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How Gov’t Attempts To Politicise AFCON, Fill Stadia, Created Chaos

The Japoma Sports Complex

By Joe Dinga Pefok

The Chairman of the National Organising Committee of the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON, in Cameroon, Prof Narcise Mouelle Kombi, on Friday, January 28, 2022, presented to the national and international media a number of measures adopted by Government and the Organising Committee to curb chaos and enforce security at stadia during the ongoing AFCON 2021.

However, these measures adopted barely one week to the end of AFCON 2021 are considered as belated, as they were adopted after eight persons had already died in a stampede at the entrance into the newly constructed Olembe Stadium in Yaounde, on Monday, January 24, when Cameroon played against Comoros Islands.

Some observers have opined that, if these measures were adopted and implemented right from the beginning of AFCON 2021, the January 24 tragedy at the Olembe Stadium would have been avoided. Jean Baptiste Atemengue, a CPDM representative participating in a panel discussion over Equinoxe TV’s ‘Droit de Reponse’,  on Sunday, January 30, 2022, said the stampede was caused by persons that had no tickets, but were trying to force themselves into the stadium . But the question is, how we got to that point?

After Chaos, Gov’t Stops Distributing Free Tickets

One of the key measures government has taken to curb chaos outside stadia is by prohibiting the distribution of free tickets for AFCON matches, especially outside the stadia. People have also been prohibited from going to the stadia for AFCON matches, if they do not have tickets.

This is interesting, because, before the January 28 announcement, the Government and the Organising Committee had never admitted that free tickets were being distributed outside the stadia.  It was never said that the growing chaos and insecurity outside the stadia was because many young people in particular were going to the stadia without tickets, with the hope of getting free tickets.

The Issue Of Empty Stadia

The silent distribution of free match tickets either to militants of the ruling CPDM party or to some members of the public was an unannounced strategy by the Biya regime to fill empty stadia during AFCON matches, after the regime embarrassingly realised that a majority of the six stadia hosting AFCON matches were virtually empty matches of the Group Phase of the continental football competition.

It is indisputable that, in serious planning meetings to organise any big public event, one of the issues that is normally given priority by the organisers is how to effectively mobilise the targeted population to massively attend.

That was why, a couple of months before AFCON kicked off on January 9, a number of Cameroonian experts made proposals to Government and the Local Organising Committee, on measures to be examined and possibly adopted to avoid the embarrassing situation of empty stadia during the competition.

Empty Stadia On Day One

Meanwhile, COCAN mobilised a heavy turnout of the population to the opening ceremony of AFCON 2021 on January 9, 2022, because President Biya had to be present. Thousands of students were, for example, transported from State universities in Yaounde to the Olembe Stadium to clap for Biya. More so, the Cameroon national football team, the Indomitable Lions, had to play the opening match.

But the embarrassment that experts had cautioned the Government and COCAN against came staring the Government in the face during Day One matches of AFCON in four pools.  Pools B and C in Bafoussam – Kouekong and Yaounde Omnisport respectively on January 10, as well as in Pools E and F in Douala and Limbe respectively on January 11 and 12. The phenomenon of empty stadia was recorded in all these four pools, as only handful of spectators showed up for the matches.

The TV images that circulated across the world showing empty stadia in Cameroon during AFCON matches greatly embarrassed the Government. It was however a situation that could have been avoided if the Government and COCAN had paid attention to the proposals that experts made on strategies that could help avoid a situation of empty stadiums during AFCON 2021 in Cameroon.

It would be recalled that, besides Cameroon’s Pool A at the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde, the only other pool that saw a heavy turnout of spectators was Pool C in Garoua, where a large number of fans poured in from neighbouring Nigeria to support their country’s national team, the Super Eagles.

Desperate Measures By Government’s and Mayors

With an embarrassing situation of empty stadiums, the government desperately started thinking of what to do to curb the situation. But, despite that, the Government would still not come out rapidly with measures to adopt. As a result, Governors that are Presidents of local organising committees of regions hosting pools for AFCON matches, together with their committees and mayors, also desperately started looking for strategies to curb the embarrassing situation of empty stadia.

The Governor of the West Region, Awa Fonka Augustine, for example, issued a communiqué exhorting heads of public services, para public companies, and private enterprises in his administrative unit to give a short permission of absence to their personnel on Friday, January 14, 2022, at 12 noon, to permit them attend matches at the Bafoussam – Kouekong Omnisport Stadium on that day. It was for Day 2 matches of AFCON 2021. On his part, the City Mayor of Bafoussam, Roger Takam, issued a communiqué informing the population that the council would hire buses to transport football fans to the stadium and back on that January 14.

In Douala, Littoral Governor announced, in a communiqué, that he had struck an agreement with the management of the urban transport bus company, SOCATUR, to transport sports fans from the city centre to the Japoma Stadium on days of AFCON matches, for free.

In Limbe, the Mayor of Limbe II, HRH Ndive Woka Ngale, issued a communique informing the population that buses would be stationed at strategic points within the municipality, to transport football lovers to the Limbe Omnisport Stadium at Ngeme, to watch Pool F matches. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Buea issued a service note to all staff of the council, informing them that, in line with the instructions of the Governor of the Southwest Region, it had become mandatory for all staff of the Buea Council to attend Pool F matches in Limbe. The Council however had to take charge of transportation and probably tickets for the matches as well.

Controversial Gov’t Decision

Things took another turn on Friday, January 14, when the Minister of Public Health, Dr Manaouda Malachie, announced, in a communiqué, that personnel of the ministry were to stop work at 2pm on Monday, January 17, to enable them go and watch matches of Pool A, precisely the Cameroon vs. Cape Verde match. This was really a situation of disorder in Government.  A minister unilaterally deciding to shut down his ministry, for the staff to go and watch AFCON matches.

Then on Saturday, January 15, the Government released a rather controversial decision signed by the Secretary-General at the Prime Minister’s Office, Seraphin Magloire Fouda. The Government announced that all public schools were to henceforth close at 1pm, and work closes at 2pm in the public service, until Friday, February 4. It was said that the Government decision was aimed at enabling Cameroonians to take an active part in the AFCON.

But the Government decision was controversial. The decision created chaos and confusion in Government schools, as the Government took the decision without consulting major stakeholders of the education sector.

Government’s target was mainly civil servants, and students of public schools.

Cacophony Of CPDM Elite

The Governors’ desperation to curb the situation of empty stadia led them to welcome some of their regions’ external political elite of the ruling CPDM, to help in the mobilisation of the population to go and fill the stadiums during AFCON matches. But the political elite created another problem which was that of politicising AFCON in Cameroon.

For one thing, politicians generally do not do something for nothing, as they will want to make political gain out of anything they do. Without any surprise, the first big mobilisation drive by political elite was in the West Region, where the rivalry between political elite of the ruling CPDM is always so fierce. The CPDM Section President of Nde North, Celestine Ketcha Courtes, initially said she was offering 500 tickets for youths who wanted to attend the January 14 AFCON match at the Bafoussam – Kouekong Stadium.

Soon, it was reported that CPDM MP for Koung- Khi, Hon Albert Kouinche, was in Bandjoun mobilising hundreds of youths to transport them to the Bafoussam – Kouekong Stadium on January 14.   Also, a CPDM elite of Noun Division, Njoya Zachariou,  also Minister Delegate in the Ministry of Transport, reportedly sent money for hundreds of youths to  be mobilised and transported from Noun to Bafoussam for the January 14 match.

Another CPDM elite of the West Region, Emmanuel Nganou Djoumessi, Minister of Public Works, also did same in his native Bamboutous Division, and also did CPDM elite of other Divisions of the West Region.

The rivalry between CPDM elite was the most fierce in Bangante, where the CPDM Mayor of the town, Eric Niat, who has become an arch-rival of her predecessor and CPDM Section President of Nde North,  Minister Celestine Ketcha Courtes, also embarked on an operation to take hundreds of  CPDM youths from Bangante to the Bafoussam – Kouekong Stadium on January 14, for the AFCON matches of the 2nd Day of play.

Apparently due that operation, Minister Celestine Courtes herself landed in Bangante to take many more CPDM youths to Bafoussam for the match. She reportedly offered a total of 20,000 tickets.

Fighting To Take Credit

After the match, supporters of the different CPDM elite of the West Region, who mobilised and funded CPDM youths to fill the stadia, invaded the social media for days. They were engaged in a fight to claim how it was this or that CPDM elite whom they support, that funded the trip of the highest number of youths to the stadium.

It was not surprising that the gesture of the CPDM elite went mostly to the benefit of CPDM youths, and not to Cameroonian youths.

More Free Tickets for CPDM Youths

Meanwhile, as part of a strategy to mobilise many people to go to the stadia and watch AFCON matches, some CPDM elite in Yaounde and Douala also shared tickets to youths to fill the stadium.

Apart from CPDM youths, others also benefitted in Douala.  Videos have appeared on social media showing some members of the regime like Prof Justine Diffo Tchunkam, the Chairperson of the Telephone Regulatory Board, with bags of tickets, distributing them to members of the public  at road junctions and outside the stadiums in Yaounde and Douala.

It is highly suspected that the free tickets are being secretively given out to the CPDM elite by the CPDM Government.

 Mfoundi VI YCPDM Section

A clear example of how CPDM youths are being mobilised and given free tickets and transport money to attend AFCON matches as part of CPDM Government’s controversial strategy to curb empty stadia,  is a correspondence that the YCPDM Section President for Mfoundi VI (Yaounde VI), Ngah Virginia Simone,   recently addressed to the Presidents of the 10 YCPDM Subsections of her Section.

An excerpt of the correspondence read: “In conformity with the instructions of our National President of the CPDM, Comrade Paul Biya, the 10 Subsection Presidents are called upon to mobilise militants massively to take part in the sports event this afternoon at the Mfandena Stadium.  Militants under the leadership of their different Subsection Presidents should be at the stadium latest 3.30 pm.”

It was clear that the YCPDM militants, upon their arrival outside the stadium, will receive free tickets to enter the stadium, as well as transport money. The Mfandena Stadium is the Yaounde Omnisport Stadium also known as the Amadou Ahidjo Stadium.

The matches that YCPDM militants of Mfoundi VI were being mobilised to attend were the Day 2 matches in the Group phase of AFCON 2021, which took place on Monday, January 17. It is also clear from the correspondence that the YCPDM militants were not going to attend the matches at the Mfandena Stadium as sports fans, but rather as militants assigned on a mission.

Insecurity At The Stadiums

The uncoordinated and unfair way in which Government has been secretly distributing free tickets for AFCON matches has greatly contributed to the increasing state of insecurity that is being observed outside the stadiums and at some entrances into stadiums. In Yaounde and Douala, many youths leave for the stadiums without tickets or money to buy one. Their hope is that some CPDM elite will come to the stadiums with many free tickets, and distribute to them.

There have also been cases where the local organising committees allegedly ordered the gates into the ‘popular sides’ of the stadiums to be let free, for youths hanging outside to enter and  help  to fill several empty seats. The Chairman of COCAN for the Douala Pool, Governor Dieudonne Ivaha Diboua, for example, left many people wondering when he called on youths in Douala to massively turn up at the Japoma Stadium for an AFCON match, he told the youths to turn up and he will see how they will not enter the stadium.

Many of these youths who go the stadium without tickets also lack discipline.  When they do not get free tickets or free access into the stadiums, they try to force their way into the stadium.  It is very likely that most of those who did the pushing at one of the entrances into the Olembe Stadium that resulted in the stampede and death in the fateful evening of Monday, January 24, had no tickets.

Dependable sources say pushing also took place at one of the entrances into the Olembe Stadium during  the  3rd and last day of play in the group phase of Pool A  at AFCON 2021, which pitted Cameroon against Cape Verde. But fortunately the situation did not degenerate into a stampede. But many observers agree that these chaotic situations at the entrances of stadiums could have been avoided if AFCON was well organised.

CAF Dumpma Japoma Stadium

Before the unfortunate incident at the Olembe Stadium in the evening of January 24, which led CAF to temporarily suspend the stadium, CAF      had earlier on that January 24 issued a warning to Cameroon through the Cameroon Football Federation, FECAFOOT, on the growing state of insecurity at the Japoma Stadium in Douala. CAF’s warning came after a group of unruly individuals numbering over 40, swiftly overpowered the security network and invaded the pitch at the Japoma Stadium, after the central referee sounded his whistle bringing an end to the AFCON match between Ivory Coast and Algeria, on January 20, 2022.

Following the incident, the Littoral Governor also issued a caution note to the rowdy youths. Meanwhile, unknown to the Littoral Governor and the Douala population, more bad news was still to come about the Japoma Stadium. On Thursday, January 27, CAF announced that no AFCON 2021 matches would be played at the Japoma Stadium as from Sunday, January 30, because of repeated complaints by different teams about the poor state of the pitch.

CAF thus announced that the Quarter Final match between Cameroon and Gambia on Saturday, January 29, would be the last match of AFCON 2021 at the Japoma Stadium in Douala. CAF then relocated another Quarter Final match that was scheduled for Japoma Stadium on January 30, to the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde. CAF also announced that one of the Semi-final matches that was earlier programmed for Japoma Stadium on Thursday, February 3, has also been relocated to the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde. This means that AFCON 2021 is over in Cameroon’s economic capital.

The outspoken Coach of the Algerian national team, Djamel Belmadi, was the first to complain about the state of the Japoma stadium during a pre match press conference at the stadium on Saturday, January 15. He said the state of the pitch was not good for an International football competition like AFCON.

Not surprising, the Chairman of the Local COCAN, Governor Ivaha Diboua, swore that the declaration made by the Algerian Coach was false. But at the same time, the Government funded an emergency work on the pitch. 

But then complaints continued to be made to CAF about the poor state of the pitch, by other teams. At the end, CAF had to take the decision to dump the Japoma Stadium from their list of stadia retained for ongoing AFCON matches in Cameroon.

An Indelible Negative Mark

It would be recalled that President Biya declared, in his 2021 end of year message to the nation, that the 33rd edition of the African Cup of Nations that Cameroon is currently hosting, will be the best ever organised AFCON. But from all indications so far, that will not be the case, as a number of serious organisational lapses and incidents have already been registered.

The worst case of course, is the stampede that occurred at one of the entrances into the Olembe Stadium in the evening of Monday, January 24. The incident left as many as eight persons dead and close to 40 injured.

The Chairman of COCAN, Prof Narcise Mouelle Kombi, tried to downplay the Olembe Incident in a media outing on Friday, January 28. While claiming that he was not trying to downplay the incident, Minister Mouelle Kombi however said it was an accident, and that accidents occur all over the world, every now and then.

However, Minister Mouelle Kombi scandalously evaded taking questions from journalists after what was supposed to be his preliminary presentation, most probably because he did not want to take any question on the Olembe Incident.

The Olembe Incident is apparently unprecedented in the history of AFCON, or at least in recent memory. It will leave an indelible negative image on the Cameroon organised AFCON 2021.

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