Football and Politics in Africa: A Comment on The Rebel Attack on The Togolese National Team During Angola 2010 and Its Aftermath

Football and Politics in Africa: A Comment on The Rebel Attack on The Togolese National Team During Angola 2010 and Its Aftermath

John Emeka Akude
Research Fellow
German Development Institute (DIE), Bonn
Adviser, German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

Unknown to many observers and experts on African politics, football has always been intertwined with politics since the inception of modern African statehood. The historical development of African states bears witness to this claim, not only with current events but also equally in a most fundamental way. The game of football was introduced to Africa in the process of European imperialism[1]. Although sailors, traders, missionaries, and their schools constituted the initial agencies of this introduction, with the advent of colonialism at the beginning of the 20th century, colonial administrators appropriated the game for purposes of colonial domination. The fear of uprisings, as a result of the artificially induced scarcity of infrastructure in the colonial enclaves that were developing into sprawling urban centres, drove the colonialists to instrumentalize football (and other sports) in order to subject the African to the colonial order[2]. Africans adopted the game, however, and adapted it for their own purposes. While struggling for independence, African nationalists used football as an agent for the articulation and dissemination of anti-colonial campaigns.

Angola 2010 has come and gone, as has the World Cup in South Africa. The time is now appropriate to review the rebel attack on the Togolese national team during Angola 2010 and its aftermath, in order to draw lessons on how to better understand and interpret the actions of African states and football associations. Most fundamentally, the occasion of Africa’s inaugural hosting of the World Cup should be used to reflect on the meaning of this popular game to Africans, an issue which has been under-researched. Despite all that has been written on this subject in the past, this reflection has been missing in Africa’s social theory[3]. This article is motivated in part to contribute to this reflection. Because of the political nature of decisions taken around the Angola incident, it is pertinent to start by reflecting on the social and political significance of football to the African.

Significance of Football to the African
Imperial and colonial relationships between the African and the European were unequal and racial ideology was used to justify this unequal relationship. Despite this, football was one of the few areas where Africans had a level playing ground and therefore relatively symmetric experiences with Europeans. An African could score a goal just like the European and could dribble him. African teams enjoyed the ultimate experience of proving to be better than their colonial overlords when African teams defeated European teams. That Africans focused on football to debunk the tenets of racial ideology which underpinned imperialism and colonialism was therefore understandable, in part because it may take a much longer time to excel in economic and political matters[4]. One may have to add that, for this purpose (excelling in economic and political matters), they have to possess political power anyway.

Football therefore contributed to strengthening the self-confidence of the African which was necessary to combat colonialism. As Fair[5] notes, football victories over teams that represented colonial ruling interests demonstrated to the Africans the possibility of defeating colonialism and thereby strengthened their resolve to struggle for independence. Starting from the 1930s, several African nationalists used football to mobilize their societies in the challenge against further imposition of colonial rule. The backdrop to this phenomenon was, in part, the frequent banning of African public gatherings by several colonial administrations. This left football as one of the very few “neutral” arenas where aspiring nationalists could address relatively large audiences without fear of immediate arrests. Thus, football increasingly became a symbol of African identity and resistance against colonialism. It is also noteworthy at this juncture that the foremost Nigerian nationalist, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, used football to mobilise Nigerian support for British participation in the Second World War against German discriminative and racial policies in Europe.  He travelled the length and breadth of Nigeria with his football team, played with several teams, and donated the gate takings to the British colonial administration as a demonstration of his support for British war efforts against Nazi Germany. But in the same vein, he was asking the British officials in Nigeria; ‘if we are all prosecuting a war against Nazi Germany for her discriminative and occupational policies in Europe, what are you still doing here?’

Furthermore, by establishing and successfully managing African football teams during colonialism, Africans cemented the foundations of a national identity that was essentially anti-colonial. In almost all African countries, indigenous control over football management preceded political independence. Consequent to the attainment of independence, membership of international football and other sporting federations was simultaneously accomplished with membership of the United Nations. In this way, football became a symbol of international sovereignty for African states and citizens. Football games also featured prominently in the ensuing celebrations marking the arrival of African states to sovereign statehood [6]. This legacy has continued until today where football games have become prominent features of all types of celebrations amongst the African political elite.

Football has been used to settle political misunderstandings. Nigeria’s national legislature played against the executive arm of government to ease tensions between the two state institutions in 2002[7] It has even contributed to reconciliations and ceasefires in the process of war. Paul Richards[8] reports that the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels of Sierra Leone organized a football competition to help improve relations with the local population after their attacks on Sierra Rutile mines at Mobimbi, during the civil war that raged in that country between 1991 and 2003.  In another instance, a ceasefire was arranged between the Nigerian and the Biafran soldiers during the Nigerian Civil War[9] to enable the soldiers watch the performance of Pelé who was then on visit to Nigeria[10]

Although most African states lack “horizontal legitimacy”[11] the tremendous enthusiasm and feeling of patriotism with which African citizens support their national football teams leaves one wondering what happened to the ever so present ethnic, tribal, regional, or religious conflicts that seem to engulf Africa[12]. For whatever reasons, the governance of football in Africa (though still amateurish) is much better than the governance of national economy and politics. Football has thus become so important to the African because through it, he is able to demonstrate his organizational ability, leadership qualities, resistance to oppression, national identity, adaptability, social cohesion, and international sovereignty. In Africa, therefore, football is often more than just a game!

The Incident
On the 8th of January, 2010, two days before the start of the African Nations Football Cup in Angola (Angola 2010), armed rebels of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) attacked the national team of the Republic of Togo on the outskirts of the Cabinda region as the team made its way from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Cabinda, Angola, where their group B matches were slated. The driver, assistant trainer, and public relations officer of the team were killed in the incident and several players injured. The Togolese government decided to withdraw the national team from the Angola 2010 football competition despite all the efforts of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) as well as those of the Angolan football authorities to persuade them to continue their participation. Following this decision of the Togolese government, CAF banned Togo from participation in African Nations Cup competitions for four years on the grounds of “political interference”[13].

The global press and public opinion reacted with outrage at CAF’s decision which appeared insensitive and inhuman. CAF’s President, Issa Hayatou, made it clear, however, that CAF would have decided otherwise had the players complained that they were unable to continue their participation in the competition as a result of the attack (cf. BBC 2010). But, because the players were ready to continue in the competition only to be recalled home by the President of Togo, it becomes a clear case of political interference which CAF should not condone as a matter of principle. The rationale for the emotional outrage of several football fans, officials, and journalists could be reduced to two questions: 1) Why should Cabinda be chosen as a host city despite three decades of “civil war” there?  2) Why should Angola (a country in civil war) receive the right to host African Nations Cup?  The incident was even linked to South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup 2010, despite the 2,000 kilometres that separate the two countries. The President of Bayern Munich, Uli Hoeness, questioned the rationale behind FIFA’s decision to award the hosting rights to South Africa which happens to share geographical region with Angola. This review intends to demonstrate that these questions show a lack of appreciation of the significance of football in Africa.

Understanding the nomination of Cabinda as one of the host regions and CAF’s decision
Without intending to hold brief for Angola or CAF, this paper seeks to offer the basis for understanding Angola’s decision to use Cabinda as one of the venues, and CAF’s punishment of Togo. The rationale thereby hints at the significance of football in Africa, which might be somewhat different from other continents. The parallel emergence of modern African statehood and African football is indicated above. The widest accepted definition of a state, derived from Max Weber, sees the state’s claim to the control over the instruments of violence as being decisive in the state’s expression of domestic sovereignty. Sovereignty, states Alan James[14], is unitary and absolute. This implies that states jealously guard their sovereignty and resist sharing it within their territories of jurisdiction.  FLEC has been violently challenging the sovereignty of the state of Angola in the Cabinda enclave following Angolan independence in 1975.  Angola could assert its sovereignty in Cabinda by hosting the African Nations Cup there, and given the significance of football in Africa, do so in a dramatic and expressive way as widely recognized in Africa.

Refusing to use Cabinda as a venue for the competitions would be tantamount to relinquishing the sovereignty over this enclave to the rebels, and no state does this willingly. Thus, it was imperative for the state of Angola to use Cabinda as a host city while providing security for players, fans, officials, and journalists during the competition. As far as this was the case, the hosting of the African Nations Cup by Angola should be judged a success.

The attack on and the deaths of two members of the Togolese national team (the third dead was a driver) created a problem for the Angolan government and CAF. For having their carefully thought-out plans disrupted, Angola and CAF were right to be displeased with Togo. Why?

Angola’s hosting of African Nations Cup offered an opportunity for FLEC to demonstrate to the outside world that the state is not in control of all its territory.  More significantly, FLEC could gain global publicity, a common aim of terrorist groups. With this in mind, an official of the Organizing Committee of African Nations Cup in Angola (COCAN), Virgilio Santos, stated that there were clear instructions to all visiting teams not to travel by road[15].  This would suggest that, in order to avoid a terrorist attack, teams should simply fly (and not drive) into Angola. Only the Togolese officials knew why they decided to drive. And until these officials adequately explain why they ignored the instructions of the host nation and decided to the contrary, we just have to assign the blame for the attack to them.

Togolese officials cannot deny knowledge of the dangers in the Cabinda region. In addition to the warning from Santos, they sought police and military escort as protective measures for the dangerous journey. One could speculate that they figured the armed police and military escorts would shoot back, should the rebels attack. And this was exactly what happened.  Unfortunately enough, they were sitting in-between the two forces. In this sense, one could argue that they got what they wished. With this irresponsible (excuse my choice of words) decision, they brought the whole efforts of the Angolan government and those of CAF, aimed at guaranteeing a secured and violence-free competition, into disrepute.

Understanding the choice of Angola
Regarding question 2 above, it has to be stated that Angola is not experiencing any civil war! The state of Angola is weak and corrupt, just like many others in Africa. Persistent violence against the state from certain sections of society is often a regular concomitant of such state of affairs. Should CAF disqualify all African states under rebel attacks from the list of possible hosts for the Nations Cup, there should be hardly any state left in Africa to host the Nations Cup.  Furthermore, there is no precedence to this suggestion. The precedence has rather been the opposite: Senegal (despite Casamance rebel attacks) hosted the 1992 edition of the Nations Cup and Nigeria (despite Niger Delta rebel attacks) was host in 2000, just to mention two examples.

This paper has tried to demonstrate the political importance of football to African states by showing the historical development of this significance. In so doing, it also justifies not only the hosting of the African Nations Cup by Angola but also CAF’s punishment of the Togolese football association. This should not be misconstrued as a heartless analysis which lends support to punishing an association that has already suffered three deaths, injuries, trauma, etc. Rather, it questions the rationale behind the Togolese decision to enter into Angola by road despite the clear and present danger associated with such a move. This becomes even more urgent when one realizes that the organizing committee gave clear instructions against such decisions. The advice at this point is that Togo should use this incident as an opportunity to sanitize its football management which has been abysmally poor.

One is reminded of the embarrassment suffered by all Africans during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, following the resignation of Togolese national coach in the midst of the competition. Togo qualified for the World Cup for the first time with the Nigerian-born trainer, Stephen Keshi, who was sacked four months to the tournament. A German coach, Otto Pfister, then took the squad to Germany in 2006. A few days before Togo’s inaugural World Cup game (against South Korea), Pfister resigned, citing non-payment of players’ bonuses as his rationale. All these issues could be adjudged normal, according to African standards of football management. What is abnormal, however, was that the officials of the Togolese national team, in a subsequent press conference, could not answer a journalist’s question regarding the name of the new coach whom they had allegedly contacted. One official just said that they were having positive negotiations with one “Christoph.” At that point, the Togolese players sitting with him at the table burst out laughing, to the consternation of their officials and curiosity of television viewers. Either there was no name to produce (which means the official was lying to the press) or the officials have so undermined themselves that the players don’t take them seriously anymore, or possibly both. Whichever it was, it created embarrassment not only for Togolese football, but also for African football in general.

This incident is another pointer to the poor quality of football management in Togo. Instead of criticising CAF’s decision, Togolese football association should use this opportunity to sanitise its football management by investigating the rationale behind the dangerous decision taken by its football officials to travel overland to Cabinda and punish the culprits adequately.

[1](Oliver 1992, Darby 2002, Armstrong and Giulianotti 2004, Boer 2003)

[2] (cf. Darby 2002, Boer 2003 on Nigeria; Bale and Sang 1996 on Kenyan athletics; Nauright 1997 on South Africa)

[3] 1) Paul Darby (2002) is an exception to this generalization. In Chapter 2, he dwells extensively on the diffusion of football in colonial Africa and its appropriation by the nationalists to fight colonialism from which the meaning for football to Africans emerged, namely as a unifying force against colonialism.

[4]  (Darby 2002).

[5]  (1997)

[6] (Darby 2002) 2) Nigeria erected a national stadium in Surulere, Lagos, to celebrate independence in October 1960.

[7]  (cf. Boer 2004).

[8]  (1997:150)

[9] (1967-70)

[10] (Ali 1984: 46).

[11] (Holsti 1996),

[12] 3) All these divisive factors find their way back into the national psyche immediately the tournament is over. How to make this football-related patriotism transcend the realm of the game, become more permanent, and possibly constitute a basis for nation building merits further research.

[13] Chances are that, with the intervention of the International Sports Court of Arbitration in Paris, this punishment may be commuted or even entirely lifted.

[14] (1986)

[15] (cf. Focus 2010)


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