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The importance of sports has not been sufficiently appreciated by African governments for it to be integrated into their national development plans. There is no doubt that sports could play a critical role in attaining peace, development and stability.

Sports is an area of human interaction where respect for rules, teamwork and fair play are the norm. Teamwork, cooperation, abiding by the rules, respect for opponents and similar concepts all feature in the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. Sports include all forms of physical exercise, whether local or imported, amateur or professional, casual or organized. Despite the importance of sports, it is an area which is underdeveloped and underfunded, especially in Africa. Moreover, the sector has suffered from scandal, corruption and marginalization. This article explores the factors that have hindered mainly amateur sports (football and athletics) from taking its rightful place on the national development agendas of African countries.

1. Policy vacuum

Some African countries have sports policies but the majority are fragmented and uncoordinated. Moreover, the ministries in charge of sports are often sandwiched in other ministries. The ministries or departments in charge of sports suffer from underfunding and are unable to support priority activities, let alone establish and enforce policies. For example, Steiner (2008) noted that the challenges of sports development in Ghana are a result of the fact that activities are limited since they are held but once a year. The athletes at the end of the competition go back to their region and village to wait a year or two for another regional event, making it difficult to develop new talent. In the case of the United Republic of Tanzania, a sports policy has been in place but it has suffered from a lack of implementation (Mwisukha and Mabagala, 2011). In Benin, a sports policy is in place, too, yet the government has no capacity to implement it. In Burkina Faso, there has been progress in implementing its sports policy (Keim and de Coning, 2014). In the case of Kenya, Keim and de Coning (2014) state that sports policies and legislative arrangements are out of date, with poor strategic planning development by the government. The above study noted, however, that the Government of Kenya’s efforts are recognized in areas such as capacity-building and training as well as in providing an enabling environment in which civil society and the private sector could support sports activities. From the study of Keim and Coning (2014), it can be seen that a number of African countries should be assisted to implement their existing policies and a number should be helped to develop realistic and practical sports policies.

2. Poor governance

Sports stands for good governance, respect for the rules, fair play, honesty and discipline. Yet sports ministries suffer from poor governance. According to Mwisukha and Mabagala (2011), personnel serving in the various national sports federations and organizations in East Africa as managers are not trained professionals in the areas of sports management and administration. In view of this and other factors, many African countries feature prominently on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index; mostly in football (Pannenborg, 2010). Most African journalists are of the opinion that corruption has ruined African football. There are substantial sums of money, coming from various sponsors and FIFA development projects, which have disappeared into people’s pockets and most African football facilities, are in an appalling condition.

As Chiweshe (2014) stipulates, African football is in a bad state by all standards. Dealing with corrupt individuals has made it difficult to follow FIFA standing rules concerning non-interference in football matters by governments or state bodies. Even with a number of African players playing in major leagues abroad, performance of African teams at the World Cup continues to deteriorate; and at the national level the football clubs suffer from polarization, corruption and tribalism.

In athletics, several revelations have been made that athletes from some African countries (Kenya, Ethiopia, etc.) are using performance-enhancing substances. Some of the athletes have been banned from participation for a few years, and for others, the verdict is awaited. Some athletes have accused their coaches, sports boards and management of encouraging them to cheat in order to win good prize money. This problem is seen not only in Africa but also in developed countries such as the Russian Federation. Doping is now a threat to world athletics, Africa included. For example, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had given Kenya a deadline of 2 May 2016 by which to come up with an anti-doping law to ensure that the country is not banned from participating in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The new law came into effect on 22 April 2016 and establishes that any athlete found guilty will be heavily fined or jailed for a term which could be as long as three years for anyone found guilty of providing or administering a banned substance.

Regardless of laws, to restore integrity in athletics, the athletes should be clean and compete by the book. Moreover, given that African athletes are young and some are naïve, WADA and national sports associations and management should organize workshops and seminars to deepen the understanding of the threats of doping to their health and their career prospects. Hence, it is imperative for all stakeholders, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC), FIFA, African governments and national sports associations, to work closely together to eradicate mismanagement and corruption by strengthening and improving national accountability and transparency mechanisms.

3. Inadequate investment

Most existing facilities in Africa are in very poor condition and they will need extremely heavy investment to bring them back to international standards. Currently, with the devolved government system in Kenya, there is a lot of effort by county governments to upgrade the existing facilities in order to promote, among other things, sports tourism. In the case of South Africa, Bogopa (2001) mentions that the planning of South Africa townships does not allow or have spaces for recreational facilities. He adds that the schools within the townships and rural areas have no sports facilities, unlike those in the rich suburbs in major cities or towns in South Africa; the urban areas also have world-class stadiums and facilities which benefited from investment in hosting the World Cup in 2010.

According to Chiweshe (2010), other countries invested substantial sums of money to build and renovate stadiums to host the Africa Cup of Nations; however, the investments which have gone into expanding sports development in Africa have frequently been affected by mismanagement and corruption.

African people like football and when they have an external match, the stadiums are full; unfortunately, no one sees revenues from the high attendance helping to expand the sports sector. Likewise, Zimbalist (2015) argues that the investment returns from the London and Beijing Olympics were disappointing: most of the funds were mismanaged. In fact, Zimbalist suggests that IOC and FIFA should abandon their preferences for new construction and give a fair hearing to bids relying on existing facilities. This is because, after the games, facilities that cost billions of dollars to build have turned out to be white elephants, such as the Athens volleyball stadium which is now inhabited by squatters and a softball park which is overgrown with trees; in Beijing a cycling race track is infested with weeds and in Brazil a football pitch with 40,000 seats is now used by a second division team which draws around 1,500 fans a match (Zimbalist 2015). Given the heavy investment needed to upgrade existing or build new infrastructure, there is a need for both IOC and FIFA to re-examine Zimbalist's suggestion of taking the existing facilities into consideration in the host-selection process. Whichever the case, the committees in charge in both organizations--IOC and FIFA- for host-selection process should come up with a criteria which is cost-effective and sustainable.

4. Recognition of the role of sports in development

The importance of sports has not been sufficiently appreciated by African governments for it to be integrated into their national development plans. There is no doubt that sports could play a critical role in attaining peace, development and stability. One of the areas to which sport can contribute is health.

In the words of the famous Roman poet Decimus Junius Juvenalis, “mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a sound body”. In other words, sports activities can help improve our minds and self-esteem and engender a general sense of well-being. For example, regular exercise can brighten the mood, increase energy and improve sleep, and it can supplement treatment for depression, stress and anxiety. Thus, a physically active population significantly reduces national health expenditure, as fewer people get sick and people are more alert and productive. Furthermore, other than in Africa, sports is a booming industry internationally(such as the European football clubs and others) which employs large numbers of people and generates substantial revenues either directly in sports themselves or indirectly through associated activities, all of which contributes not only to the alleviation of poverty but also to raising the living standards.

In addition, some large companies in Africa, including commercial banks, sponsor sporting events and recruit sports personalities to market their products and increase sales. Sports paraphernalia are among the hottest-selling items in the world’s leisure market, including scarves, shorts, hats, mugs and ashtrays. Other development areas in which sports has continued to make progress include youth development, environment, governance and international peace. For instance, friendship, understanding, tolerance and peace are all fostered through sports. Besides, social cohesion is also promoted through sports as people from all walks of life, from presidents to peasants, come together to rally behind their team in competition.


Sporting activities have a wide range of benefits, from improved personal health, job creation and income-generation to the promotion of cultural values and national identity. These potential benefits have yet to be fully realized across Africa. Stronger partnership needs to be forged between sports associations and the private sector to promote sporting activities, particularly sports infrastructure. African countries need to change their attitude to sports to ensure that they have realistic and up-to-date policies that are strengthened by strong legal frameworks to combat corruption and mismanagement. For example, working as a manager or coach might be acceptable in Europe or North America, but in Africa, careers in sports are not seen as sustainable and rewarding.

It is ironic that Africa has emerging economic powers who are able to perform very well on an international sporting stage but is lacking organizations and businesses to manufacture or produce sports equipment and sports construction materials for not only the intra-Africa market but also outside markets. By and large, integration of sports into the mainstream national development agenda will be essential and the first step to developing the sports industry, enabling it to serve as a catalyst for increased productivity and performance to improve the living standards of the African people. In the words of the late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, “Sports has the power to inspire—and it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does…sports can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers”. This is true: when Kenya recently won the World Rugby Sevens Series in Singapore, the team was given a VIP reception when they arrived home, and this occasion united Kenyans to celebrate a great national achievement.

* Amb. Dr. John O. Kakonge is a Sustainable Development Consultant.


Bogopa, D. (2001). ”Sports Development: Obstacles and solutions in South Africa”. In The African Anthropologist, vol. 8, No. 1.

Chiweshe, M. K. (2014). “The problem with African Football:Corruption, and the (under)development of the game on the continent”.  In African Sports Law and Business Bulletin/2014.

Keim, M. and de Coning, C. (ed.) (2014).Sports and Development Policy in Africa: Results of a Collaborate Study of Selected Country Cases. Cape Town: Interdisciplinary Centre of Excellence for Sports Science and Development (ICESSD), University of Western Cape.

Mwisukha, A. and Mabagala, S. (2011). “Governance challenges in sports in East Africa”. Unpublished paper presented at the international conference of the African Sports Management Association held on 2-4 December 2011, Kampala, Uganda. Available from

Pannenborg, A. (2010): “Football in Africa: Observations about political, financial, cultural and religious influences”, NCDO Publication Series Sports& Development.

Steiner, A (2008) “Challenges of sports development in Ghana”, 27 October 2008. Available from

Zimbalist, A. (2015). “Just say no: Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup is bad for a city’s health”, The Economist, 28 February 2015.



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