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Africa Cup boycott

January 20, 2012

It's almost kick-off at the 2012 Africa Cup. Sixteen teams are about to go head-to-head for the title. But human rights groups have called for a boycott, citing violations in host nations Gabon and Equatorial-Guinea.

Gabonese soccer fans wear face paint in the colors of the national flag
Football mad - and unfit to host the Africa Cup?Image: AP

The list of major sporting events that have been hosted by countries accused of human rights violations is long.

Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Olympic Games at a time when the regime's program of persecution of Jewish communities was already undeniable. During its military dictatorship, Argentina hosted the 1978 Football World Cup, placing the all-important final just kilometers from one of South America's worst torture sites. And most recently, China systematically cracked down on demonstrations while hosting the 2008 Olympic Games.

Now, as Gabon and Equatorial-Guinea prepare to fire the starting pistol on the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, the two nations' own human rights records have come under renewed scrutiny.

Equatorial-Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema
Equatorial-Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang NguemaImage: AP

Equatorial-Guinea is a small country with a population of about 700,000 where the head of state, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, has ruled since 1979. In 2009, despite a disputed ballot in which he claimed to have secured 95 percent of the vote, Obiang Nguema pronounced himself president once more.

Marise Castro, Amnesty International's Equatorial-Guinea expert in London, paints a grim picture of Obiang Nguema's reign.

"The situation of human rights in Equatorial-Guinea has always been very dire," said Castro, "there's always been oppression, members of the opposition and their families are arrested, people are tortured, there's no due process, there's no freedom of expression, or the right of assembly."

Rich country, poor people

Equatorial-Guinea is a rich nation - it is the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

But even those people who are not oppressed by the regime seldom benefit from the riches.

The president and his clique are known more for spending the country's oil revenue on expensive homes, cars and other luxury items than they are for investing in human rights like education and health.

That is according to Florent Geel, Africa Director at the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) in Paris.

"Given Equatorial-Guinea's financial potential, the fact that the people are so poor is surreal," said Geel.

The situation in neighboring Gabon, meanwhile, is not much better.

Voters outside a crowded polling station in Gabon in 2009
Voters crowd outside a polling station in Gabon in 2009Image: AP

Gabon is also a small country, with a population of 1.5 million, which since 2009 has been ruled by Ali Bongo - the son and heir of the late dictator Omar Bongo.

Omar Bongo reigned over Gabon for 42 years and either bribed or fought people who opposed him.

"Opposition parties and human rights organizations, which resisted the temptation of a position in government, were oppressed," said Geel.

This is why, says Geel, civil society has had so little influence in the country and has only recently started to develop.

Misspent funds

Marc Ona campaigns for civil society in Gabon and has been fighting for more transparency of the revenue accrued from raw materials. He is angry about the millions his country has spent on building stadia for the Africa Cup because ultimately, he says, the people have had to pay.

"While some here are celebrating the Africa Cup, students are protesting, and the police are cracking down on their demonstrations," said Ona. "The university has been closed because the students are demanding better teaching conditions and they want the State to pay their grants - which have been outstanding for six months."

Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba
Son and heir - Gabon's President Ali BongoImage: AP

But instead of paying the students' grants, Gabon has spent hundreds of millions of euros on organizing the football competition.

"And that although some parts of the capital don't even have enough water," Ona said, adding that the military has killed and arrested people during recent confrontations.

"Shouldn't a country's government record be one of the criteria for awarding international competitions?" he asks.

Unanswered correspondence

In May 2011, Ona and his colleagues wrote to the organizers of the Africa Cup, the football world governing body, FIFA, and the African football association, CAF.

They wanted to draw attention to abuses in Gabon and to request that FIFA and CAF reconsider their decision to award the 2012 Africa Cup to Gabon and Equatorial-Guinea.

But to date, they have had no reply.

The competition starts on Saturday.

Author: Dirk Köpp / za
Editor: Mark Caldwell / rm

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