Friday, January 7, 2011

Will Football Unite the Nile Basin Countries?

Will Football Unite the Nile Basin Countries?

International Diplomacy can indeed be juicy. On Wednesday Egypt kick-started what it pragmatically calls the Nile Basin Tournament. Interestingly, this tourney will be a yearly one.

As you can bet most of the invited teams are the very ones that recently locked horns with Egypt on the use of the water of River Nile. The 12-day championship was meant to include 10 countries that, geographically speaking, constitute the countries of the Nile Basin: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. However, three teams – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Rwanda – have opted out of it this year.

Football, as we know, has been a unifier as well as a divider. The history of African nationalism is replete with stories of how football teams were vehicle of forging a united front against colonialism. In my home country Dar es Salaam Young Africans or Yanga as we call it is a case in hand. But, as we also know, Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ left a bitter taste in England’s goalmouth while sweetening Argentina in the context of their 1982 war over Falkland Islands.

Probably Egypt’s decision to splash money for a regional soccer tourney will ease the tension in its neighbourhood and foster some sort of Pan-African unity. But, ironically, the other teams have been involved in a less expensive yearly tourney – the Council for East and Central Africa Football Association (CECAFA) Senior Challenge Cup. Egypt could have simply joined them.

Expectedly, when probed about “claims that Egypt is trying to use this event to placate its neighbours over the use of the River Nile”, the Egyptian Football Association chair “was quick to clarify that for them it is about football and nothing more” (The Standard 05/01/11). But is it?

United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) recently launched Africa Water Atlas notes that Egypt accounts for only 9% of the Nile Basin’s area. However, the area holds nearly a third of its population and about 78 million people in the country depend heavily upon River Nile.

Such a context renders the tourney nothing more than football diplomacy. Even the choice of its name speaks volumes let alone statements such as these from the organizer: "We are also ready to support any country in the region that is ready to host it at any time"; “So, for us, it is about football and not politics. The Ministry of foreign affairs may look at it differently though” (Ibid).

Football is political. That is why states spend lots of money and energy to even get a chance to host the Olympics and the World Cup. Egypt’s decision to host a tourney cannot be less political.

With these points in mind one can start thinking about the role of Egypt as a unifier rather than a divider in Africa. For a long time the country has been contested as the cradle of human civilization. Africans, spearheaded by Cheikh Anta Diop, have tried to claim it as an African civilization and, as such, an inspiration for an ‘African Renaissance’ and the ‘Unity of Africa.’

Following the Historian Basil Davidson, Sally-Ann Ashton, the Egyptologist curator at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge thus captures this Afrocentric/Pan-Africanist quest and its setback: “Egypt is geographically part of the continent of Africa. It should therefore follow that Egypt is part of African history and cultural heritage; however, this is rarely the case in the literature.” Yet Egypt, so often labelled as an Arab rather than an African country, co-founded the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and supported the liberation of other African countries.

But, alas, in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the Pan-African nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has tended to turn its back on the so-called Sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of its closest southern neighbour, Sudan, water flow has been the tie that binds. No wonder they were on the same side as boycotters during the tussle over the new 2010 Nile Basin treaty that gives all countries therein an equal stake in Nile waters thus ‘abrogating’ the ‘colonial’ treaty of 1929 between Britain and Egypt as amended by Egypt and Sudan in 1959 to give the former the right to veto upstream water projects in addition to having more access to Nile’s total water flow.

No doubt Egypt has all the rights to be close to its northern neighbours. However, the Nile Basin is a constant reminder that its lot is with its fellow African countries. With a total population of over 400 million people the countries around River Nile can forge the form of unity that made the area a hub for such great civilizations of Kush, Axum, Meroe and, of course, Ancient Egypt.

More significantly, Africa has about 1 billion people who, when unified, can be a potent force in African renewal. If indeed Egypt is to Africa what Greece is to Europe then it has a special place in such an African renaissance. After all, as far as football is concerned, Egypt has consecutively won the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in the last three years. Africa(ns) must indeed unite!

© Chambi Chachage


Anonymous January 7, 2011 at 4:49 PM  

Very interesting blog. Just started reading the very interesting articles. Chambi I sent you a message on facebook. Would be interested in discussing ideas with you.

Karasai January 7, 2011 at 8:17 PM  

My brother, we must wait and see. Theory always has luster; practice is a bit rigid when applied.

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