E.T. Mensah: Visionary Sports Minister whose character defined an era
The late Sports Minister, Enoch Teye Mensah, left an indelible mark on Ghana's sporting landscape during his remarkable tenure from 1993 to 2001. His time in office was marked by both significant achievements and notable failures, all of which reflected his strong character and unwavering passion for sports.
His tenure was also the most transformative era in sports in the last four decades. One of his standout achievements was the introduction of the professional league system which brought a new level of organisation and competitiveness to Ghanaian football. Significantly, also, it was under his leadership, many sports stars and coaches began receiving regular monthly salaries with proper employment contracts, a ground-breaking move that elevated the status of athletes and enhanced the professionalism of the sports industry.
Furthermore, his commitment to youth football development laid the foundation for Ghana's success in age-group competitions.
Mr Mensah's tenure as Ghana’s longest-service sports minister was marked by stability in the sporting arena, which yielded visible results across various disciplines such as football, boxing, tennis and athletics.
Share of controversy
Nonetheless, Mr. Mensah's time as sports minister was not without its share of tumultuous incidents. The transfer of footballers, in particular, became a contentious issue tainted by allegations of corruption. In response to these concerning developments, the government took proactive measures by establishing the Justice Sule Gbadegbe Commission of Inquiry.
This commission's investigations uncovered a web of corruption and unscrupulous dealings involving high-ranking officials and sports clubs. Subsequently, a series of reforms were introduced to address the issues plaguing player transfers.
His tenure also oversaw another significant inquiry, namely the Emmanuel Tagoe Committee of Inquiry tasked by the government to probe alleged widespread corruption in the awarding of contracts and the execution of renovation projects at the Accra Sports Stadium and Kumasi Sports Stadium in preparation for the 1999 U-20 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
The findings from this investigation shed light on potential wrongdoing in the contracting and execution phases of the stadium project.
During his leadership, Ghana successfully bid to host major international competitions, including the 1999 Under-20 AFCON and the historic co-hosting of the 2000 AFCON with Nigeria.
This joint hosting paved the way for future international tournaments which were similar to the 2000 European Championship co-hosted by the Netherlands and Belgium, and the 2002 FIFA World Cup jointly staged by South Korea and Japan.
He was particularly passionate about football, and knowing the power of the “Beautiful Game” to transform lives and ensure national development, he sponsored the ground-breaking "Winneba Declaration on Sports Development in Africa" conference in 1992. This forum triggered important reforms in domestic football administration, focusing on grassroots development, infrastructure, coaching and technical education.
Architect of reforms
With a roadmap for the development of football, the impact of the "Winneba Declaration" was evident, as Ghana achieved success in age-group competitions, including winning gold at the 1995 FIFA U-17 World Cup, two silver medals in-between and success at the 1999 U-20 AFCON.
Without a doubt, one of his proudest moments was Hearts of Oak's first continental triumph in the 2000 African Champions League and it was the last major achievement before he bowed out of office.
A former chairman of the Ghana Football Association (GFA), Nana Sam Brew-Butler, was unequivocal about the former minister's place in the annals of Ghana sport.
"At home we spearheaded the Winneba Declaration and implemented the Professional League and commercialised it," he wrote in a tribute in the Daily Graphic last Thursday.
Mr Mensah's impact extended into the realm of infrastructure development. As the Member of Parliament for Ningo-Prampram, he used his power to secure land for the establishment of the Ghanaman Centre for Excellence, which has served as the technical development hub for the Ghana Football Association (GFA), training coaches and officials and hosting national teams for preparations.
His influence extended beyond football, as his tenure saw the rise of boxers such as Ike 'Bazooka' Quartey and Alfred Kotey, who became world champions in 1994.
A man of strong convictions, the former minister was passionate and determined, often pushing his philosophies and policies despite opposition. His strong personality, political influence and organisational skills helped him accomplish many of his goals.
However, it also made him a polarising figure. Some saw him as brash and interfering in the work of technocrats. Particularly, his habit of entering the dressing room during matches involving national teams drew criticism, as some perceived it as interference in coaching decisions.
He vehemently defended his actions as "strategic intervention", even in cases like the dismissal of former Black Stars Coach Giuseppe Dossena, despite pleas from some key players of the national team for the retention of the Italian since Ghana had begun the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup.
Strong Character, Survivor
The former minister’s ability to use the system to advance his agenda was a hallmark of his tenure, often leaving subtle traces of his influence. He faced media scrutiny and criticism, dealing firmly with those he considered detractors, including critical journalists.
Nevertheless, he displayed a multifaceted character, charming the public when necessary and resolutely pursuing his goals.
His experience in public life, including his role as head of the Accra City Council during military rule and as a seasoned politician contributed to his survival in a challenging ministry.
In the eyes of many who worked with him, Mr Mensah's tenacity, tough demeanour and clear vision made him a memorable figure in Ghana's sports history. While some had tumultuous interactions with him, others like former GFA chairmen Nana Sam Brew-Butler and Alhaji Mohammed Nuru-Deen Jawula enjoyed fruitful working relationships marked by mutual respect and cooperation.
Mr Brew-Butler, GFA Chairman from 1993 to 1997, offered some insights into the character of the man he described as "great sports personality, loyal, faithful leader and friend".
"E.T. Mensah was persistent and eager to achieve results that led him to become involved in every aspect of management to the extent that he was said to be interfering", he wrote in his eulogy.The Ghana Armwrestling Federation President, Charles Osei-Asibey, a practising sports journalist during the latter years of Mr Mensah's tenure, describes him as a tough man, with a good appreciation of sports and a clear understanding of the terrain.
Among his most notable achievements, Mr Osei-Asibey recalls, was Mr Mensah's conviction three decades ago that it was time Ghana football adopted professionalism and, thus, triggered a convocation of football bigwigs and business leaders in Winneba to discuss the best practices and how to transition the sport from amateur football into an era of professionalism.
He was unequivocal about the fact that the Winneba Declaration was Mr Mensah's best legacy for the sport. "We owe where we are today, as far as football ownership and business is concerned, to his singular initiative and effort," Mr Osei-Asibey told the Daily Graphic on Sunday, October 8.
He also admitted that the former minister resorted to "knowledge and 'patapaa' tactics" to succeed due to the turbulent environment he found himself in.
To Magnus Naabe Rex-Danquah, a sports business consultant whom the former minister worked closely with to execute many major projects, including the 1999 U-20 AFCON, Mr Mensah was a shrewd man who was streetwise and knew how to identify and work with smart people to get results despite what his critics describe as an overbearing personality.
Overall, Mr Mensah's legacy in Ghanaian sports is a complex one, marked by significant achievements and controversies; one that remains a testament to the transformative power of determined leadership.