Why did CAF pay 6.7 million US dollars to French media group Lagardère to ‘buy’ a debt it knew it would probably never recover? And why did Ahmad Ahmad sanction this purchase?
By Philippe Auclair
Despite being banned by Fifa for five years on 23 November for multiple violations of its Code of Ethics, CAF President Ahmad Ahmad has yet to formally withdraw from the race to his own succession, to be decided at the election which will take place in Rabat on 12 March 2021. Some of his supporters still cling to the hope that the Court of Arbitration For Sport (CAS) could overturn Fifa’s verdict, and that Ahmad could then seek another 4-year mandate. But Josimar has learnt that another Fifa ethics investigation could sink this hope for good. All hang on two questions, which lead to a third.
Why did CAF pay 6.7 million US dollars to French media group Lagardère to ‘buy’ a debt it knew it would probably never recover? Why did Ahmad sanction this purchase?
Or could it be a power move for Fifa in order to keep CAF under control until its presidential elections take place in March 2021?
With less than three months to go to the election, the Ahmad camp is divided as to what to do next. Whilst some of his advisors would like to see him challenge Fifa’s punishment at the Court of Arbitration For Sport (CAS), which is his last resort (*), others feel that the CAF president himself lacks the motivation to go down that route, and seems resigned to return to his native Madagascar, where he has numerous business interests and, perhaps, a political future. In his home country, the ban from all football-related activities Fifa inflicted on him is almost unanimously perceived as a punishment for CAF daring to put a stop to Fifa General Secretary Fatma Samoura’s mission in Africa at the end of January 2020.
What cannot be denied is that, regardless of the fact that a 5-year-ban seems a very light sentence in view of the seriousness of Ahmad’s purported violations of the Code of Ethics (*), the timing of the decision couldn’t have been better chosen if Fifa’s intention had been to cause maximum harm to the CAF president and CAF itself.
Yet, remote as it seems now, the possibility remains that Ahmad could vie for another term, joining the four other men whose bids were registered by CAF before the 12 November deadline: South African mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe, the owner of Mamelodi Sundowns and brother-in-law of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, widely perceived to be Gianni Infantino’s favourite (*); Mauritanian Ahmed Yahya, also in Infantino’s good books, whose MA can thank Fifa for the financing of the complete renovation of its national stadium; Ivorian Jacques Anouma, a former Fifa ExCo member whose bid was seen as a purely formal gesture before Ahmad’s ban; and Senegalese FA president Augustin Senghor, a multi-lingual lawyer who is many observers’ favourite, but is seen by others as ‘too nice’ to win the big prize.
An unlikely comeback
To compete in the election, Ahmad must fulfil three conditions set out by CAS: he must demonstrate that Fifa’s decision has caused him irreparable damage, that he genuinely has a case to defend, and that his own interests outweigh Fifa’s in this instance. Josimar has spoken with several legal figures who are familiar with the dossier and with CAS’s workings. They all agreed that, provided the ‘case’ which Ahmad’s supporters wish to present was strong enough, he’d stand a fighting chance to have the sports tribunal grant him the right to appeal and a stay of execution of his sentence. This would in turn enable him to revive his presidential bid.
Ahmad has, in fact, lodged a first appeal, which was dismissed, as he was not able to produce Fifa’s full judgement, which Fifa can sit on for sixty days before passing it on to the individual it has decided to ban. As this ban became effective on 23 November, this means that Ahmad might have to wait until 22 January to receive the document which would enable him to challenge Fifa’s decision at CAS. Now, if CAS were to listen sympathetically to his case (a big ‘if’) and grant him a stay of execution until his appeal had been processed, this would leave him less than two months to campaign for the election.
It is not much. But it is not negligible either, when it is remembered that, prior to Fifa’s judgement, Ahmad had received the written support of 46 of the 54 Member Associations which compose the Confederation.
But Ahmad’s hesitancy to remain in the race might have another, deeper, darker reason: it is that Fifa has not finished with him yet. He is in fact the subject of a second ethics investigation, which is related to a highly unusual arrangement between CAF and Lagardère Sports And Entertainment, which used to act as an agent for CAF’s TV rights before the relationship between the two parties was destroyed by CAF pulling out of a $1bn contract with the French media conglomerate. Josimar has been investigating the affair for a long time and will soon come back to this extraordinarily complex dossier. This, however, does not constitute the heart of the matter in Ahmad’s ‘other’ ethics investigation.
Money well spent?
These are the plain facts: in early 2019, an amendment, signed by Ahmad, was added to the original deal which CAF had entered into with Lagardère in 2015. CAF agreed to take on the burden of $6.7m of unpaid arrears which multimedia production company LC2 owed Lagardère, part of a total debt of $19.2m owed – mostly to CAF itself – by this Benin-based company. CAF was to buy this bad debt from Lagardère at face value, despite the fact that LC2 had defaulted on its payments on several occasions beforehand.
That CAF, which appears to have initiated the process, would enter into such an agreement with Lagardère makes little sense and has now attracted the attention of Fifa’s Ethics Committee. An investigation into the matter is underway, which centers on the role played in the affair by Ahmad and by the man who is said to have been the main inceptor of the transaction: Congolese Constant Omari Selemani, who became CAF’s first vice-president in July 2019 and has been serving as CAF’s acting president since Ahmad was banned by Fifa. 62-year old Omari, the president of the Congolese FA, has also been sitting on the Fifa Council since 2015.
The protagonist on LC2’s side is its founder and CEO Christian Enock Lagnidé, who briefly played for FC Metz as a teenager and soon became the representative for Africa of Marketing Sport International, a company owned by the French club’s then general secretary Marc Loison. Lagnidé, who served as a Sports Minister and personal advisor to Benin president Mathieu Kérékou, has also harboured political ambitions and was twice a candidate in his country’s presidential elections (*). He became a major actor in the African football media landscape in 2003, when he acquired the broadcasting rights to the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) from Jean-Claude Darmon’s Sportfive, for which Loison had just started working as ‘General Manager in charge of football’. LC2 later added the CAF Champions League and the matches of the French national team to its portfolio. The company’s reach extended to 44 African countries, South Africa and Maghreb countries being among the few which escaped its control.
Lagnidé is also the founder and chairman of the little-known but seemingly very well-connected Fondation pour le développement du football africain (FDFA) which he launched in Paris on 22 March 2018, flanked by president Ahmad and his communications advisor Hédi Hamel as well as by Idriss Akki, the president of French sports marketing agency Sportfive Africa, a subsidiary of the Lagardère Sports And Entertainment group.
Lagnidé’s FDFA, whose mission statement describes as a foundation aiming to ‘create a genuine football economy in Africa, for the benefit of all its stakeholders’, claims to have the support of a number of businesses and organisations, listing Fifa, CAF, Radio France Internationale, beIN Academy and others as partners, alongside Lagnidé’s own companies LC2 International and AFNEX. The exact nature of these partnerships is hard to ascertain, and Josimar could find no trace of projects which had formally associated FDFA and Fifa, for example (*). FDFA’s twitter account, which had aggressively promoted Morocco’s bid for the 2026 World Cup, has not been updated since December 2018.
In a startling twist, Lagnidé’s foundation had also secured the support of Tactical Steel, the minuscule French gym fittings company which became CAF’s main supplier of football equipment in December 2017 and is at the centre of the scandal which ultimately precipitated Ahmad’s ban. Our readers can refer to the Josimar investigation into the affair, which is still the subject of an active investigation by the French fraud squad and led to Ahmad being questioned for several hours by French police in June 2019.
The involvement of Tactical Steel in the launch of Lagnidé’s foundation, which saw the company’s logo added to the official presentation, had escaped everyone’s attention until now. Tactical Steel never mentioned this ‘partnership’ on its own website, and the company’s name and logo have since disappeared from FDFA’s list of supporters. The reason behind its involvement remains a mystery, as do so many other things related to the business owned by Romuald Seillier, whose only previous link with CAF or football seems to be that he served for several years in the French army with Ahmad’s former personal advisor Loïc Gérand, whose own defunct companies were based just a few hundred yards from Seillier’s in La Seyne-sur-Mer.
In any case, it is clear that LC2 still enjoyed a good enough relationship with CAF for the confederation to despatch some of its top administrators, including president Ahmad, to the launch of Lagnidé’s foundation in a five-star Parisian hotel, despite the fact that his media group had already defaulted on multi-million payments.
How good this relationship was is illustrated by the fact that, according to information passed on to Josimar, LC2 was – surprisingly, given the nature of the meetings – represented by one of its highest-ranking members of staff in the confidential discussions which took place between CAF and Lagardère when the purchase of LC2’s debt was discussed.
According to our sources, the other key individuals involved in the tractations were Constant Omari and Idriss Akki.
Josimar was told that the ultimate aim of these discussions was to allow CAF to give the broadcasting rights back to Lagnidé’s LC2, which was only possible if it was to CAF itself, and not Lagardère, that LC2 owed the $6.7m.
LC2, its slate now wiped clean, would then have been able to sell on the rights on the African continent country per country. It does not take a wild imagination to see how such an operation, whilst not illegal in itself, could lead to questionable arrangements between the parties concerned.
This is not how it turned out in the end, however. CAF’s then commercial director Abdelmounaïm Bah, who has since been named General Secretary of the Confederation, objected to the arrangement and insisted that LC2 should not be handed the broadcasting rights to the 2019 and 2021 AFCONs for Sub-saharan Africa straight away; a tender was opened, which was won by Senegalese company UAR – which means CAF still has to find a way to get its $6.7m back and most probably never will, as LC2 folded in the wake of the affair (*).
It is understandable that Fifa’s Ethics Committee should take an interest into this deal, especially when it was sanctioned by Ahmad. Several of our sources have insisted, however, that, unlike his first vice-president Constant Omari, the banned CAF president played little if any part in the operation apart from affixing his signature to the agreement.
Does this mean that he is not under any threat from another ban? Not quite. He was aware of the deal (if not of its particulars) and sanctioned it. Could Fifa issue a second ban which would ruin his chances to take part in the March 2021 for good? Certainly. Some even speak of a ‘plot against Ahmad’. According to them, Fifa would sit on this second investigation until it suited them, should CAS grant a stay of execution early enough for him to re-join the race, for example. Being aware of this, Ahmad would perhaps think twice about rebelling again.
After all, as others have found out in the past, a threat often is stronger than the execution.
(*) The decisions of the Adjudication Chamber of the Ethics Committee cannot be the subject of an appeal within Fifa itself.
(*) Ahmad was adjudged to have committed breaches relating to his duty of loyalty, offering and accepting gifts, abuse of position and misappropriation of funds.
(*) The two men knew each other before being photographed sitting next to Donald Trump at the Davos Congress in January 2020. Infantino and Motsepe, for example, were both present at the lavish birthday party thrown by Zimbabwean FA boss Philip Chiyangwa in his own honour, back in February 2017, just before Ahmad was elected CAF president with the full backing of Fifa.
(*) Lagnidé finished 5th in the 2011 poll (with 0.65% of the vote) and 28th in 2016 (0.11%).
(*) Josimar asked Fifa about the nature of their relationship with FDFA but has yet to receive a response. We are also awaiting a reply from FDFA’s head office, which is located in Brazzaville, about the foundation’s partnership with Tactical Steel.
(*) Josimar was told that Lagnidé then created a new company which managed to get the radio broadcasting rights for the 2019 AFCON at a very low price. According to the information we received these rights, which were still controlled by Lagardère despite the termination of their contract with CAF, were first acquired for $600,000 by Radio France Internationale, which then sold them on to Ladigné’s new venture (without making a profit), who could then sell them on piecemeal to a number of African broadcasters.