If it can be said that one of the principle aims of terrorism is to raise the profile of a specific cause, then through any means necessary, the actions of Chibandan seperatists yesterday could probably be said to be a success. Their ambush of a coach carrying the Togo national football team to the African Cup of Nations has sent shockwaves out through African football and on to the rest of the world. The incident raises concerns about the wisdom of the Angolan organisers as choosing Chibanda as a venue for the African Cup of Nations, but some corners of the press have chosen to follow the path with the shiniest headline and have tried to link the incident in with the World Cup finals, which are of course being held in South Africa during the summer.
It seems extraordinary in this day and age that anyone would even consider to try and link this tragedy to a tournament that is taking place in a different part of the continent later this year. Nobody ever expressed concerns over, say, the 1990 World Cup in Italy because of the actions of the IRA in Britain. However, Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph tweeted that, “Fifa must investigate events in Angola and improve teams’ safety before World Cup. S Africa are organised but nothing can be left to chance”, a statement which was even more insulting than it is stupid, which, considering how stupid it was, is quite an achievement. A similar article appeared on today’s Daily Mail website. Other British hacks have at least had the nous to not come out and openly make such crass statements, but several newspaper websites have not stopped far short of implying exactly the same thing as Winter, and they should also be hanging their heads in shame this afternoon.
There has also been a focus in the British press on the Premier League angle of the whole story centring on Emmanuel Adebayor. Understandable in some respects, perhaps, but this is something that detracts from the full impact of the story and gives Premier League managers a stick to beat African football with. Their reluctance to allow players to travel south in the middle of the Premier League season is common knowledge and the likes of Phil Brown and Harry Redknapp have needed little encouragement to call for their players to be withdrawn and – in the case of Redknapp – for the tournament to be cancelled. They choose to overlook the fact that, for these players, Africa is home. It would be the most helpful if, for the time being, they kept their mouths shut.
The Togolese team has today – understandably – withdrawn from the competition, but it is their Football Association, CAF (the Confederation of African Football) and the organisers of the tournament that have serious questions to answer about what has happened. It has been reported that the CAF and the tournament organisers have both claimed that they didn’t know that the Togolese team would be making this dangerous journey by coach and that they believed the team to be flying straight into Cabinda. The small fact that the coach had an armed escort, however, means that this is a fairly difficult claim to believe. If they are shifting the blame over to the Togolese FA, then the question has to be asked of why this should be.
None of this, however, exonerates the Togolese FA of a degree of culpability in what has happened, though. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of African geo-politics would be aware of the fact that this is a deeply unstable part of the continent and that driving through it is, to say the least, a high-risk venture. Nothing, however, in this story seems to be completely black and white. The Angolan government has been treating this tournament as a chance to show off its resource-rich country to Africa and the world after years of devastating civil war and have been claiming for several years that there is no significant seperatist movement in Cibanda. In addition to this, the Togolese FA is, as are many other African football associations, not a wealthy organisation. One of the depressingly familiar stories of the 2006 World Cup was of a dispute between the Togolese FA and the players over the non-payment of promised bonuses. The possibility that the dangerous route was taken – maybe in part, maybe fully – because of financial constraints.
The truth may take time to emerge. What truth has emerged today has been distressing to say the least. The death toll, which was reported initially as one person, has risen to three. The withdrawal of the Togolese team is no surprise, but there are now rumours that other nations that would have been joining them in Cibanda – Ghana included – are now considering their positions within the competition. The eyes of the world will be on the Cibanda province now. Will the tournament organisers and, ultimately, the CAF be able to guarantee the safety of players playing matches in the province? It has certainly been suggested already that the Angolans selected Cibanda in order to make a statement about their control over the region. It certainly doesn’t seem appropriate to hold matches there now.
What we know for certain is that yesterday’s events seem likely to overshadow anything that will happen on the pitch in Angola over the next two or three weeks. Whatever the aims of the organisers were in arranging matches to be played in Cibanda has obviously now been exposed as a fatal error, even though there is no suggestion that there will be any risk to playing matches in the city of Cibanda itself. However, the show must go on, and it will. Any talk of collateral damage to the World Cup finals in South Africa is patronising and insulting nonsense. For now, though, our thoughts should be with the families of the deceased and injured.