- By Suzanne Vanhooymissen and Tamasin Ford
- BBC Africa Eye
Football governing bodies are accused of failing to protect young victims of sexual abuse in Gabon. BBC Africa Eye spoke to more than 30 witnesses who spoke of a network that has plagued all levels of football for three decades.
Warning: This article contains details that some readers may find shocking.
Allegations of sexual abuse in the central African country of Gabon date back to the early 1990s.
One victim, who wished to remain anonymous, described what happened to him when he was a teenager at an under-17 football camp. The young boy said he and his best friend were woken up in the middle of the night and taken to a room lit by red lights, filled with naked men.
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“They started touching my friend and me, and I didn’t understand. I started praying. I wanted to go out, but the door was closed. They grabbed me and threw me on the ground. He “There were two security guards. It was like they were prepared,” he said.
“I saw how they started to rape my friend. I looked into his eyes, and he looked at me as if to say: ‘Let’s go with them and end it’. I cried , I screamed, I screamed, I screamed.
“They told me I would never be selected to play again and that if I dared to tell anyone about what happened, my family would be killed.”
He never played for Gabon again.
BBC Africa Eye has learned that there have been several attempts to alert authorities to what was happening over the years.
In 2019, former Gabonese international Perfect Ndong returned to the country to create his academy, the Jardin de football au Gabon. With 45 caps to his name and a brilliant career in Europe, he is a respected figure in Gabonese football. When he discovered what was happening, he alerted the authorities.
“I have taken all possible measures,” he told the BBC, adding that he had spoken to the president of the league, the president of the Gabonese Football Federation (Fegafoot) and the minister of sports of the time.
Having had his efforts ignored, he turned to local media: “No one wanted to hear what I had to say.”
It was not until December 2021, when the British Guardian newspaper revealed the abuse, that four coaches were arrested. Three of them are still in prison.
Patrick Assoumou Eyi, better known as “Capello”, is at the heart of the most serious allegations. For decades, he was the head coach of Gabon’s national youth teams. Capello had the power to decide who would play for Gabon at that level.
“He was considered a god, because everyone idolized him. Those responsible for the training centers, the academies,” explains Ndong.
In December 2021, Fifa’s independent ethics committee began a preliminary investigation into Capello’s allegations of sexual abuse and suspended him from all football-related activities. This investigation was carried out on the ground by the newly installed Fegafoot ethics committee, and in May 2022, the Fifa investigating chamber formalized the preliminary investigation.
For Loïc Alves, senior legal advisor at Fifpro – the global union of professional footballers – allowing Fegafoot to initially lead the investigation constitutes a “conflict of interest at all levels”.
“How could a victim trust the institution that abused them?
Capello admitted charges of rape, manipulation and exploitation of young players and remains in prison awaiting sentencing. The other arrested coaches deny the allegations against them.
Questions have been raised about which authorities knew and when.
Alexis, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, rose through the Gabonese youth ranks before playing in Europe. He told the BBC that the only reason he could speak openly was because he was no longer in the country. If he were, his life would be in danger.
“So they arrested Capello, but how long have they known about it and done nothing? They stopped at the lowest level. It goes all the way to the top, but they are willing to do anything to cover up the affair. Capello is a scapegoat. It’s the heads at the top who should roll.”
Another footballer, who we’ll call Julien, told the BBC that he too had been a victim of abuse from the age of 14. He played for the Gabon national team for several years and believes the number of boys affected is hard to imagine.
“I don’t know how many coaches have abused boys, but for now let’s just take Capello. He’s the most famous and he’s been doing this for 25 or 30 years. Every year he’s had access to at least 50 boys, if not more,” he said.
“Now let’s see how many others were part of this network. We’re talking thousands of boys.”
Despite calls for the resignation of Fegafoot president Pierre-Alain Mounguengui, he remained in office and was re-elected in April 2022.
Mr. Alves believes he should have been suspended: “The seriousness of the alleged cover-up should have resulted in an automatic suspension, a temporary suspension, before the election.
As head of Fegafoot, Mr. Mounguengui could be considered either incompetent for not knowing what was happening or guilty of covering up years of reported abuse, he said.
Three weeks after his re-election, Mr. Mounguengui was arrested and accused of “failure to denounce crimes of pedophilia”. Unlike Capello, Fifa did not suspend him and he continued to lead Fegafoot from prison.
FIFA’s child protection policy states: “Suspending a member of staff from duty while an external investigation is underway should be standard practice.”
Former Gabonese international Rémy Ebanega, who created the country’s first professional footballers’ union in 2014, is – like Ndong – one of the rare figures in Gabonese football who feels he can speak openly. He hasn’t been a victim of abuse himself, but he says he has several friends who have been.
“Local justice imprisoned the president of the federation and Fifa did nothing. Why was he not suspended during the investigation, as was the case for Capello?
“He continued to lead the federation while he was in prison. I don’t think that has ever happened anywhere else.”
In May 2022, Fifa officially suspended Capello, two other coaches and the head of the football league, but did not sanction Mr. Mounguengui.
Meanwhile, the Confederation of African Football (Caf) said Mr Mounguengui was considered innocent until proven guilty and wrote to the then Gabonese sports minister, Franck Nguema, in April 2022, to s question about his detention. Caf president Patrice Motsepe then visited the Fegafoot boss in prison four months later.
After nearly six months of imprisonment, Mr. Mounguengui was provisionally released. Three weeks later, at the opening of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, he was photographed hugging the Caf president.
For Ebanega, the invitation from Fifa boss Gianni Infantino to visit Qatar gave the impression that world football’s governing body was satisfied with Fegafoot’s performance: “It’s what we call a job well done? That the federation does not act in the event of sexual abuse?”
Three months ago, Mr. Mounguengui was re-elected to the highest ranks of Caf as a member of its executive committee. Last week, he was photographed alongside Caf leaders in Cairo for the announcement of the organization of CAN 2025 and 2027.
Nearly two years after the allegations were revealed in international media, many Fegafoot figures remain in power.
“I think the system has been able to continue and can continue because nothing has changed,” Mr. Ebanega said.
Many people who have spoken to the BBC about the alleged abuse fear the children are still in danger.
“I am convinced that the abuse continues,” Julien said.
We presented the allegations contained in the BBC Africa Eye documentary to Fegafoot, Caf and Fifa. All parties condemned in the strongest terms child abuse in all its forms.
Fegafoot and Mr Mounguengui have denied all allegations made against them and said appropriate action was taken as soon as the allegations of sexual abuse in Gabonese football became public.
They said they did not recognize any criticism of the investigation set up by the Fegafoot ethics committee in December 2021 since it was set up in accordance with the federation’s regulations.
Fifa and Caf have denied all allegations made against them and said the Fifa investigation formalized in May 2022 was still ongoing.
Both bodies stressed that all their investigations were carried out in accordance with the requirements of the Fifa Code of Ethics, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the European Court of Human Rights and Swiss law.
Caf said Mr Motsepe had traveled to Gabon mainly to highlight the organisation’s zero tolerance towards sexual abuse and to support the investigating authorities.
She also said Mr Mounguengui was a guest at the World Cup when he was hosted by Mr Motsepe and had no charges pending against him.
Mr Nguema, who is no longer sports minister since last month’s coup, has strongly denied being informed by anyone about the sexual abuse allegations before they were made public.