Abuja, Nigeria – African dictators have always been some of the biggest sport fans.
Idi Amin of Uganda funded a shopping trip to Libya for his country’s football team after it won the East & Central African Championship in 1976. Ali Bongo brought Lionel Messi into Gabon to lay the foundation for a new stadium before the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
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Around the world, sport has served as a tool for distracting or uniting countries in the throes of dictatorship or facing economic and political crises.
In volatile West Africa where there has been an average of two coups a year since 2020, the in-progress AFCON in Ivory Coast serves as a microcosm of the role of football, in general, and the tournament, specifically, have played in African politics.
While football fans might be looking strictly at the field, with a third of Africa headed to the polls soon, political pundits could do well to observe the underlying social and political effects of the tournament, rallying people around their flags and leaders.
Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso are under military regimes, with the latter two expected to delay previously scheduled elections and drag planned transitions to democracy; Ghana will hold its own tightly contested elections in December, while Liberia’s famed football icon George Weah is exiting the presidency after losing re-election last October. Quick wins on the pitch for these countries could yield dividends off of it for their governments.
Indeed 11 of the 24 participating countries in this year’s competition were originally scheduled to hold elections this year but it remains uncertain how many of them will stick to the electoral plan.
Even host President Alassane Ouattara, after whom the showpiece stadium is named, is at the centre of political permutations. After controversially contesting for a third term in 2020, Ivorians are wondering if the 82-year-old will run again in the 2025 elections.
His critics accuse him of “sportswashing”, after spending an estimated $1bn to host the tournament.
The term refers to the use of sport to help launder the image of controversial leaders or policies.
But the term fails to acknowledge the nexus that football and politics can have, especially in societies where fanatical devotion is only comparable to religion. Understanding this relationship can help in unpacking how important football tournaments – like AFCON – help citizens appreciate or tolerate leadership.
For many citizens in these countries, football provides hope for those under different forms of inequality.
African stars have plied their trade abroad for years, and continue to move in search of significantly better economic opportunities. The sport provides a sense of optimism, especially in overcoming structural inequality, with the promise of riches in the world’s top leagues inspiring more citizens seeking to break out of poverty.
In turn, those players who became superstars playing for the world’s top clubs – whether Egypt’s Mohammed Salah, current top scorer for Liverpool in the English Premier League or Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen, whose goals helped Serie A side Napoli to break a 33-year wait for the league title – have served as a bigger draw for the tournament.
And leaders who help audiences see these players in the flesh continue to earn themselves goodwill.
Playing the game on and off the pitch
African leaders, long aware of this influence football has, actively cultivate it to accrue political capital. Some have been able to tap into the uniting role football plays by creating or sponsoring football clubs to attract the support of the masses that follow them.
Some examples: former Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah was influential in the formation of Real Republicans FC, which was disbanded when his government was overthrown by a coup; prominent Nigerian politician Moshood Abiola, widely believed to have won the annulled 1993 polls, formed Abiola Babes FC, which won two national cups in the 1980s; Congolese presidential candidate Moise Katumbi is credited with turning around the fortunes of TP Mazembe, one of his country’s major clubs.
This has translated to national teams, with politicians connecting the euphoria of victory in tournaments to push political ambitions.
Cameroon hosted the 1972 edition of AFCON, months before a unification referendum proposed by Ahmadou Ahidjo. As part of efforts to woo the populace, one stadium was named the Unification Stadium. The vote was eventually successful and shored up Ahidjo’s long-term rule over the country before his resignation in 1982.
But he is not the only leader to leverage the uplifting mood football can have on a country.
In 2015, months before Ivorians went to the polls, the senior men’s team Les Elephants won the tournament in Equatorial Guinea by defeating Ghana on penalties. Ouattara, who has always supported the team, was front and centre during celebrations, eventually parlaying the mood of the country into winning re-election.
The last four editions of AFCON have been hosted in Cameroon, Egypt, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea – countries with long-term leaders, including one recently deposed after a coup. In most of these cases, the tournament has helped these regimes to gain international attention and utilise propaganda to justify their continued stay in power.
Footballers have also seen an increased political role because of their prominence in the sport. A plea by Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba for warring groups to cease the fighting, in the wake of their qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, was widely credited with helping end the conflict.
In Egypt, Al-Ahly’s Mohamed Aboutrika did not play in the 2012 Egyptian Super Cup final in protest against the deaths of club supporters in a brawl widely linked to the removal of former President Hosni Mubarak.
But the best-known example remains Weah, who leveraged his popularity as the only African to be crowned World Player of the Year, to become Liberia’s president from 2018-2023. That template of a popular footballer able to transcend domestic divisions and play the role of a unifier has been established and is likely to be utilised sooner rather than later.
As it stands, there is no shortage of leaders hoping they can lead a parade with the cup when the tournament concludes in February.
The big picture
Even challenges around logistics of hosting the tournament have provided a perfect opportunity for controversial leaders to use football as a chance to change narratives and burnish their image. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure have been delivered in record time, providing aesthetic deception for visitors as they step in.
In these countries, the internal institutions are too weak to effectively check the arbitrary allocation of funds to the massive infrastructure projects needed to prop up these hosting gigs.
Some also argue that sportswashing is not limited to governments but has increasingly become an avenue for global corporations to carry out image laundering techniques through sponsorship.
AFCON is officially known as the TotalEnergies Africa Cup of Nations, providing mass exposure and favourable coverage to the oil giant whose operations on the continent have been controversial. The company’s sponsorship deal with the continental body also extends to its other tournaments and shows the extent of the relationship between both entities and thus the unlikelihood of this changing anytime soon.
It is worth looking at the ongoing AFCON, not just as a sport tournament, but at what it represents for the continent’s political and cultural future.
Future tournaments, such as Morocco in 2025, will still be fairly dependent on everyone appreciating the tournament for what it is. At its best, it is a representation of the optimism of a united continent, symbolised by the collective joy of post-apartheid era South Africa winning the 1996 edition on home soil.
It is also, at its worst, a glaring demonstration of the gaps on a continent still coming to terms with its place in a world with evolving geopolitical discourse, and where financial and political influences are important.
Ultimately, at its simplest, it is yet another opportunity to appreciate the beautiful game among its most passionate devotees.