By Rebecca Tinsley
This January, the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament is slated to be held in Cameroon. Also known as AFCON, it has twice been postponed, first because Cameroon was deemed to be unprepared and second due to COVID-19. The ruling Confederation of African Football (CAF) is now being asked if the escalating violence in the country’s Anglophone regions poses too great a threat to spectator and team safety.
A vicious civil war is raging in the English-speaking areas which make up twenty percent of the Central African country. As government forces battle armed separatist groups, atrocities from all sides are prompting analysts to wonder if the tournament should be postponed until the warring parties call a ceasefire and enter peace negotiations.
During AFCON, twenty-four qualifying teams will play matches in six venues across Cameroon. The Limbe stadium is in the Anglophone zone, the Bafoussam stadium is near the border of it, and the others, located in majority-French-speaking regions (Yaoundé, Douala, and Garoua), may also be vulnerable to attacks.
In 2021, the Anglophone conflict has witnessed an escalation in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). There have also been several explosions outside of the Anglophone regions, which some believe were planted by separatist groups. The capital city of Yaoundé, particularly, saw IED explosions in June, July, August, and November 2020, which injured civilians. Last week, there was an explosion at a college in Yaoundé, which the authorities have attributed to armed separatists.
There is a risk of explosions in all of the AFCON venues, and most significantly in Limbe. Although Limbe is one of several relatively calm towns in the Anglophone regions, it experienced two bombs during the CHAN football tournament last January, one of which injured policemen. This may not bode well for AFCON. An armed separatist group called the Fako Action Forces claimed responsibility for at least one of those IEDs. The same group has recently been active in Buea, the capital of the South-West Region and close to Limbe. In November alone, they claimed an IED attack on the University of Buea which injured eleven students, and an attack in a taxi which killed the driver for defying the separatists’ stay-at-home-Monday “ghost town” orders, in place for five years.
Given the increasing attacks on civilians, CAF may come under pressure to postpone the tournament until the regime of President Paul Biya attends peace talks. Biya, aged 88, has been in power since 1982, and international monitors routinely condemn Cameroon’s elections for lacking legitimacy. Human rights watchdogs accuse his forces of behaving with impunity, targeting unarmed civilians in the Anglophone regions, burning villages and causing over 700,000 people (out of six million people living there) to flee into the bush or elsewhere in the country. Tens of thousands more are in exile in neighbouring Nigeria and well beyond.
Some movements responded to the government’s violence against Anglophones by calling for an independent country called ‘Ambazonia,’ which gave rise to armed ‘Amba Boys,’ fighting under self-declared leaders. Human rights groups have accused both sides of routinely committing atrocities on civilians and harming civilian targets such as schools, hospitals, markets, and homes. During AFCON, the deteriorating security situation would pose risks to players on and off the pitch.
The Cameroon authorities allegedly wish to hold AFCON because of the status it confers them, on the continent and beyond. It is reported that President Biya hopes to win the favour of young Cameroonians by staging the matches. Yet, the games may also offer an opportunity for young Cameroonians to express their frustration with the country’s human-rights abuses. The Cameroonian government has consistently responded to peaceful protests with violence and military action, losing support and driving more youth to take up arms.
This controversial AFCON is not the first time sporting events have become sensitive political footballs.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led the USA and other countries to pull their athletes from participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Politics overshadowed the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to China’s human-rights violations, brutal crackdown on Tibet, and initial refusal to support sending peacekeepers to stop a genocide in Darfur. Now, the upcoming 2022 Beijing Olympics are under scrutiny due to China’s mistreatment of its Uyghur minority, among others. Most notoriously, the Palestinian group Black September murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Also in the 1970s, protests greeted the cricket team of repressive apartheid South Africa when it went on tour.
Cameroon security services recently conducted anti-terrorism simulation exercises, including a mock attack on a stadium, but the shadow of Munich hangs over any proposed games. The fact that the country needs to practice these simulations with such seriousness begs the question of why CAF is allowing AFCON to hold in an insecure environment and under the authority of a government committing crimes against humanity against its own citizens.
For the sake of AFCON, and for the sake of suffering citizens of Cameroon, CAF should think carefully about the safety and morality of holding AFCON in January in Cameroon, and the Cameroon government should too.
*Rebecca Tinsley is a human rights activist and journalist. She is the founder of Network for Africa and Waging Peace. Her most recent novel is When the Stars Fall to Earth.This opinion piece was originally published in DW in French and English.