The battle for the reins of African football is finally over and, for the first time in 29 years, Africans are excited about the prospects of the continent’s football administration. The reason for this optimism and excitement is that Issa Hayatou, the long-serving Cameroonian president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), suffered a shocking defeat to Ahmad, the president of the Madagascar Football Federation, in a continent-wide election.

Ahmad got 34 votes to Hayatou’s 20 in the election, which was held at CAF’s 39th general assembly in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The 57-year-old Ahmad is a former player and coach. He took over the reins of the Madagascar Football Federation in 2003.

“When you try to do something, you mean that you can do it,” Ahmad told reporters after the vote. “If I can’t do it, I never stand.”

The promise to do things differently

Ahmad’s victory reinforces the mantra of change that is sweeping across the continent, resulting in the displacement of old leaders whose supporters have grown wary of their continued mismanagement.

CAF general assembly in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Photo: CAF Twitter

In April 2015, the former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari became the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election in Nigeria, and in December 2016, Ghana’s opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo defeated President John Mahama to become Ghana’s next president at the third time of asking. Both presidents won because they promised to do things differently.

The victories of Buhari and Akufo-Addo are testament to the growing belief that regular people in most African countries strongly crave a new style of leadership

The victories of Buhari and Akufo-Addo are testament to the growing belief that regular people in most African countries strongly crave a new style of leadership, one that is not immobilised by long-serving strongmen. And so, when the all-powerful Hayatou, who stood for the FIFA presidency in 2002, finally lost to another candidate, social media was abuzz with celebration and optimism.

File picture. Football for Hope Festival, 4 Jul 2010 FIFA President Sepp Blatter at the Footbal for Hope Festival. Photo: GovernmentZA/Flickr

“Ahmad Ahmad of Madagascar defeated incumbent Issa Hayatou 34-20 to emerge new CAF president, what a fresh start for African football,” Lagos-based sports analyst Oluwatomiwa Babalola tweeted.

Another sports analyst with, Prince Narkortu Teye, also tweeted: “Winds of change blowing around indeed.”

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Ahmad’s victory is a hugely significant moment in African football’s history. Though Hayatou’s reign was dogged by allegations of shady deals and corruption scandals, it has been really difficult to unseat him. The former interim FIFA president, who took over from Sepp Blatter after he was suspended and served as the acting FIFA president until 26 February 2016, has been challenged only twice in his nearly three decades of leadership. He pummelled the other candidates and easily swept to victory with convincing margins in 2001 and 2004.

File picture: Africa Cup of Nations closing ceremony, 10 Feb 2013
Confederation of African Football (CAF) President Issa Hayatou with FIFA President Sepp Blatter award President Jacob Zuma with the official ball of the Orange Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) final match between Burkina Faso and Nigeria. (GCIS photo). Photo: GovernmentZA/Flickr

A quick move in April 2015 to change the CAF statutes to remove the age limit of 70 for a president, was all Hayatou, who is 71 this year, needed to contest this year’s election.

The role played by the FIFA leadership struggle

Some analysts blame Hayatou for the role he played in the recent election at FIFA, were he rooted for Bahrain royal Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, then a rival candidate to the current FIFA president, Gianni Infantino. This culminated in the emergence of Ahmad as a rival and created deep strains in Hayatou’s relationship with Infantino, the current president of football’s international body.

A former teacher and sports minister in Cameroon, Hayatou first became CAF’s president in 1988. In 2011, he was disciplined by the International Olympic Committee, alongside the president of international athletics, Lamine Diack, over their alleged roles in a bribery scandal. Diack only got a warning, but Mr Hayatou, then a Fifa executive committee member, received a reprimand. Denying any corruption, Hayatou, who allegedly received about USD20 000 (£13 000) from the now defunct sports marketing company ISL in 1995, said he used it to pay for a celebration of CAF’s 40 year anniversary in 1997.

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In all fairness, Hayatou has also helped to grow football in the continent. It was under his leadership that Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup for the first time ever, in South Africa in 2010, and he has also been credited with increasing the number of African teams at the World Cup.

Ahmad’s victory is something of a miracle, especially as Hayatou had significant support within the national federations. He certainly has top officials like the Zimbabwean Phillip Chiyangwa and the Nigerian Amaju Pinnick to thank for this upset.

People all over the continent are looking to Ahmad to make good on his promise to reform African football.

As Ahmad steps up to replace the Cameroonian as the head of the continental football body, people all over the continent are looking to him to make good on his promise to reform African football.

New CAF President Ahmed Ahmed of Madagascar. Photo Credit: Sportsline Africa

Trust in his ability is not lagging. “There is a generational gap between various African football federations, and Ahmad Ahmad can bridge that,” the president of the Nigerian Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick, told CNN before the election. “We are very keen on this change because football is not played in the banks. Football is played on the pitch. It’s not Ahmad Ahmad that wins; it’s African football that wins.”

Ahmad is only the sixth CAF president, after Abdelaziz Salem (Egypt), Mohamed Abdelaziz Mostafa (Egypt), Mohamed Abdel Halim (Sudan), Yidnekachew Tessema (Ethiopia) and Hayatou (Cameroon). He is the first person from southern Africa to head CAF since its creation in 1957.

“Henceforth, our CAF is starting a new era of history and we must all come together to take African football to enviable heights,” an elated Ahmad, who will now double as a FIFA Vice President, said in a statement.