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Togo Disqualified from African Cup Following Deadly Attack

Togo's national football team has been formally disqualified from the African Cup of Nations following Friday's deadly attack on the team's convoy in Cabinda, a region of Angola long troubled by separatist violence.

Members of the Togolese national football team before a warm-up match in Biberach/Riss a few days before the World Cup (Source: Wikipedia)

Members of the Togolese national football team before a warm-up match in Biberach/Riss a few days before the World Cup (Source: Wikipedia)

The team's assistant coach and media officer were killed and goalkeeper Kodjovi “Dodji” Obilale, seriously injured.  Obilale is reported to be in stable condition after undergoing surgery in South Africa, although he is still breathing with the assistance of a respirator.

FLEC, the rebel group which has claimed responsibility for the attack, indicated in a statement that the police envoy, and not the Togolese players, were the target.  The Angolan government, for its part, has called the attack an “isolated incident” and has guaranteed the security of the other teams.  Matches continue as scheduled in Cabinda province.

Although according to news reports, many players had indicated they wanted to keep playing, the Togolese government recalled the team on Saturday.  Togo, which was to play Ghana today, was officially disqualified when the team failed to appear.

Since the attack, many Togolese have been asking difficult questions about what was a preventable tragedy:  Why was the team traveling by bus and not by air?  Did the Angolan government choose to stage a matches in Cabinda just to prove the rebellion was over?   Is football worth all the tragedy that seems to follow it?  Should the Cup be canceled?

Play on?

Directly following the attack, there was a big debate online as to whether Togo should withdraw.  Rêve d'Afrique, the blog of Togolese writer Gerry Taama, argued the game should go on:

A la seule condition que la CAN soit annulée (les autres équipes décidant de boycotter l’évènement), nous devons jouer ce match…Nous devons être à cette CAN, pour occuper notre place, pour honorer nos morts, leur dire combien nous les aimons, et combien nous leur montrons que refusons que leur mort soit vaine. Jouer pour ne pas laisser les terroristes nous vaincre, pour ne pas laisser la barbarie l’emporter sur le droit et nos valeurs. Refuser de jouer, c’est capituler…

Unless the CAN (African Cup of Nations) is canceled (the other teams decide to boycott the event), we should play this match…We must be at this CAN, to take our place, to honor our dead, to express our love for them, and to show that we refuse that their deaths be in vain.  To play so as to not let the terrorists win, to not let savagery triumph over the law or our values.  To refuse to play is to give in…

Yipka-Au Village disagreed:

Comment est-ce qu’ont espere qu’ils jouent au foot apres avoir echappe belle a la mort en essayant d’aller jouer au foot, et aussi avec deux joueurs et des entraineurs et medecins gravement blesses??

How can we hope that they'll play after narrowly escaping death while trying to do just that, and with two players and trainers and doctors seriously injured??

Kangi Alem agrees, and goes one step further, arguing that the 2010 Africa Cup should be canceled:

La CAF porte une responsabilité dans le fait d’avoir fait passer les joueurs togolais dans une enclave réputée dangereuse, elle doit maintenant prendre ses responsabilités en annulant la CAN 2010! C’est mon sentiment, antisportif peut-être, mais c’est mon sentiment.

CAF [Confederation of African Football] has a responsibility.  It had players pass through an area known to be dangerous, and it should now do the responsible thing and cancel CAN 2010!  That's my opinion, a bit anti-sport, perhaps, but that's my opinion.

CAF has claimed it was unaware of the team's travel itinerary and that it had been advising teams to travel by plane.  Alem finds this “bizarre” since the team was accompanied by an armed convoy, courtesy of the Angolan government.

Why play in Cabinda?

Of course a big question is why matches were being held in Cabinda in the first place. Yikpa writes:

Je pense que c’etait une decision politique de l’Etat Angolais cautionne par la CAF d’organiser des matchs dans cette region de la Cabinda pour prouver qu’il y a securite dans cette region riche en petrole afin d’attirer les investisseurs etrangers dans cette region. Alors cette attaque viens de prouver le contraire.

I think that it was a political decision on the part of the Angolan government, supported by CAF, to organize matches in Cabinda to prove that this region, rich in oil, was secure so as to attract investors there.  This attack proves the contrary.

Paul Archer, in a comment on Alem's post, writes:

Il faut jouer, c’est la vie! les rebelles sont chez eux,je ne les approuve pas mais un terrain de guerre est un terrain de guerre.

They were on the rebels’ turf.  I don't agree with it, but a war zone is a war zone.

Sports & Tragedy

David Kpelly, writing on Alem's blog, noted that this is not the first time sports, in particular football, have been associated with violence.  In 2007, 13 members of the sport's officials and supporters, including the Minister of Sports, were killed in Sierra Leone in a helicopter crash.  He also notes that after the Togo-Mali qualifying match for the 2006 African Cup, several Togolese were killed in Bamako.  He also references an incident at the Kegue Stadium in Lome where several football fans died, not to mention a more recent tragedy in Cote d'Ivoire, where 19 spectators were killed in a stampede.  He concludes:

Sur le plan africain, le foot, toujours lui, ne fait pas moins de victimes…Bon Dieu! le foot fait trop de victimes!

In Africa, football, yes football, …My God!  Football makes too many victims!

In a similar vein another reader, Sami, wonders if, given the violence that sometimes surrounds them, “Popular sports that stir almost primitive nationalist feelings aren't battlefields in disguise” [Fr].

The Game Goes On

Felix Makayaba, in a comment on Reve d'Afrique, laments a feeling that as the African Cup continues, the world, and even spectators in Togo, have already forgotten the tragedy:

En effet, tant que la CAN continue, il y'aura une ambiance festive partout au Togo. Et ala douleur de la mort des nôtres rique d'être occulté pour laisser la place au football. J'ai pour preuve les cris qde joie qui fusent de tout de Lomé du seul fait de l'égalisation des 4 buts par l'équipe du Mali. Déjà les Loméens se mettent dans la peau de leurs frères Maliens…Déjà nos morts d'Angola, sans avoir encore été inhumés nous occupent de plus en plus moins.

As CAN continues, there will be a festive ambiance all around Togo.  And the pain of the deaths of some of our own risks being overshadowed by football.  I have as proof, the cries of joy that rang out all over Lome over just the 4 tie goals made by the Malian team.  Already the people of Lome are putting themselves in the skins of their Malian brothers…Already we are less and less worried about our dead in Angola, before they are even buried.

Perhaps it's just human nature that in spite of a horrible loss, life goes on.  Fasokan describes the festive feeling in Bamako yesterday just before the Mali-Angola match (which ended in a 4-4 tie).

Ce soir, le Mali joue contre l’Angola, C’est un grand évènement aujourd’hui au Mali et on le sent partout à travers le drapeau malien accroché aux motos, aux vélos, aux voitures, sur les hangars et les toits par les supporteurs. C’est le seul grand sujet à la Une partout à Bamako.

On voit des hommes habillés en vert, jaune, rouge et certaines femmes attacher le drapeau malien autour de la tête comme foulards pour dire aux Aigles du Mali que tout le monde est derrière eux.

Tonight, in Mali, we play against Angola.  It's a great event here in Mali and you can feel it everywhere with the Malian flag hung on motorcycles, bikes, cars, on the sheds and the roofs by supporters.

You can see men dressed in green, yellow and red, and some woman wrapping the Malian flag around their heads, like veils, all to tell the Mali Eagles that everyone is behind them.

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