‘I’ve seen hell’: the allegations rocking women’s football in Sierra Leone

For Bilkisu Kandeh-Turay, representing her country should have been the pinnacle of her career. Yet, despite the arrival of Isha Johansen as the first female president of the Sierra Leone Football Association in 2013, it had turned into a nightmare. “We didn’t get kits, proper food, medical facilities, transport … nothing,” Kandeh-Turay says. “I started raising these concerns and spoke with some FA officials. They said they were planning to do something, but they didn’t.”

The talented striker, who went on to captain the under-20s team, was 17 in 2017 when she complained to the senior women’s team coach, Abdulai Bah, about the poor conditions. Kandeh-Turay alleges that he responded by sending her pictures of his penis and pornographic videos, as well as “asking me for sex every day” over the next few months.

Related: Fifa investigating former Sierra Leone Women’s coach over harassment claims

“I started talking about it to my friends and we decided to go and tell Isha,” she says of a conversation she alleges took place with Johansen in 2018. “I told her about some of the things we were having to deal with and, without naming names, told her that one of the coaches had been asking us for sex and it was intimidating. She said: ‘OK, we’re going to fix that.’ But whenever I tried to reach her after that I never got any response. I have been trying to raise these issues a long time ago when she was there. Isha knows me by name.”

Bah was suspended by the SLFA in October 2021 when Kandeh-Turay repeated her accusations against him in a radio interview – six months after Johansen took up a seat on the Fifa council and was replaced as SLFA president by Thomas Daddy Brima. Fifa’s ethics committee is investigating after criticism of the SLFA’s handling of Bah’s case by the international players’ union, Fifpro. Police have told the Guardian that Bah, who has dismissed the allegations against him as “completely untrue and unfounded”, remains on bail.

Johansen told the Guardian she had “no recollection of this young lady’s claims of sexual harassment that apparently happened in 2017” nor of Kandeh-Turay “speaking to me in 2018”. “Furthermore I have no knowledge of her attempting to contact me thereafter. My memory is not perfect but an allegation of this nature is not something that I would forget, nor is it something that I would not pursue. The SLFA has disciplinary committees and I would have passed this type of complaint directly to the appropriate committee to be followed up.”

Johansen added that the SLFA was suspended and she had been set aside by the government in 2018, when Kandeh-Turay claims to have reported the harassment by Bah “so, not only was I not in an official position to have been able to do anything but I also fail to understand how and where she could have met me privately. After being approached by you, I have subsequently asked the key members of the administration but no one recalls being approached with these allegations at that time.”

Johansen says she had raised the case with Brima and his executive after she had stepped down as president, having seen media reports. “I did not hear these allegations while in office and I received no official information about this complaint from the FA,” she says. “Nonetheless, because of the gravity and potential reputational damage of these allegations, I called a meeting with the current president and his executive, at which I told them that they needed to expedite an inquiry and thoroughly investigate the matter. I have since not received any official communication relating to this matter.”

Kandeh-Turay also claims she attempted to contact Johansen in September 2021, five months after Johansen had left the SLFA, to complain about conditions at the squad’s training camp after the first leg of their under-20s Women’s World Cup qualifier against Guinea. Johansen rejects that claim.

“There was no running water in our rooms,” Kandeh-Turay says. “The coaches had much better facilities than the players. So I went to raise concerns and I walked out on them after I had recorded all the conversations. That’s when I started getting loads of messages telling me how they were going to ruin my career. I had to step back from the second leg in Liberia because of threats I received. I tried to speak to Isha Johansen again [before the second leg], but she didn’t respond.”

Kandeh-Turay had helped Sierra Leone secure a 1-0 victory against Guinea in the first leg. But on 6 October, three days before the second leg, she announced her retirement from international football after claiming that she had received threats from FA officials.

“No one is [as] hurt as me,” she wrote in an emotional poem on Facebook confirming her decision. “I will not break, I’m not made out of pottery. Threats all over the place, Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad. This fight is for the future. At this early stage of my career I’ve seen hell already.”

Kandeh-Turay is not the only former international player who says they were let down by Johansen. Several have claimed that Johansen, who also remains on the Confederation of African Football’s executive committee, failed to help after they raised concerns about a number of issues in women’s football in Sierra Leone. Those included alleged sexual harassment by coaches and threats of being excluded from the team if they resisted.

“Coaches used inappropriate language to girls like, ‘You are so beautiful today’ or ‘Shall we date after training?’” says the former under-20s international Fatmata Kamara. “Even coaches at clubs try to date players. If you speak up, you’re never gonna play soccer any more. This is the threat.”

Another player who does not want to be named says: “We went through so many obstacles.” On the national team there was nothing professional. We expected a lot from Isha as a president, to give us more opportunities to expose our talent. In her seven years of presidency I lost a lot. She was always out of the country. She was very difficult to access and didn’t make herself available.”

Kamara adds: “We were all excited when Isha became president. I had really high hopes but she proved she doesn’t care. I’m sure she is aware because everything happened under her nose. Why did she never check in? There is no excuse you can give.”

Adama Suma, a former player who is now head coach of Sierra Leone Police women’s team, believes conditions during Johansen’s regime got “worse and worse”. “She should have set stages for more women to lead in female football. She should have done more to protect the girls and develop female football.”

In response to the claims that she failed to help after players raised concerns about conditions in the national squad, Johansen said she was “proud of the level of empowerment I was able to achieve for women in football and women’s football in Sierra Leone, despite the numerous challenges and setbacks” that included dealing with the Ebola crisis in 2014 and 2015 and being suspended by Fifa for eight months in 2018 and 2019 because of government interference.

“My greatest disappointment will always be that I was never allowed the opportunity to do much more than I did to raise our game to its fullest potential, change our narrative and give women a louder voice through football, instead of fighting one calamity to the next, be it man-made, or force majeure,” she said. “In terms of whether I could have done more to develop women’s football in Sierra Leone, there is always more that can be done but the reality is that I spent so much of my presidency fighting detractors, bullies, sexism, anarchy, parallel leagues, criminal prosecution, etc. So much of my energy was diverted into putting out fires. I did everything I could to develop women’s football, but I wish that I had been in a position to do much more.”

It is understood that the Confederation of African Football wrote to the SLFA earlier this month asking it to explain its position over a number of governance and administration issues, including failing to “conclusively investigate” allegations of match-fixing and “sexual harassment of certain national team female players by officials”.

The SLFA did not respond to a request for comment over those issues but a spokesperson for the organisation rejected claims that female players have to train in poor conditions and said camps were “generally the same for both male and female categories”. They also said that both received equal pay after Johansen “succeeded in convincing the government to raise allowances for female players to the same level as their male folks” – a claim denied by several current internationals.

“There are a few areas that definitely require improvement and the FA is currently working very hard to ensure the said areas are given the required attention,” the spokesperson said. “However, basically everything, including but not limited to security, food, clothings, technical and tactical, has always been very much in place and the atmosphere has always been very much conducive for our players save the very few areas like the abundance of training and playing materials that require improvement to match up with international standards.”

It may be too late for Kandeh-Turay but the inauguration of the Sierra Leone Women’s Premier League in October finally ended nearly a decade’s absence of domestic women’s football in the country. However, she remains doubtful that it can flourish under the current regime.

“There are other players that have been harassed by coaches there but they cannot say because they have received so many threats and they are still in the country and want to play,” she says. “I feel horrible because they do not have the voice to speak out because they are not safe. They would rather just swallow it and protect their families.”