Cameroon Hosts Africa Cup of Nations Amid Ongoing Violence
The soccer tournament is being held in the middle of ongoing conflict—and is still fighting for the world’s respect.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: The Africa Cup of Nations gets underway in Cameroon, a New York Times journalist goes on trial in Zimbabwe, and Nigeria lifts its Twitter ban.
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Why AFCON Is So Political
Two and a half years later than planned, Cameroon is hosting the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). The tournament was moved to Egypt in 2019 over concerns about Cameroon’s readiness in terms of infrastructure, and in 2021, it was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cameroon’s hosting privilege has been controversial due to the country’s ongoing conflict, which began in 2016.
Anglophone Cameroonians constitute 20 percent of the population and feel marginalized by the Francophone majority. Cameroonian President Paul Biya speaks only French in public, and his government largely ignored the demands of lawyers and teachers who led peaceful protests against Francophone dominance in 2016. The conflict has since become increasingly violent, and many Anglophones now demand an independent state called Ambazonia.
Although rebels have launched attacks in the Cameroonian towns of Buea and Limbe, which are holding AFCON matches, Cameroon’s military says separatists have not been able to disrupt the games.
Authorities blamed separatists for the killing of a Cameroonian senator last week, and for a video shared on social media platforms in which armed men are seen ordering 15 children in school uniforms to strip naked. Separatist fighters vow to continue to carry out anti-AFCON operations. So far, fighting has deprived an estimated 700,000 students of their education, according to Human Rights Watch.
Some 6.2 million Cameroonians are in need of humanitarian aid, yet most media coverage has centered on the chaotic refereeing during the Tunisia-Mali game and AFCON’s potential disruption of the English Premier League.
On Dec. 10, 2021, the European Club Association wrote to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) threatening to withhold African players over the omicron variant, a decision that would have defied FIFA rules. Clubs also feared losing stars, such as Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, who plays for Egypt, and Sadio Mané for Senegal as well as Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez playing for Algeria.
Despite negotiations, Senegal and Nigeria have had to play without England-based stars Ismaïla Sarr and Emmanuel Dennis. It is rarely mentioned that the AFCON has a much longer lineage than the Premier League, which was founded in 1992. “Is there ever a tournament more disrespected than the Africa Cup of Nations?” former England and Arsenal striker Ian Wright said via social media.
As the world’s second-oldest continental tournament, AFCON has always been political. The first ever tournament took place in 1957, as countries began gaining independence from colonial rule under the rhetoric of a tournament for an independent Africa, which would showcase the continent’s ability to organize and maintain its own sporting institutions.
The founding nations were Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and South Africa, though the latter was subsequently dropped for refusing to allow nonwhite players into the national team.
Soccer, argued Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, could herald respect for Africa on a global platform. Ghana’s Black Stars went on to win AFCON in 1963—six years after independence. In 1996, host nation South Africa won its first championship with a multiracial post-apartheid team. CAF opposed FIFA World Cup’s allocation of one place shared between Africa and Asia well into the mid-1960s. It wasn’t until 1970, after Africans boycotted the 1966 games, that Africa and Asia were allocated separate places at the World Cup.
At least in some countries, competition seems to be bringing people together. When Nigeria scored a surprising win against Egypt early in this year’s tournament, “that one goal brought a nation of more than 250 ethnic groups … together,” British Nigerian journalist Aisha Rimi wrote in the Independent. At a time of growing insecurity in Nigeria, she argued, “AFCON serves as a reminder that there is something good that can come from the country.”
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, Jan. 19, to Thursday, Jan. 20: U.S. envoy to the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, and Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee visit Sudan and Ethiopia.
Monday, Jan. 24: The United Nations Security Council reviews the latest developments in Libya and Syria.
Tuesday, Jan. 25: Egypt marks the 11th anniversary of the start of its 2011 uprising which led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.
What We’re Watching
Somalia bomb attack. Somali government spokesperson Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu was injured in a bomb attack in the capital, Mogadishu, on Sunday. Moalimuu, who is a former BBC journalist, has survived at least five suicide attacks so far. Al-Shabab militants claimed responsibility for the attack, which came days after the group killed at least eight people in a car bombing near the international airport. Somalia is in the grip of an increasing insurgency led by al-Shabab extremists.
The group has been fighting Somalia’s government for more than a decade, retaining a stronghold and collecting taxes in parts of the country despite offensives by the African Union Mission in Somalia since 2011. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble have been locked in an ongoing struggle for power that critics say distracts them from tackling deteriorating insecurity.
Sweden leaves Mali. Last Friday, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said her country will withdraw troops from the Takuba Task Force and review its participation in Minusma, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali.
The decision came after the Russian private military firm Wagner Group arrived in Mali. Takuba, made up of 14 European nations’ special forces, became operational in 2021 with a mandate of three years, as the successor to France’s Operation Barkhane, which ends this year. The European Union imposed sanctions on Mali in line with decisions taken by the Economic Community of West African States after the junta announced a five-year election delay over Islamist insecurity. Russia and China blocked the U.N. Security Council from endorsing those sanctions.
Zimbabwe journalist on trial. The trial of Jeffrey Moyo, a freelancer for the New York Times in Zimbabwe, will resume on Feb. 14 after being paused last Friday. Moyo, 37, spent three weeks in jail last year after being accused of obtaining forged accreditation cards for two New York Times journalists, Christina Goldbaum and João Silva, who were deported a few days after entering the country.
Zimbabwean officials accuse Moyo of paying a bribe to help break immigration laws. Moyo’s lawyers said he followed proper procedures. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced Robert Mugabe in a 2017 coup, has increasingly cracked down on press freedom. Journalist and government critic Hopewell Chin’ono has been arrested three times.
Moyo’s case highlights the risks local reporters face in facilitating international reporting by foreign correspondents. Reporters Without Borders ranked Zimbabwe 130 out of 180 countries when it comes to press freedom.
Tunisia unrest. Protests have continued in Tunisia over President Kais Saied’s power grab and moves to rewrite the constitution. Saied dissolved Tunisia’s parliament and seized governing powers on July 25, 2021. More than 1,200 demonstrators marched on Jan. 14 in protests against Saied, defying a ban on public gatherings imposed by the government that was ostensibly designed to counter COVID-19’s spread.
The date marked the 11th anniversary of the uprising that ousted the autocratic former president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Saied has also been accused of detaining prominent lawmakers. Former Tunisian Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri was arrested by plainclothes officers this month on so-called terrorism charges.
This Week in Tech
Nigeria lifts ban. Nigeria lifted a ban on Twitter last Thursday, seven months after prohibiting access to the app in a row over the social media company’s removal of a post by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, which threatened a violent response toward secessionists. In the now deleted post, Buhari warned “those misbehaving” that officials who had served in Nigeria’s civil war “will treat them in the language they understand.” Despite the suspension, many Nigerians continued to post using virtual private networks, including members of Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress party.
Only a small fraction of Nigerians use Twitter, but the restrictions had serious consequences for businesses and limited access to information. For instance, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control had shared updates on daily coronavirus infections; its account was inactive throughout the block. The reversal, Nigerians pointed out, came as the country’s 2023 election campaign began and a day after the national soccer team’s shock win against Egypt. In restoring access, Nigeria’s federal government said Twitter had agreed to register in Nigeria, open an office, and pay taxes.
Nigerian officials will also help manage posts that violate community rules, a move that worries government critics, though Twitter has not publicly confirmed those concessions. Nigerian lawmakers are considering legislation to criminalize online misinformation that rights groups say is aimed at government critics.
Chart of the Week
Cameroon’s low vaccination rate has been blamed for near-empty stadiums during AFCON because full vaccination is mandatory to attend games. Cameroon’s government started a vaccination campaign in November 2021. Most African nations missed a World Health Organization target to vaccinate 40 percent of their populations by December 2021. Fewer than 10 percent of Africans are vaccinated.
What We’re Reading
Zimbabwe conservation grab. Zimbabwean officials took over a wildlife park home to endangered species, according to the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi (CIJM). Senior bureaucrats—including Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa, David Douglas Hamadziripi, and members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front—have settled on land within the Midlands Black Rhino Conservancy in the country’s central region, the report states.
New buildings have been erected and there have been farming activities within the conservation area—which is home to rhinos, zebras, leopards, cheetahs, and lions—on land previously donated to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority by resettled farmers. Hamadziripi insisted his presence would not disturb wildlife. Zimbabwe’s current ambassador to the U.N., Albert Ranganai Chimbindi, is also a beneficiary of the settlements, according to the CIJM.
The spy who went on safari. A senior British military intelligence officer who was once involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland—and whose activities British police are now probing amid concerns that he oversaw an agent who was allowed to kidnap, torture, and even murder other suspected spies—once advised the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to recruit more informers and protect them from reprisals.
The KWS has a “shoot to kill” policy, and KWS rangers are accused of killing dozens of innocent Kenyans wrongly suspected of poaching, according to Declassified UK, which investigates Britain’s military and intelligence agencies.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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