There Is More Than Sporting Pride at Stake in the Africa Cup of Nations
June 20, 2019Africa’s biggest sports event, the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) soccer tournament, begins on Friday, June 21, when Egypt hosts Zimbabwe. Egypt was handed the event by African soccer’s governing body the Confederation of African Football (CAF) after Cameroon was stripped of hosting rights due to concerns about lagging infrastructure and insecurity. The tournament will be the biggest one yet, featuring 24 teams including debutants Burundi and Madagascar. It will also be the highest-profile AFCON to date because of the decision to stage it at the end—rather than in the middle of—Europe’s domestic soccer season. Superstars such as Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, Senegal’s Sadio Mané, and Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech will be hopeful of leading their nations to glory, but there’s plenty at stake off the field as well. The CSIS Africa Program asked African soccer experts to explain what AFCON tells us about the state of the beautiful game in Africa and discuss whether success or failure on the pitch might have broader political implications for some of the competing nations.
- Peter Alegi is a professor of history at Michigan State University and author of books on sport in Africa including Laduma! Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa and African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game;
- Eromo Egbejule is West Africa editor of The Africa Report;
- Aanu Adeoye is a freelance journalist based in Lagos whose work on politics, development, and sport has featured in the Guardian and on CNN;
- Pearl Matibe is a Washington-based author and speaker who is founding director of Advocates for Progress, a think tank campaigning for a free society in her home country of Zimbabwe.
JD: To what extent does CAF think through the reputational risks of having events in places where there are concerns about human rights abuses? Should sports and politics be separate?
PA: When CAF awarded the tournament to Cameroon there were lots of questions raised both in terms of infrastructural capacity but also the fact that Cameroon is an authoritarian state with a very tense political situation owing to the unrest in the western part of the country. It made sense to take the tournament away from Cameroon, but then the tournament was given to Egypt, which is another dictatorship. It doesn't seem that CAF took human rights into consideration at all; had that been the case, maybe South Africa or some other country would have been preferred to Egypt.
AA: I think CAF has a duty to look at the most egregious abusers of human rights and those countries shouldn’t qualify. In 2014, when Morocco pulled out [of hosting AFCON], CAF had to scramble to find a replacement and ended up choosing Equatorial Guinea, where Teodoro Obiang has been in power for almost four decades and dissenters are sent to prison.
PM: My question would be: which African country would qualify that doesn't really have egregious human rights violations or has a robust and independent judiciary?
JD: What is the general state of corruption in African football? What reforms should be implemented?
AA: There are many instances of corruption because there are so many opportunities for football administrators to enrich themselves. We need to reduce the amount of money on offer.
PM: Africa has very fit athletes but not fit management. Good governance seems to elude them somehow. I've seen in Zimbabwe a lot of corruption in the football association and in how media and marketing rights are taken care of.
PA: What’s needed is policy leadership from people who are not there simply to eat money and enrich themselves and their clients, but to take care of the necessities of sports. Fund the fields, fund the coaching, provide equipment, develop rural sports and school sport in the women's game, form partnerships with government agencies but also NGOs and perhaps the occasional corporate social responsibility initiative.
JD: Looking ahead to the tournament, which games are you watching for their political ramifications? I wonder about DRC versus Uganda. And with Algeria undergoing a transformation right now, does success on the pitch translate into a greater nationalism, does it have any political effect?
EE: The most important game for me is between DR Congo and Uganda because [President Yoweri] Museveni and [President Félix] Tshisekedi are both great fans of football, and there’s a lot of political drama behind the scenes. They have clashing national interests especially over the mining resources in Eastern Congo. If [DRC] did win, it would be a popularity boost for Tshisekedi, who is desperately trying to kickstart his administration.
PA: Egypt versus Zimbabwe is a very important match. Egypt faces tremendous pressure on the pitch to deliver the goods against Zimbabwe. This is taking place at the international stadium in Cairo, and domestic football has been in a very difficult place in Egypt. They [Egyptians] don't get the chance to play in front of large crowds due to government restrictions. The government fears fans and what their organizations can do in terms of political influence on Egyptian society. If they do well, I think Egyptian nationalism will rise to the fore and the government will try to ride that wave.
I'm also looking very closely at Algeria. They’re caught in a tough group with Senegal, Kenya, and Tanzania. But I think they are well positioned to potentially win that group, which could give real succor to the popular movement in Algeria and to hopefully getting some positive change there.
AA: In Nigeria, the election period has been a time of huge division in the country, so I think the government will be hopeful of a good showing by the Super Eagles in Egypt, because the only thing that unifies Nigeria is the football team.
RD: Will moving the tournament from January to June help raise the profile of the tournament, African soccer, and Africa in general?
EE: This is the first time for this summer arrangement, so it is still experimental. By the next edition, hopefully, the African Continental Free Trade Area will be fully operational, and there will be a lot more opportunities for revenue generation, regional collaboration, and tourism. But not this time. Egypt isn’t known for collaborating with economies in sub-Saharan Africa.
JD: Should the international community, especially the United States, be more engaged with the African Cup of Nations?
PA: By paying attention to this tournament, the United States would simply demonstrate sensitivity to what African people care about, which most definitely includes sports and clearly the king of sports, football. Regrettably, diplomacy these days has been reduced to trade and military considerations. By doing that, the United States has missed an opportunity to connect with people and their culture in ways that could have potentially beneficial returns for the U.S. as well. European broadcasters have been showing these games for over two decades, Europeans have been very much in tune with African football for a long, long time, they send lots of reporters, and there are European companies—particularly from France—sponsoring [AFCON].
JD: Final question. Who’s going to win? Full disclosure; I am always rooting for Nigeria.
PM: Senegal is a favorite.
PA: Home field advantage is going to be a big factor, so I’m going to say Egypt.
RD: Egypt will go far if they can handle the pressure. If not, Morocco and Senegal look strong.
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Richard Downie is a senior associate with the CSIS Africa Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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