Who to support at AFCON2015?

*Warning – the following might contain actual footballing information*

The 2015 African Cup of Nations Tournament kicks off in next week and despite Morocco’s withdrawal as host (and subsequent ban from participation) due to fears of Ebola, the Tournament will go forward with Equatorial Guinea hosting and taking Morocco’s spot.  Of the 16 teams participating, five – Algeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are affected by landmines. This year’s tournament may be the most open as traditional powers, (and winners of four of the last five tournaments) Nigeria and Egypt, did not qualify and as many as ten of the 16 teams have a realistic chance of winning.  In terms of the draw, Group A (Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville) looks to the easiest and Groups C and D will compete for the title of “Group of Death” with Ghana, Algeria, South Africa and Senegal in Group C and Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon and Guinea in Group D.  Group B (Zambia, Tunisia, Cape Verde and the Democratic Republic of Congo) is no slouch, though.

Here at Landmines in Africa, we restrict our rooting interests to landmine-affected countries.  Zambia recently finished landmine clearance and Ivory Coast destroyed a newly discovered stockpile of mines, acts which we applaud heartily but also disqualify them from our support.  So, here are the arguments for and against supporting the five mine-affected countries (in descending order of their odds of winning the tournament as supplied by Bet365.com on January 9, 2015):

Democratic Republic of Congo, Leopards (34 to 1): The Democratic Republic of Congo has been surveying and trying to determine the full extent of landmine contamination in the country.  In most places, the density of contamination is very low so large areas are reported as landmine-contaminated, but the actual number to be cleared is small.  For the DRC, the biggest problem has been stability and security to allow the survey and clearance work to go forward as most contamination is in the eastern parts of the country which have been subject to numerous conflicts since the 1990s.  DRC recently received a six-year extension to clear its remaining minefields which it will do at 0.21 km2 per year and a total cost of US $20 million.

The Democratic Republic of Congo was the third-best team in Cup qualifying behind Cameroon and the Ivory Coast.  They have one of the best home-grown squads and should be good enough to get out their group, but “should” doesn’t always equal “will.”

 

Mali, Eagles (15 to 1): Mali’s landmine situation is worsening.  For years the country had minimal contamination from internal conflicts, until the 2012 Tuareg uprising and seizure of northern Mali by Islamist forces which has sparked a highly unstable insurgency.  French forces defeated the Islamists and brought the Tuaregs back onside, but the subsequent United Nations peacekeeping mission has been targeted for numerous attacks.  Rumors suggest that Islamist forces are monitoring peacekeepers’ movements and placing mines in the roads before UN vehicles.  The conflict and landmine contamination is confined to the northern regions of the country, but as a recent attack shows, the Islamists are willing and able to strike at government installations nearer the capital of Bamako.

Football-wise, Mali was a semifinalist in each of the last two Cup of Nations tournaments and has the potential to upset some of the favorites.  Having said that, a third straight semi-final appearance is unlikely with leading striker Cheick Diabate of Bordeaux ruled out for injury and the presence of Ivory Coast and Cameroon in the Group.

 

Senegal, Teranga Lions (13 to 1): Senegal has a great football pedigree and some of the best strikers in the world.  They will be without West Ham United star Diafra Sakho but will content themselves by re-uniting former Newcastle teammates Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse supported by Sadio Mane of Southampton and Dame N’Doye of Locomotiv Moscow.  They will look to outscore the other teams in this Group of Death and should be able to advance and a semi-final appearance is not out of the question.

As for the landmines, Senegal’s recent history is not so good.  Most demining has completely halted and the government shows little ambition to re-start the program in earnest.  In terms of contamination, Senegal has very few landmines and the technical resources exist in the country to quickly and efficiently address the issue.  What Senegal lacks is the political will to do so, citing the ongoing low-level insurgency in the Casamance region.  If we talking strictly about football, Senegal would be a fun choice to follow, but we’re talking landmines and Senegal has not been a leader there.

 

Tunisia, Carthage Eagles (9 to 1): As recently as 2012, Tunisia was able to call itself landmine-free.  The country had, with very little external assistance, cleared all known minefields dating back to World War II and the Algerian liberation war.  Then, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring (and Tunisia remains the success story from those movements), Islamists groups took root in the Kasserine region dominated by Mount Chaambi along the border with Algeria.  These Islamist have used landmines to protect their hideouts in the mountains and interrupt military patrols.  While most of the victims of these mines have been security forces, some civilians have also been injured.  Despite these mines and the radical forces that have used them, Tunisia has kept itself on a path towards democratic reform as seen in last month’s elections.

Tunisia is a surprisingly strong football nation, having won the Cup when they hosted in 2004 and runners-up in 1965 and 1996, and semifinalists in 1962, 1978 and 2000; a similar record to this year’s favorites, Algeria who were winners in 1990 (as hosts), runners up in 1980 and semifinalists in 1982, 1984, 1988 and 2010.  Look to the Tunisians to advance out of their group and make a very strong run to the final.  They were undefeated in qualifying and will see this year as a good one to make some noise.

 

Algeria, Fennec Foxes (5.5 to 1): After a great World Cup appearance last year, Algeria are the team to beat at this year’s AFCON.  Yacine Brahimi, the Porto-based midfielder, was just named “Most Promising Talent” by the Confederation of African Football, and will serve as the team’s anchor. However, Algeria are also in a very tough group and the stadium they will be playing in is in Mongomo on the far eastern border.  Mongomo is the hometown of Equatorial Guinea’s dictators, Francisco Macias Nguema and Teodoro Obian Nguema (the current “president”), and the stadium seats all of 4,000 people and was not used in 2012 when Equatorial Guinea co-hosted the Cup with Gabon.  The pitch was bare earth until sod was recently laid by a Spanish firm in order to prepare it for the tournament.  Call me cynical, but I expect the state of the pitch will be a frequent source of complaints by the players and managers.  Having said that, Algeria should make it out of the group and fulfill their promise as tournament favorites.

Algeria, like Tunisia, has landmine contamination dating back to World War II, but also saw millions of mines laid by the French during the liberation war of the 1950s and 1960s.  At one point, Algeria was one of the most landmine-contaminated countries with over 11 million mines.  Since clearance began in the 1990s (after the end of the civil war in Algeria), nine million mines have been cleared and every month more mines are cleared and Algeria anticipates completing clearance in 2017.  In addition, Norwegian People’s Aid recently called Algeria’s mine action program the best in the world, especially since Algeria relies on almost no external assistance.

So, Algeria is a tournament favorite and a great model for landmine clearance, so that’s our pick, right?  No.  Landmines in Africa will be backing Tunisia in the 2015 African Cup of Nations.  Why?  Because Tunisia continues on a path of democracy while other Arab Spring states have descended into civil war (Libya, Syria, Yemen) or hardening dictatorship (Egypt, Bahrain).  Tunisia has completed its landmine clearance obligations once before, it will do so again.  Because some things are more important than football (despite the protestations of Bill Shankly), we’re supporting Tunisia this year.  We love what Algeria has accomplished in mine action, but we admire Tunisia political transition in addition to its mine action program.  Plus, Carthage Eagles is a great team name.

Michael P. Moore

January 9, 2015

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org


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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/20085024

A preview (with all teams discussed) is here: http://ghanamagazine.com/sports/the-2013-africa-cup-of-nations-preview/

Michael P. Moore

January 10, 2013