FOOTBALL’S power to bring people together has been nowhere more evident than in Cameroon over the past month where the fortunes of the Indomitable Lions have briefly papered over the cracks of a country at war with itself.
Throughout Cameroon, each victory for the host nation in the Africa Cup of Nations and the performances of captain Vincent Aboubakar and his teammates have aroused jubilation in bars and on the streets, momentarily erasing angry divisions.
The country has been torn by violence since October 2017 when militants declared an independent state in the Northwest and neighbouring Southwest Region, home to most of the anglophone minority in the majority French-speaking country.
But despite exchanges of gunfire which wounded several people at the start of the games in Buea, in the English-speaking west, threats by armed separatists to disrupt the month-long competition have not been carried out.
Similarly, three days before the final, the jihadists of Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS) group have not featured in the news, though their attacks on villages in the north are regular and deadly.
Even the political opposition has largely kept quiet.
The whole of Cameroon, it seems, has rallied behind the Indomitable Lions and that patriotic fervour, which has swept the country since the tournament began, will only increase if Cameroon can beat Egypt in the semi-finals on Thursday night to reach Sunday’s final against Senegal.
‘In love with football’
‘This AFCON was a moment of unity, a parenthesis that momentarily silenced the divisions. All Cameroonians are in love with football, even those who want secession,’ Ambroise Essomba, political scientist at the University of Douala, told The Associated Press (AP).
The opposition has not been making waves, even when eight people died in a crush at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde prior to the last-16 tie between Cameroon and the Comoros.
Its principal leader, Maurice Kamto, urged followers ‘not to make derogatory remarks about the AFCON,’ even though dozens of activists from his party, the Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroon (MRC), have just received sentences of up to seven years in prison for “peaceful marches”.
All the media, pro-regime or opposition, have devoted their front pages to the football matches instead of the usual accusations.
‘The AFCON has shown that Cameroonians can unite around a common cause, talk to each other, rally together to defend the flag and this is an important victory,’ said Richard Makon, a teacher and researcher at the University of Douala.
The competition, postponed from its original June/July 2021 slot because of the pandemic, was a priority for President Paul Biya, who turns 89 on February 13, to restore his reputation.
Biya has been ruthless in his crackdown against the anglophone separatists and critics regularly point to crimes against civilians and the use of special powers to imprison dissidents in disregard for the law – charges the regime in Yaounde rejects.
Biya used AFCON’s opening ceremony on January 9 to make a rare public appearance from the sunroof of his armoured SUV, winning a standing ovation from crowds in the capital.
Across Cameroon, posters show Biya all smiles with a soccer ball, touting ‘succeeding together’ and countering years of rumours about fragile health.
‘He succeeded in organising this AFCON and is coming out of it stronger,’ said Makon.
‘But this momentum can only be consolidated if he takes effective measures to resolve the concerns of Cameroonians: the quality of life, problems of governance, the consolidation of democracy, the space given to freedoms, and the settlement of the conflict in the English-speaking area or even a real decentralisation.
‘But I’m pretty sure there won’t be any big decisions, just a few measures to show that Paul Biya holds the helm and retains the right to life or death over every politician.’
A government reshuffle beckons and the unrest in the west remains but, for the moment at least, the talk in Cameroon is less about Biya and more about Aboubakar and his Indomitable Lions.