Cameroon is set to host the Africa Cup of Nations 2022, with kickoff on January 9. The last time it hosted the event was in 1972. The competition has been presented to the Cameroonian public as a remarkable achievement of the regime. Paul Biya has always politicized football and long used the sport like the Roman Emperors used gladiator fights in the Colosseum, that is, to keep people unmindful of deeper social problems. Mark Cartwright states:
“Roman gladiator games were an opportunity for emperors and rich aristocrats to display their wealth to the populace, to commemorate military victories, mark visits from important officials, celebrate birthdays or simply to distract the populace from the political and economic problems of the day”.
Cameroon is hosting the event amidst a devastating separatist conflict rocking its English-speaking regions of the North West and South West. What is surprising is that despite the security situation and the fact that Cameroon is not fully prepared to host, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) still awarded it the competition.
Some of the games will be held in the seaside town of Limbe in the South West Region. What is Cameroon’s capacity to ensure the security of the players? Are the separatists able to undermine the game? Why did the Confederation of African Football (CAF) allow Cameroon to host the game despite the security situation in the country and it not completing infrastructure?
Cameroon’s ‘Anglophone Conflict’
The conflict in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon, otherwise, “the Anglophone Conflict”, pits government forces against separatist fighters. The conflict started in 2017 when government forces violently attempted to suppress protests over the increasing use of English and French in Anglophone schools and courts.
The conflict, however, has deep historical roots. In 1961, the former Southern Cameroons coterminous with the North West and South West joined the Republic of Cameroun or La République du Cameroun (LRC) in what was to be an immutable Federation. The pioneer president of LRC, Ahmadou Ahidjo, abolished the Federation in 1972. Since then Anglophones or people of the former Southern Cameroonians have been treated as second-class citizens. Attempts to abolish all their institutions and wipe out the English language galloped under Paul Biya who came to power in 1982. The conflict is the zenith of pent-up anger over these issues and triggered by horrific repression of legitimate demands.
The military has been accused of burning whole villages in the conflict and killing civilians indiscriminately in these regions. It is also accused of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and targeting even babies and infants. Thousands of civilians have been arrested or killed extra-judicially by Cameroon’s military. Its scorched earth policy has resulted in a refugee crisis and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
This approach has not ended the conflict. Its pursuit is only explained by Biya’s uncompromising nature and the guarantees he has from his international friends to keep the United States at bay. But it is an ineffective and counterproductive strategy. The separatists might have been killed in their thousands, their capacities largely undermined and the momentum slowing down but there is still strong resistance.
Cameroon’s capacity to secure the game
Paul Biya’s desire to maintain power has led him to capitalise on security, at the detriment of development and social cohesion. He has built for himself an impressive military by Third World standards with 14500 active personnel and a 10000-strong paramilitary force. The elite force, Rapid Intervention Batallion or Batallion d’Intervention Rapide in French and popularly known by its acronym, BIR, is well-equipped, ruthless and lethal.
Everything being equal, Cameroon, therefore, has the capacity to secure the game. Combat-ready troops have largely undermined separatist activity in Fako Division, where Limbe is. Limbe itself where the Rapid Intervention Batallion (BIR) has a large presence has increasingly become French-speaking because of the oil refinery. The refinery almost entirely hires Francophones even though the oil is Anglophone or Southern Cameroonian. This is what has driven the growing presence of Francophones in the town but also more anger from the separatists who do not want to see the games take place in Limbe.
Although responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict and its persistence lies squarely on the regime policies, the inability to squash it among other things is due to the evolution of separatist warfare capabilities. Recently, the armed factions in the Anglophone separatist movement are increasingly using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Therefore, despite Cameroon’s relatively impressive military outlook its capacity to secure the game, particularly in Limbe, will depend on how it will ensure that such IEDs are not planted and detonated. However, the separatists have been capable of inflicting damage on the army using these IEDS and some of the separatists have vowed to use them in Limbe to stop the competition from taking place.
“Confidence” and “optimism”
Cameroon was awarded the AFCON 2019 competition in 2014. This was to allow it enough time to prepare for the competition, including putting in place the required infrastructure. However, by 2019 Cameroon was not ready and was stripped of the hosting rights because of ““significant delay” with the building of stadiums and related infrastructure”. Paul Biya told the population that it was a simple “date slip”.
Yet, by the end of 2021, the infrastructure was still not ready with the Olembe Stadium meant to host the opening ceremony and match only near completion and several roads and hotel projects uncompleted. As the Confederation of African Football once more threatened to withdraw the game from Cameroon, Paul Biya dispatched the Secretary-General at the Presidency to meet with the President of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), Patrice Motsepe who then made statements that meant the Confederation of African Football (CAF) would not withdraw the game from Cameroon.
On a subsequent visit to Cameroon in December, 2021, Patrice Motsepe then confirmed that Cameroon would be allowed to host the competition despite visibly uncompleted projects. Although the problem of insecurity has hardly been discussed by Patrice Motsepe, he argued for “confidence” and “optimism” in Africans being capable of organizing world-class competition.
Breathing more life into the “African way”
Although Mr. Motsepe was certainly referring to the problem of infrastructure when he spoke of “confidence” and “optimism”, Limbe will host some of the matches and the precarious security situation in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions cannot be ignored. We cannot have confidence and optimism that a high-level competition such as the African cup of nations can be organized amidst political instability and disgruntlement. Such an approach borders wantonness and breathes more life into the view that there is an “African” way of doing things and this is generally not meant in a good way. Sports is meant to unite a people and not stoke the flames of division. The confederation of African Football must maintain high ethical values. Outside infrastructure, other factors such as political stability and human rights records, or at the very least, the important steps being taken to improve the same should be taken into account when a country is being awarded the Africa Cup of Nations.