This year's CECAFA football competition is taking place in Sudan's troubled regions of Darfur and South Kordofan. The games are supposed to convey a political message.
There are safer places for visitors in Sudan than Darfur or South Kordofan, the country's worst trouble spots. In its travel advisory, Germany's Foreign Ministry cautions its citizens against visiting to Darfur because of "military conflicts and activities by bandits." Ten years of fighting between rebels and goverment troops, as well as ethnic conflicts, have driven almost two million people from their homes. An estimated 300,000 people have died. The head of the African Union-UN peacekeeping mission, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, has expressed "grave concern at the deterioration of the security situation."
The wording of the German foreign ministry's advisory for South Kordofan is very similar. Rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army-North are locked in conflict there with Sudan's army. More than 200,000 people have fled to South Sudan to escape the fighting. The United Nations estimates that more than 1 million people have been affected by the hostilties.
Sending a message to Sudan's citizens
Still, the ball is rolling in Darfur's city of El Fasher and in South Kordofan's capital, Kadugli. Twelve teams from East and Central Africa are participating in this year's CECAFA Kagame Cup, organized by the Council for East and Central Africa Football Federation Association (CECAFA). The tournament runs until July 4. "For us it was a good idea to have the tournament in Kadugli and El Fasher, because there are so many allegations that is not secure, but we keep telling people that it is actually safe," Sudan's Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told DW.
In staging the tournament the government wants to sent a message to its own people, says Sudanese academic Magdi El Gizouli, now a fellow with the Rift Valley Institute. "It makes a difference if you read in the newspaper that Kadugli is under rebel fire or if you read that a football match is taking place there", he told DW. "The government wants to show that it is in control and that it can provide security in areas like Darfur or South Kordofan", he said.
Attempt to look strong
According to experts, the government is still licking its wounds after a daring rebel attack on Um Rawaba in April 2013. The rebels overran the town in central Sudan, about 500 kilometres south of the capital Khartoum. They also managed to seize - and hold on to - Abu Kershola in neigboring South Kordofan for almost a month. "This created a perception of insecurity in the country and the perception of a weak and demoralized army", Magdi El Gizouli said.
Looking weak can be dangerous for the government in Khartoum. The Arab Spring that swept away governments from Egypt to Tunisia has not led to a regime change in Sudan, but Khartoum has seen a number of anti-government protests in 2012, partly because of the dire economic situation in the country. In early June, an umbrella group of more than 20 opposition parties vowed to topple the government of President Omar al-Bashir within 100 days - a plan which experts, however, believe has little chance of succeeding.
A peacekeeping exercise?
The tournament's organizers, the Council for East and Central Africa Football Federation Association (CECAFA), do not think that the cup is being politicized. The decision to host the tournament in Darfur and Kordofan came under fire even before the opening match, with three teams from Kenya and Tanzania refusing to attend, citing security concerns.
"This is not the first time we are organizing a tournament outside the capital of a certain country. There is nothing funny in bringing this tournament to El Fasher or Kadugli", CECAFA Secretary-General Nicholas Musonye told DW. "I don't think the government needs this tournament to propagate it's name."
Instead, CECAFA wants the tournament to be seen as a contribution to peace-building in the region. "People are coming together, people are watching football, people are happy. Football is a way to promote peace and harmony", Musonye told DW.
Fighting was continuing, however, even while the ball was rolling. A local chief said on Tuesday (25.06.) that fighting in South Darfur had killed at least eleven people.
The United Nations says 300.000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Darfur since the beginning of the year.