When AFCON 2023 became political weapon

The just-concluded Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament held in Cote d’Ivoire may have been won and lost, but, it actually left in its trail a bitter taste in the mouth of many Nigerians in many ways.

It was not because the Super Eagles were superb in finishing as first runners-up after falling to the superior resurgent firepower of the host country when the boys were finally separated from the men. It was not also because of the convivial atmosphere the Eagles participation in the tournament provided to pacify many Nigerians already at the boiling point of their anger over the cost of living in the country.

It was not because of the thrilling encounter that enthusiastically pinned many Nigerians on the edges of their seats and even made them temporarily forget their passionate interest in the foreign leagues all through the month-long football fiesta.

It was equally not the tensed dramatic, technical and tactical discipline exhibited at the biennial football masterpiece, nor the disappointing outing from big African football giants like Morocco, Ghana, Senegal, Egypt, among others that failed to live up to the pre-tournament ratings and expectations.

Rather, it was the attempt by the Nigerian leaders, government and its officials, at all levels, to politicise the Super Eagles unexpected performance at the tournament and use it to mitigate the inflaming anger of Nigerians over the discomforting hunger and economic quagmire confronting the country.

But, the visible political undertone to attempt to use the Super Eagles performance at the tournament as a soothing balm on agitated Nigerians was not however in the competitive visits by heavyweight political gladiators like Peter Obi, Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, Vice President Kashim Shetima and even President Bola Tinubu’s proposed but cancelled trip to Cote d’Ivoire to identify and boost the morale of the team.

In fact, aware of the passion Nigerians attach to football as a uniting instrument, and in an attempt not to allow anything to distract the team and divert the attention of Nigerians from the tournament, there was even a surprise package of a whopping N200 million unsolicited supports from the governors’ forum which has some members still struggling to pay the statutory monthly salaries of their worker force.

To confirm the determination of the embattled government to leverage on and use the performances of the team to placate the harsh economic hardship in the country and the anticipated volcanic revolution gradually building up across every part of the country, there was intense jostle by elected and appointed government officials, at all levels in the country, to deploy all manner of diversionary measures with their congratulatory commendation of the team.

Also conscious that the levels of despondence by many Nigerians have gotten to an intolerable limit and having seen that the country is literally resting on time bombs, the Nigeria government, at all levels, deployed every tactical measure to use the performance of the team to calm down the rising tension and apprehension in their domain.

And, if they did not set up massive makeshift tent viewing centres that double as entertainment rendezvous during every match involving the Super Eagles, and other teams, they would jostle for media spaces to identify with the performing team just to show how concerned they were about the plight of the Nigerian masses.

From President Tinubu, the governors, to the ministers, opposition parties, party chieftains and leaders and even the business community, it was a fierce rivalry in pushing to be heard.

But, do you blame them? Their attempts to politicise the performance of the team and arrogate it as part of their tangible achievement were understandable. In a country where only such football victory can stand as the only genuine visible instrument, source of happiness, and concrete evidence of prove of achievement, the politicisation of Eagles successful outing in Cote d’Ivoire is highly desirable and expected.

Also rattled by the dangerous implications of the slowly erupting mass protests in many parts of the country over the unbearable cost of living in the country, and the skepticism over the capacity of the current governments to apply concrete measures to solve the problems, the commendable performance of the Super Eagles at the tournament, in the consideration of the current government, came in handy as the most potent weapon to bring temporary succour, relief and happiness to the disgruntled indigenes.

To match words with actions, there were careful, well-articulated press statements from the government officials, party leaders and chieftains deliberately slanted towards linking the team’s success as a weapon to launder the image of the government and use it as one of its tangible achievements.

In the statement President Tinubu issued to congratulate the team after winning the semi-finals duel against South Africa’s Bafana Bafana to pick the ticket for the final, he was methodical in making it abundantly clear that his motivation provided the magic wand that guaranteed the unexpected performances of the team.

Officially reacting to the Eagles’ victory in the rather dramatic semi-finals Pyrrhic victory, President Tinubu, on his official X handle, while congratulating and encouraging the team, noted: “From the Southernmost cape of Africa to the plains of Mauritania and the coast of West Africa… you have made us all proud to be Nigerians! Go… soar in the AFCON final. Well done, boys!”

Aligning with him, the National chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, explicitly attributed the feat to the actualisation of President Tinubu’s renewed hope agenda.

Ganduje, in his congratulatory message through his Chief Press Secretary, Edwin Olofu noted that; “the Eagle’s victory has justified the renewed hope agenda of the President Tinubu administration. I commend President Tinubu for giving the Super Eagles the necessary support to triumph in the tournament.”

Also aligning with their line of thought, former captain and coach of the team, Sunday Oliseh, aptly said; “we need something like this victory to distract us from the sufferings and hardship that Nigerians are going through.”

Also knowing the validity of the team’s performance to the highly disgruntled and traumatised Nigerians, Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, through his media aide, Rabiu Ibrahim, wrote that; “the team carries the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation on their shoulders.”

State governors were not left out in interpreting and applying political undertones to the Super Eagles’ outing in the tournament with many of them not only setting up massive television screen viewing centres but also watching with many screened viewers.

From Lagos, Ogun to Anambra states, the headquarters of the APC and even the State House, Abuja, the bug of the state governors and other government bodies setting up mega viewing centres, which according to them, were the way to support Super Eagles and encourage residents to forget their sorrows and come out to 

Perhaps, to checkmate the possibility of the protests in some states spreading into their state, the government of Ogun State, while announcing the floating of the multi-million Naira viewing centres in the state, noted that; “we extend a warm invitation to all football enthusiasts, supporters and members of the public to join us for an exciting and captivating experience, as we cheer on our beloved Super Eagles in this pivotal match.

“Let us come together to enjoy the electrifying atmosphere of live football at these venues, as we also prepare to host the entire country later this year for the 22nd National Sports Festival tagged, ‘Gateway Games 2024’,” the statement signed by the Commissioner for Sports Development, Wasiu Isiaka, appealed to the indigenes.

In Anambra, the statement issued by Christian Aburime, the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Charles Soludo captured the motive behind the viewing centre tagged ‘solution viewing centre’.

The statement read: “Aside from the spacious viewing centre located at Alex Ekwueme Square, Awka, there will be side attractions which include a Disc Jockey (DJ) on stage, free popcorn and liquid to go with for everyone, guest appearances and many more.

“Like every Nigerian, the governor understands that football is one aspect of Nigerian life that does not know tribe, gender or class. Both the low and high express joy and happiness, freely, when their team flops or does well without restrictions.”

The situation was even more instructively captivating at the national headquarters of the ruling party in Abuja when the party’s national leadership, the National Working Committee (NWC) through the National Youth Leader, Dayo Israel, converted the entire compound of the gigantic edifice into a viewing centre with giant projected television screens.

Healthy-looking APC-branded cows and goats were slaughtered and assorted non-alcoholic drinks were served, with red carpet decorations.

At the State House, the champagne-popping ceremony involving President Tinubu and several eminent dignitaries, elder statesmen and government functionaries present to watch the finals game on Sunday night was even more instructive on the level of interest of government in leveraging on lifting the trophy to make a bold statement and shore-up its fast-receding image.

The government and its officials did not just stop only at issuing press statements and opening expensively -built viewing centres as various reports claimed that Nigerians broke the record with the intimidating highest numbers of private jets they stormed Cote d’Ivoire with to be part of the success story of the team lifting the trophy.

Already, solid arrangements have been concluded for various state governments to host the participating players from their states in an elaborate ceremony as an additional measure of currying favour from the indigenes of the states.

To further underscore the importance of the team’s exploits at the tournament as a source of succour to the already tensed nation, a sort of convivial atmosphere had enveloped the country, perhaps while Nigerians savored the victory, some days before the final match on Sunday.

Without statistical backing, there was possibly a drastic reduction in crime and criminality according to media reports. More importantly, the hitherto sharply divided Nigerians along political, ethno-religious, and socio-cultural fault lines have been united by the victory.

However, despite the efforts of the government officials to appease the masses of disgruntled Nigerians, banking on the overall impressive performance of the team, the failure to crown it with a trophy reward may have inflicted fresh severe pain on the psyche of many Nigerians.

To painfully warn the government and its officials that the measure to use Eagles as bait to win the Favour of angry Nigerians cannot be absolute; some frustrated Nigerians went out of their way to register their grievances by unleashing terror and inflicting sorrows on the comforting-seeking fellow citizens, robbing them at gunpoint at the viewing centers, especially in Lagos.

In the Lagos incident, an eyewitness, who narrated what transpired, claimed that the event happened during the second half of the Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana of South Africa match, last week.

The source who resides close to the viewing center, according to reports, narrated that there were about six armed men, hooded on black, mainly to shield their identities that invaded the viewing center and robbed the unsuspecting football lovers.

He explained that three members of the gang took strategic positions outside while the remaining operated inside, and collected valuables like huge amounts of money, expensive mobile phones, and tablets, among others at gunpoint from everyone.

Again, the anticipated reprieve from the trophy, which would have sustained Nigerians and doubled as a bragging right reference point, may pose a fresh challenge to the government on the kind of extraordinary measures to apply to soften the increasing anger of Nigerians over the hunger in the land.

The loss of the tournament trophy will certainly remind Nigerians of their suffering and hardship. It will also bring to reality the agony of the four patriotic Nigerians that lost their lives during the semi-finals Pyrrhic victory against South Africa,

Truth be told, in the minds of many Nigerians, now that the hopes, expectations and plans by the government to use the trophy to appease the already angry Nigerians have been dashed irredeemably, the chicken has come home to roost.

The government and its officials are now left with little option than to come home and fashion out a new mass people-oriented policy to douse the simmering anger of Nigerians going through the realities of the pangs of hunger and soaring cost of living in the land.

But, trust the government and their manipulative tendencies toward the Nigerian masses, President Tinubu, in his response, appealed to them to put the failure to crown their efforts with a trophy behind them.

“Let this passing event not dispirit us but bring us together to work harder. We are a great nation bound as one by the green-white-green banner of resilience, joy, hope, duty, and untiring love. To those cherished Nigerian youths expressing their gifts in communities, drawing lines in the sand as they play football in their humble rectangles of play, you can be our heroes tomorrow; do not relent in your pursuit. My administration is here to make dreams come true,” he noted in the statement signed by his Special Adviser Media & Publicity, Ajuri Ngelale.


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