African News

Cote d’Ivoire: Soccer Offers Temporary Peace

25 January 2006 at 02:52 | 507 views

By Abu B. Shaw, London Vanguard Bureau Chief

Peace has eluded the people of Cote d’Ivoire despite everything the international community has done in recent times. The ongoing African Nations Cup in Egypt has however provided the perfect opportunity for the people of that country to breathe a sigh of relief at least in the interim.

The political turmoil in the West African state has been a source of constant annoyance and trouble for every Ivorian both in the government held south and the rebel controlled north of the country. But soccer, an unlikely source of hope, has ushered this solace to allow the adversaries to watch their national team in a tranquil atmosphere for the first time since 2002 when the war started.

The Elephants, the name of Cote d’Ivoire’s soccer squad, has uniquely acted as a symbol of unity and peace. Prior to the kick off in Egypt of the 25th edition of the Nations Cup in January 20 supporters of the Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo took to the streets in Abidjan, the main capital, to protest against the United Nations peace keeping forces. The government has accused the UN of acting unfairly towards them.

Government supporters on one hand and rebel forces operating in the north on the other have put patriotism first above their individual grievances to give maximum support to their beloved national football the Elephants.

“We have decided to stop the war so we can watch our national team as long as they continue to excel in Egypt. As soon as our team are kicked out, we will take to the streets again to continue our demonstrations,” the divided people of Ivory Coast are reported to have stated.

This unique peaceful transformation of this former French colony started when the country stormed the world by qualifying for this year’s World Cup finals in Germany for the first time in history. The Elephants won their last group stage match against Sudan and were only able to go through after the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon failed to drub Egypt in Yaounde late last year.

The Elephants having booked their place in the World Cup finals in Germany 2006, they qualified automatically for the Nations Cup. CAF, Africa’s football organising body, arranged it in such a way that all the African countries that qualified for the World Cup have an automatic spot in the Nations Cup. As a result of the two simultaneous qualifications, the Elephants brought joy and happiness throughout areas controlled by the government as well as in the north where rebels were celebrating exhilaratingly.

In Egypt, the Ivorians got an encouraging start when the Elephants trounced the mighty Morocco 1-0 thanks to a penalty converted by Captain Didier Drogba who also plays for the English Champions Chelsea FC. Drogba, 24, pleaded: “Ivorians, we ask for your forgiveness. Let us come together and put this war behind us.”

Another Ivorian international, Kolo Toure, who plays for Arsenal in England, added that the players have a real responsibility now that the country is at war. “We want to show that there is more to Ivory Coast than fighting, and we know the country is counting on us to give good account of ourselves.”

The Elephants is made of players from both the north and south of the country and this unity of purpose has been under threat in the past. A former government sports minister was quoted as saying that there were too many northerners in the national team. These remarks was said to have caused the leaving out of one of the country’s best strikers Ibrahim Bakayoko from the team. His only crime was he originated from the north.

This is not the first time football has had a pivotal role to bringing peace and unity to a nation. At the height of the Iraq / Iran war in 1979, there was a brief truce when Pele of Brazil (real name Edson Arantes Do Nascimento) made a brief stopover in the Middle East. The warring factions of both countries had a ceasefire to have a glimpse of the world’s greatest footballer.

In neighbouring Liberia, where a senseless rebel war had ravaged the country for 14 years, soccer was used to chisel the rough edges culminating in to many peace intervals in Liberia over the years. All that was due to the inspiration of their former Lone Star Captain George Oppong Weah. Government forces and the different rebel groups then saw the Lone Star as the only unifying force.

With the Elephants of Ivory Coast being the first team to go through to the next stage of the African Nations Cup after whipping the Libyans 2-1 on Tuesday January 24, it is highly likely that the truce will continue to hold. If the Elephants qualify for the grand finale on February 10, Ivorians would have enjoyed a unique peace for three uninterrupted weeks.

Photos: Ivorian players in action, left, and the Young Patriots, president Gbagbo’s supporters who were at the centre of the disturbances in Abidjan in recent months(right).