NAIROBI, November 25 – For the first time in history; runners who have spent decades dancing to the tune of their masters at Athletics Kenya (AK) and its forerunner, Kenya Amateur Athletics Association, managed to bring activities at the federation to a halt in a 48-hour siege of their Nairobi headquarters.
The blockade that ended as night fell on Tuesday when a group allied to Professional Athletics Association of Kenya (PAAK) left Riadha House is the biggest statement yet of the push for change at the federation to give athletes a greater say in how it is run.
It was simply the biggest revolt against the 23 year-old administration of Isaiah Kiplagat, who was prevented from joining the proceedings after a home accident, left him immobile as the siege went on.
Often a figure of defiance and authoritarian rule, Kiplagat and his national executive have ran the sport unchallenged until the early hours of Monday morning when the protestors stormed the offices with a group of about 50 disgruntled runners chased away administrative staff before locking the Riadha House gates.
Capital Sport retraces the roots and culmination of the milestone protest from a group that is not even registered at the Sports Registrar that was eventually diffused when newly appointed Sports Development Principle Secretary, Dr. Richard Ekai, brokered the talks that ended the stand-off for now.
PAAK, that is registered as a company, promised to return if their demands that include Kiplagat and Vice-president, David Okeyo, stepping down to facilitate full investigations for graft are not met in a meeting planned at the Ministry next week to be chaired by Cabinet Secretary, Dr. Hassan Wario.
The demonstration was initially planned for Monday last week but it was postponed to November 23, the day that AK Executive Committee was to hold a meeting whose agenda was allegedly to have seen president Kiplagat dissolve the National Executive and call for a snap elections early next year or get them to validate his stay as president to 2017.
Ekai ordered Kiplagat and Okeyo to quit until investigations into claimed siphoning of federation money from Nike amounting to USD500,000 and accepting bribes to cover up doping cases are completed.
Chaotic at first, the well organised protest that was backed by PAAK chairman, former marathon record holder, Wilson Kipsang and 2012 Boston winner and Cherangany MP. Wesley Korir saw the group enter the headquarters in Nairobi on Monday at 7.30am, ordering staff to leave and barricading the building.
The protesters who were mostly drawn from Nairobi, Machakos and Nyahururu elected placards and banners that read “Time for the corrupt to go home”, “Isaiah Kiplagat and David Okeyo your time is over” and “We must have a new constitution” at the gates and steps leading to the building.
Another group that was arrive from Eldoret did not make it by the end of the blockade with AK officials initially dismissing those holding their headquarters hostage as “non athletes” before they backed down and agreed to deal with them.
Federation officials led by Vice president, Lt. Gen. (RT) Jackson Tuwei and CEO Isaac Mwangi were barred from accessing the premises and their pleas to them for a meeting at the Riadha boardroom to hear their grievances fell on deaf ears on the first day.
Capital Sport speaking to a number of Olympics, world, World Cross and continental champions established contrary to the initial belief, the blockade was enjoying popular support especially among those belonging to disciplined forces, Kenya Police, Administration Police, Kenya Prisons and Kenya Defence Forces.
“What you have witnessed today is testing waters. This will grow bigger and bigger and more of us will become involved if our demands are not met. We have suffered for long under the current leadership and things must chance,” one who requested anonymity said.
However, the other divide among London and Berlin marathon champion, Eliud Kipchoge and 2006 Commonwealth champion, Augustine Choge criticised the manner the protest unfolded calling for dialogue, a view felt by many of their colleagues who are outside the forces.
Usually, protests are clamped down hard by law enforcement but in this case, the demonstrators went about their business unabashed.
Administration Police officers from Lang’ata station were sent to persuade them end the standoff but they refused to budge with a group of about 20 sleeping over under the watch of three police officers, taking their meals at the cafeteria located within the building.
When Capital Sport spoke to Nairobi County Commander, Japheth Koome, he expressed surprise some of the blockaders were serving police officers.
“I’m not aware of any officers locking Riadha House. That is news to me; I thought you were inquiring about security arrangements for the Pope’s visit. That is what we are dealing with right now,” he added promising to look into the matter.
According to their service charter, officers of disciplined forces are not allowed to take part in any demonstration, picketing or protest and it gave officers assigned to deal with the situation a difficult time since they were reluctant to take action against their colleagues.
“The overnight was good though it was cold but our athletes tried their best to persevere and show people that we are serious. We were almost 40 and everything was taken care of, we ate here and I thank the Government for giving us three police officers to guard us through the night.
“We have almost 10 athletes who are supposed to compete in races outside the country but they were denied the letter by the CEO,” Richard Yator; an athlete who camped inside the building overnight told Capital Sport.
Tuesday saw the eagerly-awaited PAAK leader Kipsang and Korir arrive at 10am to take charge and both then went to the Ministry for audience with top officials, leaving their troops to sustain the lockdown.
“This is the step towards the right direction. It takes courageous men and women to do what you have done and we are here to show the world that we are with you and we have to find a permanent solution to our problems.
“If you know you are a runner come and join us since the journey has just started. We have been treated like prisoners for a very long time where we work hard and others benefit,” Korir who won the 2012 Boston Marathon title declared when they arrived.
They then held a five-hour meeting with Ekai before the Ministry’s top bureaucrat met the AK group represented by Tuwei and Mwangi.
As the afternoon went on; AK Nairobi branch, treasurer, Pak Kariuki brought to the attention of the protesting athletes a court order to evict them was being served but it never materialised.
“I have been informed by a police officer who is said to be in charge of what is happening here that the athletes have been given up to 4pm to vacated this place. I understand there is a meeting going on from the athletes and AK and before any conclusion come, there is nobody who has power to storm here and evict the athletes
“We understand the problems the athletes what addressed is not a new thing and until we talk to them amicably and we agree, nobody should use force because we want our athletes to be heard and that’s our position,” the treasurer said.
The involvement of AK Nairobi led by Barnaba Korir in the protest stirred debate and led to assertions the whole affair was being driven by PAAK in the foreground with the involvement of federation leaders against Kiplagat and Okeyo in the background.
After hearing AK’s side of the story, Ekai called a meeting with both parties later in the evening at Nairobi’s Nyayo National Stadium boardroom where they agreed to end the stalemate pending another meeting with Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Dr. Hassan Wario next week to discuss the change of the federation’s constitution.
“We are happy that we have come to a conclusion and both parties have come to a dialogue and agreed on issues that has been affecting the athletes. We have presented our grievances to Government and we have been hard.
“We are now going to handle things professionally. I assure all athletes all over the county that we have talked and the standoff is over and we are going back to training. We believe we will sit down with the minister next week to get a solution on how our affairs will be run.
“We are requesting the government to take this issue serious and what we have agreed should be implemented but if not we might have the same scenario in the near future which might even be worse,” Kipsang declared.
Responding to the demand to step down, Kiplagat was in his true nature, curt, offering, “I’m not there anyway so there is no need to ask me to step aside. We shall wait and see what comes out of the meeting next week.”
Okeyo could not be reached for comment with ramifications of the landmark events of November 23 and 24 in the way the sport is run an open guess moving forward.