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African Struggles

Joseph Opio / The New Vision/ Twenty Ten

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

Ghana’s defeat against a backdrop of African self-destruction.

Associated Features: Forlan (Text feature) and Africa Loses (Text feature)African Expectations(Audio Feature) Daily living to a fan (Photo feature), Soccerscapes (Photo feature), Ghana's Black Queens (Photo feature), Second hand goods (Photo feature), Ghana's future stars (Photo feature), A female football fan (Photo feature) and Sports commentators (Photo feature) Sports commentators (Photo feature)

In isolation, Ghana’s self-induced exit from the 2010 World Cup and Africa’s continued struggle under the yoke of underdevelopment and bad governance seem to have nothing in common. But, cast Ghana’s loss to Uruguay in sharper light and one can see a disturbing link between the Black Stars’ meek surrender and the enduring ills that have fostered Africa’s image as the basket-case continent of the world.

The patronizing ‘hard-luck’ applause that greeted Ghana’s failure remains an eloquent commentary on that African penchant to settle for the bare minimum in life.

Those patronizing cheers of understanding, from Africans and foreigners alike, are the one common thread that ties Africa’s failings on pitch to its farcical underachievement in other facets of human endeavour.

After Ghana self-destructed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, most fans were happy to hail Ghana as “moral victors” and laud their effort with the popular mantra of: “At least ….”

“At least…” is a typical African refrain; one that comforts a continent striving to put whatever plight it’s facing into perspective. Case in point? Disputed elections! From Kenya to Zimbabwe to Togo, African presidential elections are never complete without the dramatic epilogue of contested results and post-poll violence. Yet despite being tainted by naked evidence of vote-rigging, most African leaders remain in power because, “at least they are willing to work as a coalition.”

In Kenya, it’s beyond debate that the incumbent Mwai Kibaki was guilty of blatant electoral malpractices during the 2007 polls. Yet, after a wave of ethnic violence that killed thousands, many Kenyans settled for Kibaki retaining the instruments of power since that option “at least” offered a path to peace. Raila Odinga, Kibaki’s opponent-turned-ally, was fully complicit in brokering this marriage of convenience. He conveniently forgot all the sacrifices his supporters had made not to let Kibaki’s machinations go unpunished and entered a coalition government as Prime Minister.

Just like Ghana, whose collapse attracted not the criticism it deserved but songs in tribute, Odinga’s U-turn was widely hailed as a gesture of heroism instead of the spineless self-serving act it really was. The most deluded among Odinga’s fans were even excited by the deal, arguing that “at least we got an influential post in return”.

What few dared to point out was the fact that Odinga’s decision lent legitimacy to Kibaki’s vote-rigging and betrayed followers who had shed blood demanding Kibaki resigned in disgrace.

In fact, those audacious enough to criticize Odinga were dismissed as anti-peace hardliners.

But wasn’t Odinga’s move just another example of Africans settling for the bare minimum?

Worse still, didn’t it set a dangerous precedent for aspiring vote-thieves elsewhere?

After all, all African incumbents who witnessed the events in Nairobi must have been galvanized to rig elections with impunity; aware that the worst that could happen thereafter was a forced coalition with the cheated losers. Is it any wonder that Robert Mugabe followed Kibaki’s example a year later?

Mugabe blatantly rigged the 2008 general elections in Zimbabwe and watched, with bored amusement, as the opposition railed and ranted in reaction. Having seen what had happened in Kenya, Mugabe must have guessed that circumstances and Africa’s “at least” syndrome would force his opponents into a compromise. He was to be proven right!

In a disturbing trend that mirrored Kenya, the opposition predictably fell into place after the usual post-election mayhem. Like Odinga, Morgan Tsvangirai was instrumental. The carrot of the Prime Ministerial position was dangled before Tsvangirai’s unbelieving eyes. He grabbed it with both hands and his fans exclaimed, “at least we got something”.

“At least” is also an infuriating refrain Africans employ when at a loss to explain why most things here remain just so screwed up. Watch a typical African reaction to the latest corruption scandal and it will veer between resignation and a hefty shrug of the shoulders. Graft and abuse of office have become so entrenched, even institutionalized, in the African psyche that most locals grasp at the excuse of “at least” whenever another high-ranking African leader is unmasked as corrupt.

“At least he didn’t steal as much as his predecessor…At least his human rights record isn’t as hideous as his predecessor’s…At least his government allows us access to water, electricity, cell phones, computers and other basic needs…At least one can’t claim one wouldn’t have done the same in his shoes…At least this, at least that, at least the other...”

Worse still, “at least” is a refrain Western donors have resorted to when attempting to justify the evil of dealing with some of Africa’s most odious characters. Time and again, African leaders have been implicated in dodgy deals and gross infringements of their citizens’ rights.

Yet, donors use the “at least” relativity yard-stick to continue enabling the same offenders.

Dictators who kick democracy in the teeth, change constitutions with wanton abandon and hold onto power indefinitely are mildly reprimanded but facilitated because “at least they are less rotten evils compared to their post-independence counterparts”.

Tyrants who trample all over human rights are hailed as the “new breed” of African leaders because “at least they are reliable development partners and allies in the War On Terror”.

Why aren’t African leaders held to the same high moral standard as their counterparts the world over? Why should an African leader’s corruption be excused simply because he fares better than his counterparts and predecessors on UN Human Rights Assessment report cards?

It’s enough to drive Africans who aspire for much more than the bare minimum to distraction.

But as Ghana proved, settling for the bare minimum is so deep-rooted in the African moral fabric it will take much more than a continent-wide surgical procedure to weed it out.

Before Ghana’s nerve-laden elimination, South African fans had exhibited the same “at least” mentality after their failure to qualify for the knockout rounds.

Bafana Bafana had begun the World Cup convinced they would at least make it to the second round and avoid the dubious honour of being the first ever World Cup hosts to be banished in the preliminaries. Yet, when all went pear-shaped and South Africa was ejected, there were no recriminations.

“At least we defeated France,” went the popular hymn of consolation. Few were willing to let the fact that the vanquished French were in disarray get in the way of their delusional self-praise. Even fewer were ready to let South Africa’s dodgy new record discourage them.

South Africa had achieved the barest minimum, but listening to hitherto well-respected soccer pundits hail Bafana Bafana’s brave setback, one could have thought the hosts’ had lost a nail-biting World Cup final through a dodgy last-minute goal.

The same indulgent hollow adulation is now being repeated in the aftermath of Ghana’s suicidal performance against Uruguay. Before the quarterfinal at Soccer City, most African fans and a few neutrals were confident Ghana had it within them to sail past the South Americans, if not win the Cup outright.

In a sense, this optimism was misguided, but that is beside the point. Ghana had a great chance to repay the continent’s faith. The Black Stars were awarded a last-ditch spot-kick that should have sealed the match as a contest. However, Asamoah Gyan’s nerve failed him.

Make no mistake, Gyan is an accomplished spot-kick specialist. Two of his three goals in the World Cup came from 12 yards. But that was when the stakes weren’t high and the pressure gauge wasn’t at maximum. Gyan’s inept penalty miss, though, wasn’t the most dramatic part of Ghana’s defeat. It sent the match into a post-match penalty shootout and that’s where Ghana’s failures epitomized Africa’s perennial struggle with doom.

John Mensah missed Ghana’s third kick. Maxi Pereira granted Ghana a stay of execution by missing Uruguay’s as well. Instead of exploiting that good fortune, Dominic Adiyiah proceeded to spit in the eyes of fate by promptly missing Ghana’s fourth. The calmness and composure with which Sebastián Abreu lazily chipped in Uruguay’s winning penalty cast Gyan’s earlier nervous failure in an even less flattering light.

No one should lament or applaud Ghana’s ineptitude as a ‘hard-luck’ tale. It should be roundly condemned as the inept white-flag act that it really was. But then again, this is Africa.

Here, condemnation of all self-authored disaster is anathema. Instead, excuses and putting every failure in perspective remains a more acceptable course when post-mortems are conducted.

Africa first hailed its football teams as ‘gallant losers’ when Cameroon recklessly surrendered a semi-final place against England in 1990. This tale of meek self-destruction was re-enacted in 1994 and 1998 with Nigeria, only reaching its nadir when Senegal buckled under pressure to be ejected by Turkey in 2002. That the entire Africa will herald Ghana as ‘unrewarded heroes’ the same way it hailed Cameroon two decades ago speaks volumes. It implies that 20 years after Cameroon gave the continent its first quarter-finalist, Africans are still content to settle for the same prize, even though the progress made since then dictates nothing less than a World Cup win should suffice.

Such understanding of Africa’s on-pitch underachievement is a sad reflection of the same continental spirit that tolerates bad governments half a century after independence.

This all renders Ghana’s limp ejection and the proud reaction it triggered across Africa as a classic portrait of an entire society in general. It is just sad that this particular portrait isn’t a splendid advert for our beloved continent.

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