Ambition is the thread running through Amaju Pinnick’s ascent to the pinnacle of African football and the threshold of world footballing politics. Raw and visceral, it is the Nigerian’s ambition that took him to great heights in just over five years – and his ambition that has seen him plummet.
His journey to global relevance began with the Nigeria Football Federation’s (NFF) 2014 elections. Prior to this, Pinnick cut his teeth as the head of the Delta State Football Association. He was only thought of as relevant in a regional context and consequently, coming into the polls, was not considered a frontrunner for the position. Instead, sports business mogul Shehu Dikko and former NFF secretary-general Taiwo Ogunjobi appeared to be in pole position.
However, the elections were mired in controversy. The Department for State Services, Nigeria’s major intelligence outfit, reportedly detained electoral committee head Samson Ebomhe on the eve of the election. Ebomhe denied the report, insisting that he was simply unavailable, although he did not explain why.
There was also litigation in play. A court injunction was granted to Chris Giwa, the leader of a dissident splinter group, to prevent the elections from taking place. Dikko subsequently pulled out of the race at the last minute and Pinnick required a second round of voting, but eventually won 32 of 44 votes to be elected.
In an olive-branch gesture, Dikko was named as second vice-president. “The plan is to make genuine reconciliatory moves. I will personally go to Jos to see and speak to Chris Giwa, because we all need to come together for the sake of our country and football,” said Pinnick.
Pinnick’s rise in Africa
Pinnick’s move to continental heavyweight is a story that cannot be told without some background. In 2016, Gianni Infantino swept to power as the head of Fifa. Embattled former president Sepp Blatter had been banned from all footballing activities the year before as a result of a corruption investigation, creating a vacancy at the top of world football.
Change was the Swiss-Italian’s mantra, and it was seductive to the marginalised underdog, long seeking a means to shake up the established order. Africa was in a similar situation. Issa Hayatou from Cameroon had been in office as the head of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) for close to 30 years, and there seemed no end in sight for his perceived hegemony and despotic tendencies.
When the plan to remove Hayatou’s yoke from Africa’s neck was set in motion in 2016, Pinnick was front and centre of it, along with then Ghana Football Association boss Kwesi Nyantakyi. Pinnick went so far as to host the meeting, which was attended by Infantino along with Fifa general secretary Fatma Samoura and more than 15 other African football association heads.
But neither Pinnick nor Nyantakyi were willing to stick their necks out and so Madagascar’s Ahmad was thrust forward. This was seen as a safe option as he was somewhat unknown and considered a silent member of the CAF executive. Perhaps that was the idea, he could be more easily controlled.
Ahmad was sceptical and referred to the idea as “crazy”, but was eventually persuaded to run. He was not expected to fare any better than the others Hayatou had seen off down the years. For his trouble, the Cameroonian took the hosting rights for the Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) 2017 away from Madagascar, a figurative declaration of war.
What Hayatou did not reckon with, however, was that it was more coup than war. Come election day, the rug was pulled out from under him and he was soundly trounced. Ahmad won big, but so did Pinnick. The latter was elected to the CAF executive committee, defeating incumbent Hayatou loyalist Moucharafou Anjorin. Nyantakyi was appointed as first vice-president of the CAF.
Also in Pinnick’s favour was a sting operation conducted by Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas. In 2018, footage of Nyantakyi receiving a large amount of cash in dollars, reportedly $65 000 (about R850 000 at the time), from an undercover reporter posing as a businessman appeared in the journalist’s exposé called Betraying the Game. In the video, Nyantakyi also agreed to a fictitious sponsorship deal with kickbacks for one of his private business concerns.
The Ghanaian claimed the video had been doctored, but the backlash was swift and it prompted an investigation from Fifa into its council member. Subsequently, Nyantakyi resigned from the CAF and Fifa and was subsequently banned from all football activities for life.
This paved the way for Ahmad to appoint Pinnick as the CAF’s first vice-president “after consulting the members of the emergency committee”. The decision was ratified by the CAF’s executive committee in September and, in the same month, he won a second term as NFF president, becoming the first man in the history of Nigerian football to do so.
Pinnick was now the second most powerful man in African football.
Not that it was all plain sailing for Pinnick. Back home, the 46-year-old found himself in the thick of allegations of corruption and financial impropriety.
In May 2019, Nigeria’s Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property brought charges against Pinnick, as well as other members of the NFF top brass, for the alleged misappropriation of the $8.4 million (around R120 million) Fifa paid Nigeria as a participation fee in Fifa World Cup 2014, as well as a failure to declare their assets.
Pinnick insisted he was innocent, claiming victimisation. “The motive for this media trial is purely destructive, it’s a deep-seated emotional, obsessional and delusional hatred. This is not the first time. We believe all the false allegations are aimed at destroying our credibility and what we’ve built,” he told news channel BBC Sport.
Things were also coming to a head at the CAF. Ahmad had not proved the new broom that most had hoped and was now arguably spiralling out of the control of those on whose shoulders he rose to power.
Allegations of sexual harassment involving members of staff at the CAF secretariat surfaced and were reportedly smoothed over, and there were concerns about abuse of power and financial opacity. There was also controversy over the revelation that he ordered the CAF, through former finance director Mohamed El Sherei, to use the organisation’s funds to pay for football association heads to go to Mecca for a pilgrimage in May 2018. The real storm, however, was Tactical Steel.
In June, the French police brought Ahmad in for questioning in Paris over a deal brokered by French company Tactical Steel, which is owned by a friend of Loic Gerand, Ahmad’s personal aide, to whom he is reportedly close. The sports equipment company was used by the CAF to procure kit and other equipment at rates far higher than market price, despite a much cheaper quote from reputable German outfit Puma, with which they had done business directly in the past.
Ahmad was eventually released, but in the intervening 12 hours an unprecedented media campaign had sprung up hailing Pinnick as the next in line for the throne.
It appeared to pre-empt another shake-up at the top of African football, coming as it did at a time when there were few details on offer as to what was going on in Paris. It was no surprise that Ahmad was immediately suspicious of his second-in-command.
In this, Pinnick’s hubris was very much culpable. The NFF president’s penchant for tooting his own horn is inimical to strategic moves, and whereas he was able to keep a low profile when Hayatou was in play, he perhaps underestimated Ahmad.
Under investigation by the Fifa ethics committee, with his support base shrinking and his vice apparently scheming for his position, the Malagasy acted. On the eve of the 2019 Afcon final, Ahmad announced that the CAF executive committee had unanimously requested that Fifa intervene in its administration.
Samoura would be “seconded”, as it were, to the CAF to oversee its affairs and implement reforms. This decision sent shockwaves through the continent, but it was only the first act of Ahmad’s pushback.
On 18 July, in an executive committee meeting, Pinnick was removed as first vice-president, and Constant Omari and Fouzi Lekjaa were bumped up from second and third vice-president respectively. South Africa’s Danny Jordaan was appointed third vice-president, reportedly as a reward for being an informant, an allegation he stringently denies.
It would emerge after Afcon that the committee was divided over the decision to seek help from Fifa.
Pinnick was reportedly against the proposal and this move of his was apparently the final straw for Ahmad.
Pinnick loyalist and former Liberia Football Association head Musa Bility filed a case with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. He has since been handed a 10-year ban from all football-related activities and fined $500 000 (just over R7.6 million) by the world’s governing body for the violation of sports ethics codes, challenging Fifa and the CAF.
Pinnick remains a member of the CAF executive committee, but has lost his power at the top of African football and will now, more than ever, have to deal with concerns at home.
Interestingly, all four of the men at the helm of CAF affairs have allegations hanging over their heads, but were found to be on the right side when weighed in the balance.
In African football’s Game of Thrones, you win or you’re out.