Abi Ijasanmi: “I’ve Always Had a Passion for the Power of Sport”

CAF Chief Operations Officer, Abi Ijasanmi, has broken the glass ceiling, as she is the first woman to occupy the position of COO or any Senior Chief role in African football since 1957.

Ijasanmi, who is a British citizen and lawyer by training, has extensive experience under her belt having worked in the sport and tourism space for many years.

She also played her role in Basketball – she was one of two women agents in Europe, where she went on to set up the Women’s Division and later served as Vice-President.

Fast forward years later and speaking on her CAF appointment, Ijasanmi says that the opportunity was both accidental and maybe an alignment of purpose and intention.

Her CV landed in the hands of General Secretary, Véron Mosengo-Omba, where she was then afforded an interview with President Patrice Motsepe.

As the saying goes, the rest is history! Ijasanmi has been trusted with the task of driving Motsepe’s vision of making African football globally competitive.

In this interview with gsport Content Lead Celine Abrahams, Ijasanmi delves into the 10-point plan to uplift football on the continent and shares her wish for women leaders.

 

Abi, thank you so much for taking time out to chat to us here at gsport! Firstly, let’s track back to when you were announced as CAF Chief Operations Officer – how did this opportunity come about?

I would say this was both accidental and maybe an alignment of purpose and intention. A long story short: my CV landed in the hands of our General Secretary, Véron Mosengo-Omba, I was invited to Cairo for an interview and after a meeting with the President, Mr Patrice Motsepe, I was offered the role.

While I had no background working in football, I spent many years working in various sectors including Basketball, as a players agent – one of only two women agents in Europe at the time – and also in corporate law. During my time as an agent, I set up the Women’s Division and later served as a VP.

I’ve always had a passion for the power of sport, and football being the popular sport in Africa, has a unique role in shaping a different narrative about Africa.

I hold Master’s in International Commercial Law (LLM) and also a Barrister with a strong governance and operational background. Before coming to CAF, I spent almost a decade, drafting policies, implementing processes in the luxury travel concierge industry, working with multinational companies and global brands, dividing my time between the UK and Ghana.

 

You are the first woman to occupy the position of COO or any Senior Chief role in African football since 1957! With your appointment, how do you think this will impact the future of women in football, especially in leadership roles? 

I am indeed! Globally, senior leadership in football is still a strongly male-dominated occupation, but under the leadership of President Motsepe, CAF has made significant progress in creating opportunities for the participation and leadership of women in African football. However, my appointment was not a question of gender but in line with the commitment made by our President to recruit the best skills in the industry to strengthen the organisation.

I think the precedent set with my appointment will have a transformative impact on the future of women in football, especially in core operational leadership roles.

 

Since coming into office, there have been various projects underway to improve football on the African continent to be globally competitive. Please can you give us insight into these ventures and the steps that are being put into place.

President Motsepe came into office with a crystal-clear mission ‘to make African football globally competitive and self-sustaining’. In doing so, he set out a 10-point plan he wanted to achieve. We have made some really good progress in all areas across the continent, but most notable are the areas of women’s football, infrastructure, governance and refereeing.

We focused a lot in the last few months on rebuilding the image of the organization, focusing on structural reforms and the promotion of good governance. Today, CAF is regaining the trust of the football fan and commercial world. We are working hard to make sure our pillars of transparency and accountability are integral to everything we do. This is not just something at Head office, but all the 54 Members of CAF.

Investing in our youth and the future of African football is vital to CAF, so I must also mention a project that is very close to the Presidents heart; The CAF African Schools Football Championship along with its supporting activities of the young referee and the young journalist make up the African Schools Programme which play a pivotal part in laying the grass roots pathways for young talent to emerge. This project has seen close to 400,000 girls and boys participate in the program with more schools seeking to join next year.

For the first time at TotalEnergies Africa Cup of Nations, a ceiling was broken when Rwandan match official Salima Mukansanga became the first women to referee a match at AFCON.

Since that moment, we have seen several women referees like Bouchra Karboubi from Morocco, Carine Atemzabong of Cameroon, Akhona Makalima from South Africa, to mention a few.

For the first time, VAR was used at all 52 matches at AFCON and all 26 matches at the Women’s AFCON.We have seen the great rise of women’s football in Africa over the last few years with a record breaking 45,000 fans at the CAF Women’s Champions League final in Morocco 2022 and some firsts for our Women’s game – all women refereeing, media and medical teams. This is all a direct result of the commitment and investment CAF has made into the Women’s game.

 

How far off are we as compared to the rest of the world? 

We are making progress. When it comes to raw talent, Africa produces some of the best football talent in the world. We have just seen Morocco in the FIFA World Cup semi-final.

 

Let’s look at women’s football in particular on the continent. What steps are currently being taken to develop the women’s side of the game, both on and off the field? 

I previously mentioned CAF’s commitment and investment in the development and growth of women’s football in Africa and there are many more developments in the pipeline in this area.

We are transforming the way we deliver coaching education to elevate the women’s game by supporting our Member Associations to deliver certified coaching, including the introduction of ‘Women-only’ coaching courses.

We are exploring pathways for women in the game and have some exciting projects coming up that will enable the Women’s department to strengthen that link and offer more options for girls and women and we are looking at ways through our governance and club licensing regime to encourage and incentivize clubs to do even more to support Women’s football.

We are also working to develop our commercial partnerships. Women’s football now presents us with key commercial opportunities to capitalize on, and a commercially sustainable game by 2025 is our goal. We want to partner with dedicated resources to evolve the women’s game.

 

Which countries on the continent would you say are getting it right in terms of the development of women’s football and why?

The recent TotalEnergies Women’s AFCON in Morocco showed significant improvement in women’s football in Africa.

Also, the introduction of the CAF Women’s Champions League is bridging the gap between many countries.

Previously, you had countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon, but now we have seen the rise of Morocco and Zambia. The key is investment. You have to invest in all the key areas such as coaching, facilities and league development to give players the opportunities to play.

 

When your tenure in this position is all said and done, what legacy are you hoping to leave behind? 

Many years from now, when my legacy is assessed, I hope it reflects my contributions and initiatives in strengthening Governance reforms. Over the last few months my team and I have worked day and night setting up a governance framework for African football that I hope this will lay a firm foundation for my successors and those that come after us.

Also, because we cannot escape the significance of having a first women to occupy a senior role at CAF administration, I hope this era will give young women on the continent a license to dream.

 

On a lighter note, what lessons have you learned in your journey that have shaped you into the person that you are today?

I was raised by parents who nurtured anything I wanted to do and the message I constantly received was that I could do anything and everything, so I’ve always had a self-belief, an ingrained mental attitude that I am deserving and anything is achievable. No goal was ever too big.

 

Over the years, what has been your personal mission when it comes sport and gender equality? 

At CAF we recognise that women have a critical role to play in shaping the future of African football, but my personal mission when it comes to redressing gender inequalities in sport is to encourage everyone – girls, boys, women and men to challenge any and all of the life-limiting gender biases and stereotypes that still hold girls and women back unnecessarily from achieving their full potential.

 

Diversity and inclusion has become a big focus area for many these days. Do you think we are approaching this change in the way that is seeing encouraging results?

I attended the FIFA Congress recently and Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda said it best in his address, ‘We need to work together, to ensure that the game is inclusive, and respectful of everyone.’ Simple.

Diversity is woven into the CAF DNA because Africa is the most richly diverse continent on Earth. It is diverse culturally, ethnically, linguistically as well as religious diversity and the whole host of other differences that make us individuals. CAF values diversity and believes that every single individual deserves fair and equitable treatment.

 

Women often have to deal with the glass ceiling effect. How do we break through?

Speaking on my own career experience, no journey is without challenge, but I never for a moment considered any gender-based barriers in the way. What I can say is your peer group definitely shrinks as you become more senior, so the need to seek out support from other top females or great leadership role models can be difficult, but a necessity to avoid potential feelings of isolation once you’re at or near the top.

 

Lastly, what is your one wish for women leaders?

That we continue to support, elevate and believe in each other at every level. Even if you’re first, no one achieves great things alone.

 

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