THE 2021 AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS (Afcon 2021) finally took place in January and February 2022. In 2018, Cameroon had been stripped of its hosting rights by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) who stated that the “Africa Cup of Nations could not be exposed to any issues that could impact on the success of the most prestigious African competition”.
CAF provided various reasons to justify its decision, including numerous site inspections, compliance issues not met, contradictions between the requirements of hosting Afcon and realities on the ground and the conclusions of the Security Inspection Team.
In the same communique, CAF provided a glimmer of hope to Cameroon by announcing that the country remained a serious contender to organise a future edition of Afcon. And Cameroon was duly given an opportunity to organise the tournament in 2021, eventually rescheduled for 2022.
On the final day of the competition, the football loving-community watched the Taranga Lions of Senegal roaring victoriously over the Pharaohs of Egypt and lifting their well-deserved, first-ever Afcon trophy.
The display of social harmony…
The theme of multiculturalism, unity- in-diversity and sports as a facilitator of social cohesion permeated public discourse before, during and after the event. From the opening ceremony, throughout the tournament to the closing ceremony, the media were abuzz with images and soundbites of how the event united the country. The platform of the tournament was used to display a spirit of oneness and unity in a country bedevilled by ethnic, linguistic and class divisions.
Even journalists and academics joined the choir that projected Afcon as “the game that has brewed ‘unity’ in Cameroon”. Ambroise Essomba, a political scientist at the University of Douala, proclaimed, “This CAN (Cup of Nations) has been a moment of gathering, a parenthesis that has momentarily silenced the divisions. All Cameroonians love football, even those who want secession”.
The Opening Ceremony provided a display of Cameroonian culture even as it also gave a podium to international artists. The performance of the Afcon 2021 anthem by Africa Smile was followed by dance performances representing major Cameroonian cultural groups: Grassfields, Sawa, Fang-Beti, and Sudano-Sahelian. The local organising committee and CAF presented the opening ceremony as dedicated to “the awakening of Cameroonian nature” through the richness of its diverse landscapes.
The closing ceremony was an equally glamorous event, bringing together the finest of Cameroon’s artists. CAF said the aim was to present a colourful and vibrant closing ceremony representing a happy, smiling, progressive African continent. This was clearly an overt political message, articulating the intentions of the organisers to portray the image of a gratified and contented citizenry and a progressive continent.
…versus the reality of social discord
This assertion is a tree that hides the forest of the multiple social ills and deprivation many people in Cameroon and on the continent are facing daily. According to the World Bank, nearly 45 percent of the Cameroonian population lives below the poverty line of $3.20 a day, while 37 percent are multidimensionally poor. Cameroon’s development problems have been compounded since 2014 by the Boko Haram insurgency and the political conflicts that have been destabilising the Northwest and Southwest regions.
It is reported that the conflict in Southern Cameroon alone has caused an internal displacement of more than 679,000 people, as well as 51,000 people to Nigeria. Furthermore, it has caused the closure of more than 40% of the health care centres in these regions. WHO has estimated that currently there are only 13 hospital beds per 10,000 population, while only 22.4% of children with diarrhoea are receiving treatment. According to the International Crisis Group this conflict has killed more than 4,000 people in the two regions. More than 800,000 children have been out of school for the past four years. In turn, the Boko Haram conflict in the far north has caused more than 2,000 casualties and displaced 250,000 people.
Democracy or “shamocracy”?
During the final ceremony, the world witnessed an atypical scene of the trophy brought over to the 89-year-old president in the presidential suite. This happened because the president was physically unable to walk down to the field and crown the champion. Although Cameroon defines itself as a democratic country, it still subscribes to the logic of a lifetime president, with a president who has been in power for almost 39 years.
Between January 2019 and September 2020 more than 500 activists of the main opposition party, the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM), were arbitrarily arrested and detained without charges for either planning or taking part in a peaceful protest march. The protest march was aimed at denouncing the mismanagement of funds dedicated to building the stadium for the 2019 Afcon tournament, and demanding peace in the Anglophone regions.
This crackdown on CRM members was heavily criticised by civil rights organisations and human rights advocates, complaining about unlawful mass arrests of peaceful protesters. The phenomenon of empty stadia during the tournament was attributed by some observers to the fact that many Cameroonians were discontented about their socio-economic conditions and the human rights abuses by the government.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees (UNHRC) even brought its cameras to capture the fact that the guests at the closing ceremony included a hundred refugees from the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and Rwanda. A day before the closing ceremony, the refugees played a football match organised by the United Nations Refugee Agency under the auspices of UNHRC.
This is evidence that organised sporting events such as Afcon are not apolitical or politically neutral. They operate within the politics of “social cohesion”. This romanticises once-off merry-making at the expense of glossing over the hell that certain groups experience before and after the match. Some individuals would never in their lifetime afford a ticket to some of these prestigious sporting and cultural events. They function within the politics of nationhood which gloss over socioeconomic, gender, tribal and ethnic divisions.
Imagine a scenario where the refugees organised themselves to demonstrate at the tournament to expose the role of multi-national corporations and countries of the Global North in the wars that are responsible for their displacement, and to call for the “international community” to do something meaningful to end tyranny, inequality, injustices, unemployment, and poverty in their countries.
Imagine another scenario in which the citizenry of Cameroon stage a protest at the tournament to highlight the dodgy human rights record of the government of Cameroon, including beatings of detainees, arbitrary arrests, and illegal searches, and a judiciary riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and subject to political influence.
The same people who rave about how football in Cameroon contributes to civicism and nationhood; who momentarily make people set aside quarrels and animosity related to socioeconomic inequalities and tribal and ethnic divisions. Those same people would be blaming the protest organisers for bringing politics into soccer or for politicising the tournament.
The schizophrenic, selective morality of FIFA
When the establishment objects to politics or political voices in football and sports, what it means is that there is no room for radical politics and subaltern political voices in football and in sport in general:
● In 2009, footballer Frederic Kanoute was fined by the Spanish football federation for revealing a T-shirt expressing support for Palestine during a match against Deportivo La Coruña.
● Last year, the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) and proponents of “no politics in football” found it objectionable that the Scottish soccer team Celtic hoisted Palestinian flags.
● In 2014, the same club was fined over $18,000 by UEFA because its fans waved Palestinian flags at a match.
However, as we speak, United Kingdom’s Premier League and Football Association are reported to have given a green light to fans to wave the Ukrainian flag at soccer matches. And Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich has been barred from living in the UK after some leaked documents linked him to Russian president Vladimir Putin. And now there are sanctions to strip Abramovich of Chelsea ownership.
Importantly, FIFA has now released a political statement: “all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice.”
All this shows that mainstream football is a podium of dominant political voices and a slaughterhouse of subaltern political voices! While football is the people’s sport, institutionalised football, and the commercialised tournaments it hosts constitute festivals of the elites, with the pretence that the poor are also at the dinner table. In short, there can be no equal sport in an unequal society. When the game or tournament is over, the rich and propertied return to heavenly suburbs and the poor return to their brutalising and dehumanising ghettos and villages.
Mphutlane wa Bofelo is Training and Development Officer at the Member- Affairs Section of the Public Servants Association (PSA) of South Africa.
Gillo Momo-Lekane is Training and Development Facilitator at Workers College of South Africa in Durban.