Last month, the world’s marquee team tournament known as the “Chess Olympiad” ended in Tromso, Norway with record attendance of 174 nations. This included a record 34 present from Africa (excluding eight proxies). While I am not certain when the first African federation joined the World Chess Federation (FIDE), nations from this continent have been participating in international competitions for decades. In fact, the Africans are usually conspicuous with their colorful uniforms, official jackets and infectious spirit. Certainly, the spirit of chess flows through Africa’s veins and hearts. It is ironic that chess still struggles to find support on the massive continent despite producing many top-level draughts players.
The Chess Drum’s Daaim Shabazz with Charles Kuwaza of Zimbabwe.
Officials from Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Algeria, Malawi, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Namibia. FIDE Continental President Lakhdar Mazouz of Algeria in the center. Various viewpoints represented here. Despite the enchanting assembly of African officials here, the Tromso Olympiad was less enchanting for Africa.
There are several reasons for Africa’s sluggish growth in chess and it may mirror many other problems existing within the socio-economic and geopolitical landscape of the continent. However, when looking at Africa’s standing in FIDE over the past decades, it is obvious that there needs to be more attention paid to the sustainable growth of 42 African federations.
In my years of covering chess, there appears to be a myriad of problems pertaining to chess growth on the large continent. First, is the massive size of the continent which makes it very impractical to travel such long distances. This problem also appears in other regions with developing chess communities. Second, economics appear to be the major obstacle to chess development in Africa with federations struggling to draw sponsorship, host regular activities and run a functioning administrative location. Thirdly, Africa suffers due to the lack of connection between the chess community and larger constituencies.
While these shortcomings are due to a number of reasons, FIDE’s treatment of Africa has not been progressive. In this past election campaign, there were many controversies surrounding the continent including, but not limited to the issue of delegates. Expectantly, there was an effort by both election campaigns to pool the voting delegates of Africa into a winning formula.
The image that had been cast is that in Africa all you need is a suitcase full of incentives to sway votes. Of course, this is a gross exaggeration. In the past, there was even a notion that African nations were unworthy of a singular vote and that more powerful nations should wield heavier influence. However, this was disavowed by both campaigns. In the General Assembly, there is the one-nation, one vote system giving the smallest federation the same voting power as the largest. Thus stakes were very high.
As the campaign drew nearer, there were controversies including several federations whose voting delegates had been removed altogether and changed. This essay is not to delve into these controversies, rehash the details and determine which campaign was justified in their attacks. These are now public records. However, there must NOT be a rerun of this episode in 2018 since the last election turned into a “Scramble for Africa“. This is the last thing the continent needs.
“Kasparov2014” supporter Barthelemy Bongo of Gabon speaking amicably with “FIDE First” supporter, Konate Ibrahima of Mali. Bongo spoke to The Chess Drum about Gabon’s situation.15:22 minutes
Calm before the storm… Ethiopian delegate Ghidey Debessu raises a question at 2014 African Congress. After the coffee break, the meeting descended into chaos.
This election divided the continent… divided regions… and divided federations. To witness the chaos of the African Assembly was sad regardless of whose side one supported. It was an unmitigated disaster. I attended the morning half of the African Congress before going to the playing hall to cover the beginning of the eighth round. I then got a report that the Congress had descended into chaos with the presiding chair walking out of the room. The body appointed an interim chair and continued the meeting.
Githinji Hinga of Kenya expressing himself after Israel Gelfer called African federations “lazy” because of the rift created in the African Assembly. Gelfer apologized repeatedly. Here’s part of the exchange.6:22 minutes
On the next day, there was a chance to reconcile the issue. Unfortunately, when I arrived there were two meetings and two separate votes. There was FIDE officers buzzing about and I saw Garry Kasparov rushing down the hall. I was later told that when members of both parties arrived, a dispute ensued and the meeting split into two separate groups. When I tried to enter the meeting led by Mazouz, he informed me “no journalists” were allowed. I immediately left the room.
There had been the suspicion that chess journalists were supporting Kasparov. Perhaps this suspicion goes back to the FIDE clashes with journalists in Istanbul and several endorsements given to Kasparov by influential chess websites. Later I was allowed in and talked with Lewis Ncube about the rift. He cited the interference of lawyers and the issue of the delegate count. Unfortunately, I did not record the conversation or take any photographs for fear of jeopardizing my access.
FIDE’s Israel Gelfer with African players and delegates outside meeting room after two factions formed.
The Kasparov team can be seen down the hall strategizing.
There were hushed tones throughout the corridor,
but inside the room the scenes were more tense.
The pro-Kasparov faction continue the meeting and proceed to hold elections.
I went to the other room and talked for 30 minutes with both Leykun Adeyemi (Nigeria) and Githinji Hinga (Kenya) who cited justification based on the statutes of the African Chess Confederation (ACC)… listen. As a member of the Pan-African Diaspora, I was extremely saddened. After learning what had transpired, it was a truly pitiful occurrence as African delegates were in the corridors speaking amongst themselves with distrust in their hearts. A wedge had been driven between them by outsiders.
These tensions brewing prior to the Olympiad sessions led to contentious encounters. Georgios Makropolous came tête-à-tête with Dr. Jean-Claude Essoh in the General Assembly and refused to yield the floor to the Ivorian delegate. Makropolous charged Essoh with disrupting the disputed African Congress and accused him of repeating earlier points. This confrontation continued outside during a coffee break.
A showdown occurred between Dr. Jean-Claude Essoh of Cote d’Ivoire and…
…Georgios Makropolous seen gesturing.
On the next day, the conflict descended into a shouting match during a coffee break of the FIDE Congress. Here’s part of the exchange.4:13 minutes
Of course, this is not the way to have a civil discussion even if two sides does not agree. It is the first time in recent years that Africa has been thrust in FIDE’s political spotlight so prominently. Perhaps this election will show that African nations will be resolute in their views even if it means voting for different candidates. However, it has to be done in a manner that maintains the integrity and dignity of Africa.
Issues in the past such as expulsion due to arrears, repeated visa imbroglios, sponsorship shortages for travel and unfair adjudication of “zero tolerance” policies (which disproportionately affected African countries who lived as much as one hour away from the venue). The 2008 Olympiad in Dresden was a disastrous laboratory experiment for the zero tolerance rule. One nation was forfeited despite the tram breaking down. When this was confirmed the forfeit was still upheld.
Finally, there was the misstep by Nigel Freeman when he possibly influenced the voting for the Olympiad bidding for 2018. After giving a report on the result of his inspection, he stated affirmatively that while both Georgia and South Africa were capable holding a successful Olympiad tournament, Georgia “was the superior choice.” This created a buzz of condemnation since the delegates had not voted yet and his comments may have swayed the vote.
The South Africans objected and there was support by Ignatius Leong and Ian Wilkinson for South Africa and Geoffrey Borg for Georgia, but the issue became a partisan one. Those supporting Kirsan Ilymzhinov mainly voted for Georgia and those voting for Kasparov mainly voted for South Africa. It would have been best that no endorsements were given by people on either ticket to avoid this type of dynamic.
Some African nations were encouraged to vote against having the Olympiad in South Africa because of their campaign allegiance. During the break, Freeman could be heard explaining to Jamaica’s Wilkinson that South Africa simply was not ready. Georgia won the vote and jubilant roars could be heard from outside the hall.
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Images from the FIDE Congress… bidding of 2018 Olympiad.
CLICK to see larger images. Hover to get descriptions.
Every Olympiad since 1992 has been held in the European region and only six times in other regions (if you count Libya/Israel 1976). In fact, the next two Olympiad will be held in neighboring nations (Baku, Azerbaijan 2016 and Batumi, Georgia 2018). It would have been a wonderful opportunity for the growth of chess in Africa. It is difficult for chess to grow in Africa (or globally) with a decidedly Eurocentric outlook. It was shameful to see that an Olympiad bid would become politically-charged along election party lines.
In the final analysis, Africa is accountable for their own destiny. This is true as a continent and it is true in chess. There are ways to make use of resources due to the diffusion of technology. Most players have access to useful internet sites with free content and game servers. In actuality, the talent is bubbling within Africa, but seems to halt at critical points. Players like International Masters Stanley Chumfwa (Zambia) and Robert Gwaze (Zimbabwe) no doubt have possessed GM-level talent, but how does one harness this talent? Ilymumzhinov announced an African Commission (with GM Nigel Short as the Director) to further chess development in Africa. Now that he has won the election, we will have to see whether this will come into fruition.
However, FIDE cannot wait until election time to pledge assistance along with Chess-in-Schools and other promises made. That is also true for those with alternative visions. Where is the accounting of African progress between 2010-2014? With a new continental President in Lewis Ncube, these will be questions going forth.
Ncube has cited a inventive fundraising program, but until these plans come into fruition, the question raised about African neglect will persist and this conversation will resurface. Nevertheless, African cannot allow what occurred in Tromso, Norway to happen again. While the Tromso Olympiad may have been damaging for African unity, it did a great deal in helping FIDE to face the reality of its everpresent “African Problem”.
All photos by Daaim Shabazz (The Chess Drum) unless otherwise stated.