Benin, a West African country of about 12 million people, currently sits 18th in the UCI African Nations ranking in cycling, followed only by Sudan; nineteen nations with points out of 54 nations on the African continent. Those numbers taken at face value do not seem to hold much promise. But then, neither did Rwanda based on the numbers in 2006. This year, Benin will host the Tour of Benin as a UCI 2.2 race, its first UCI sanctioned race. Benin cyclists appear at more races throughout the continent and slowly gain experience, points, and respect on the Africa tour. The reason for Benin’s rapid growth in the sport? Good governance at the Federation level coupled with strong leadership and zero tolerance for corruption.
Continuing our conversation about why there are not more Africans in the professional ranks of cycling, Team Africa Rising highlights infrastructure. There is no question, throughout the world of professional cycling, there are varying degrees of corruption at the Club, Federation, Ministry of Sport, Continental Confederations, and the UCI. This is not endemic to the African continent. However, the impact of corruption produces more direct and dire consequences to cyclists already facing a myriad of barriers to success in the sport.
Team Africa Rising could list every documented abuse of power, each compromised leader from CAC through the Federations to the lowest rung Federation employee. It could draw a direct link to a decrease in services, equipment, and opportunities in cycling. But when corruption is tolerated and normalized from the top-down, one must find the pockets of incorruptibility and work from there; otherwise, the effort is futile. Sadly, the result is thousands of cyclists are left behind in the morass of Federation and Confederation of African Cycling politics.
Benin Success Story in the Making
For that reason, this piece highlights a country committed to transparency, integrity, and athlete success on and off the bicycle. Benin is an example for other African countries. Although the tangible results will be a years-long, possibly decades-long journey, the foundation laid to produce cyclists and a development system may be the gold standard in the future. Team Africa Rising’s relationship with the Benin Cycling Federation began in 2019. It started with a call between Jock Boyer, who was at the African Continental Championships in Bahir Dar, and Romuald Hazoumé, the Benin Cycling Federation President. Unlike many Federations who send “delegates” to these Championships, Benin is committed to maximizing the number of cyclists at events. They minimize the number of “delegates.” Every decision is made considering the advancement of the cyclists over the personal gain of members of the Federation.
What has that produced? A country that is where Rwanda was in 2007 as far as the results and rankings in the sport. However, Benin has a broader commitment, vision, and greater access to technology than Rwanda did 15 years ago. This should make the growth trajectory exponentially faster than Rwanda. Benin is light years ahead of countries still grappling with corrupt and inept Federations. At best, these other Federations hinder the sport’s growth and the individual success of the cyclists. At worst, they actively work against growing the sport and literally take funds and equipment meant for the sport.
Benin Cycling has a vision for the future. They recently partnered with a local University, the National Institute of Youth, Physical Education, and Sport (INJEPS), to offer a cycling program curriculum teaching everything from actual cycling skills to mechanics, coaching, administration, and event promotion. With a small investment of only $4,000, the Benin Cycling Federation (FBC) purchased bikes, helmets, shoes, and gear to start the program. At the launch in late January, attended by 22 representatives from FBC, INJEPS, and local businesses and 74 students, the INJEPS Director, Julien Minavoa, stated,
“the collaboration between this institute and the FBC was born after a meeting, held just a month ago. These words were confirmed by Romuald Hazoumè, President of the FBC, who suggested that the delivery of equipment was possible thanks to the NGO Team Africa Rising, which asked, agreed at short notice, to contribute to the development of cycling in Benin and in turn, to INJEPS. FBC responded through Team Africa Rising in less than a month to our request and we must show that we deserve it.”
The Benin Cycling Federation shows what is possible with strong leadership, transparency, and a vision. FBC and INJEPS are developing a bike park including a state-of-the-art Velodrome, BMX pump track, cycling garage, and classrooms. Their goal is to make Benin a powerhouse in cycling and the premier locale for training by European and African teams.
Impact of Poverty
Often, companies are concerned about investing in cycling on the African continent because of the perception of rampant corruption. However, this is not just Africa. Perhaps the corruption yields more visible and crushing results because of the high levels of poverty on the continent. The space between the haves and the have nots is glaring. But when everything is done professionally and with transparency in this environment, the results are evident. It is remarkable for those most in need – the cyclists. This brings the topic of barriers to entry in cycling back around to the original post; racism exists within the sport encompassed by many intrinsic barriers – education, poverty, corruption, and lack of investment. According to the World Bank, nineteen out of the top 21 Low Income Countries based on Gross National Income (GNI) are African countries.
Federations and CAC
Federations have the ability and responsibility to operate from the top-down as a role model of transparent leadership. They have the opportunity to partner with sponsors and investors (private, public, nonprofit) and exhibit co-responsibility for the sport’s long-term growth. Former semi-professional and professional cyclists need to be part of the Federations in the future. Experience from cyclists like Adrien Niyonshuti, Natnael Berhane, Youcef Reguigui, Tsgabu Grmay, and others who spent a decade or more on the professional circuit is invaluable. These are the leaders of the future. The leaders who can best prepare the juniors of today for what lies ahead.
It begins with the Confederation of African Cycling (CAC). Currently, the top five nations on the Africa Tour are Eritrea, South Africa, Algeria, Namibia, and Rwanda, followed closely by Burkina Faso.
According to the CAC website, the Management Committee of CAC 2017 – 2021, none of these top countries are represented. South Africa’s William Newman resigned more than a year ago. Rwanda’s Aimable Bayingana resigned in 2019 due to corruption and rider abuse allegations. The President of CAC, Dr. Mohamed Azzam, from Egypt, has been in power since at least 2009. It is believed there were term limits at one point allowing only three terms. He was just elected in September 2021 to a fourth (possibly more) term as President of CAC. In September, the UCI elected him Vice President. This essentially validates a system of corruption and power in African cycling continuing for more than a decade.
CAC’s Objectives according to and taken directly from their website are:
- Promote and develop all forms of cycling in Africa.
- Facilitate contacts between its member federations and the UCI as well as participation of its member federations in the running of the UCI.
- Defend the interests of the continent and the African federations at the UCI and, in consultation with the UCI, at other international sporting authorities.
- Facilitate understanding, co-operation and mutual assistance with all international sporting authorities.
- Promote sporting ethics in general and those of cycling in particular.
- Combat any form of racial, political or religious discrimination and other forms of discrimination throughout the sporting movement on the continent.
Where was CAC during the Patrick Moster incident at the 2020 Olympics when Moster lobbed racial slurs at Azzedine Lagab and Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier? CAC was silent on the matter and has never spoken about the incident.
Why is the top country, Eritrea, not represented on the CAC Management Committee? There are five countries (Mozambique, Senegal, Guinea, Mauritania, Nigeria) with ZERO points on the Africa Tour Nation’s Ranking sitting on the Management Committee? Why is Kenya’s Julius Mwangi the Vice President of CAC? A man who has controlled Kenyan cycling for over 30 years to the detriment of Kenyan cyclists.
These are some reasons African cycling and African cyclists continue to struggle to pursue their dreams of World Tour glory. These are the areas that demand change. TAR continues to fight for these cyclists and opportunities. But the voices of those most impacted by policy and obstacles must be heard. Those who have the power to change it for their benefit need to act.