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T he 33rd Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) hosted in Cameroon this year kicked off on 9 January, and Cameroonians have their eyes on both the trophy and the economic spoils. With tens of thousands of fans being expected to visit Cameroon during the course of the tournament to cheer their national teams, the host country is looking forward to the potential economic boost that the month-long African men’s football tournament could provide. However, the country will have to defend against the fallout from Covid-19 and its major security challenges and concerns.

Dribbling past the challenges

Cameroon has already had to dribble past a few setbacks. The competition was initially scheduled to take place in Cameroon in 2019, however, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) gave the honour to Egypt after Cameroon’s hosting rights were stripped due to a lack of confidence in its infrastructure readiness. The tournament was then further delayed from 2021 to 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With a population of 27 million people, 1,840 Covid deaths have officially been reported from roughly 116,700 infections, although experts suspect under-reporting. With only 2.4% of the population having been vaccinated, spectators are expected to be fully vaccinated and must present a negative PCR test less than 72 hours before a match. The stadium capacity is set at 60% and is increased to 80% when Cameroon plays. This cap is expected to be breached during the semi-finals and finals. This spike in tourism and economic activity has spurred local confidence in the tournament’s ability to  help the economy to rebound after the worst of the pandemic.

The hospitality, entertainment and catering industries are especially looking forward to the business boost. Small businesses have adjusted their services while hotels and trading premises have undergone major renovations in the hopes of broadening their customer reach and increasing their profits. Chief economist at the African Business Information Bank, Kennedy Tumemnta, commented that certain businesses are already breaking even. The informal sector is also optimistic about the trickle-down benefits that the potential tourism revenue can bring. This enthusiasm has caused local petty traders to adapt their business models – switching from selling eggs in the capital, Yaoundé, to selling football jerseys – while business is expected to be swift at all local bars and hotels hosting participating teams (some staying longer than others). This surge in activity will help the entertainment and hospitality sector to recoup losses experienced during the pandemic.

Fit to play

Cameroon has invested approximately USD 4 billion  in infrastructure for the tournament, including two new stadiums, renovations on four other stadiums and roads. The completion of the key components of this ambitious infrastructure development plan tested the mettle of all parties. The projects were plagued with delays to construction and payment of wages. Despite the latter, the construction of the infrastructure related to the tournament provided short-term employment to local engineers and young labourers  – in a country where 40% of its population lives below the poverty line, some wages, even those delayed, are better than none. The tournament has also served as a national rallying point and provided some relief, albeit brief, from the political tensions that have marred the country in recent years.

In the run up to the tournament, the outbreaks of violence in the north triggered by tensions between Anglophone separatists and the government raised significant safety and security concerns about the suitability of some of the cities hosting the AFCON matches. The conflict originated in the Anglophone northern and southwestern regions in 2016 when Anglophone lawyers and teachers protested against Anglophone Cameroonians’ alleged marginalisation by the predominantly Francophone national government. A violent outburst by security forces then radicalised the movement, forming armed groups in the region’s forests and cocoa plantations. Some members of the armed groups and political opposition want to create a breakaway state called Ambazonia, while other elements of the movement want greater political autonomy through the adoption of a federal system. The conflict has killed at least 6,000 individuals and has forced almost 1 million to flee their homes; at present, neither the government nor the multi-layered opposition movement seems willing to back down.

Weak offence, strong defence

State security forces in the west are on high alert after teams in Group F, namely Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Gambia, received threatening messages from local armed groups on the eve of the tournament. The four teams played in the coastal town of Limbe and their training site is in Buea, a separatist hotspot. These threats, which Blaise Chamnago, Head of a Buea NGO Human Is Right,  described as “very serious”, followed bomb blasts in Buea a month before the start of the tournament.

Despite the prevailing security threat, senior divisional officer for Limbe and Buea Engamba Ledoux sought to assuage concerns  of potential match disruptions during the AFCON trophy presentation in Limbe. He stated, “It is in this same context that we managed the CHAN (African Nations Championship) a few months ago. I can’t reveal here the measures that are being put in place, but you should know that just as the CHAN took place under very good conditions, AFCON will also take place under very good conditions.”

A targeted attack led by separatist attacks during the AFCON period would be an own goal, decreasing sympathy for Anglophone Cameroonians who make up about 20% of the population and  producing popular backlash that would escalate the conflict. Although state security agencies are unlikely to publicly disclose information of thwarted attacks, the absence of any significant disruption due to a security incident is notable.

No own goals

This tournament presents an opportunity to use innovative sports diplomacy in a domestic setting to de-escalate the conflict. The brief cessation of hostilities during the tournament along with widespread national pride and unity could be leveraged in the aftermath of the Cup to establish a new equilibrium between the embattled parties and external diplomatic measures could lead to a breakthrough. However, both sides believe they are gaining ground and public support for their respective positions.

In the absence of concerted and sustained regional and international pressure or major events on the political calendar – the closest significant election is the presidential poll in 2025 – each side has little motivation to come to the negotiating table. Despite this, Cameroon will be on the regional and international radar in the months to come due to hosting the Cup. The announcement of a détente, not escalation in the conflict, will send a strong signal that the country is on stronger footing and ready to build on the successful hosting of the tournament. Maintenance of the status quo is likely, but as Gambia has proven throughout the tournament, surprises are possible.

AFCON Opening Ceremony | Olembé Stadium, Yaoundé. Photo Credit: CAF Online