By Peter Alegi | January 26th, 2012 2 Comments
The Times (London), January 25, 2012
By Matthew Syed
It is no coincidence that Alex Salmond, the wily and rather combative leader of the SNP, is fighting to hold the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. This, of course, is partly to do with the anniversary of the Battle of Bannock-burn, where the Scots gave the English a bit of a kicking in the First War of Scottish Independence.
But, perhaps even more significantly, it is also about the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and a recognition that the patriotism that invariably surrounds great sporting occasions could lend the campaign for secession unstoppable momentum. No wonder David Cameron wants to hold the referendum early.
Few politicians, let alone sports fans, have failed to recognise the curious alchemy of events such as the Commonwealth Games, not to mention the Olympics and World Cup. It is not just the anthem-singing and the flag-waving, but a sense of unity that is conspicuous by its absence at just about any other time in national life – with the possible exception of a royal wedding.
We are divided by religion, by political affiliation, by cultural allegiance and by our attitudes to Simon Cowell but, when David Beckham is charging around against Greece, or Sally Gunnell is leaping around Montjuic, or Tim Henman is getting edgy against Pete Sampras in SW19, we are bound up in a shared national story. Look hard and you can almost see the pages moving.
In this sense the Africa Cup of Nations, which started at the weekend, is perhaps the most important sporting event in the world. Not in terms of the football, of course – although the European club stars who return home to represent their homelands lend stardust to an event that improves in quality with each incarnation – but rather in terms of the politics of identity. As the players of Niger and Libya and Equatorial Guinea cruise around the pitch, you can see history in the making.
The idea of nationhood, let alone a shared national story, may seem an intellectual and emotional absurdity in the con-text of post-colonial Africa. This is not just about the ambiguity of nation states that were created by generals drawing lines on maps, or even histories complicated by slavery, imperialism and the imposition of foreign ideology. It is also about a continent where ethnicity, language and custom create a criss-crossing set of identities that defy meaningful categorisation.
In Nigeria alone, who rather surprisingly did not qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, there are 400 languages and a multitude of indigenous religions alongside Islam and Christianity. The broad groupings of Hausa and Fulani in the north and Yoruba and Igbo in the south conceal a far deeper and more complex set of identities that exist at the level of tribes and notional ethnicities. Even the British colonialists found it impossible to forge any sense of unity.
But this is where football – dramatically and possibly uniquely – changes everything. As John Obi Mikel and Yakubu Ayegbeni step on to the field of play, as they did at the 2010 World Cup finals, the citizenry undergo a metamorphosis familiar to the English, the Dutch, and other long-established nations. They are no longer Hausa or Igbo. They are no longer Fulani or Yoruba. They are Nigerians. As Peter Alegi puts it in African Soccerscapes, a marvellous book about the social history of football in Africa: “Africans are 90-minute patriots.”
Alegi’s thesis, which is as impressive as it is extensive, is that football was not only central to the liberation struggle of countries such as Algeria and Nigeria, but has become the central vehicle in the project of nationalism. “Football exerts magnetism on the disparate groupings in a way nothing else can match,” he says. “The divides come crashing down, whether you are urban or rural, rich or poor, Islamic or Christian. You are aware of an identity that might otherwise seem meaningless.”
The sheer joy of football in Africa has been well documented, with youngsters kicking around bundles of paper tied together with a piece of string in every corner of the continent, from the urban ghettos to the remote rural plains. Villagers who live hundreds of kilometres off the electricity grid congregate around televisions powered by makeshift generators to watch matches and celebrate the successes of local stars.
But football is at its most politically potent in the expression of an identity that was once redundant. As Eric Hobsbawm, the eminent Marxist historian, puts it: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.”
Leaders in Africa, ever fearful of a descent into factional disputes and civil wars along tribal and ethnic lines, have seen the significance.
National symbolism, patriotic rhetoric and the entire arsenal of nationalistic propaganda are constructed around the teams. Many of the countries playing in the cup have even ditched foreign coaches, preferring indigenous alternatives to cement the idea of a national story, and repudiate a sense of colonial interference.
Of course, many Africa watchers have been struck by the apparent contradiction of self-confessedly tribal individuals, who are often scathing of the national government, becoming patriotic when a sporting event looms into view. But these ironies are rather familiar. It is no more (or less) paradoxical than a proud Englishman cheering for Team GB, or a Liverpudlian rooting for Team England. It is a curiosity of nationalism that we seem able to repudiate and appropriate identities almost at will.
Perhaps that is the point.
Historians such as Hobsbawm argue that the idea of nationalism is in retreat, and that may be indeed true in the West. But the deeper question in Africa, where nationalism is still in its infancy, is whether football is leaving any long-term residue. Is the beautiful game helping to forge identities that will ultimately subvert local affiliations and reduce the risk of regional conflict, or will the influence prove to be ephemeral, lasting only until the final whistle at the end of any given match?
It is fascinating that Alegi is pessimistic. To go back to the example of Nigeria, he points to the conflict in the Niger delta, where a regional debate about environmental protection has spiralled into a conflict about the proceeds of industry. Those in the delta are not reaping the economic benefits of oil extraction, and they are not appeased by the idea of the money being used for the betterment of the “nation”.
“Ultimately, basic issues of economics and historic affiliation will trump the idea of nationhood,” Alegi says.
But in many ways the jury is still out. What is certain is that nationalism is central to the future of Africa in its widest sense, and football is central to the future of nationalism. That is why, regardless of the quality of the football, the Africa Cup of Nations could scarcely be more significant.