Ask an African to name one thing that most Africans – young and old, male or female – are most passionate about; and you are likely to get two answers. One will be religion, in particular Christianity. It is no secret that sub-Saharan Africans (SSAs) take their religious faith very seriously, with at least three-quarters of the population in the typical city or village attending a church service on a Sunday or an all-night prayer session on Friday to the early hours of Saturday.
The second was more aptly captured by a Roger Milla response in a 1990 interview with the French Magazine, France Football. As narrated by Simon Kuper in his Soccer Against the Enemy, when the Cameroonian soccer star was asked how he felt after losing to England in the 1990 World Cup quarter-final, Milla minced no words explaining how delighted he felt. “I will tell you something, if we had beaten England, Africa would have exploded. Ex-plo-ded,” he emphasized, believing that Cameroon’s quarter-final exit saved some lives. “The Good Lord knows what he does,” he said. “Me, I thank Him for stopping us in the quarter final; there would have been deaths.”
For four weeks, starting June 11, Africans’ passion for soccer (better known as football) will be on full display when thirty-two nations bring the most beautiful game to stadia across South Africa to compete for the best in the world. This is the first time the tournament’s finals will be played on African soil; and the timing could not have been better.
Today, football dominates many aspects of life on the continent. A 10-year old kid on the streets of Accra is able to name the starting line-up of Chelsea F.C; in Uganda, QuestionBox (a technology designed primarily for farmers to phone-in their agric-related questions) receives more calls to check on the latest score in a European soccer game; and a week before SA2010, Zimbabweans (including President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai) were all smiles when the Brazilian team dropped by for a warm-up game. Zimbabwe lost 0-3, but that doesn’t matter: For the 60,000 Zimbabweans who each paid US$10 to see Team Brazil, it was “a dream come true.” So you can bet that all of Africa will be glued to their TV sets, eagerly awaiting the first kick of the ball. Oh, you can also bet that each of the 64 matches will start on time, not only because the rest of the world will also be watching, but because soccer, it seems, is the only thing on the continent that defies ATS, the African Time Syndrome. Sadly though, it can also draw out the worst, as exemplified by the Cabinda, Angola, attack on a bus carrying the Togolese soccer team. A faction of the Cabinda separatist rebel group, Front for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda, killed two team officials and their driver.
Leveraging on the power of football to unite Africa
But when all’s done, and the world champions have taken their victory lap, and sponsors have all cashed in and TV rights paid off, what will this event mean for Africa? More specifically, can this become the catalytic event that unites Africa? Grassroots efforts are already afoot in this endeavor. The Coalition of Supporters Unions of Africa (COSUA) was launched in Ghana in 2007 with a primary objective of getting all of Africa behind the African teams at the tournament: Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and the host nation, South Africa. But according to COSUA’s spokesman, Sarfo Abrebrese, the bigger objective is to use football to promote unity. But as laudable as this may sound, it cannot be a substitute for a proactive leadership at the nation-states level.
It’s been almost 50 years (May 25, 1963) since heads of newly-independent African nations met in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to form the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Among others, the objective was to “promote unity … and secure Africa’s long-term economic and political future.” And whilst the organization has evolved over the years (now called the Africa Union), this objective continues to be elusive. The latest attempt by Libyan’s Muammar Gaddhafi has all but faltered.
Disunity among African nations has been costly. With nearly 14% of the world’s population, Africa still accounts for less than 5% of the world’s trade. More importantly, only 10% of Africa’s own exports are destined for another African nation. But perhaps, the biggest loss has come from the absence of unified strategy to negotiate for the best deals for the immense amount of Africa’s natural resources. From diamonds and gold to timber and coltan, multinational mining firms have successfully engineered a disunited Africa to race against themselves to the bottom in order to attract direct foreign investments. The result: sweet deals on tax breaks and low royalties have left Africa with the crumbs of resource rents.
One of the major flaws in the efforts to unite Africa lies in their design. Simply, creating a club with an automatic admission policy does not provide its members with right incentives to uphold its principles. (The OAU became known in some circles as the Dictator’s Club). A second and perhaps more fundamental problem is that, due to low education levels across SSA, there is a complete disconnection between the ideals of a union and majority of Africans. To be sure, uniting a continent as diverse as Africa – in religion, ethnicity and culture – is no doubt challenging. But soccer’s appeal (like a universal language) makes it a powerful unifying force that can be leveraged to begin a new form of integration process.
And the possibilities are endless. For example, as a departure from the old model, the integration process can begin with the nations that have made tremendous progress in building democratic institutions, respects human (in particular, women) rights and fosters environments that enhances economic freedoms. Then, as with the model of the European Union, which began with only 6 nations in 1957, we develop a set of (economic, political and social) criteria that non-members will have to meet should they wish to accede to the union. Finally, you throw in soccer, say a supra-national league among member states only, mainly as symbolic feature that enhances the debate on integration, and continuously get citizens of non-member states asking “why not us?” In as much as I would loathe mixing politics with sports, football is a strong unifying factor in Africa, so making it a prominent feature of the incentive package might augur well for an integration process.
There also seem to be a precedent. Only three years removed from apartheid and a year into his presidency, Nelson Mandela will exploit the 1995 Rugby World Cup games in South Africa to begin to mend the racial bigotry that apartheid has etched into the minds of South Africans. He would partner effectively with Francois Pienaar, then captain of Springboks, the South Africa rugby team, to rally blacks, whites and coloreds behind the team, even though during apartheid blacks hated this “white man’s game.” The story of Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup became a Clint Eastwood flick, Invictus. So when the sound of the tens of thousands vuvuzelas begin to fill the air, not only will the fans be urging the African nations at the SA2010 to make us all proud, but it will also be a clarion call to the visionary among African leaders to seize this moment to forge a meaningful sustainable economic union on the continent.
As for me, I will try not to miss a game. And for as long as Ghana (and if not, any African team) remains in the competition, I will spend a few minutes each night on my knees to the Good Lord. I shall tell Him this: We Africans make this promise to you; that if you let us win the pennant, we shall prove Roger Milla wrong; we shall behave ourselves; yes, drink we shall, but we will appoint a designated driver; and more importantly, we shall all make it home alive, so please let it be!
Edward Kutsoati is an Associate Professor of Economics at Tufts University and an affiliate of African Liberty