There are two faces to this beast; on the one hand the clamor that represents a continental tournament organized by FIFA, which brings together different countries in Africa to share the values that football transmits. On the other hand, also visible are the many factors that have led to the social and economic decline of the whole continent. In the 19th and 20th Centuries it was the shared experience of the imperialist yoke that gave the African nations the by-product of a fighting heritage. Now FIFA and those in political power in Africa try to provide cover for the continuing poverty and inequality of the continent with showcase tournaments. Nothing to see here, move along please…
The host country for the 2017 edition of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations is Gabon. Similar to Brazil at the last World Cup, a large percentage of the population of Gabon lives in dire poverty. The dissatisfaction at the amount of money invested in organizing the tournament permeates the population and has manifested itself in widespread discontent and protest on the streets.
The riots in Gabon commenced in the aftermath of the re-election of Ali Bongo of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) whose victory is widely considered to be corrupt and fraudulent. Gabonese opposition candidate Jan Ping leads the protests and the social upheaval is ongoing, in spite of the African Nations Cup tournament. The capital Libreville, is the epicenter of both the sporting event and popular discontent. But the Cup must continue because the economic interests of the organizers in this era of commercialised soccer are a priority – they have match timetables to fill and profits to make, because ‘time is money’.
The first game of the Cup, on January 14, saw host Gabon play Guinea Bissau. Inside the stadium the encounter takes place with a certain normality, contrary to the scenes on the outside, where the population is immersed in episodes of violence, culminating in the protesters setting fire to the National Assembly as a sign of their discontent. Revolts, riots and mass arrests are the reality of the African Cup of Nations that is not reported by the mainstream media. It is obvious that, as in Brazil, the interests pursued by the government, the African Confederation and FIFA, is considered to be more important than responding to the demands of the protesters. No matter that public resources have been diverted to fund a lavish opening ceremony, the basic needs of the population can wait, because it is the priority of those in charge to show the world that Gabon is up to the task of organizing an event of this type. Most likely, after the tournament, stadiums will become abandoned properties, due to the inability of the government to finance their maintenance. Just look back and observe the countries that have hosted a tournament of similar character in other continents. In Brazil, those stadiums that were built after long days of exploitation and brutal effort for the workers, now lie abandoned. They remain as the silent witnesses of the socioeconomic consequences of being a World Cup host, Gabon will be no exception to this rule.
Looking beyond the facade of this tournament, it is important to celebrate the tradition of resistance that is demonstrated by the protests on the streets of Gabon. These protests recall the examples of struggle that led to the national liberation of several African countries, as well as the heroic characters who fought colonialism and achieved independence for their nations. Today these achievements are overshadowed by interventionism and betrayal.
So we remember Thomas Sankara and his legacy in the liberation of Burkina Faso, President Nasser’s Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the revolution of Patrice Lumumba. The many liberation struggles in southern and central Africa that saw the colonialists overthrown. And, of course, the Algerians as authentic warriors both on the pitch and on the barricades of the National Liberation Front. The revolution in Africa continues because, as has been proven by experience, national liberation in and of itself does not automatically lead to social liberation and freedom from poverty. Football and Politics remain intertwined and reflect the social context of the time and we will continue to report the political as well as the sporting.
This article first appeared in Spanish on the Grada Roja website.
Translated & Edited by Talman, with thanks to F.C. and Grada Roja