Bread and circuses: The disgrace of moving AFCON to Equatorial Guinea

Bread and circuses: The disgrace of moving AFCON to Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea have stepped in at the eleventh hour to take over the hosting rights of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. That in itself is not a problem, but the country’s human rights abuses and the fact that they were disqualified from the tournament earlier this year paint CAF in a rather bad light. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

If you’re looking for moral conviction, stay away from everything involving football governance. Last week, FIFA seemed to suggest that they saw no issue with “abnormal” transactions where bidding for the World Cup was involved. Not to be outdone by their Swiss-based overlords, The African Football Confederation (CAF) awarded the rights to host the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations tournament (AFCON) to Equatorial Guinea.

The move came after Morocco expressed their fears over Ebola and asked for the tournament to be postponed. CAF refused and not only took Morocco’s hosting rights away, but also expelled them from the tournament. It’s likely to lead to Morocco taking CAF to the Court of Arbitration for Sport for what could be one epic battle, but as it stands, AFCON will go ahead. It is, however, impossible for the tournament to be viewed without taking a swig of that heady cocktail of sport and politics.

Equatorial Guinea was expelled from the tournament earlier in the year for fielding an ineligible player. They also committed this offence during the World Cup qualifiers, so there’s clearly no ‘learning from mistakes’ here. CAF does not care for mistakes and the country will qualify as hosts of the tournament. That decision in itself is laughable and proof enough that CAF cares for little other than its own coffers.

Above and beyond these small issues of overlooking deliberate breaking of the rules, Equatorial Guinea doesn’t have the cleanest record when it comes to human rights.

The United Nations say that less than half the population has access to clean drinking water and ten percent of children die before the age of five. Then there’s the corruption. Transparency International ranks it in the top ten percent of most corrupt countries in the world, at 163 out of 177. President Teodoro Obiang, who came into power following a military coup back in 1979, has frequently been criticised of creating one of the most unequal living standards in the world. The oil-rich country funds a luxury lifestyle for an elite few while the rest of the country lives in poverty, with 77 percent of the population living off just two dollars a day.

Obiang also refuses to divulge exactly where the oil riches of the country are going. His youngest son, Gabriel, runs the Oil Ministry and the first lady’s brother is the head of the state oil company.

Last month, one of Obiang’s other sons, Teodorín, who serves as the country’s second vice president, had to sell assets worth $30 million – including a mansion in Malibu and Michael Jackson memorabilia. These assets were sold to settle a corruption charge by US prosecutors after he “raked in millions in bribes and kickbacks and embarked on a spending spree in the US”.

Still, what’s a few dodgy dealings when you can host a grand tournament, right?

CAF sent a very public thank you to Obiang and the country saying, “CAF wishes to express its sincere thanks to the Equatorial Guinean people, its government and particularly President Obiang. To agree to organise a competition like this two months before the event, you must admit you really have to be a true African.”

It would seem that CAF’s definition of what it means to be “truly African” is somewhat warped and their decision is nothing short of a disgrace. Their statement indirectly endorses the president’s deeds and for that, they should be held accountable.

Sport, and especially football, is punted as a vehicle for positive change, but it’s far from it. Equatorial Guinea’s willingness to step in is being labelled as a rescue mission, but it’s little more than propaganda for Obiang and his cronies. CAF will say that it’s got nothing to do with them and that it’s not their responsibility to be a moral compass, but human rights groups hope to highlight the reality of the human rights abuses that have been going on for so long.

EG Justice, a human rights group, has already protested the decision. In an interview with, Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice, expressed concern that hosting the tournament would further “entrench corruption” in the country.

“At a moment when Equatorial Guinea desperately needs to move from dictatorship to democracy and at a moment when we in Equatorial Guinea and beyond should be concerned with political and economic reforms that would transform the riches of our nations into sustainable economic development for all, it is unfortunate to see the CAF and other institutions acting in complicity with the government of Equatorial Guinea to entrench corruption and bad governance,” he said.

“This is terrible news for the people of Equatorial Guinea,” continued Alicante. “Over the last two decades the Obiang dictatorship has mastered the art of ‘bread and circuses’ – keeping an iron fist in a beautiful velvet glove.

“Obiang has realised that as long as he keeps people distracted with appearances by Julio Iglesias, the Spanish football team, the African Cup of Nations and other similar entertaining events, he and his family can continue to commit human rights violations with impunity.”

Alicante’s point about distraction is spot on. Sport can be a force for good, but for the most part, it’s nothing more than a distraction from reality. In the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, protesters tried to highlight this fact. While public money was being ploughed into hosting the tournament, ordinary Brazilians were getting the short end of the stick.

The country co-hosted AFCON in 2012 alongside Gabon, and, as you might expect, nothing has changed in the lives of ordinary people of the country since then. It’s hard to believe that there will be any other outcome this time around. DM

Photo: The President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, leaves the fourth EU-Africa Summit of Heads of States at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 03 April 2014. EPA/Stephanie Lecocq


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