Football and Landmines, Part 1: The 2012 African Cup of Nations

The word “landmine” is often used as a metaphor for something to be avoided and seems to be intended to catch the listener’s ear, e.g., “the landmines to avoid when hiring;” “the landmines to avoid in self-publishing.” In sports, “landmine” is often used to refer to a game in which one team is heavily-favored over the other; the less-favored team is the “landmine in [the heavily-favored team’s] schedule.”  Usually, I can ignore this sort of hyperbole because the teams and places involved have no real landmines, but I saw a promotion for a 2012 African Cup of Nations preview show that I could not ignore:

On Nigeria’s Hotsports television program, “The respected analysts, including Ade Ojeikere, Group Sports Editor of The Nation newspapers, his counterpart at THISDAY, Tunde Suleiman and Biola Kazeem will take the viewers through the landmines first timers like Niger Republic, Botswana and the joint hosts [Equatorial Guinea and Gabon] would have to navigate to edge out veterans and favourites Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Zambia and Senegal” (The Nation).

Niger is in fact contaminated with anti-vehicle mines placed by a rebel group, the Niger Justice Movement, in the northern areas of the country (The Monitor), so the comment that the Nigerien football team would have to face metaphorical landmines whilst the people of Niger face real landmines is frankly offensive.  Other nations participating in the Cup of Nations that are, to greater or lesser extents, mine-affected are Angola, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Senegal and Sudan.  In each of these countries, ordinary people face the extraordinary threat of landmines and references to their teams facing “landmines” in the form of the opposing teams are ludicrous.

That’s not to say that real danger does not exist at the Cup of Nations.  In 2010, the Togolese team was attacked by members of an Angola separatist movement (BBC News).  In 1993, nearly all of the members of Zambian national team were killed in a plane crash shortly after the team took off from Libreville, Gabon (Sports Illustrated). 

So, how should landmine advocates respond to the casual use of the word “landmine” by sports broadcasters?  Why not pick a team and support them based upon the nation’s landmine policies and practices? 

(Note: the following paragraph might include actual football-related information.)

This year’s tournament is seen as wide open with the absence of traditional football powers Egypt, Cameroon and South Africa.  The favoured teams in this year’s Cup of Nations tournament are Cote d’Ivoire (6/4 to win entire tournament) and Senegal (8/1), led by their star strikers, Didier Drogba and Demba Ba, respectively; Ghana (7/2) with its well-balanced squad and experience at the 2010 World Cup; and Morocco (8/1) with the flair of English Premier duo, Abel Taraabt and Maroune Chamakh (Blue Square).  Odds  of winning aside, Senegal is a mine-affected country from its long-running conflict with the Casamance independence movement and Morocco is both mine-affected and mine-laying, using landmines to isolate the Polisario Front in Western Sahara.  But it’s no fun to root for the likely winners.  Here are four teams that landmine advocates can support based solely on landmine policy (although the footballing helps a bit too).

Libya (125/1): The longest shot to win the tournament other than Niger, Libya might well be the sentimental favourite for the neutral watchers.  For many years, the Libyan football federation was run by Gaddhafi’s son, Saadi, who fancied himself a decent player (but wasn’t) and when Saadi was mocked by fans in Benghazi, Saadi unleashed a brutal crackdown and bulldozed the stadium.  In the middle of the 2011 rebellion against Gaddhafi, several members of the Libyan national football team defected to the rebels and helped overthrow the regime.  Those players will be on the pitch in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon playing for the new Libya they helped create (The Telegraph; BBC News).  

In terms of landmines, Libya, under Gaddhafi, used anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines against the advancing rebel forces.  The rebels used landmines briefly before renouncing their use.  Today, thousands of Libyans are threatened by these new mines and until they are cleared and the major roads re-opened, the development of the new Libyan state will be halted (BBC News).  So, for raising awareness of the continued threat of landmines and the fact that new mine usage is always possible for countries, like Libya, that continue to stockpile them, landmine advocates should support Libya’s team.

Angola (25/1): Hosts of the most recent Cup of Nations, Angola suffered through thirty years of conflict beginning with the independence movements against the Portuguese and then the long-running civil war between the government of Eduard Dos Santos and the rebels led by Jonas Savimbi.  Fighting stopped briefly when a treaty was negotiated in 1994, but Savimbi, feeling that the subsequent election had been stolen from him, returned to the bush and the war only ended with Savimbi’s death in 2002 (Wikipedia). 

As I have tried to highlight each and every month, Angola, despite having the greatest degree of landmine contamination of any of the 2012 Cup of Nations participants, continues to make slow, but steady progress towards the goal of being mine-free.  With the help of international operators like Mines Advisory Group, HALO Trust and Norwegian Peoples Aid, but mostly through the efforts of its own National Demining Institute, Angola is clearing minefields and roads to enable the country to develop (The Monitor).  In recognition of continuing progress and dogged determination, landmine advocates should support the Angolan team.

Zambia (16/1): Zambia is the other sentimental favourite for neutral watchers.  The final of this year’s Cup of Nations will be held in Libreville, and the Zambian team would like nothing more than to honor the memory of the 1993 team lost in the plane crash mentioned above by lifting the champions’ trophy in Libreville’s stadium this February 12th (Sports Illustrated). 

In 2008, Zambia hosted the Livingston Conference as part of the Oslo negotiation process on the Cluster Munitions Convention.  The Livingstone Conference enabled some African states, specifically Eritrea, Tunisia and Zimbabwe, to participate in the Oslo process for the first time while also brokering a continent-wide stance on the Cluster Munitions Convention, the Livingstone Declaration.  In the lead-up to the Conference and throughout the meeting itself, the Zambian government strongly supported the movement to ban cluster munitions (Cluster Munitions Coalition), so for that and for its continuing leadership on the cluster munitions ban, landmine advocates should support Zambia in the Cup of Nations tournament.

Tunisia (12/1): Egypt, who had won the three previous Cup of Nations tournaments, did not qualify for this year’s event, but Tunisia, which won the tournament in 2004, did, making them the most recent champion to participate (Sports Illustrated).  Tunisia should also be a sentimental favourite: the Arab Spring started in Tunisia with protests following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi that led to the relatively bloodless ouster of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali and free elections in October 2011 for a constituent assembly that is responsible for drafting a new constitution (Wikipedia).  The Arab Spring events in Egypt, Libya and now Syria have captured the media’s attention, but if one is to celebrate Arab Spring, one must certainly celebrate Tunisia.

In 2009, Tunisia became one of the few countries to declare itself mine-free when it reported that all known mined areas had been cleared in accordance with its Article 5 obligations under the Mine Ban Treaty.  Tunisia had laid mines along its border with Libya and at the southernmost tip of the country where the borders of Tunisia, Algeria and Libya meet.  Tunisia met this obligation without external assistance from donors or international operators.  Tunisia continues to work to clear World War II-era contamination from explosive remnants of war, but all anti-personnel mines have been cleared according to Tunisian authorities (The Monitor). 

So, for achieving a mine-free status using its own resources; for leading the movement that has become known as the Arab Spring; and for having a viable chance to actually win the tournament, I’ll be supporting Tunisia throughout the 2012 African Cup of Nations.

Michael P. Moore, January 23, 2012.

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