In August 2021, Mali became the first African team to reach the semifinal of the Under-19 Women’s Basketball World Cup in Debrecen, Hungary.
But the achievement was soured by the fact that the team had been rocked by a sexual abuse scandal in the run-up to the tournament.
The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) opened an inquiry in the wake of revelations by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on June 10, which saw coach Amadou Bamba arrested on accusations of sexual abuse against minors.
Since then, the families of the victims have been waiting for other officials who covered up Bamba’s behaviour to be questioned as well. But the FIBA inquiry has come to a standstill, and the whistleblower is at risk of having to quit her sport.
“If you try to run away from me, I’ll remove you from the squad.” That was the first threat that Bamba made to his victim. Distraught and in tears, the player had to be consoled by her teammates, who tried to assure her that Bamba had no right to deselect her. But the harassment and sexual advances continued until the affair was made public, according to her father, who has confided to DW on condition of anonymity.
Denied a World Cup appearance
In the end, the young player paid the price for refusing to give in to Bamba, who subsequently dropped her from the U19 World Cup squad.
The official line from the Malian Basketball Federation (FMB) is that she was dropped due to injury — which her father adamantly denies. For the family, and for the organisations investigating the scandal, she is paying the price for having denounced her coach.
What’s more, Bamba, who is currently in custody, is being defended by a lawyer by the name of Jean Claude Sidibé — none other than the former president of the FMB and a former sports minister in the country. According to HRW, abuse in basketball has been going on for almost 20 years under the nose of the federation and on Sidibé’s watch.
According to Romain Molina, a French author who participated in the original investigation by The New York Times and HRW, FIBA covered up the affair and failed to prevent the suspension of the player in question.
Still no results, still no punishments
In addition to Bamba, FIBA president Hamane Niang and FMB president Harouna Maiga have also been suspended, but remain in their posts despite demands from HRW to ban them permanently from Malian basketball.
The results of the inquiry were due to be published after the Olympic Games and the Basketball World Cup, which ended on August 15. At the time of writing, there have been no results, and no punishments.
For Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at HRW, it’s impossible that FIBA officials didn’t know about the abuse. “The president of the federation and all the officials knew what was going on but instead covered up for the perpetrator,” she says.
Papsone Camara, a former Malian basketball player who is close to the victims’ families, has also told DW that he “sent evidence [of abuse] incriminating the coach to the FIBA investigators.”
‘No concrete threat’ — for now
FIBA has commissioned a law firm directed by Richard McLaren, author of the 2016 McLaren report into Russian doping, to investigate the case on the ground. The firm has in turn hired the international children’s rights organization Terre des Hommes (TdH), which specialises in the protection of children and young people, especially those most exposed to risk.
Yet still, when the girls were questioned by police about the events, it was done so in the absence of both families and lawyers.
FIBA didn’t respond to questions sent by DW, referring us instead to press releases from June 14 and 24 last year, in which it insists it is investigating the accusations of abuse.
TdH also insisted it was doing all it could to protect the girls and to provide them with the necessary psychological support.
Nevertheless, Sidi Mohamed Bah, child protection coordinator at TdH, pointed out that the organisation is limited in what it can do.
“As an NGO, physical protection isn’t really part of our mandate,” he says. “It’s up to the Malian authorities to ensure the security of their citizens, and we work in close collaboration with those authorities.”
He also insisted that the organisation is yet to receive any concrete threat against the victims’ families, but the father of the girl dropped from the squad has told DW that he has been targeted by certain individuals accusing him of trying to destroy the FMB. He’s not worried for his own safety, but for that of his daughter.
“I’ve told her to stop going to training because the training courts are the territory of the abusive coach,” he says.
Better protection needed for young players
Sexual abuse and harassment in Malian basketball is not limited to the national teams; there have been similar problems at club level, too.
Former player Papsone Camara told DW that a coach at a basketball club in the Malian league had abused a 16-year-old girl, impregnating her and refusing to admit responsibility. According to Camara, the authorities still haven’t intervened.
Despite global #basketball federation @FIBA’s “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse, in #Mali, @NYTSports @HRW research shows teenage players had to fight off coaches’ sexual advances to play on the national team—for years https://t.co/3Jxz68E7vb#AthletesAgainstAbuse #SRA pic.twitter.com/r5Pv8AgtTr
— Minky Worden (@MinkysHighjinks) June 14, 2021
Minky Worden of HRW says young athletes need much greater protection in future. “Before the team travels to its next international tournament, we need to ensure that the girls are properly protected, that they have received adequate compensation and that FIBA apologises for having put a sexual predator in charge of the team,” she says.
In a country ravaged by political conflict, Mali’s women’s basketball teams have achieved outstanding results both continentally and globally in recent years — as demonstrated by the performance of the under-19 team in Hungary.
For the girls, basketball is a way to escape poverty and fulfil their dreams of playing abroad, while also supporting their families financially at home. But they need adequate protection to do so.
This article was translated from French by Matt Ford.