By Segun Odegbami
Very few persons in Nigeria know the name Steve Mawuenyega. But not so in Ghana where he came from.
I am referring to him in the past tense because by the time you are reading this on Saturday, my very close friend and co-traveller on the journey of big dreams in African football, would have been buried a day earlier in Accra, Ghana.
Steve Kojo Mawuenyega died at the age of 63 on the 10th of January, 2021. Since then, the news has been hard for me to digest and accept.
For almost 2 decades since we first met, Steve and I have been co-dreamers of big things in African football, the latest being how an African country, Ghana or Nigeria, would win the World Cup in 2030.
When it came to dreaming ‘big’ we were always on the same page, drawn together by circumstances that I recall here as a special tribute to the great Ghanaian gentleman.
As I do so, I am humbly also adding my heavily-laden voice to those of wailing friends and family who must be shedding their own tears as they lay to rest, in peace and eternity, this very special human being that I was lucky to have met and made my friend almost 20 years ago.
In 2002, coming from Japan, I had the ‘crazy’ idea that 4 or 5 West African countries could achieve what Korea and Japan failed to achieve in their novel co-hosting arrangement – organise a seamless World Cup.
My idea was simple and straightforward: the 4/5 West African countries would pull their resources together and organise a unique, culturally-rich 2010 World Cup of football, since the event had been ceded to Africa by FIFA, anyway.
The countries would use the process and opportunity to creatively build a friendly, truly African and economically vibrant environment that would subsequently turn it into a major global player in several sectors unique to the continent, as well as a cultural and economic force in the World within a generation. It was to be an ambitious 7-year project, from 2003 -2010.
It was unthinkable to most people that the World Cup, the greatest single event in the world, could ever come to any one of poor countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin, Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon or even Nigeria. It is even more unlikely with an untested, multi-nation hosting arrangement.
Yet I persisted and envisioned a West African sub-region that the same event, differently packaged, would literally transform into a bee-hive of infrastructural, social, cultural, political and economic development, unprecedented in the history of the continent.
The collaborating countries would become a massive construction site, a borderless sub-region with a single currency, a common security-apparatus, a common visa, a super-highway and rail system linking the capital cities, a common airline and a common economic and cultural community! In short, the West African equivalent of the European Union.
Only very few persons caught the vision. The Nigerian media were up in arms, from day one, in shooting down another one of Segun Odegbami’s crazy ideas. But after meeting with Steve and his group in Accra for the first time in 2003, he, in particular, became not just a convert but, thereafter, a disciple of the idea, a personal friend and co-traveller on several eventful adventures. I found out that Steve loved big ‘dreams’.
The West African World Cup was such an out-of-this-world idea that it took the President of FIFA at the time, Mr. Sepp Blatter, to describe the concept as ‘absolutely innovative, doable and brilliant’ for the Nigerian government to accept the idea, to embrace it, and to decide to pursue it on a consultative basis with the 4 other proposed collaborating countries.
The President of Nigeria in 2003, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, signed letters addressed to the Presidents of the 4 other countries in West Africa to be delivered by hand. As the major promoter of the idea, I was made to lead the delegation of Nigerian officials mandated to deliver them and to explain the rationale for the proposed project to the leaders of the countries.
In Accra, there was a team of young, successful Ghanaians, major players in the Ghanaian football, business and diplomatic sectors, set up by President John Kuffour, waiting to receive us. Steve Mawuenyega was in the team.
That was the first time I met him. He was the Vice-Chairman of Accra Heart of Oaks FC at the time.
The meeting went so well that for the next 9 months, we met intermittently in Accra, Abuja and Lagos deliberating on the possibilities, the feasibility and viability of hosting the proposed World Cup in West Africa, and charting a way towards achieving the most ambitious project ever undertaken in sports in Africa.
Amongst the high-flying Ghanaian group, Steve was one of those that immediately grasped, embraced and, later, ‘owned’ the concept of this multiple-nation World Cup. Today, the rest of the World has woken up to the reality of a multi-nation hosting arrangement. From the 2026 edition, the World Cup will be hosted by multiple countries.
Steve was one of those that first saw that future. He understood and appreciated its power completely, and became its greatest promoter in Ghana.
Unfortunately, one year into what was becoming a truly exciting adventure for us all, the project was shot down on the tarmac of implementation by the adverse effect of domestic politics playing out in the leading host country, Nigeria, at the time.
Fortunately, my relationship with Steve had grown beyond the World Cup and was now cemented forever. We became more than mere friends. We became family.
He was such a big dreamer that in business, politics, sports and diplomacy he saw the future well before most others did. In those fields, the records of his exploits, his industry and his successes became a testimony, and always reflected in his life.
He clearly saw the possibilities and prospects of achieving the African dreams of the great Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and his generation of co-travelers in the continent – Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenyatta of Kenya, Selassie of Ethiopia, Balewa of Nigeria, Senghor of Senegal, and so on, through the power of sports, just as the great Nelson Mandela did in 1995.
Many years later, in 2016, when I decided to contest for the position of FIFA President, Steve, the ever-positive spirit and believer in endless possibilities, led my group of international backers and supporters.
He was the first person I shared the idea with, and in his nature, he took over the project and started to run with it. He took me to see every person that mattered in sports and in government in Ghana at the time, and was my loudest voice in the media.
Steve was a genuine Pan-Africanist and patriot. He always talked about his roots, particularly the influence of his father who was a renowned diplomat during the Nkrumah era, I believe. Little wonder he also became an international ambassador, his last assignment up to the time of his passage, being that of Honorary Counsel for Serbia in Ghana.
Steve was smart, very smart. He was tall, dark, handsome and wealthy. His beards and the black curly hair on his head were tinged with plenty of silvery grey that gave him a senior’s look, and accentuated his facial features, his clean-looks, his charisma, confidence, dress sense and style, and his soft but very measured and articulate expressions. He oozed class in everything he did, and carried himself with the air of Aristocracy in a combination of chivalry, royalty and intellectualism.
He was a man of high morals, principles and integrity, of exemplary conduct and good character, and a family man to the core.
Outside his family the only other interests I experienced with him were in sports, politics, business and more business.
Our last project was planning how to make either Ghana or Nigeria to become the first African country to win the World Cup in 2030, in a revisit of our multi-nation hosting of the World Cup in the West African sub-region.
I received his last message 3 days to Christmas, on December 22, after which they suddenly stopped coming.
The end of 2020 festivities and the disruption of normal life by the Coronavirus pandemic were major distractions for me until the sad news came shockingly via Dele Momodu’s Facebook platform that my friend and brother, Steve Mawuenyega, had passed on. It was one death that would not sink in, and still has not, even as I write these few words.
His son, Seyram, now my ‘adopted’ son and friend, is one of the most knowledgeable people I know on the subject of the English Premiership and football in general. He is truly his father’s son. Whereas Steve was a die-hard Manchester United fan, Seyram chose to support Chelsea FC. Steve could never win an argument between them about which was the better team.
Our conversations, Seyram and I, on telephone were always a test of my knowledge of football and my wits. The ‘boy’ is a chip off his father’s block and always a great delight to talk with.
It is extremely hard for me to think that Steve is not around any more to pick up my calls with his ‘ my broda’ salutation; that he will not be around to pick me up at the Kotoka International airport and take me to any one of his favourite hotels and food joints in Accra (he knew all the best ones), and to have conversations with a whole legion of people in high places that he knew and interacted with in his incredible social engagements.
I refuse to be saddened by thoughts about his death even as I write this. Steve was a jolly good fellow, a great guy, a great man, and a great friend. I believe that he would not want too much grief to envelope his funeral, but would rather want to be remembered and celebrated for his contributions to humanity, and the good life that he lived during his sojourn on earth.
I believe that the angels will recognise one of their own, and will line up by the entrance into heaven to welcome him as he arrives home to his Father, the Creator of the Universe.
Travel well and peacefully, my beloved friend and brother, Stevo! Our Dream that Ghana or Nigeria would win the 2030 World Cup lives on. I hope some West African leaders are dreaming of the possibility too!