Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Togo Travesty

The announcement coming when it did, the same weekend the African Cup of Nations champion was crowned, the Confederation of African Football (Caf) was probably hoping it would slide by unnoticed. Instead, they've managed to ensure the tragedy that befell the Togolese national football squad stayed at the top of the news headlines while Egypt fought its way to a 1-0 victory over Ghana to claim the title for the second consecutive time. In case you missed it, Togo has been banned from the next two African Cups, not for cheating or doping as you might expect, but for pulling out of the tournament after three people were killed in a half hour machine gun siege on their bus by rebels moments after as they entered Angola.

Wait, let's rewind. This year's tournament was held in Angola, a nation that has enjoyed less than eight years of peace since the end of a 27 year civil war. Among the 16 teams competing, the tiny west African nation of Togo (12 on the map) in fact boasts a relatively powerful squad. Touting a couple of English Premiership players, Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor and Aston Villa midfielder Moustapha Salifou they were unfortunate both geographically and politically in having drawn to play their group stage games in Cabinda, one of four venues for the tournament. You see, Cabinda is an exclave. Not only is it separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of the DR Congo and does it share it's northern border with the other Congo, but it's also home to the last pocket of unrest leftover from the civil war. Despite the signing of a peace deal in 2006, the nationalist movement Flec (Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda) has continued a low-level insurgency as it tries to claim independence from the Angolan government.

Ahh, seems I need to back up some more. Angola was plunged into 27 years of civil war from the moment it won it's freedom from Portugal in the Angolan War of Independence, itself a 14 year struggle which was only brought to an end with the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon. While all civil wars are complex, a reading of Rysard Kapuscinski's Another Day of Life would be an essential starting point in deciphering the complex web of armed faction acronyms, from the MPLA to UNITA, and supporting nations from Cuba to Zaire. It was a conflict which saw Chevron prop up a socialist regime and Cuban soldiers protecting American oil installations against CIA sponsored South African mercenaries. Fortunately for our purposes, focusing on Cabinda, only two factors need to be remembered, Flec and oil. Angola is sub-Saharan Africa's 2nd leading oil producer, with the Cabinda region producing about 60% of its total output. In fact, while diamonds furnished most of the revenue for the rebel UNITA during the civil war, it was Cabinda oil that kept the government MPLA going. Diamonds versus oil, and in the end, oil emerged victorious.

Yet Cabinda has always been more than physically separate from the rest of Angola. Even though it too had been a Portuguese protectorate since the Treaty of Simulanbuco, of 1 February 1885 (Portuguese only), the area has a distinctive culture, ethnicity and history and thus Angola and Cabinda were kept as officially separate overseas provinces. Locals were never Portuguese citizens, being labeled indigenas and forced to pay a head tax or work for the state six months of each year (p.103 gives a more thorough account). The rebel group, Flec, was not immune to the fracturing into splinter groups so common during civil war, with the result that when a peace deal was finally signed in 2006, most of the soldiers didn't feel it applied to them. While the Angolan government marketed a lasting peace, future trouble was inevitable in a corrupt environment that breeds fierce competition for the spoils of natural resources (pp.30-36 for more).

So, that brings us to the fateful day for the Togolese national team. The question is how could the team be sanctioned with suspension from the next two editions of the tournament in 2012 and 2014 and slapped with a $50,000 fine when it clearly was the fault of the organizers for having scheduled the matches in such a volatile region where warnings of possible attacks had been issued? Caf's executive committee's case seems to be based on three points. First, the Togolese team shouldn't have driven but flown; second, the team withdrew shortly before the tournament; thirdly, and most importantly it seems, there was 'political interference' in the decision to pull the team out of the tournament. The first claim rests on the organizers assertion that teams were told to fly in the regulations posted on the web site; the second on Article 78 of Caf's regulations which specifies such a punishment for teams withdrawing shortly before the competition; the third on strict policy intended to separate politics from sport. Absurd, all three.

Prior to the tournament, the team had been practicing in the Congo, in Pointe Noire. A quick look at the accompanying map (zoom in top left) will show that without strict warnings about the lack of safety, which you wouldn't expect when a major tournament is being played in the area, flying over the southern tip of the Congo, Cabinda, a bit of DR Congo (labeled Zaire on the old map) and then much of Angola to Luanda to turn around and fly back to Cabinda would seem ludicrous. As for the regulations stipulating the necessity to fly, the nearest I could find is 16.15. Satisfactory transportation means should be put at the disposal of the visiting team, the referees and the commissioner, either by road or by air if the distance is superior to 200 Km. The travel should be made on the day before the match at the latest and at a reasonable hour of the day, except if visiting team arrive late. Pointe Noire to Cabinda is much less than 200 km, besides, I don't think there was a plane waiting for the team anywhere, thus the bus ride. Additionally, it's clear that someone on the Angolan side knew they were planning on going by bus as the team was accompanied by an Angolan security force. Thanks to Google maps you can try to follow their route.

Next, while article 78 does specify punishment for "forfeit notified less than twenty days before the start or during the final competition", a quick look down the page to Articles 80 and 89 reveal that "Reserves are made as to cases of force majeure and shall be decided by the Organising Committee" - three dead and a backup goalkeeper with a bullet lodged in his spine as a result of a terrorist attack sounds like it would fit the bill. Additionally, just days before the decision to impose the penalties, Caf president Issa Hayatou was quoted as saying, "We wished they would have stayed but respect their decision to leave." Shortly after the attacks he was quoted further saying, "It is left to you to decide to stay in a competition synonymous of fraternity, brotherhood, friendship and solidarity. And in case you decide to leave the competition, we will definitely understand your decision and it will be accepted."

Point three is admittedly the stickiest. Amid the aftermath, the team wavered back and forth between going home and playing, finally holding a team vote and surprising everyone with the decision to stay. At this point however, Togo's Prime Minister Gilbert Houngbo overruled the team's decision and ordered them home, denouncing the security in Angola and sending the presidential plane to collect the squad. Technically, politics have entered the sporting realm at this point. Yet, wasn't the choice of Angola as host nation politically motivated, seen as an opportunity to develop its facilities, tourism and infrastructure - over $1 billion was spent, $600 million alone for the four new Chinese built stadiums. The decision to have Cabinda serve as a venue was even more transparently politically charged in a brazen effort to prove to the outside world that peace and stability had been achieved in the region and therefore ready for foreign investment.

The organizers miscalculation also affects politics beyond Angola's borders. The leader of the Flec movement that claimed responsibility for the attacks, Rodrigues Mingas, lives in exile in France. Tensions have arisen as the Angolan government has criticized France for not taking appropriate measures to have him extradited. Don't forget, the tournament is officially known as the Orange Africa Cup of Nations, Orange of course being a French telecommunications company. Back in Cabinda, the government is using the attack to justify a crackdown on political opponents, rounding up priests, professors and lawyers. Needless to say, the authorities don't have a very good track record of treating their detainees well. Meanwhile in Togo, presidential elections are due to be held later this month and I've got a feeling this tragedy will be an issue. It seems that politics have a way of getting involved in situations like this no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

Any other year and the whole tournament would most likely have been canceled, however, it comes in the same year that Africa will host it's first World Cup, when South Africa takes center stage for the world's most popular sport (No matter what you hear over the next few days, far more people will watch the World Cup than the Super Bowl). Somewhat ironically, 2010 also marks the African Union's Year of Peace and Security. This tournament was to serve as further proof that the continent was ready for the challenge, but it has only given ammunition to those who have questioned the decision to hold the world's biggest sporting event in 'the dark continent'; never mind that Cabinda is further from Johannesburg that London is from Moscow.

This latest in a string of bizarre decisions from football's governing authorities came down from leadership represented by Issa Hayatou, a man who symbolizes many of the reasons Africa has seen so little progress. Hayatou has been dictator president of Caf for over twenty years and it is no coincidence that the leader of his home nation of Cameroon, Paul Biya, has also been president since 1982 - José Eduardo dos Santos has been Angola's president since 1979! These type of men have been great innovators in the world of phony elections, ensuring that the cycle of corruption (you'll find Angola at 162 of 180 countries on the corruption index) and poverty will continue while they live like kings. Sport, much like oil, is a natural magnet for corruption as displayed in Angola where at least a third of oil revenue is siphoned off into the pockets of the politically connected while the people are left to suffer. At its best, football serves to bring the people of the world together, at it's worst, it serves to further the political aims of the entrenched elite.