Why Muhammad Ali visited Kenya and the two top leaders he met

MUHAMMAD ALI PHOTO/COURTESY

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali visited Kenya in February, 1980.

The prime purpose of his visit was to convince Kenya and other African states to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

The United States had – under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter – decided to boycott the Moscow games.

Carter, in a bid to have several states on board condemning the Soviet Union’s actions, chose Muhammad Ali to go on a five-nation tour to convince African leaders to boycott the Moscow Olympics.

Ali was against the Soviet Union’s actions in Afghanistan and he was a well-known figure in Africa, so for Carter this move was strategic and smart.

The five African states that Ali would visit were Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Liberia, and Senegal.

The US government was at the time more concerned about this invasion than they were with the apartheid regime in South Africa, says writer Wilhelm Gidabuday.

The general consensus on this decision seemed to be that this was a bad diplomatic move by the American President.

Some officials in Tanzania questioned why Muhammad Ali was sent on a diplomatic mission and one questioned if the United States would have sent Chris Evert to London to talk with the British, writes Wilhelm Gidabuday.

Muhammad Ali was reportedly ill-prepared for the mission in Africa and he found it quite a tall order to convince some leaders to shun the Olympics.

In Tanzania, Julius Nyerere had resented America’s withdrawal from the Olympics on the grounds that the American government ignored African desires for America trade sanctions against South Africa.

There was also the fact that when African leaders boycotted the 1976 Olympics, the US failed to show their support.

Furthermore, the Soviet Union was actually supporting many of the liberation movements in South Africa—a fact that Ali was unaware of, observes Wilhelm Gidabuday.

Many Africans began to view Ali as being an American puppet, hence the government puppet. Ali, however, maintained that he was not visiting the continent to defend America’s position on South Africa and that he wasn’t anybody’s Uncle Tom.

Though Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Alhaji Shehu Shagari of Nigeria refused to see Ali, Ali fared much better in Kenya and Liberia.

Kenya did not participate in the Moscow Olympics and Liberia supported the boycott until the assassination of President William Tolbert.

While in Kenya, Ali called on the country’s second President Daniel Moi. The former world heavyweight boxing champion was hosted at State House, Nairobi.

Ali also met veteran Kenyan politician Kenneth Matiba, then Minister for Culture and Social Services.

In Senegal, Muhammad Ali was also warmly welcomed by Léopold Senghor. Senegal had a policy of keeping sports separate from politics, and they had participated in the 1976 Olympics that many other African countries had boycotted.

Muhammad Ali passed on Saturday, June 4th after suffering respiratory complications.

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