•Alliance motto ‘Strong to Serve’ remains a central theme in my life-service to community, profession and fellow human beings.
•“My time at Alliance taught me what to think, how to act and behave,” —Ohaga
From as early as five years old, John Morris Ohaga learnt the virtues of discipline, self-sufficiency and the requirements of what was needed to survive.
The advocate, who chairs the Sports Disputes Tribunal, made an earth-shattering ruling two weeks ago that threw Kenyan football into a spin.
It’s a decision that seems right and according to him, it’s supported by the Ministry of Sport and world football governing body, Fifa.
In his early life, unlike most Kenyans, Ohaga never knew the routine of waking up early to go to school and return in the evening. From the age of five, he was a boarder.
His parents enrolled him at St. Augustine Preparatory School in Mombasa. “I was in boarding school from Kindergarten up to high school. This experience taught me discipline, self-sufficiency and made me aware of the requirements to survive on my own from a very early age,” he said. For his primary school's education, Ohaga moved across the country to Kitale Primary school, a high-cost school during those days.
The future SDT chair would perform well in his Certificate of Primary Education exams, earning a place at the Alliance High school. “I passed my exams well moving to spend six years at Alliance. I learnt to be disciplined in all facets of life while there. The school motto ‘Strong to Serve’ remains a central theme in my life-service to community, profession and fellow human beings.
“My time at Alliance taught me what to think, how to act and behave,” he recounted.
His leadership acumen was noticed from an early age as he was chosen to be the games captain. Ohaga was an all-round sportsman engaging in athletics, hockey, football and rugby—experiences that would hold him in good stead in his future roles as an arbiter in sports disputes.
“The school was more focused on academics. Most of my peers dropped out of sports to focus on studies. I, however, combined sports and academics. Sports are essential to a lot of values I hold dear like teamwork and discipline. I have learned to follow instructions and sports has helped me nurture some of my best friendships,” Ohaga said.
After high school, Ohaga joined the University of Nairobi to pursue a law degree. In his law class, everybody focused on studying while he wanted to continue engaging in sports. Given that he could not engage in a variety of sports while in college, he chose to play rugby.
He did well after his first few sessions and was given a chance to play in the UoN rugby team, Mean Machine.
“The college team was mostly a preserve of players formerly of Lenana and Nairobi School and so to break into the squad was no mean feat. At first, I was at the periphery of the first team. I had difficulty breaking into the starting squad. A new coach Absalom Mutere, however, recognised my ability and brought me into the first team. This move brought a new dilemma—combining play and studies,” Ohaga narrated.
He continued: “There was a time when a lecturer wanted to extend our learning well into games time. I made him aware that I needed to leave for games much to the chagrin of my classmates. The lecturer was understanding and he decided to end the lesson on time.”
Being in the college team, Ohaga would be going for tournaments while his classmates went to the library. He compensated this by adhering to a strict studying discipline that went on long into the night.
“I did very well in class while still playing. I was part of the Kenyan team in the All African Games in Nairobi in 1987. I credit rugby for giving me the opportunity to travel and play against Zimbabwe, Zambia, Italy and Singapore,” recalled Ohaga.
The SDT chairman was given a rare opportunity of travelling with rival team Nondescripts for Hong Kong. He was one of the three Africans the all-white Nondies’ team. The other two were Max Muniafu and Eric Kibe.
He credits rugby for helping him forge life-long friendships beyond racial lines. On the Hong Kong trip, he noticed a difference on how we view sports people in Kenya compared to other countries.
“Being the only black players, people wanted our autographs and sought photo opportunities with us. We were celebrities in a foreign country while at home, we were never recognised. As a sporting nation, we need to develop such a culture. We have a strange relationship with sports and that is why we are unable to commercialise sports. We need to find a way to adore sports as this will allow our sportsmen and women to get opportunities to endorse local products,” Ohaga advised.
While still active in rugby, Ohaga played with among others Edward Rombo, Edwin Obuya and Jimmy Owino who was tending towards retirement. Upon graduation, Ohaga had his pupillage at Hamilton, Harrison & Matthews law firm. According to the SDT chair, this experience gave him a good foundation in law. He would later start his law firm TripleOKLaw in partnership with Ochieng Oduol, Tom Onyango and Jinaro Kibet.
A knee injury and the pressure of combining a career in law and playing rugby curtailed his time as a player. He would continue his association with the sport helping the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) revise its constitution. “I have stayed involved with KRU. I helped put in place structures like the appeals committee. This is where my passion for good governance structures in sports began,” he said.
The enactment of the Sports Act opened up an opportunity for Ohaga to use his experience as a litigator to influence the management of sport in Kenya. “I have been very involved in arbitration and mediation. So when I saw the advertisement for positions in the tribunal, I felt it was tailor-made for me and duly applied successfully after consultation with my partners,” he recounted.
According to Ohaga, he sought the SDT job because it was merit-based and he had demonstrated merit in his career. “If it was an executive appointment which would have eroded the independence of the tribunal, making me beholden to the appointing authority, I would not have taken up the position,” Ohaga stressed.
In his meeting with the tribunal members, Ohaga prevailed on them to ensure they did not make technical decisions on disputes before them. When we started, we faced criticism on the structure of the tribunal. Our jurisdiction seemed narrow. Many stakeholders were cynical whether the tribunal would be successful. I thought we were hamstrung and I was worried if at the end of our tenure we would have nothing to show for our role,” he said.
The tribunal chair revealed he appoints panels to hear cases based on the independence of the members. Ohaga recalled his role as the head of AFC Leopards, sharing a joke with friends that, the last time Ingwe were top of the league, he was the one in charge.
“The experience when chairing Leopards at a time was when there was a dispute over SportPesa and Betway sponsorships left me with an impression of the inside workings of sports institutions. I learnt of the sacrifices that leaders have to make in their undertakings.”
Ohaga takes credit for helping Leopards secure the Sh40 million a year deal with SportPesa as he was at the heart of the haggling between the two betting firms pursuit of a sponsorship agreement. He disclosed that money was never a motivation to take the SDT chair role as he gets Sh20,000 per sitting.
“I earn much more as an arbitrator (Sh30,000/hour and as a counsel US$500 an hour). So money was never a consideration. I wanted to help shape the sports sector. I am happy that there is growing confidence in the tribunal,” he said.
Ohaga recalled interactions with different Cabinet Secretaries in the sports ministry including Hassan Wario, Rashid Echesa and Amb. Amina Mohamed.
“When Wario was in charge, I sensed an attempt by him to own the tribunal. However, I would not accept patronage or influence from outside the SDT. We never really got to interact with Echesa much but CS Amina has gone out of her comfort zone to understand our role and its importance to the sports sector due to her background in diplomacy and law. She comes out as an understanding individual determined to positively influence the impact of sports on the youth,” he said.
Ohaga revealed that he has received support from the chief justices, Willy Mutunga and David Maraga.
“Mutunga was a great believer in alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Maraga too does and does not interfere with our undertaking. Nobody from the judiciary has ever called seeking to influence a decision we were making,” he said.
He said that in his role at SDT, having to deal with doping cases particularly when teenagers are involved has been the saddest experience,
“I try not to be a passive decision-maker. It is a disservice to young people that mismanagement of sports has made it difficult for young people to exploit their talents fully. If the sports industry had a stable financial base, governance issues would not have been so frequent. factional fights could have been a thing of the past because the ability to manage finances would have been a top requirement for someone seeking an office,” he said.
Ohaga pointed out that the view that private companies are the saviour of sports has worked to the detriment of many federations.
“National interest should come before private interest. That is why I believe the sports lottery could have been a good place for federations to get their funding. Then the government would have had more say in how they conduct their affairs,” he said.
“In my private interactions, there are many corporations willing to support sports but questions about the integrity of officials always comes to the fore. There is an issue of trust with our leaders. Sports governance in Kenya mirrors the politics of the nation where issues of accountability are frowned upon,” he explained.
Ohaga has made a personal sacrifice when conducting himself at the SDT including having to foot the bills to ensure compliance with SDT decision.
“After the tribunal ruled in the need for AFC Leopards to have elections, we engaged the IEBC to conduct the polls. Members came in their hundreds for the process but IEBC were adamant they would not hold the polls if they were not paid. I had to go to my personal account to pay Sh600,000 to have thee election go on as the tribunal had ordered,” he said.
Ohaga, who ruled on the FKF petition against the Sports Registrar via video link, has encouraged the judiciary to increase the use of technology in their processes. He says he is happy that both Fifa and the Sports Ministry support his ruling to quash the FKF polls.
“Foremost in our minds in the FFK matter was making a statement about governance and regulations. We addressed the role of the Sports Registrar who I believe should be facilitative to its members and not a mechanical job. Football is the biggest sport in the country but its leadership always seek to cut corners. We are happy that Fifa supported our decision with advice on the Normalisation Committee which we will be seeking ways to comply with,” he said. The work of the SDT according to Ohaga has been recognised beyond the shores of Kenya
“We have been invited to workshops in Bahama, Malaysia, Jamaica and most recently before the outbreak of coronavirus to Canada. It is a great opportunity for us to showcase what we can do as a country and a sporting nation,” said the father of three children, two girls and a boy.
Ohaga, a staunch supporter of Manchester United and Barcelona spends most of his weekends engaging in non-intensive workouts, walking his dogs and spending time with his wider family. Being of close relation with the Obwakas (Enock and William) led him to support Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards locally. He is disappointed by how low his Mean Machine Club has sunk in recent years
Now at the helm of Kenya swimming Federation, as they seek to hold elections, Ohaga has taken a keen interest iN the sport and follows swimming action on television.