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Nationalistic Feelings Running High in Kenyan Chess!


I am not sure how many of you readers were aware that Chess Kenya has been trying to get a new constitution over the past few months.  There have been various meetings to discuss this and a committee had been appointed to carry out this important task.  The committee comprised of Dr Victor Ngani, Akello Atwoli, Philip Singe, Larry Kagambi, Githinji Hinga and a representative from Kenya National Sports Council and from the Ministry of Sports.  Big powerful people.

A meeting to finalise the draft has now been postponed from 25th February, to 28th February and now it has been postponed once again.  Well the reason has now become obvious.  All is not well in the committee with one contentious issue of foreigners representing Kenya at chess events.  Below is a long letter from Dr Ngani  which he posted on Facebook – Kenya Chess Central page last week.

Dr Ngani carefully records his move
during a tournament held in December 2010

Dear all,

A lot has been said about the constitution making process with more than a fair amount of derogatory comments. The purpose of this post is to present to you as a chesser additional information that will enable you judge for yourself and decide whether these negative sentiments are well apportioned or otherwise.

Why did I join the petitioners? I believe in doing the right thing. I had attended most of the General meetings of the Association in the last decade (admittedly acquiring a certain notoriety but simply because I would not agree with ineffective leaderships). The last one I attended that was chaired by Mr Ambasi, and that I have on Video, is the worst injustice to those who really wanted to have no more than a say as to how chess runs. I witnessed democracy shunned; and a whole community of chessers left a six hour meeting at 9pm with nothing. The players had zero say, and it seemed the officers could get away with anything including not holding AGMs for years. Given that the preceding 3 years were arguably the worst of recent years, it was difficult to accept that the community was helpless to change course. There had to be a way to give the voice back to the chessers. I believed chess needed reforms and that is why I joined the process; not to legislate against individuals or create divisions in the sport but to positively reform the sport in a sustainable and overally beneficial way. 

At the outset of the process, I went to seek and succeded in getting audience with the sports commissioner. In so doing, I succedeed in bringing to his attention our concerns, and for the first time the story from our side rationally presented. Hitherto, he had only heard accounts from one side, that of the incumbents, accounts with I obviously disagreed, while what he had received in writing from our side had not been rationalized. It was no mean feat either as I had no appointment at the time, but such is God’s favour. Through that meeting, I managed to secure a meeting for our team of petitioners which led to the joint meeting with the Secretary that gave birth to the ICKC and, what had eluded chess players for many years, intervention.

It has been insunuated that it was a favour to being included in the ICKC. Certainly that is not correct. An honour perhaps, by being given the nod to spearhead reforms, but a favour no. ICKC has been extremely costly to me in terms of time, money, relationships, and lately because of the efforts of two colleagues, keen and committed to some form of defamation, image. I am the Chairman of the doctors’ union and we have had ongoing wars with the government most of the last eight months. In addition to that, I am an ICU doctor. Consequently, I rarely have time to spare. I knew this yet agreed to take up the role because I believed it was important and that if you want something done, you do it yourself. I don’t regret that decision one bit if only because of the constitution, one of the best if not the absolute best now among the sports associations. I believe my belief in fairness, honesty and doing the right thing has had its part. I don’t just have these in words but also exercise them in practice, something that has often rubbed certain groups of people the wrong way. A misconception was that I would be partisan in my role as an ICKC member, and I need to apologise to my colleagues who may have expected this from the outset. It is not proper to remove one set of vested interest and replace them with another set of vested interest. I supported whatever was in the best interest of chess and opposed whatever was not in the best interest of chess irrespective of what side it came from. That too has been a source of conflict but again I don’t regret it as it was the right thing to do.

Talking of record means that I first have to clarify that I am not running for any office in the new CK, and will not be available for committee appointments. With that I can proceed. While I have been accused by our colleagues of being insane, irrational, dictatorial, stupid and an idiot among other highly unpalatable expressions of opinion, are these logically congruent with what I have been able to do? Limiting myself to chess, few would know that I was the captain of University of Nairobi chess club from 2004 to 2006. In my very first year, through very simple steps, I managed to move the University from oblivion to National varsities champions, East African champions, beating all three Ugandan teams including the then Uganda champions Kyambogo, and finished 2nd in the National chess league after KCB. We maintained that status for the entire 3 year period of my captaincy. My advocacy enabled me to be elected as the vice chair of the Nairobi University sports council despite being the captain of a much less celebrated sport, chess,. 

I have mentioned a certain level of notoriety in chess General meetings, refusing to accept the unacceptable from incumbents. Gorilla did write a a coloured(with a fair amount of imagination) account of what happened in the last General meeting, while minutes of a preceding meeting claim I caused the meeting to abort by using the word ignorance. Of course that was an excuse by the incumbents to run away from the main agenda items. My use of the term was in its proper grammatical application.

In the making of the consitution that we are currently reviewing in which I had a role, I strongly opposed the proposed delegate system because it was very clear to me that it would be easy to manipulate and lock out others. Instead, I proposed a way to ensure that individual members could have a greater voice in decisions while the society remained young. I was shot down after yet another set of rumour generators of the time introduced specualtion that my opinion could have been driven by partisan politics (why do we always do this by the way). We all know what happened thereafter.
My other societal records are not for this forum but they do make the insults particularly queer.

For clarity, the new chess constitution is about more than just national team composition which has been most contentious. The clauses on structures, decision making including provisions to safeguard the voice of the individual members before we have enough clubs to be sufficiently representative, checks and balances against an ineffective executive, and the activity clause that rules out imposters are quite innovative solutions that that would have obviated the need for an ICKC had they been in existence. This is what we need. We also did not have to agree at committee stage on everything. It is important to appreciate that we are all different with different perspectives, experiences and insights. With that, it would be important to note that the final decisions would rest with the members at the SGM and therefore its absolutely uneccessary to generate conflict out of these. Certainly defamation campaigns and insults to those of a different opinion should have no place in a civlized society. 

I have been accused of being dictatorial, insane and irrational with regards to this process. Don’t be conned. The difference is nothing other the issue of non citizens and certain incumbents. It is no secret that I blame the leadership for the failures not the children but that is an area where we have a difference of opinion. We also held two stakeholders meetings on the constitution. I would find it extremely unfair to call people to two very long meetings and then disregard all their input. The stakeholders was more than about the non-citizens issue and certainly we got some very useful feedback. 

Because of these conflicts, support from certain members of the committee has been limited and therefore work on the constitution has not been harmonious. The result was two differing postions. After the initial stakeholders we agreed as a committee that Singe would incorporate all the feedback and circulate to the members within a specified time. This he did not do. About three weeks ago, I summarized all the feedback from the stakeholders, something that should have been done by our colleague Singe much earlier and circulated to the CKCRC and ICKC. These were later incorporated into a draft which is now contested as being politically motivated and I don’t know what else. Well I now share this with you so that you be the judge. What I had proposed is in green, what was proposed as the alternative (pretty much what was there before the stakeholders including semantic errors) is in blue. I later added comments in red to explain to the independent members of ICKC what the source of the proposals were because the politicians, despite not having done their part, were already claiming they came from my village.

{This segment is purely my opinion and has been the reason why I have been bashed (for clarity, if that is the price for doing the right thing, I can take it. Unwaveringly)}. Is it true that Gilruth and a certain girl prodigy, for example, have destroyed Kenyan chess? I strongly believe not. I believe that they have improved Kenyan chess by setting the playing level quite high and genrally improving playing standards. Not only that, but I am aware that both of them have contributed large sums of money directly to the Association to support chess. In addition, I believe this particular girl is God’s blessing to Kenyan chess. We have to be realistic and accept that chess has not been a high profile sport nor has it been celebrated in sporting circles. We therefore need this kind of sensation to improve the profile of the sport and attract sponsorship, and we are already seeing that with, for example, the 2012 SOYA awards. 

I believe that chessers are a small community of people with limited resources, both human and financial. At this stage, I dare say that we need one another working together in harmony to achieve progress. The divisions emerging from the opposite stance are not good for the association, the sport or the country’s image. There is precedence to what we are trying to do. In 2004, the Estonian chess federation implemented similar rules (please google it to get the full story that I can’t replicate in totality). It attracted the attention of human rights organizations and FIDE including a not so flattering article on chessbase.com. They also had a young girl prodigy, citizen of Russia who went on to become a WGM but now plays for Croatia while maintaining her Russian citizenship, and living in Estonia.

Is there a problem with the current Juniors team composition? Absolutely. Traditionally, we have had most of the team being non-citizens and that absolutely has to change. In a short time, there already has been some progress. In the 2012 world youth event, 11 out of the 17 members of the Kenyan delegation were Kenyan Citizens. With effective leadership, we can only expect these ratios to improve. Where I differ with some of my colleagues is in the how to solve the problem and by extension, the cause of the imbalance. My colleagues propose that the solution is to make a law that says non citizens cannot play in international events while I don’t think that is even a solution. Allow me to illustrate using two scenarios

1)Supposing all the 6 non citizens who played in the recent world youth took up Kenyan citizenship, what sudden impact on the development of youth chess would it have? I dare say minimal.

2)Supposing the 6 did not travel with the team, what is the likehood that the other citizens who could not afford to travel would now have funds to? I dare say the 30,000 per child from the government would have been inadequate to meet the approximately 240,000 requirement.

My solution is different. It is based on a belief that the problem is:

i) failure of the leadership to promote chess among the less privileged children (and here I hold past officials equally responsible including the two we often speak about but also past officials like Singe who was the Vice chairman (no less) of the Association for several years in the recent past. I find it hard to accept these officials refusing to accept responsibility for their role in the failure and pointing accusing fingers at the children instead).
ii) Poor resource mobilization to ensure that the poor children who qualify can have their travelling costs catered for so that there is no room for a richer child whether citizen or non-citizen to replace him/her purely on the basis of coming from a better financial background.

I believe that if we promote chess aggressively in our public schools, for example, we will have more and more Citizens winning categories. And this is not imagination, it is already being done by people like Weru and Kanegeni. Instead, if I would not teach a single child in my neighbourhood but then say kick out these other children, that is not providing a solution. We also need to attract more sponsors. To sustain this, we have to clamp down on chess players who wait for a sponsor to come into the scene then take our dirty linen, true or not, to them and cause them to withdraw sponsorship. There is room for enormous amounts of financial support for chess programmes from FIDE and and private companies. It then goes without saying that we need to elect officials who are forward thinking, hold them accountable and refuse to accept excuses as to why they would not do what they are elected to do.

I apologize for the length of the post but I am quite passionate about these issues and there was a lot to respond to. I also want to declare that my interest is primarily to improve chess and that to the best of my ability. With that, I hope you as an important chess stakeholder have enough to make your own judgement with regards to the foregoing issues.
Do remember to pray for the Association and the sport. Thank you.

Victor Ng’ani.