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Ivorian Political Agenda

Selay Marius Kouassi/ TwentyTen

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

A wave of consternation swept through the Ivorian football world when the national team players were detained in a military barrack after they failed to reach the knock out stage of the 2000 African Cup of Nations. Recent incidents brought to mind bitter memories of the players’ detention of 2000, underscoring the lingering unhealthy relationship between politics and sport in the West African country.

Football promotes the honour of Ivory Coast like most African countries. A win or lose brings pride or frustration to the Head of State. Soccer entices millions of fans in Africa, therefore some politicians are tempted to use it as a medium to lure sympathizers to their camp.

The further a team progresses, the more its country earns media coverage. And when a national football team flops, the media often attribute it to poor administration within the FA or a shabby system of government run by political leaders. Thus, in Africa, some political leaders and military juntas don’t tolerate under-performance of their national football teams.

From Stadium to Jail

In 2000, at the African Cup of Nations hosted jointly by Ghana and Nigeria, Bonaventure Kalou - older brother to Chelsea’s Salomon Kalou - and his team mates experienced the wrath of the ruling military junta led by late General Robert Guei.

On 24 December 1999, the military junta seized power after a coup. At the Galieni military barrack in central Abidjan, Robert Guei summoned players and the technical staff of the FA and warned them that they were not heading for the tournament to fight for themselves, but for the honour of the whole country like soldiers in a battle.

“Remember that you are soldiers on duty, soldiers on the battlefront. […] You should bring the trophy back home,” said the General in an order that was broadcast on state-run television and radio.

The success of The Elephants could have helped the military junta to gain the trust of the population who had been resenting some of the military leaders following repetitive human rights abuses and a rough governing system.

Failure and Punishment

At the 2000 African Cup of Nations, things went wrong and Ivory Coast were soon eliminated in their group and ranked 16 out of 16 representatives.

On the evening of January 31, 2000, at Novotel Hotel in Accra, Ghana, the players had just eaten and were about to go to bed before their back home flight the following day. That same night, the Ivorian presidential plane landed at Kwame N’krumah International Airport and the Ivorian contingent was ordered to leave the country for Abidjan. Players and staff hurriedly packed up and embarked.

After a one-hour flight, the plane destined for Abidjan - the economic and political hub of the country - landed at the Yamoussoukro Airport, 300 km north of Abidjan. Thereafter, soldiers drove the national football team to Zambakro military barrack, about 30 km from Yamoussoukro.

“You are a disgrace for the whole nation. We paid your bonuses before the beginning of the African Cup of Nations and you showed no commitment to win this cup. You need to be taught some lessons about patriotism in this barrack […] the next time, instead of a jersey, you will wear soldier uniform and you will spend 18 months in a military barrack,” the General threatened.

In October of the same year, the country experienced the most violent elections in its history. After protests following poll results, Laurent Gbagbo came to power. The same year, his closest collaborators were elected or named head of the leading sports associations of the country.

For a while, Ivorians thought the threat of arresting sportspeople was no longer an issue, until recently when supporters were arrested and detained following a demonstration organized in front of the FA headquarters.

The repression last June 28, 2010, of unarmed demonstrators calling for the resignation of Ivory Coast’s FA boss in the aftermath of the team’s poor performance at the 2010 World Cup, highlights the existing chasm between sports and politics in Ivory Coast. Federations are more and more run by politicians holding high political positions.

In Ivory Coast, the ‘twelfth man’ is flattered when he prompts the team to victory, but when things go wrong he becomes a threat to the interest of the FA officials. He is reprimanded and chastised vehemently. All the sports associations - be it Football, Basket ball, Boxing, Handball or Athletics, are now headed by the closest collaborators of the President.

The Basketball Association is headed by Pastor Kore Moise, the spiritual father and special counsellor of the presidential couple. Kore has full support of Laurent Gbagbo, his spiritual son, to lead the destiny of the Ivorian Basketball. On the other hand, Football, the sport that attracts the highest number of sports fans in the country is ruled by Jacques Anouma, who is the financial director of the presidential palace of Ivory Coast and the right hand man to the President.

A Broken Promise

On the eve of the opener of Ivory Coast versus Portugal at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the Ivorian Football Association sponsored hundreds of official supporters to travel to South Africa. Before their departure, the FA held a conference to inform them of the measures they had taken to guarantee a pleasant stay for the Ivorian twelfth man - a common term for supporters. A comfortable hotel, three daily meals, daily allowances and suitable warm clothes were all promised.

Upon arrival in Johannesburg, the supporters met contrary realities. Some of the supporters spent the cold winter night outside because of logistical problems. The day of the first game, supporters were transported to the stadium minutes after the start of the match; they almost missed the first half time.

Former Ivory Coast striker, Pokou Laurent, disappointed by the poor handling of supporters aired his indignation. “It is a shame on the whole country to see its supporters being treated this way […] I don’t know how we can explain such a thing”.

Drawn with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea in Group ‘G’; the group dubbed ‘group of death’, Ivory Coast national football team failed to reach the knockout stage. Ivorians’ dream of seeing their team progress to the upper stage was shattered when Drogba Didier and his team mates lost 3-1 against the five-time champion Brazil.

Back home, Jean Louis Billon, the President of CNSE (the supporters’ association) sent a resignation letter to the FA boss and copied the Minister of Sports.

Fans organized a demonstration and asked to know the cause of the debacle. Unhappy with the performance of the much cherished star-studded Ivorian team, supporters (united under a name called MODAF) called for the removal of the FA boss and gathered in front of the FA headquarters to peacefully air their grievances. They were tear-gassed and beaten up by riot police who detained five demonstrators.

Supporters of MODAF forgot that being a close collaborator with the President, Mr Anouma, the FA boss enjoys secret immunity.

Ivory Coast’s President Laurent Gbagbo, sent a letter to the FA boss congratulating the entire crew for their performance in South Africa. The letter was posted on the official website of the Ivory Coast Football Association (FIF) and published by the pro-government newspapers.

The letter strengthened The FA boss’ position and prompted him to stop the anti-Anouma activists whose actions spoiled the football-based political propaganda planned by leaders. The MODAF activists were dispersed with teargas and five of them were arrested.

“We do not want the head of the political leader Anouma, we just want his departure from the FA as he lacks the appropriate management skills to rule Ivorian football,” said Lallié Olivier, the President of MODAF.

But how can one make the distinction between the political leader and the sport manager in a country where the holding of both political and sport posts is becoming a rule rather than the exception?

This paradoxical stance of the authorities exposes the cheap regard for football in the personal agenda of Ivorian politicians. It also shows how footballers and fans are sometimes held hostage by state officials who are more inclined to use football as political propaganda.

A Tool of Propaganda

“Political leaders are becoming more and more unpopular for having postponed elections many times and for having failed to live up to the expectations of the populations. They did not keep the promises they made during the campaign and they could not prevent the country to experience a civil war […],” asserted You Benoît, the Press Officer of ASEC, a top football club in Abidjan, in an attempt to explain why politicians are so inclined to interfere with the FA affairs.

“Football players on the contrary brought back peace and they are still bringing joy to the hearts of many. […] meanwhile, politicians try to find an alternative to gain the trust of the despaired populations: use the popularity of the game and the fame of the players to restore their own image […] Then, they think that if they lead sports associations, they could easily implement this secret political agenda. This is why they are in football now,” added Benoit, visibly disgusted by the intrusion of politicians in the sporting arena.

Recently, ‘Super Sport’, a major sports daily in Ivory Coast, criticized the fact that the Head of the State interfered with the sport agenda of the FA. In fact it has become a tradition for President Laurent Gbagbo to meet the players of the national football team whenever they gather in Abidjan on the eve of major games, and these meetings are given full media coverage.

A few days before the ‘orange team’ flew to South Africa, Pr Francis Wodie, the President of the PIT, an opposition party, visited them in Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium, in Abidjan. He even entered the pitch, and players and the technical staff were obliged to stop and listen to him. The following day, a staff member from the RDR, the leading opposition party led by Dr Alassane Dramane Ouattara, visited the team while they were camping at Golf Hotel in Abidjan. In their turn, Wodie and Ouattara were seen on Television.

For politicians, being with the Elephants is a guarantee of a greater audience. But their omnipresence puts too much pressure on the players and can lead to the underperformance of the whole team, as Abdoulaye Traoré, the legendary striker of Ivory Coast and winner of the 1992 African Cup of Nations noticed.

“The success is the result of many factors, but the key factor of our success in 1992 was most certainly the fact that politicians did not interfere in our activities. We played freely,” said Abdoulaye Traoré in the chic Riviera Golf suburb in Abidjan.

“I played for a long time in the national football team until I met the late Felix Houphouet Boigny, the former President of Ivory Coast. We met him only when we won the 1992 African Cup of Nations in Senegal […] my team mates and me went to him with the trophy in our hands. We never met him physically before,” added the ex-FC Metz (France) lead scorer.

In 1974, the then-President of DRC, late President Mobutu Sese Seko, sent the national 22-man squad to jail after their very poor performance. They didn’t score any goals, but they conceded 14 after three encounters in the World Cup held in Germany.

In 1976, Sekou Toure, the Guinean political leader jailed players of Hafia FC at the legendary torture camp ‘Mamadou Boiro’ and signed a decree to forbid them from any competition as they failed to defeat the Alger-based Mouloudia Football club during the African Football Clubs Tournament.

In 2000, General Guei Robert, the head of the ruling military junta in Ivory Coast, detained Ivorian players who took part in the 22nd African Cup of Nations in the Zambakro military barrack to ‘teach them patriotism lessons’, in his own words.

Ivorian players who took part in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa made the headlines of world sports magazines. Ivorian Politicians are cautious; they can’t risk acting like Mobutu Sesse Seko, Sekou Toure or Guei Robert. So when things go wrong with the team, they find scapegoats to exorcise the failure.

When asked how he could explain the fact that he was abruptly fired after Ivory Coast’s participation to the 2010 AFCON, and a few months before the beginning of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Vahid Halilhodzic, the former coach of the Elephants said to a local Ivorian newspaper that his surprised sacking was “political rather than managerial”.

The strong interaction of politics and sports, and the invisible line between the two can explain, in part, the failure of Ivory Coast’s national football team in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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