Mohammad Ali: Fallen icon’s soft spot for Africa

Posted on Jun 5 2016 - 9:29am by Editor

Standard Digital 5 June 2016

Mohammad Ali

Mohammad Ali meets President Daniel Moi at State House in February 1980. [PHOTOS: COURTESY/ STANDARD]

Africa and dalliance in politics By Peter Mungai
  Mohammad Ali was an iconic hero in the ring but he also played a crucial role, using sports to settle political scores. In Kenya, he touched many hearts and deep inside him, he held the country in high esteem.
It all began on October 6, 1980 when Ali arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for the start of his second leg of shuttle diplomacy through five African countries as a special envoy of US President Jimmy Carter.
He had been selected on the strength of his fame in Africa to convince US allies to boycott the Moscow Olympic Games in response to the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. President Jimmy Carter was convinced that Ali, who had earlier also voiced his dislike for the Soviet’s occupation, would connect with leaders of Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Liberia.
An Africa American personality seemed a pretty logical choice to the US president from the advice of two State Department employees – Arthur Lewis, the Director of African Affairs for the International Communications Agency and Malvin Whitfield, the Regional and Youth Sports Officer in Africa, for a very good reason.
Wheatfield was an influential figure in Kenya since relocating to Africa to support sporting activities through his influence as a former Olympic champion.
As Ali headed to East Africa, Carter’s Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher embarked on an excursion in Europe while Zbigniew Brzezinski proceeded to the Middle East.
Ali was the man of the moment among African brothers, despite being a green horn in diplomacy.
Mohammad Ali made a jungle Rumble by flattening Foreman Six years earlier, Ali had pulverised George Forman in the “fight of the century” in Kinshasa, Zaire to warm himself into the hearts of millions.
The fight had its superlatives. It had a pulse of US$5 million, a substantial amount even by today’s standards.
Promoter Don King had discovered the pulling power of sports marketing in boxing and as a shrewd businessman guaranteed fighters $5 million take home, money he did not have or source within the US borders.
King reached out to despotic Mobutu Sese Seiko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, president of Zaire from 1965 until 1997 who was willing to become the sponsor in exchange of immense publicity from this high profile event, the first ever to attract global media attention. The ripple effects would spread far and wide, including Kenya. It was later to be realised in the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa.
The fight was shown on closed-circuit television at about 450 locations in the US and Canada and televised live in at least 100 countries worldwide.
The fight was scheduled to start at 4am in Zaire to accommodate audiences in the US. The Rumble in The Jungle was a historic boxing match which took place on October 30, 1974 in the May 20 Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). The fight began at 4am local time on October 30 so that it could be shown at 10pm on US TV.
Ali 32, cheered by over 60,000 spectators employed a style which later came to be known as rope a dope to tire the younger Foreman. This elevated Ali’s status as an Africa icon. “After the fight, for a while I was bitter,” Foreman said. “I had all sorts of excuses.
The ring ropes were loose. The referee counted too fast. The cut hurt my training. I was drugged. I should have just said the best man won, but I had never lost before so I did not know how to lose.” The Rumble in the Jungle has since become one of the most famous fights of all time, due to Ali regaining the title in a huge upset and developing the rope-a-dope. It is shown often on the ESPN Classic.


The shuttle diplomacy was a flop. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere refused to meet him or cave into the Americans demands. After all, the US had not supported Africa in the 1976 anti-apartheid Africa countries led boycott in Montreal. The Soviet Union had also played a crucial role in independence struggle in Africa. In Kenya, Ali received visiting rock star reception.
Government officials led by Culture Minister Ken Matiba were at hand to receive him. The US Ambassador to Kenya Wilbert Melle acted as Ali’s aide, holding his jacket as he shadow boxed the crowd. He later met President Daniel Moi at State House, who stated: “Ali was among friends”. He also visited Starehe Boys Centre and held an exhibition, spurring session with young boxers, rounding up his visit at the KICC where he boxed Kenyan heavy weight champion Mohammed Abdullah Kent.
All for exhibition. Ali was always greeted with shouts of ‘Ali! Ali! Ali!’
Kenya did not participate in the Moscow Olympics and Liberia supported the boycott until the assassination of President William Tolbert.  Mohammad Ali made a jungle Rumble by flattening Foreman Ali was also warmly welcomed by Léopold Senghor in Senegal, though the country did not subscribe to sporting pressure to resolve political disputes.
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