How the Cranes blundered in Cairo when they went on strike over pay and refused to train
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week, the Uganda Cranes players went on strike in Cairo Egypt, where they were competing in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). They accused officials of the Federation for Ugandan Football Association (FUFA) of plotting to cheat them of their bonuses for qualifying for the knockout stage of 16. Knowing the corruption that has eaten the entrails of our country’s moral fabric, I could not put FUFA above these accusations. I was therefore among those who tweeted highlighting the concerns of our players.
I had sources connected to the players. The players had been paid all their other allowances. However, they were entitled to a bonus for qualifying for the knockout stage. They feared that if they were knocked out by Senegal, a very strong team, FUFA would not pay their bonuses for qualifying to the group of 16. It was therefore prudent to leak this concern to people on social media in order to raise the alarm, shame FUFA and force it to pay them.
I felt both sympathy and solidarity with the Cranes players given my knowledge, not of FUFA specifically, but of Ugandan officials generally. However, I was later disappointed to learn that the players had gone on strike and refused to go for training unless and until their allowances are paid. I felt that the players had betrayed their professional aspirations, the team and the country. To appreciate my disappointment, and that of millions of Ugandan football fans, it is important to place this strike in its proper context.
AFCON is the most prestigious football tournament on our continent. For the last ten years, our country has been obsessed with qualifying, having last reached the competition in 1978. Indeed, it would be appropriate to say that it became the most important national goal that united our country. It was therefore gratifying when, in 2017, Uganda qualified for this tournament after 38 year of waiting.
There was euphoria across the entire nation. Even the First Lady, who had also been appointed minister of Education and Sports, attended the games, cheered with other fans, tweeted the progress and was in the stadium when we qualified. However, the Cranes performed poorly and did not win a single game and were eliminated in the preliminaries. It was, therefore, even more gratifying when they qualified the second time in a row in 2018. All eyes of Uganda were thus on the team to make Uganda proud at the 2019 finals.
And the Cranes did not disappoint. They played well and qualified for the knockouts. The whole country was behind them. They made our country proud. Yet it was at the height of their achievement and nationwide popularity that Cranes players foundered. They went on strike over pay. The fear that FUFA officials may not pay their bonus is legitimate. But to go on strike and refuse to play because of this was a blunder. It demonstrated the players’ loss of focus from the main issue to subsidiary ones.
What exactly did the players think was their main aim in Cairo? Playing for one’s national team is not a regular job from which a player should expect income. It is a national duty where any monetary compensation is a reward, not a precondition for playing. To make monetary compensation the main condition for playing shows that our players have a mercenary mentality. Mercenaries are soldiers for hire. They lack an emotional commitment to the cause. In this case, our players were not in the game because of a passionate desire to win the trophy but to make money.
This reflects the culture that has come to dominate our national consciousness, most especially in politics. There is a belief that people support a cause or a candidate only if there is some personal monetary benefit. This attitude started with NRM but has grown and become even more perverse in the opposition and the wider society. For example, among opposition pundits, if anyone expresses a view contrary to theirs, and which favors President Yoweri Museveni, it means the president has paid for it. This does not reflect the character of the person they are criticising but their understanding and thus expectations of power.
This tragedy within the opposition was born within the NRM. The NRM’s climb-down from an ideologically anchored political movement to a cash and carry government has been one of the most dramatic and tragic developments in our history. Here is a movement that began with high ideals. People abandoned their families, studies, businesses and homes to join the struggle in Luwero. There was no salary for participation. There was little expectation of a quick victory. There was no housing, medical care or food. The movement was driven primarily by a commitment to its political objectives: ending corruption, promoting democracy, fighting sectarianism and developing the economy.
But once in power, NRM changed its basis of support from high ideals to crass materialism. Today, it is pale shadow of its former self. Its Members of Parliament can only vote for something because they have been paid. Its supporters are paid to attend rallies. At every meeting of every organ of the party, its officials want to be paid for attending. This behavior is no longer unique to NRM. Anyone reading commentaries and posts by our opposition activists can see – not the moral outrage over such attitudes – but the envy and jealous towards those who are in power and profiting from it.
This brings me back to the Cranes. Money is important and I defend their right to be paid as per their contracts. However, monetary compensation cannot be the main incentive for national players. Assume they were offered an option to be paid Shs100 million each but they get knocked out in the first round, or they get paid nothing but win the trophy, what would the players choose? Nationalist players would choose the trophy. By their strike, the Cranes made their choice clear: money over the trophy. Tragic.
Yet choosing the trophy over pay is not altruism. It is a self-interested decision that brings many benefits but largely in the long term. The first reward is prestige, and this is something that money finds difficult to buy. Imagine the adulation and respect they would get if they returned to the country with the trophy. The second is economic: many international clubs would begin scouting Uganda for players. Our players chose short-term gain over their long-term prospects. Sad!