Dr. Essoh J.M.C. Essis
Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has some of the world’s top draughts players. If Dr. Essoh Essis has his way Africa will develop a foundation for an “African Renaissance” in chess. Dr. Essis has announced his candidacy for President of the African Chess Confederation (ACC). The voting will take place at the African Congress meeting during the 2018 Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia and will set the tone for the next four years. He will stand against the incumbency of ACC President Lewis Ncube of Zambia and Tshepo Sitale of Botswana.
Dr. Essoh Jean-Mathieu Claude Essis, 57, seems to have the training that would suggest a career in law, politics or diplomacy. He earned his B.A. degree in Law (University of Abidjan-Cocody), an M.A. degree in Public Management and a Ph.D. degree in Public Policy from George Mason University (USA).
After stints in public sector in Cote d’Ivoire and academic posts in the U.S., Dr. Essis now serves as a Civil Affairs Coordinator with the United Nations (UN). Based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he serves in the area of peacekeeping initiatives and conflict resolution, “supporting the restoration of state authority in war-torn countries.” He has also been a Fulbright Fellow, Visiting Scholar at New York University, and earned certification in Public Administration Institute in Paris.
Years ago he became enamored with chess and ultimately realized the value it could bring in social fulfillment. He decided to enter the realm of local chess politics and was elected the President of Cote d’Ivoire Chess Federation (FIDEC) in 2013 (re-elected in 2017). This was a crucial time since there was a FIDE election campaign brewing.
Essoh Essis of Cote d’Ivoire (center) during General Assembly
at 2014 FIDE General Assembly in Tromso, Norway.
Photo by Daaim Shabazz
As an Ivorian delegate, Dr. Essis lobbied strongly to assert the rights of Africa and caused quite a stir in Tromso, Norway. After returning from Tromso, he was able to lead a vigorous effort to improve chess on the Ivorian landscape. Some of the accomplishments accounted for:
- The number of clubs affiliated to the federation from six (6) to (25)
- The number of players holding a federal license from zero (0) to over two hundred and forty five (245)
- The number of FIDE rated players from one (1) to over twenty (20)
- The number of national championships held every year from zero (0) to two (2) per year
- The number of international competitions held in Cote d’Ivoire from zero (0) to an average of two (2) per year
- The number of FIDE Arbiters from zero (0) to four (4)
- The number of trained National Arbiters from zero (0) to six (6)
- The number of school-children formally trained on chess-related topics as part of the national primary school curriculum established by the National Minister of Education from zero (0) to two thousand and two hundred and fifty (2250) in fifteen (15) schools.
The Chess Drum first encountered Dr. Essis four years ago when we interviewed him after a debate on the floor of the General Assembly.3:40 minutes There he raised strong points to the FIDE Executive Board concerning the body’s efforts (or lack thereof) for chess development in Africa. He ultimately got into a debate on the floor with FIDE Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos. It is with a sense of irony that Makropoulos is standing for the FIDE Presidency.
“I am running because I have come to the conclusion that real, sustainable development of chess in Africa will remain “but a fleeting illusion to be pursued and never attained,” unless African federations are able to identify and empower leaders that are willing to change the current situation where they are expected to be servile providers of votes for the FIDE kings.”
~Essoh Essis to africanchessmedia.com
Just over a week ago, he was interviewed by Ogunsiku Babatunde for africachessmedia.com and gave detailed information about his background and his rationale for standing. In the interview that follows, we will learn more about Dr. Essis and his quest for ACC Presidency. In the coming weeks there will be more that will come forth in terms of his plans and platform.
Interview with Essoh J.M.C. ESSIS, Ph.D.
President of Federation Ivoirienne Des Echecs (FIDEC)
Candidate for President of African Chess Confederation (ACC)
Daaim Shabazz (DS): What do you see as the three most vexing problems with chess development in Africa?
Essoh Essis (EE): Firstly, the gap between the potential and the current reality… and by this I do not mean only the potential that we see in scores of young African players to learn chess, perform well and possibly become notable Grandmasters and World Champions. I am also thinking about the potential for the widespread learning and practice of chess in Africa to significantly enhance the ability of our continent and its people to make genuine progress and achieve success in every other field of human activity;
Secondly, the lack of motivation and capability within the current leadership of the ACC to lead our Continent toward the realization of this strong potential. This requires that we work diligently to ensure the political, economic and financial autonomy of the ACC within FIDE. We must also endeavor to develop the managerial, administrative and operational capacities of ACC leaders, but also of African Federations, clubs, and individuals. Seen in this light, at least for myself, and for all the Federations that support my candidacy, this ACC election constitutes a much-needed opportunity to collectively undertake a critical analysis of the situation, and to start an all-inclusive and wide-ranging effort to address the problems;
Thirdly, the very real problem posed by a widespread myth or perception among members of the public in Africa, that the game of chess is foreign to Africans, and to Africa’s culture. That it is a game for Westerners (or foreigners in general), the wealthy, the most educated, the smartest people in society and, in any case, not for the masses of ordinary Africans that must struggle daily to earn their subsistence. This cultural obstacle to the democratization and development of chess in Africa is, in my view, the most important that we must tackle. However, my experience in the development of chess in my native Cote d’Ivoire has convinced me that this problem can be resolved once we have resolved the problems of decisional autonomy and operational capacity that are currently plaguing the ACC.
DS: There has been a constant problem of keeping African membership dues current. What is the current number of African nations holding FIDE membership and how do we fix the constant problems with arrears?
EE: I believe there are 47 African federations with FIDE membership of which 14 are currently on the latest list of federations listed as being in arrears on the FIDE website (https://ratings.fide.com/arrears.phtml). When I was elected as President of the Cote d’Ivoire Chess Federation, my own Federation had arrears amounting to more than 5000 Euros (in addition to other internal debts), and was barred from participation in FIDE-sponsored events.
I believe that the arrears problem is one that can only be resolved by African Federation leaders themselves, as a matter of priority, if they want to be regarded (and treated) with respect by FIDE officials and by other Federation leaders. In the case of Cote d’Ivoire, I decided to pay these arrears off as a matter of urgency because I recognized that this was the only way for my Federation and my country to earn the respect of other FIDE member federations and to participate on an equal footing with these other Federation leaders in any decision-making forum related to the leadership and management of FIDE.
Ivorian delegation in Tromso, Norway for the 2014 Chess Olympiad
Photo by Daaim Shabazz
In most cases, the accumulation of arrears with FIDE is a symptom of the systemic fragility of the Federations. In the case of Cote d’Ivoire, which I know best, the Federation had no assets and received no funding whatsoever from government, private sector, or any other external sources. It did not generate any money internally either, because none of the eight clubs in existence paid their statutory affiliation fees and annual dues to the Federation; and none of the players associated with these clubs held a federal license and paid a license fee.
It took a lot of intense fighting with club presidents and players and significant resources in creative thinking to put an end to what I referred to as the “culture and era of gratuity”. Upon submitting a request, we received hundreds of chess sets, and dozens of clocks from the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa. We then offered four sets and one clock to every club that would purchase licenses for six players (six is minimum number of members that a club needs to be recognized as such per our FIDEC statutes). Today, FIDEC counts 25 dues-paying clubs and over 250 registered players with their own federal licenses, and every single player who has paid their license dues has automatically also been issued a FIDE ID number.
In addition, we have organized several well-publicized national and international tournaments (for which I want to express our eternal gratitude to the Chess Federations of Nigeria and Ghana) with free participation for all players, to create the motivation for everyone to play in official competitions. Once this initial promotional objective was achieved, and we started to see relatively large numbers of players registering to play in our competitions, our executive committee moved to institute participation fees for all FIDEC-organized tournaments.
Photos by Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa
Through these initiatives, we were able to raise a minimum amount of funds from our own local sources (players themselves, club presidents and/or other individuals who were willing to pay license fees for indigent players, as well as proceeds from participation fees in events organized by our clubs, leagues, etc.). These initiatives also helped establish FIDEC’s reputation as a credible sports management organization, and this led to the national Sports Ministry allocating a progressively increasing amount of financial support (8,000 USD in 2015, 16,000 USD in 2016 and 32,000 USD in 2017). Finally, this year, FIDEC has signed a cooperation agreement with our first Ivorian private sponsor, a management consulting firm that funds tournament prizes and trophies, and that is now supporting our effort to apply for and secure ISO-9001 certification for FIDEC operations.
I am aware that this is far from an ideal situation, but I believe it is much better than that which existed only four years ago. I also believe that sharing such stories and experiences can inspire other federation managers to use the same strategy, or to invent their own, in order to mobilize minimum levels funding to meet their most basic obligations.
In any event, African Chess players must recognize that it is not reasonable to expect that federation presidents will bear the costs of their federation’s activities from their own pocket, or that these activities can be funded exclusively from external sources such as FIDE presidential candidates or ACC presidents seeking reelection every four years. Instead, they must demand that aspiring federation managers come up with a clear and reasonable strategy, as well as with credible day to day initiatives, that can transform their federations into self-funded operations.
DS: Can you give us the theme of your election campaign and how will it differ from previous administrations?
EE: Our election campaign theme will be: “Together, we can”. It will differ from previous administration in that our focus is not simply on winning the election and replacing the current ACC leadership.
We are focused, instead, on establishing a broad coalition of African Chess federations and individual chess players who are willing and able to contribute creative ideas and make the sacrifices required to ensure that the ACC becomes an autonomous organization within FIDE and, most importantly that it takes full responsibility for the effective, efficient, equitable, qualitative, competitive, and durable development of Chess in Africa.
DS: There has been a very polarized situation in the past FIDE elections. Past campaigns have divided federations, zones and entire continents. At the 2014 Chess Olympiad, Africa was caught in the middle of a contentious election. Has the continent recovered from that experience?
EE: No, we have not, and the ACC has remain divided since Tromso 2014, although we have, quite reasonably, chosen and managed to avoid any public display of hostility toward each other over the last four years.
On one hand, there is a group of Federation leaders that typically associate themselves with Mr. Lewis Ncube and Mr. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, and who are largely favorable to the current status quo. On the other hand, there are many “reformist” Federation leaders that typically associate themselves with Mr. Lekan Adeyemi (President of the Nigerian Chess Federation) and myself.
The upcoming election is likely to see a further fragmentation within the status quo group, with some Federations choosing to remain faithful to Mr. Ilyumzhinov, and some shifting their support to either Mr. Makropoulos or Grandmaster Nigel Short. Finally, there are some Federations, including those that became FIDE members after Tromso 2014, that are currently not aligned with either camp and are adopting a position of neutrality.
DS: You have had a very contentious relationship with Makropoulos who is standing for FIDE President. How do you expect to work with him if he in fact wins the FIDE Presidency?
EE: I want to be very clear about one thing: As ACC president, I am willing to work, in the best spirit of mutual respect and cooperation, with any FIDE President or official who supports my priority objectives of political, financial and operational autonomy for the ACC; management capacity building and empowerment of African federations; and the design and implementation of credible programs for the development of Chess in African countries.
Mr. Makropoulos himself has recently changed his stance and endorsed some of the key demands I formulated four years ago with regards to the relations between FIDE and the ACC. In his declaration of candidacy, he vowed to end the practice of votes by proxies, and to promote “direct participation of delegates to protect democracy and electoral procedures.” He also vowed to end the “politico-economic games and intrigues” orchestrated by FIDE leaders to undermine Federation Presidents like myself whose views have historically been deemed unacceptable or anti-establishment.
Finally, he vowed to “achieve profound unity of our chess world, without political, racial or religious divisions,” and to “open broad and permanent channels of communication that will fuel FIDE with new ideas and energy, with all the members of our chess family, making sure that everybody can have an active role in the new FIDE.” (see announcement)
Ivorian delegates leaving a tense session
Both Georgios Makropoulos and Dr. Essis debating
during a coffee break of the FIDE Congress.
Photos by Daaim Shabazz
Everyone who took part in the FIDE general assembly in Tromso will remember that I formulated these very demands on behalf of African Federation leaders and chess players, and that he rejected them at the time on behalf of the FIDE leadership. Therefore, I applaud his revised stance on these issues, and I would be willing to work with him to turn these electoral promises into practical realities.
Having said this, I must also note that Mr. Makropoulos has been an integral part of the internal mechanism of FIDE for more than 30 years and he is thus equally responsible and accountable for many of the leadership failures that have brought FIDE to the sad state that it currently finds itself in. His ongoing attempts to distance himself as far as possible from the actions of Mr. Ilyumzhinov are understandable from a political perspective but he will need to follow up his words with action for us to have a productive relationship should we both be elected to the respective positions for which we are standing.
DS: In an interview with africachessmedia.com, you recounted that you demanded that FIDE leadership treat Africa federations with respect. I was present when you made that pronouncement and that plea earned applause among the body. Every four years (and the last 20), campaigns come to Africa with chess sets and promises of tournaments and “Chess-in-Schools.” None of these have been sustained. Why do you think that Africa remains an afterthought except when there is an election campaign and how do African federations hold FIDE accountable after these elections?
EE: It is important to understand that the division of labor between FIDE member federations is only a mirror image of the division of labor between regions and/or continents in the “international political economy”.
As a result of powerful historical, political and sociocultural factors, there is an unwritten rule (but a recurrent practice) that only Northern federations are entitled to occupy the top positions in the FIDE leadership. African (and other Southern) federations are therefore expected to serve only as suppliers of votes to the Northern elites competing in FIDE presidential elections. In effect, in this “system”, the leaders of organizations such as the ACC and the AIDEF (Association Internationale Des Echecs Francophones) were charged, until recently, to coax African votes in favor of the incumbent FIDE President.
The campaign visits to a few African countries every four years, the delivery of minimal quantities of chess equipment, the nepotistic allocations of ACC tournament organizational rights to “friendly” Federations, and the unfulfilled promises of developmental funds and chess-in-schools programs are only some of the operational dynamics of the system described above. So are the ostracism and persecution imposed on African Federation leaders who have dared to speak up against such practices and to call FIDE leaders to account (like I did four years ago). These unwritten rules and operational practices explain, among other things, why African Federations have historically never been able to hold FIDE leaders accountable after such elections.
~Essoh Essis in 2014 interview with The Chess Drum
In the same vein, and for the same reasons, African Federations have been expected to be mere consumers, and not producers, of significant chess events that are “naturally” organized in better-endowed Northern Hemisphere countries. In fact, many African Federation leaders and players are perfectly happy to receive one or two invitations to attend a significant chess event organized in a Northern Hemisphere country once a year, instead of seeking to organize such events themselves to allow a majority of their own players to participate.
My campaign for ACC President is motivated by the desire and commitment of several like-minded and supportive African Federations to initiate an open discussion within FIDE about the destructive effects of these unwritten rules and their enabling practices. Our objective is to bring about positive change that is based on the principles of unity and equality within the chess family (“Gens una sumus”), democratic and transparent governance of our common institutions, and equal opportunity for all chess players around the world.
“So that the little boys and little girls of Africa that are just as brilliant, as intelligent as the children in any other part of the world are able to get the opportunity to become World Chess Champion.”
Photo by Abidjan.net
DS: What are your short- and long-range goals for the next four years?
EE: In the short term (that is, in the first year of my administration), we hope to finalize negotiations with FIDE executives to ensure the political, economic, and operational autonomy of the ACC within FIDE.
We will also move quickly to assemble a large team of African chess experts to discuss the current situation of the ACC, with a view to identifying our organization’s current strengths and weaknesses, as well as existing constraints, challenges and opportunities imposed on it by its global environment. This exercise will culminate in the adoption of a detailed plan of action for the next four years, based on a shared vision of the objectives we want chess in Africa to achieve within the next generation (25-years).
Finally, we will move just as quickly to establish, enact, and progressively execute a transparent schedule of ACC managed competitions, through an all-inclusive negotiation process that guarantees equal and/or equitable treatment for all national Federations regardless of their prior political affiliations.
Essoh at the 2017 Team Chess Invitational
In the medium term (the next 2-3 years), we intend to design, promote, and implement relatively simple and standardized yet effective training programs (including experience-sharing seminars and workshops) to provide management capacity-building support and technical advice to African Federation leaders, with the aim of reinforcing their ability to successfully run small organizations (clubs, leagues and national Federations), as well as small and large chess development programs or projects.
This program of capacity-building activities should result in the establishment, formalization, and implementation of an integrated schedule of activities organized by all national Federations, with technical support from the ACC.
Finally, during the same period, we will initiate a series of negotiations with representatives of African governments, private sector and non-profit organizations, to mobilize financial support for chess development programs and activities in every country. Similar promotional negotiations will also be held with non-African institutions or individuals (such as the Kasparov Chess Foundation) that may be interested in making funds available for the durable development of chess in Africa.
Some of our objectives for the long term (by the end of the fourth year) will be to ensure that:
- most African federations are managed democratically and effectively, and are capable of funding and running their own formal schedule of activities, including national, sub-regional/zonal and regional/continent-wide competitions and their own development programs or projects;
- ACC-managed competitions are organized effectively and successfully and are well attended by Chess players from a large number of member-federations and;
- At least five (10% of the 47) African Federations have access to the funding required, as well as the technical capabilities, to organize significant international competitions on the FIDE schedule, such as the Olympiad or World Youth Championships.
It is needless to mention that my ACC Administration would provide strong political support to any African Federation’s bid to organize a Chess Olympiad as soon as possible in the future.
DS: Are there any closing comments you want to make about your candidacy?
EE: I want to issue a very solemn call on the FIDE leadership to recognize the urgent and crucial necessity of, and to positively work towards, the creation of the conditions needed for free, fair and transparent elections for all FIDE institutions (including the ACC) during the upcoming FIDE Congress.
Historians might want to take note of the fact that the responsibility to lead FIDE’s transition to democracy currently lies with Mr. Makropoulos, a citizen of Greece, the legendary birthplace of democratic thought and traditions. I want to believe that all the FIDE leaders will manage to rise to this particular challenge, and will “do the right thing”.
That is the only way to reconcile our organization’s practice with its prestigious creed statement that “We are [all] one people (Gens una Sumus)”. Moreover, this is the only way that we can ensure that each member Federation and Continental Confederation is empowered to independently and effectively design and implement programs that can ensure the development of chess in their own country or region, thereby contributing, according to their own mandate and resources, to the advent of a stronger, more prosperous, and eventually more successful FIDE.
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