There is an age-old adage that politics and sport are incompatible bedfellows. Indeed, it could be argued that has been the case for the past 27 years.
Yet in that period, the most prominent exception to the rule is George Cosmas Adyebo, the former prime minister from 1991-1994.
Mention Adyebo’s name to football fanatic from the 90s era and the first thing many will remember is his lucky charm.
The national team or Ugandan sides always won whenever he watched the matches at Nakivubo stadium. The superstition was simple; invite Adyebo as chief guest and you would be assured of a win.
Adyebo’s presence exuded liveliness in the stands and huge psychological boost for the players. Interestingly, Adyebo had little history in football circles but from almost nowhere, his prominence shot up when he was appointed prime minister on January 22, 1991.
Adyebo enjoyed the life of a common man and that greatly endeared him to football fans. Many times, he would caution his bodyguards at the slightest sign of harassing fans who used to come close to him.
Adyebo’s first high-level involvement in football came in July 1991 when he intervened in the standoff between Fufa and SC Villa. The federation had slapped a one-year ban on Cranes and Villa skipper Paul Hasule for attacking referee Fred Wanyama.
He managed to convince both parties to settle the differences but before that, Adyebo was a regular presence for big games at Nakivubo and had a favourite spot in the pavilion.
Barely a few months after becoming the third highest-ranking citizen of Uganda, Adyebo graced the Africa Cup of Nation qualifier game against Tanzania. The must-win encounter put many fans on tenterhooks but Magid Musisi’s hat-trick saved the blushes in a 3-2 win.
As several fans departed the stadium, Adyebo stayed behind and patiently waited for his chance to shake Musisi’s hands before he left. A few weeks later, he was chief guest as Uganda junior side defeated Mozambique 3-1 in a 1992 Olympic qualifier. In this game, Ibrahim Kizito bagged three goals yet it was Adyebo who stole the show with his relentless cheering throughout the match.
Having seen the charm in Adyebo, Villa and Express mooted the idea of making Adyebo the chief guest for key matches. The move paid immediate dividends in May 1992 when Villa hosted Kenya Posta in the Caf Cup.
As time wore on without a goal, fans became agitated yet on the contrary; Adyebo became animated and urged the team on from the pavilion. Iddi Batambuze scored a late winner to send fans wild but many left singing praises to Adyebo’s presence for the lucky escape. The Jogoos since then made Adyebo a permanent feature for their international games.
Ironically, KCC FC didn’t read much in Adyebo’s charm and ‘ignored’ him before their 1995 Caf Cup Winners Cup against Zanzibar’s Malindi at Nakivubo full of confidence. But as fate would have it, they lost the match 0-2 much to the chagrin of fans, who attacked club officials for ignoring the elegant premier.
Surprisingly, Adyebo doubted his magic wand on the endless occasions this topic was brought to his attention. “I’m not a magician and it is just a matter of coincidence, may be. I have no extraordinary powers to let people win,’ he used to say.
When he was dropped as prime minister in November 1994, many fans feared for the worst but that only proved a blessing in disguise. In his new assignment as NRC deputy speaker, he spared more time for football and he greatly engaged Fufa and clubs in preparations for international engagement.
He was deeply involved with Express in their fairytale run to the semifinals of the 1995 Africa Club championships. He also promised Shs 1 million for every Express goal in the semis against Orlando Pirates, which he paid when Express settled for a 1-1 draw. But despite his close attachment to the Red Eagles, Adyebo constantly denied being a supporter of any local club.
Such football patronage was a rarity and Adyebo stood out as a football philanthropist. In November 1995, he headed Fufa’s special welfare committee that organised the 1995 Cecafa Cup in Kampala. He did a commendable job and secured sponsorship from a couple of companies.
Several leading football figures mooted the idea of Adyebo becoming Fufa president but he turned down the offer, preferring to contribute from what he termed as the ‘frontline.’
Behind the scenes, however, Adyebo’s popularity in football is said to have rubbed several high-ranking government officials the wrong way. In fact, insiders say he was cautioned to stay away from football lest he risked demotion and indeed, he spent the entire 1996 without watching matches.
Later that year, I bumped into him at Entebbe airport and though he admitted being up-to-date with football trends, he only followed the sport through reading newspapers. In early 2000, a cancerous foot worsened his health and he completely left the public scene. He died on November 19, 2000 at Kampala International Hospital.
One of Ugandan football’s greatest ambassadors was gone and to this day, no government official has ever come close to replicating Adyebo’s passion for the game. In the end, his lucky charm was nothing more than a superstition but the motivation it brought to a whole stadium offered hope in moments of despair.
The author is operations director of The Observer Media Ltd.