Abuja, Nigeria – African dictators have always been among the biggest sports fans.
Ugandan Idi Amin financed a shopping trip to Libya for his country’s football team after winning the 1976 East and Central African Championship. Ali Bongo brought Lionel Messi to Gabon to throw the foundations of a new stadium before the 2017 African Cup of Nations (CAN).
Across the world, sport has served as a tool to distract or unite countries in the throes of dictatorship or facing economic and political crises.
In Unstable West Africa where there have been an average of two coups per year since 2020, the ongoing CAN in Ivory Coast serves as a microcosm of the role of football in general and the tournament in particular in African politics.
While football fans might focus solely on the field, with a third of Africa soon heading to the polls, political pundits would do well to observe the underlying social and political effects of the tournament, rallying people around their flags and their leaders.
Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso are under military regimes, with the latter two expected to delay planned elections and drag out transitions to democracy; Ghana will hold its own hotly contested elections in December, as famed Liberian football icon George Weah steps down from the presidency after losing his re-election bid last October. Quick victories on the ground for these countries could pay dividends for their governments.
Indeed 11 of 24 participating countries Candidates in this year’s contest were originally scheduled to hold elections this year, but it is not yet clear how many of them will stick to the election plan.
Even host President Alassane Ouattara, after whom the flagship stadium is named, is at the center of political permutations. After controversially contesting a third term in 2020, Ivorians wonder if the 82-year-old will run again in the 2025 elections.
His detractors accuse him of “sportswashing” after spending around $1 billion to host the tournament.
The term refers to the use of sport to help whitewash the image of controversial leaders or policies.
But the term fails to recognize the connection that football and politics can have, particularly in societies where fanatical devotion is only comparable to religion. Understanding this relationship can help understand how major football tournaments – like the CAN – help citizens appreciate or tolerate leadership.
For many citizens of these countries, football gives hope to those facing different forms of inequality.
African stars have been plying their trade abroad for years and continue to move in search of better economic opportunities. The sport provides a sense of optimism, particularly when it comes to overcoming structural inequalities, with the promise of riches in the world’s top leagues inspiring more citizens seeking to escape poverty.
In turn, these players who have become superstars playing for the best clubs in the world – whether it is the Egyptian Mohammed Salah, current top scorer for Liverpool in the English Premier League or the Nigerian Victor Osimhen, whose goals helped Serie A side Naples end a 33-year wait. the championship title – were a bigger draw for the tournament.
And executives who help audiences see these actors in the flesh continue to gain good will.
Playing the game on and off the field
African leaders, long aware of football’s influence, actively cultivate it to increase their political capital. Some have been able to exploit the unifying role of football by creating or sponsoring football clubs to attract support from the masses who follow them.
Some examples: former Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah was instrumental in the formation of Real Republicans FC, which was disbanded when his government was overthrown in a coup; Prominent Nigerian politician Moshood Abiola, widely considered to have won the annulled 1993 elections, formed Abiola Babes FC, which won two national cups in the 1980s; Congolese presidential candidate Moise Katumbi is credited with turning around the fortunes of TP Mazembe, one of his country’s leading clubs.
This has translated into national teams, where politicians associate the euphoria of winning tournaments with the surge of political ambitions.
Cameroon hosted the 1972 edition of the CAN, a few months before a unification referendum proposed by Ahmadou Ahidjo. As part of efforts to appeal to the population, a stadium was named Unification Stadium. The vote was ultimately successful and consolidated Ahidjo’s long-term rule over the country before his resignation in 1982.
But he is not the only leader to benefit from the positive atmosphere that football can bring to a country.
In 2015, a few months before the Ivorians went to the polls, the Elephants’ senior men’s team won the Equatorial Guinea tournament by beating Ghana on penalties. Ouattara, who has always supported the team, was at the forefront of the celebrations, ultimately capitalizing on the country’s mood to win his re-election.
The last four editions of the CAN have taken place in Cameroon, Egypt, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea – countries with long-standing leaders, including one recently deposed after a coup. In most cases, the tournament helped these regimes attract international attention and use propaganda to justify their continued power.
Footballers have also seen their political role increase due to their importance in the sport. Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba’s call for warring groups to stop fighting, following their qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, was widely credited with helping to end the conflict.
In Egypt, Al-Ahly’s Mohamed Aboutrika did not participate in the 2012 Egyptian Super Cup final to protest the deaths of club fans in a brawl largely linked to the impeachment of former president Hosni Mubarak .
But the best-known example remains Weah, who leveraged his popularity as the only African to be crowned world player of the year to become president of Liberia from 2018 to 2023. This model of a popular footballer capable of transcending national divisions and to play the role of unifier has been established and will likely be used sooner rather than later.
As it stands, there is no shortage of leaders hoping to be able to lead a parade with the cup when the tournament concludes in February.
The big picture
Even the logistical challenges of hosting the tournament provided an ideal opportunity for controversial leaders to use football as an opportunity to change narratives and improve their image. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure were delivered in record time, providing an aesthetic deception to visitors as they enter.
In these countries, internal institutions are too weak to effectively control the arbitrary allocation of funds to the massive infrastructure projects needed to support these concerts.
Some also argue that sportswashing is not limited to governments but has increasingly become a means for global companies to implement image laundering techniques through sponsorship.
The AFCON is officially known as the TotalEnergies Africa Cup of Nations, providing massive visibility and favorable coverage for the oil giant whose operations on the continent have been controversial. The company’s sponsorship deal with the continental organization also extends to its other tournaments and shows the extent of the relationship between the two entities and therefore the unlikelihood of this changing in the near future.
It is worth considering the ongoing CAN, not only as a sporting tournament, but also as what it represents for the political and cultural future of the continent.
Future tournaments, like the one in Morocco in 2025, will still depend quite a bit on everyone’s ability to appreciate the tournament for what it is. At its best, it is a representation of the optimism of a united continent, symbolized by the collective joy of post-apartheid South Africa which won the 1996 edition on home soil.
It is also, in the worst case, a blatant demonstration of the shortcomings of a continent which has not yet found its place in a world where the geopolitical discourse is evolving and where financial and political influences are important.
Ultimately, in its simplest form, it’s a new opportunity to appreciate this beautiful game among its most passionate enthusiasts.