Afcon 2015: a dictator's plaything

A certain event that took place in Equatorial Guinea has shown just how easy it can be for dictators to convince us all to play along with their games.

Since 2012, the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, has hosted every event international organisations would let him get his hands on. He has twice hosted the African Union summit, for which he built an entire luxury village at the cost of millions of euros. He has hosted the African Cup of Nations twice, first in tandem with Gabon in 2012 and stepping in again this year when Morocco pulled out over fears of an Ebola outbreak.

He set about making sure the stadiums would be full by buying up tickets and forcing government ministers and private companies to do likewise. This will be the first edition of the tournament that a leader has gifted to his people – a people who love football so much they have been willing to compromise themselves and accept those tickets in order to be present at matches.

They compromise themselves because Obiang is also Africa’s longest serving dictator, having been in power for 34 years. He oversees a regime that oppresses its own people, refusing to allow any political opposition and regularly cracking down on critics. A wealthy country that protects the interests of a tiny elite while the majority live in severe poverty.

Over the course of the tournament more than one Equatorial Guinean has died at the hands, or rather truncheons, of foreign police forces drafted in to contain them, or in the crush of the stampeding hordes. But they didn’t care, they came back for more. Many of them barely have roofs over their heads, for the majority live in horribly overcrowded houses and sleep in whatever living-space is left over to them. We won’t even mention drinking water, schools or centres for professional training.

Some Equatorial Guineans, old enough to know better, have argued that people should be allowed to enjoy the sweet taste of victory offered by the nation’s footballers in reaching the semi-final; that they have suffered a lot and deserve it. But these same people are quick to oppose the official excesses and waste that goes with celebrating the African Union summit.

Football is a sport of mass consumption and so football tournaments have more capacity to influence the will of the people than do political summits. Therefore, anyone who thinks the Equatorial Guinean dictatorship should be abolished must see that successfully hosting the African Cup of Nations does more harm than any African summit. (The latter, as we know, are totally devoid of content.) They must see that by benefitting Obiang it is harming his people.

How do we make sense of the situation in which certain Equatorial Guineans are jailed for opposing a sporting event and its implied ideology while others are prepared to risk their lives to get a front-row view of the spectacle? Is it right that because we have suffered so much we should be grateful to Obiang for bringing football to our home? If so, what sacrifices must we make in order to eradicate a dictatorship that has lasted for almost 50 years?
In this environment, the violence at the semi-final against Ghana follows a different sort of logic. Given the state the country is in, it was always ridiculous to think that herding young and adult Equatorial Guineans like sheep to the stadium to support the team would not expose the inevitable cracks and contradictions.

By indulging themselves Equatorial Guineans are being indulgent of Obiang and his subjugating lackeys, and thus we become a country of blind reptiles, scurrying around without knowing where we’re going. How can it be that we are prepared to take the law into our own hands and protest violently because we lost a football match – but not when we’ve been deprived of our freedom and dignity?

A first version of this article appeared in Spanish on Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s blog. Translation by Jethro SoutarThi s version published by the Guardian

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