The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) began in Cameroon on Sunday 9th January, after experiencing major delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on travel and Cameroon’s hosting preparations.

The ongoing AFCON has been exciting and full of surprises, sadly internal conflict has overshadowed the football, since 2017, there has been a full-blown insurrection in the southwestern region of Cameroon, where English-speaking separatists opposing the Francophone government have been fighting to form a breakaway state. The region inhabited mainly by the Anglophone minority has been in the midst of a bloody conflict between armed groups demanding independence, and the security forces. 

The separatist movement signalled its intention to disrupt the tournament when they set off an explosion at a university near the tournament host city of Limbe in November, killing 13 people.  The explosion happened a mile from an official training venue. 

Another incident took place on 12 January, as a dozen men fired AK-47s into the air less than a quarter-mile from where the Malian soccer team was practising on the fourth day of AFCON, scaring the nearby players and causing a shootout with security that resulted in the death of two bystanders, a taxi driver and his passenger. The same morning, sources reported someone tossed a homemade bomb from a cab window, injuring three police officers and startling a bus of Gambian footballers who raced back to their hotel.

“The threat to the African Cup is real” according to Blaise Chamango Blaise, head of the NGO Human Is Right, based in Buea. The government has since deployed heavily armed soldiers on almost all the intersections of Buea and Limbe in particular. The defence and security forces are carrying out arrests and systematic searches in several areas.

“We will continue to carry out anti-AFCON operations,” a separatist spokesman, Capo Daniel, said in a YouTube video the day after the attack, taking credit for disruption. “We will uphold our dignity.” According to international NGOs and the United Nations, the violence has left more than 3,500 people dead and more than 700,000 displaced in the west since the conflict began four years ago. 

Cameroon’s security issues were compounded by a stampede on the 24th of January, that left eight people dead and 38 injured in an accident at the home nation’s knock out tie with Comoros. The incident occurred at an entry gate to the Olembé stadium in the capital of Yaoundé as 50,000 fans attempted to gain access to the stadium despite COVID-19 restrictions limiting its capacity. There were calls to postpone the 24-team, 52-game championship in the Central African nation. However, organisers remain determined to go ahead with the game.

A billion viewers are currently watching the AFCON matches, which run throughout January and February. In the hopes of harnessing that spotlight, human rights groups are calling for a footballing cease-fire. Such a truce could be the first step in rebuilding trust and moving toward talks between the authorities and separatist leaders after years of bloodshed.

By Aguamah Nanas

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