Landmines and Football: The 2013 African Cup of Nations

First, let me say that there is absolutely no reason to suspect *real* landmines at the 2013 Cup of Nations tournament to be held in South Africa this month and next.  Sure, there may be some metaphorical ones as Zambia seeks to defend its title and long-time favorites (and frequent disappointments) Cote d’Ivoire seeks to live up to its exalted reputation, but real ones? No.  However, this is a blog about landmines in Africa and as we did with last year’s tournament, we will use a combination of a country’s history of mine action and gambling odds to decide which team we will be backing in the tournament.

Second point, African football has by far the best team nicknames.  While this year’s tournament is missing the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon (a loss of footballing prowess and fantastic naming), there are other great team names.  The Carthage Eagles of Tunisia, South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, defending champion Chipolopolo, Algeria’s Fennec Foxes and Ethiopia’s Walias all put the vaunted Selecao of Brazil to shame.  Don’t forget Angola’s Palancas Negras, Cape Verde’s Blue Sharks, Morocco’s Atlas Lions or the Black Stars of Ghana.

Finally (before we get to the actual team and country analyses), conflict on the continent has already affected the tournament before it even started.  The 2010 tournament in Angola was marked by an attack on the Togo team bus by rebels seeking independence for the Cabinda enclave of Angola.  Togolese star, Emmanuel Adebayor’s presence at this year’s tournament was threatened by his (very real) fear for his safety in the aftermath of the attack.  The entire event was originally scheduled to be held in Libya, scheduling that took place back prior to Arab Spring and the overthrow of the Gaddhafi regime.  Ongoing security concerns in Libya forced the African football federation to move the tournament to South Africa where the infrastructure from the 2010 World Cup was ready to be used for this tournament.  Among the participants, two countries, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo), are in the midst of active civil wars with rebels controlling significant portions of northern Mali and eastern Congo.  The conflicts in these countries provide an unfortunate backstory that should not be forgotten during the course of the tournament.


Team / Country Capsules

(warning, may contain actual football-related content)

So, to be considered as the official “Landmines in Africa Team of the Tournament,” the country must be a party to the Mine Ban Treaty (sorry, Morocco) and be (or have been) a mine-affected state (excluding Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, South Africa, Togo and Ghana).  That leaves us with ten teams: Angola, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Tunisia and Zambia. These teams represent the highest (Cote d’Ivoire) and lowest (either Ethiopia or Niger depending upon whose site you are reading) rated teams in the tournaments as well as everything in between. We’ll assess them in the reverse order of their odds of winning the tournament, starting with Ethiopia.


The Ain’t-Gonna-Happens: Ethiopia (odd of winning per Ladbrokes: 150 to 1), Niger (80 to 1) and Congo (66 to 1)

Ethiopia has a long history of landmines and proud tradition for long-distance running, but has no hope of winning the Cup of Nations.  Sorry.  The landmine contamination dates back to World War II and Italy’s attempts to invade the country; landmines were also used during the Ogaden War between Somalia and Ethiopia in the 1970s and during the civil wars of the 1980s which led to the capture of the country by the current regime.  Also, the 1998 war with Eritrea saw landmines and trench warfare and the border region remains mined.  Ethiopia has taken steps towards mine clearance and has been an ardent supporter of victim assistance.

Niger has no anti-personnel landmine contamination, but the Sahelian state does have anti-tank mines from insurgencies along the Sahara.  This is Niger’s second appearance (and second consecutive appearance) in the tournament and despite beating the holders, Zambia, in a tune-up game recently, Niger has little hope of lifting the Cup.

The Congo has one of the great African football clubs, Tout Puissant (TP) Mazembe, based in Lubumbashi in the southeastern part of the country, and Congo was the first sub-Saharan country to play in a World Cup final (in 1974 when it was Zaire).  However, the national team is not well-regarded.  The potential is probably there for a great football team, but the appalling lack of infrastructure, educational facilities and health systems means that such potential cannot be realized at this time.  The landmine contamination in the country comes from any of several civil conflicts from the 1960s to the present and despite the continuing, heroic efforts of deminers, progress has been slow.


The Longshot: Angola (28 to 1)

Frequent readers will know that Angola features often in these pages and while Angola has of late benefitted from the presence of several former U-21 Portuguese players (who took advantage of Angolan parentage / grand-parentage to serve Angola as full nationals), the team has been getting better and better.  Former Manchester United striker Manucho looks to lead Angola to a better conclusion than last year when the team fell at the group stages.  However, they are the longest of longshots and an appearance in the quarter-finals would be a respectable showing.  As a country, Angola is still trying to come to grips with its landmine contamination and while it is developing the systems to better document the extent of minefields, it is also still finding new ones.  After a decade of work, probably another decade looms and tens of thousands of landmine survivors will continue to need services to fully participate in society.


The Darkhorses: Mali (12 to 1), Tunisia (11 to 1) and Algeria (11 to 1)

Here are our money bets.  All three of Mali, Tunisia and Algeria offer excellent odds and a handsome payout for those brave enough to pick them (and lucky enough to be right).

Islamist rebels in northern Mali have been accused of using anti-personnel landmines (possibly looted from Gaddhafi’s plentiful stockpiles) to prevent the residents of the city of Gao from leaving.  I haven’t seen independent verification of this accusation, but I have also not heard of any denials.  Mali’s political mess would make them an excellent sentimental pick, offering a bit of respite from the endless negative news emanating from the country.  They came in third place in last year’s tournament and a strong showing is not out of the question for the Eagles.

Tunisia was the “Landmines in Africa Team of the Tournament” last year in recognition of its role as the origin of the Arab Spring (and worth noting that the Arab Spring sentiment is still alive and well there) and the fact that Tunisia has completed demining with little outside assistance.  We are very tempted to pick the Carthage Eagles again, as they return a strong team and have another year’s experience for some of the emerging players.

Algeria’s Fennec Foxes were a surprise package in the 2010 World Cup and always have the “next Zinedine Zidane” in the squad.  The Maghreb nation has somewhat successfully resisted the pressures of the Arab Spring in neighboring Tunisia and Algeria’s crackdown on Islamists may have driven them to find their new home in northern Mali.  So, politically they are a hard choice.  But within the landmine movement, Algeria has been a significant and positive actor. Algeria served (with Croatia) as the co-chair for the Standing Committee on Victim Assistance and presented the mid-term review of victim assistance progress under the Cartegena Action Plan at the Twelfth Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty in December 2012, where Algeria was also elected a Vice President of the Meeting.  Algeria has volunteered to lead the 2013 Meeting of States Parties and its candidacy is being weighed against that of Belgium (who has been active in universalization of the Mine Ban Treaty).  Algeria has also been very active in clearing the landmines that litter its borders, a remnant of the war of independence with France when French forces erected a massive electrified fence and minefield around the country to prevent rebel movements and disrupt supply lines. With the recent acquisition of minefield maps from the French government, Algeria expects to make rapid progress in its demining obligations.


The Contenders: Zambia (9 to 1) and Nigeria (7 to 1)

Zambia are the current holders of the Cup after their emotional and epic run last year.  In 1993, the majority of the Zambian national team were killed in a plane crash en route to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal.  The crash took place shortly after the plane took off from Libreville, Gabon so when the final game of the 2012 tournament was scheduled to be in Libreville, it seemed as though fate would demand that the next generation of Zambian players would be the ones to raise the Cup and they were.  Great story and one any good gambler should have seen coming.  This year Zambia has struggled to maintain its form and has had several disappointing performances in the lead-up to the tournament.  They do have the reigning BBC African Player of the Year in the squad and most of last year’s championship team returns so the expectation is that once the games begin in earnest, the real Chipolopolo will emerge.

Within the mine action community, Zambia has been an outstanding leader.  Lusaka hosted a negotiating conference for the Convention of Cluster Munitions and one of the Meetings of States Parties to the Convention.  Last year, Zambia was a co-chair of the Standing Committee on Mine Clearance and has declared itself to be mine-free.  In addition, this past year, Zambia began a nationwide survey of all landmine survivors to ensure that they have access to the services they need for recovery and reintegration.  As part of that survey, several survivors were flown from remote parts of the country to Lusaka for immediate treatment and were provided with prosthetic devices to assist their mobility.

Nigeria are the “nearly-men.” Every year they are among the favorites (they won the 1993 tournament facing a Zambia squad hastily formed in the aftermath of the plane crash mentioned above) and have many players based in Europe to call on.  As the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, the pool of available players to draw on is large and there is also a robust domestic league.  However, Nigeria usually comes up short, often disappointing those who have high expectations of them.  Nigeria, like Zambia and Tunisia, has declared itself landmine free, but still has substantial contamination from other explosive remnants of war dating as far back as the Biafra War.


The Favorite: Cote d’Ivoire (7 to 4)

Last season, Cote d’Ivoire’s captain, Didier Drogba, practically willed Chelsea to winning the UEFA Champions League.  In unlikely victories against Napoli, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Drogba again and again scored vital goals and led / pushed / forced Chelsea to winning games that on paper they should have lost.  But games aren’t played on paper and Drogba was a man possessed. Has he got one last campaign in him?  Does he have the same fire in his belly for the Cup of Nations?  If he does, then this will be the year that Cote d’Ivoire finally lives up to its stellar reputation and fulfills its promise.  If he doesn’t (and I think his big-dollar move to Chinese football would suggest that he is on the back end of his career, content to make money and not championships), then once again the Elephants will disappoint.  As a nation, Cote d’Ivoire has just come through a very turbulent period politically, but with the successful overthrow of Laurent Gbagbo’s illegitimate regime and the establishment of Ouattara as the rightful president, there is hope that peace and calm will return.  Forces loyal Gbagbo and Ouattara accused each other of laying landmines during the 2010 – 2011 conflict, but no evidence of contamination has been confirmed.  There are other explosive remnants of war in the country, but the country is considered mine-free.


The Pick

It comes down to Zambia versus Algeria.  Both are active in the landmine movement, serving as vice presidents of the most recent Meeting of States Parties.  Both have made great strides to clear their territories of landmines, but the edge goes to Zambia for its recent efforts in victim assistance.  Yes, flying survivors to Lusaka for treatment is unsustainable, but the gesture was welcome.  If only other countries were so willing to go above and beyond expectations to help landmine victims.  Also, the Cup holders play an excellent team-based game with no reliance on any individual player, another way in which Zambia is an excellent example to all.

The full fixture list for the Cup of Nations is here:

A preview (with all teams discussed) is here:

Michael P. Moore

January 10, 2013