“I think [the] 2022 [Africa Cup of Nations] has the power of taking Cameroonian sport to another level,” says Njie Enow, sport editor at state-owned Cameroon Radio Television.
The central African country is desperate to host the continent despite the many challenges it has faced since being given the right to stage the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). They were stripped of that right when they were deemed unprepared, but given the 2021 edition instead.
And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, pushing the men’s continental showpiece to 2022. The country’s readiness to host the Afcon is being tested in the African Nations Championship – the Afcon for home-based players – that started on 16 January 2021, and will go on until 7 February.
The country, initially slated to host the competition in 2019, was found to be unprepared by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). This after the confederation decided to increase the number of participating teams from 16 to 24. Cameroon were awarded the rights to host in 2014 when only 16 teams were expected to take part. The country’s stadiums could handle that. Now, with 24 teams in the competition, there were doubts about their capacity to handle the expanded version. Cameroon was, however, adamant that they still could successfully host the competition.
Afcon heralds glory days
The country’s obsession with hosting the continental competition might be motivated by the benefits it derived from it in the past. It hopes for a replication of these advantages. Cameroon hosted the competition in 1972. And two stadiums were built then: the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium (named after Cameroon’s first president) and Douala Reunification Stadium. And, until 2016 when the country hosted the women’s edition of Afcon, these were the only facilities to meet international standards.
Now that the country has an opportunity to host another Afcon, the government has built footballing infrastructure in many regions. Five of the country’s 10 regions now have over 30 stadiums and training pitches to be used for the Afcon. “We want to be one of the best in Africa,” says tournament manager, Michel Dissake Mbarga.
Moreover, with improved facilities, the country’s football fraternity – league strength and competitiveness – improves. This results in local teams performing better in continental competitions.
“With the construction of these arenas, and the boom in football, came in greater glory for Cameroonian clubs – Canon of Yaoundé, Tonnerre of Yaoundé and Union of Douala. Canon used to set up at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium, while Union set up at the Reunification Stadium,” Enow said.
Cameroonian clubs dominated continental football after the 1972 Afcon hosting. Canon lifted the CAF Champions League in 1978 and 1980 while Union won it in 1979. Tonnere won the 1975 CAF Cup Winners’ Cup.
‘A vehicle to heal a wounded nation’
But this Afcon could do more than just improve the country’s infrastructure, it could also be a vehicle to heal a divided and wounded nation.
On a cold grey night on 5 February 2017, in Cameroon’s Southwest region’s capital, Buea, there were countless groups of Cameroonians watching their national team play in the Afcon final. This despite the Anglophone region being involved in calls and actions for secession.
Buea, the centre of the Anglophone community, had just seen its university students beaten up and some raped because they called for school reforms. This later escalated to a call for separation from the country’s Francophone majority, who make up 80% of Cameroon.
However, Vincent Aboubakar’s 88th minute goal, which gave Cameroon a 2-1 win over Egypt in the final, changed the atmosphere from anger to joy and fanfare. There even was the clacking of pots and pans in celebration throughout the national territory, even in English-speaking regions.
That victory served as a good propaganda tool for President Paul Biya. Cameroon’s Anglophone region had recently been protesting and calling for their own state, saying they are being marginalised by the country’s Francophone majority.
Cameroon, then, won the Afcon at just the right time. President Biya ordered the trophy to be paraded in the capital towns of Cameroon. There was a similar national tour of the Indomitable Lions’ Afcon trophy in 1984 when he faced an attempted coup.
“Sports and politics are intertwined. Periods of sports domination always have helped in consolidating political power,” said Enow.
The Afcon as a pacifier
Cameroon has spent large sums of money to host the tournament. When Dissake was asked why the country did so despite its many problems, he said: “What one should know is that… the head of state decided to offer to the Cameroonian youth more than 30 high-level sports infrastructure. It is for the exploitation of the Cameroonian youth. Nobody will take it away after the Afcon.”
His thoughts are affirmed by the President of the Cameroon Football Federation. “It’s an opportunity to thank the government of Cameroon, especially the head of state for all the efforts that have been put. People don’t imagine what effort it is to build stadiums, to ameliorate infrastructure: roads, hospitals…” Seidou Mbombo Njoya told the press after CAF postponed the 2021 Afcon to 2022.
Using sport, especially major tournaments, to pacify an angry nation is nothing new. Many authoritarian leaders across the globe have done this. The overall mission for Biya is to win back the hearts of Cameroon’s youthful majority. Cameroonians aged 37 and below have known just one president. And under his leadership, the country has been battered by ethnic divisions and conflicts.
Suppressing a coup in 1984, two years after his rise to power, Biya bent the political system to his will. He won the 1992 elections amid controversy, and got re-elected in the 1997 poll effortlessly when the opposition boycotted. He won another term in 2004. He is now in his seventh term as president.
The country’s economy, which has been ailing since the 1990s, is now made worse by a separatist war being fought in the west. This is a nightmare for the president because his failures are laid bare. His leadership, then, is desperate to give Cameroonians the Afcon competition in hopes that they will be pacified and the country “healed”.