed a paltry six caps as international engagements were few and far between.

“Funding from Fifa and CAF is not enough. I wish the government could do more to support women’s football. We have come a long way, but a lot still lies ahead of us. I hope what is happening now will not kill the game.” 

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