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How Democratic countries dominate African football at AFCON 15

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Guinea's midfielder Boubacar FofanaThe success of African nations in continental and world football is also a crude indicator of how liberal their citizenship laws are.

Ghana supporters cheer ahead of the 2015 African Cup of Nations semi-final football match between Equatorial Guinea and Ghana in Malabo, on February 5, 2015. (Photos AFP). Ghana supporters cheer ahead of the 2015 African Cup of Nations semi-final football match between Equatorial Guinea and Ghana in Malabo, on February 5, 2015. (Photos AFP).
MISSILE-throwing Equatorial Guinea home spectators caused a long and chaotic second-half delay as Ghana set up an Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON2015) final with Cote d’Ivoire by outplaying the hosts 3-0 on Thursday night.

Play was halted eight minutes from time as disgruntled home fans flung various objects on the pitch and a break of more than 35 minutes ensued before order was restored and play resumed.

A police helicopter flew low over the ground while Ghanaian supporters, feeling threatened by the home crowd, spilled into the area surrounding the pitch at the 15,000-seat Estadio de Malabo.

Night of shame in Malabo but AFCON2015 has been the best ever for Africas democratic nations 1A Ghana Football Association tweet read: “Police helicopter hovers above the pitch with the Ghana fans in real danger. It’s now like a war zone.”

Players, coaches and the match officials stood on the pitch throughout the drama while slow-reacting security officials ushered Ghanaian supporters into one section of the ground.

The Confederation of African Football on Friday fined Equatorial Guinea $100,000 for the unrest in which 36 fans were injured.

When football is not football

Not all of it was surprising. At the level of the Cup of Nations or the World Cup, football often stops being about football and becomes about bigger national – even international – politics.

Equatorial Guinea became the last-minute host of AFCON2015 after the original ones Morocco were suspended, when they tried to postpone the tournament over the fear of Ebola that was raging in West Africa.

Vilified and sometimes shunned internationally as a corrupt dictator, Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has become adept at using his nation’s oil fortune to burnish his image. In Africa he has found success, especially after the ouster and lynching of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Nguema has stepped into Gaddafi’s shoes as the cash-strapped African Union’s emergency cashier, hosting several continental events that became desperate for venues.

AFCON2015 was one of his biggest public relations coups, and even some hardened critics in Africa felt a need to take a more generous view of the Big Man of Malabo.

Investment up in smoke

Ivory Coast's Wilfried Bony celebrates his goal during their quarter-final soccer match of the 2015 African Cup of Nations against  Algeria in MalaboHowever, in those 40 minutes on Thursday, Nguema’s investment went up in smoke. Not only did the Equatorial Guinean fans provide a spectacle that, as one sports commentator put it, “ashamed Africa”, they also upended Nguema’s finely choreographed political act.

The Guardian’s  Nick Ames who was watching the match at Nuevo Estadío de Malabo captured the political nuance,  writing that:

“Equatorial Guinea’s security forces have not been averse to heavy-handed treatment of fans during this tournament and the methods they employed to quell the trouble inside Nuevo Estadío de Malabo were as brutal as they were effective. In a disturbing and downright dangerous manoeuvre, a police helicopter swooped within 30 feet of the crowd in the west stand, forcing the majority to scatter because of the noise and power of its rotors…

“Verguenza” (“Shame”) repeated the announcer while the police helicopter was causing everyone to cower.

“Think of the country, the embarrassment.

“Nobody appeared to, and police found themselves subjected to barrages of their own. The violence was watched by Obiang Nguema, the country’s president, whose reign has been notorious for repression and apparent human rights abuses; displays of mass civil unrest are virtually unknown in this country but at this tournament, in the fermenting pots that football stadiums conveniently provide, you wonder whether a crescendo had slowly been building”.

Foreign-based players rule

However, AFCON2015 made a broader statement about the continent too; about how it is changing and where it is headed. As  Ghanaweb noted, of the 368 players representing the 16 participating countries at the finals, only 71 home-based players made the squad lists of their respective nations. A good 297 – some 76%- are foreign based.

The fact that foreign experience for African sportsmen has become an important ingredient of the success of their home sides, has lately put the focus on what an African country needs to produce players.

Apart from the quality of domestic football and league, it would seem that laws permitting dual citizenship – once anathema in Africa – play a role.

There are currently 22 African countries that permit some form of dual citizenship – with some like Egypt and Eritrea imposing stringent restrictions while allowing it.

They are Angola, Benin,  Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome & Principe, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Togo, Togo, Tunisia and Uganda. They are likely to soon be joined by Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Dual citizenship, means players don’t have to relinquish the citizenship of their birth countries, should they – as often happen happens – be offered or have opportunities to become nationals of the countries where they play their game.

It also allows players like Emilio Nsue Lopez, who was born in Spain, to return and play for Equatorial Guinea, his father’s ancestral home.

It seems then that today, the success of  African nations in continental and world football, is a crude indicator of how liberal their citizenship laws are.

Both Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, who will face off in the finals on Sunday, allow dual citizenship as do all the teams in the favourites list at the start of the tournament – Tunisia, Senegal, Zambia (it’s about to). The exception was Algeria. And the surprise of AFCON2015, Cape Verde, the island to make the finals, also permits dual citizenship.

Good outing for democrats

Cape Verde’s case also highlights something else that some commentators have noted about AFCON2015 – it is probably the one that has been most dominated by countries that are considered democratic, and listed by  Freedom House as “free” or “party free”.

Excluding Equatorial Guinea, which had been disqualified then got on the list as host, and which is ranked by Freedom House as “not free”, just five other countries in the final 16 are listed as “not free” – Algeria, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, and DR Congo. Four are “party free” Mali, Bourkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, and Zambia. Six are ranked “free” – South Africa, Ghana, Guinea, Cape Verde,  Tunisia, and Senegal.

Thus of the countries that qualified on merit the largest group are free. Together with those ranked “partly free”, they are 10, clearly outnumbering the dictatorships and half-dictatorships. It is an unusual look to a list about the continent, which makes AFCON2015 the democracy tournament.

For this tournament, then, it seems liberal citizenship and the level of domestic freedom, was an advantage. It will be interesting to see if the pattern will hold into the next one.


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