Corruption, murder and how Ghana’s football has ground to a halt
At 4:49 pm, the final whistle of an outstanding top-flight match between AshantiGold and Aduana Stars was blown in the mining town of Obuasi. Unknown to everyone in Ghana, this game, on 6 June 2018, would be the last competitive match to be played for a long time.
At that same moment, 235km away in Ghana’s capital, Accra, thousands were rushing to the International Conference Centre to witness the premiere of an incredibly hyped piece of journalism.
The trailers, brilliantly titillating, had driven the nation mad in anticipation. The defining sequence: the Ghana Football Association’s president, Kwesi Nyantakyi, one of the most divisive yet powerful men in the country, seen taking bribes, live on camera. It was too good to miss.
The scent of football corruption stank so badly that Ghanaians, usually so bullish about their senior national male team, the Black Stars, stopped attending matches. The perceived disconnect between officials in power and the fans had left local club football at its lowest ebb.
And that’s why this sting operation was a hit. The denouement for Nyantakyi, long accused of corruption but never caught in 13 years at the helm, was shown in vivid, high definition in cinemas and halls across the country. The irony, for a man seen by the public as being obsessed with money, was that tickets were free.
The humiliation for the then 49-year-old Fifa council member, who was vice-president of the Confederation of African Football and widely tipped to become its head, was stunning.
By the time the three screenings of a documentary called Number 12 were over, the audience would amble out of the auditorium in a daze – shocked, disappointed and angry. What they had witnessed was a documentary by a team of investigators led by the well-known undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, and it would set off a chain reaction that has shaken the foundations of Ghanaian football.
However, this endeavour may have come at a great cost, as a key member of that investigative team, Ahmed Hussein-Suale, has been murdered.
On Monday his family met the media in Accra. More “significant” information to aid investigations had been given to local police following the 16 January murder of their relation, the family said.
Hussein-Suale was shot three times by men on a motorbike while driving home from work that Wednesday in Accra, in a case that has garnered global attention because of the high-profile investigative work the 31-year old was involved in.
The production company with which Hussein-Suale worked was Tiger Eye PI. It was it, in a sting operation in collaboration with the BBC, who were behind Number 12.
Hussein-Suale and Anas were regularly meeting local police and Ghana’s attorney general over possible prosecution of the many people shown in the documentary taking bribes.
“I was at the stroke unit of [Ghana’s biggest hospital] Korle-Bu, visiting a patient and talking to a doctor friend of mine, when I was called and told that [Hussein-Suale] had been shot dead,” Anas told the Guardian. “I was shocked and dismayed and I knew straight away that [Hussein-Suale] was taken because of our work.”
Anas was famous for making public appearances in elaborate facial disguises, and most of his team do not have any confirmed photos of their faces in public. Yet, following the airing of Number 12, Hussein-Suale’s family say he received “significant” telephone death threats. Some of those were recorded and have been handed to police.
The Tiger Eye team has enemies. Kennedy Agyapong, an influential Ghanaian MP, has attacked its sting methods for years, branding it extortionists whose only aim is to blackmail decent citizens for money and power. Last year he used his own television station, Net 2, to launch what Tiger Eye lawyers consider the most significant threat to Hussein-Suale’s life.
“That’s him” Agyapong is seen saying, as images of Hussein-Suale flash on screen. “His other picture is there as well – make it big.” Agyapong then encourages viewers to “slap him … beat him … if you meet him somewhere, I’ll pay!”
But Agyapong has spoken out against the murder and offered a reward for information that would lead to the arrest of the killers. “It’s a human being that has died,” he said. “No matter the mistake he has made, he has the right to live.”
Killing a journalist for his work would be extremely abnormal for Ghana, ranked 23rd out of 180 countries in a world press freedom index compiled by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF). It is Africa’s highest ranking.
“This shooting is a grave signal that journalists cannot work safely to keep the public informed or hold power to account in Ghana,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists, another press freedom group, based in the United States.
But while the investigation continues, the effects of the documentary on football have been telling.
The Ghana FA was disbanded after several top officials and referees were also seen in the video taking bribes. All football competitions were dissolved and, overnight, players had no income. Once it became clear competitive action was not resuming soon, an exodus started. The thousands of players unable to get teams outside the country have had to find regular jobs.
Meanwhile, last September, Fifa formed a four-member normalisation committee with an initial six-month mandate to reform the football system. Key among its duties is to fix the problematic Ghana FA statutes that had been exploited by a corrupt few, while running the daily affairs of the FA.
That process has been fraught with disagreements as factionalism and interests clash. The local media, ideally an agent for this change, is even more split along partisan lines.
While league football has been completely off, all national team obligations have been met during the Fifa-sanctioned calendars.
Ghana’s Under-17 (quarter-finalists) and Under-20 (group stage) women’s teams participated in their World Cup tournaments last year and the senior women’s team crashed out in last November’s Africa Women Cup of Nations. The senior male team, likely to be captained by the former Sunderland forward Asamoah Gyan, will be at the Africa Cup of Nations in June.
When all football activities were stopped in July it was common to hear fans, desperate for transparency, chime in that change was imminent, as if it would happen overnight. The reality has been a slow, bureaucratic sludge that frustrates impatient supporters.
Yet, the signs of hope are clear. While they wait, they could hum a line or two from Guns N’ Roses: “Gotta have more patience, yeah. All we need is just a little patience.