Football, Politics, and Sustaining Peace in Africa

Egyptians sitting at a cafe next to a graffiti portrait of footballer Mohamed Salah in Cairo on March 22, 2018. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

For sports enthusiasts, 2018 was an eventful year with both the Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup taking place in the span of five months. For Africans, football is a celebrated sport, but also intimately connected to sociopolitical realities. From the successful presidential candidacy of former football player George Weah in Liberia, to the rise of Egypt’s professional footballer Mohamed Salah as one of the most influential figures on the continent, to France’s World Cup victory being celebrated by many as a “win for Africa,” the ostensibly apolitical space of football is often a home for political conversations. In contexts where freedom of expression is limited, political apathy is rampant, or common voices are marginalized, Africans are increasingly turning to football to engage in covert conversations regarding their struggles, aspirations, and vision for peace.

Much has been documented about the impact of sports on politics, diplomacy, and even peacebuilding. Popular sports events and platforms have been used to amplify political messages, pacify tensions in flagging diplomatic relations, and break the ice over nuclear stand-offs. The recent détente between North and South Korea where the Olympic games was used to signify a renewed intent for nuclear negotiations is one of many examples. However, sports diplomacy research and narratives have been highly state-centric, focusing mainly on the impact of sports on interstate relations. In the African context, where many governments fail to serve as legitimate representatives of the people and where states are often captured by elite enclaves, well or ill-elected, it is important to note the impact of sports at the grassroots level.

The grassroots significance of sports is particularly relevant from a peacebuilding perspective, given that peace, like a tree, tends to grow from the bottom up. There has been a remarkable decline in violent conflict across Africa in the past decade, however this has not always been equated to peace. As Johan Galtung noted, there is a difference between negative peace, or the absence of physical violence, and positive peace, the absence of both physical and structural violence. Negative peace is unstable and is often beset by frequent conflict relapses, fueling inconspicuous forms of oppression and unanswered legitimate grievances. It is in these contexts that football has become an avenue for expression and dialogue that challenges existing state structures and paradigms and ultimately enables peaceful aspirations to find a home.

Take, for example, the case of Egypt where military and ruling elites have stifled all avenues for authentic political dissent and participation. In an act of defiance, youth are shifting political conversations to unconventional platforms. In the days leading up to Egypt’s presidential election in March, the internet was replete with images and memes endorsing Mohamed Salah for president. When the election results were released, it appeared that over 1 million Egyptians voted for Salah in a serendipitous and relatively uncoordinated act of protest, making him “the surprise runner-up.” While many may dismiss these acts as facetious jests, it does not negate the reality that Salah has become Egypt’s most unifying and significant public figure. His influence cuts across class, religion, and politics; all of which are highly divisive factors in Egyptian society since the revolutionary events of 2011. His moderate yet visible practice of Islam is admired by even the most radical religious actors, his patriotism and generous donations praised by secularists and nationalists alike, his skill and successes abroad a source of pride for the youth, and his modest rural upbringing resonates with the masses struggling to maneuver their way out of poverty and alienation. At a time when political repression has almost entirely stifled opposition and produced a leadership deficit in the country, he has emerged to fill a void and restore national pride.

Another example of the interconnectedness of football and politics is the recent victory of George Weah, Liberia’s footballer-turned-president. Weah’s victory was equally celebrated by anti-establishment advocates desperately awaiting a chance for new actors to penetrate the political landscape, and by marginalized youth who played a pivotal role in running his campaign. When Weah was criticized for not being educated enough to run the country after losing in the 2012 elections, he went back to school and earned a university degree, setting a noble example for youth across the nation. Weah has often been compared to Didier Drogba, another African football player who transformed his nation’s future. Drogba is credited with bringing peace to Côte d’Ivoire by ending a 10-year civil war. On live television, moments after leading his nation’s team into the 2006 World Cup, Drogba fell to his knees and begged warring factions to disarm. Within a week, his brazen plea was met with a ceasefire and elections, a task that African leaders and experienced diplomats had failed to achieve.

Beyond simply the politics at hand in the above examples, other situations demonstrate how football can also be instrumentalized as a tool for peacebuilding and sustaining peace. An underlying premise of sustaining peace is that every society, no matter how fragile or broken it may appear, has innate capabilities and assets that are conducive for peace. This calls for a paradigm shift from focusing on the sources of conflict and emphasizing what is not working, to identifying avenues for peace by mapping what is working in peoples’ lives. When situated within this framework, it is apparent that football is one of the few avenues capable of transcending widespread tensions and fostering a sense of unity, birthing leaders who grant a voice to alienated and marginalized sectors of society and revitalizing hope in times of widespread national despair. As noted by Nelson Mandela, who used sport to unite a racially divided South Africa, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments.”

The potential of football in orchestrating social transformation is often underestimated. Its unique impact in Africa stems from the fact that it is a relatively apolitical space, less influenced by political subversion, censorship, and venality. Attempts to deploy football within a sustaining peace framework should seek to strengthen sports institutions, while simultaneously protecting their autonomy from state control and exploitation. Closer attention should be paid to the conversations and movements manifesting from football institutions to forecast political scenarios and gain a sense of popular opinions and aspirations. Sports institutions can also be used as a public communication tool and respected football figures could serve as peace ambassadors who can reach out to the public in times of tension and promote the values of tolerance, mutual respect, diversity, and unity both on and off the field. More resources should be diverted towards sports institutions, especially those that prove to be effective catalysts for inclusion and hope.

Politics in Africa and other places manifests itself from the upper echelons of government down to everyday social interactions. It can often trigger intense emotion, and violent divisions. Of the many avenues available to bridge these divides in Africa, few things, if any, can channel collective and positive efforts more than football. If peacebuilding and sustaining peace are about inclusion, amplifying marginalized voices, and transforming otherwise violent scenarios into non-violent conversations, then taking advantage of the spaces football creates is essential.
Radwa Saad is a program associate at the Research and Policy Department at the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), an alumni of the African Leadership Centre (ALC), and a 2017 African Junior Fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI).