A senior official from African football’s governing body attempted to intervene in a state investigation into whether the president of the Gabonese Football Federation (Fegafoot) covered up widespread sexual abuse, the Guardian can reveal.
Pierre-Alain Mounguengui was indicted and placed under a committal order in Libreville last week for “failure to report crimes of paedophilia” having been arrested last month after allegations first made in the Guardian. He could face up to three years in prison if found guilty of not reporting to the authorities alleged sexual abuse by a number coaches. There is no suggestion Mounguengui – who was re-elected as Fegafoot’s president for a third term on 16 April – has been accused of sexual abuse himself. He has not commented on the charges.
In a letter to the Gabonese sports minister, Franck Nguema, dated 28 April, Véron Mosengo-Omba – the general secretary of the Confederation of African Football (Caf) – alleges that Mounguengui’s arrest two weeks after he was re-elected “is a disturbing coincidence” and evidence of “a new attempt to remove Mr Mounguengui from the management of Fegafoot”.
“While sharing the concern of the Gabonese state to investigate seriously in the event of suspicion of attacks committed in the exercise of football, Caf wonders in particular about the real reasons that have justifies the arrest of President Mounguengui and on those who would still justify his continued detention after questioning,” it reads.
“This arrest is perceived as a new attempt to remove Mr Mounguengui from the management of Fegafoot. Indeed, we are still awaiting the complete report of our delegates dispatched on the spot before and during the elections, but we know that irregular procedures have already been used to harm him before the elections. We are counting on the fact that President Mounguengui is and will be treated in accordance with applicable law and quickly released – if this has not already been done – if no sufficient charge justifies his detention. I ask you to accept.”
Nguema wrote back on 3 May – four days before Mounguengui appeared in court to face charges – and pointed out that their first interview with the Fegafoot president concerning the investigation had taken place in December, more than three months before the elections.
“As you can see, the legal proceedings against Mr. Mounguengui, initiated on 21/12/2021, are on the one hand triggered by the revelations of the newspaper The Guardian (16/12/2021), and on the other hand, well before the election of the executive Bureau of Fegafoot (16/04/2022),” wrote Nguema. “In Gabon, as in other democratic countries, the independence of justice is affirmed because of the principle of the separation of powers. From this point of view, it is not up to the government to instruct the justice to quickly release Mr. Mounguengui, as suggested by the Caf by your care. Also, only the justice remains competent to decide whether or not to release Mr. Mounguengui, depending on the results of the criminal investigations in progress.”
In a statement, a Caf spokesperson told the Guardian that it had contacted the government because of concerns that the elections had not been conducted fairly.
“Caf has a duty to raise pertinent questions at times and seek clarity on matters and this is no different,” he said. “In the case of President Pierre-Alain Mounguengui, we have maintained a clear position: that if there is a case for him to answer, that should be dealt with. We have been studying the context of what transpired in Gabon both before the football leadership elections and after. We have also received a report from the Caf delegation sent to the country. For now, the content of these reports is not yet made public but we remain available to discuss it with the government of Gabon, relevant stakeholders and football leadership in Gabon.
“In the last few months, Caf has engaged a number of governments in the continent whenever there have been challenges relating to football and football leaders in the particular countries. This situation is no different.”
Kenya’s and Zimbabwe’s football associations were suspended by Fifa in February because of governmental interference and it is understood that is among the measures being considered for Gabon. Before joining Caf in March 2021, Mosengo-Omba was in charge of establishing normalisation committees in several African countries including Cameroon and Egypt as part of his role as chief officer of the Fifa member associations. But a spokesperson for the international players’ union Fifpro said Caf’s behaviour was “highly inappropriate”.
“The evidence gathered by the relevant domestic authorities was apparently deemed sufficient to detain Mr Mounguengui, who has been the president of the Gabon Football Federation for several years, a period of time that coincided with the occurrence of the widespread abuse,” he said.
“It is critical that sport’s governing bodies respect the independence and the process of the criminal justice system, while ensuring that sporting sanctions are imposed according to their own ethics and disciplinary standards and based on their own investigations. Invoking a so-called prohibition on ‘political interference’ by a government in this case is not only a breach of decent governance but may adversely affect the victims and survivors, for whom sport governing bodies share a responsibility of care.”