By Joshua Coulson
As the Premier League descends into its biennial debate about the merits of a major international tournament mid-way through a season, all eyes in Africa last week turned towards Bata where hosts Equatorial Guinea face surprise package Libya in the opening match of this year’s African Cup of Nations. It is easy for English football supporters to bemoan the loss of their star players, but let’s turn our eyes for a moment to look at the impact the sport has on the world’s poorest continent. The ACON is often looked down on patronisingly in the UK with the tournament more notorious for poor goalkeeping, administrative nightmares and tragedy rather than high quality football. But what is so often forgotten is the power that this tournament has in Africa – the inspirational stories inspired by sport are so much more potent in countries gripped by poverty or crisis. Mandela spoke of sport having the power to change the world, and the glamour and thrill of the Cup of Nations invokes such passion amongst its vibrant and colourful fans, serving as a valuable distraction in a continent where struggles for basic amenities are commonplace.
Take for example the Libyan passage to qualification, a story so incredible that even Hollywood script writers would have struggled to have written, where a team with few stars names and no competitive football for months qualified in spite of having to play ‘home’ matches in Egypt or Mali as the nation descended into civil war. Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta paid his own way through qualification, without a wage for six months, whilst coping with half the team being unavailable for selection depending on whether Tripoli or Benghazi was under siege (imagine England being forced to play without any London-based players for a match because it was too dangerous to leave the house). And yet, playing in a new kit under a new flag, they qualified against the all the odds and are now a powerful symbol of the new Libya. Their three Group A matches will be a positive distraction for a nation that is slowly recovering from the Gaddafi regime.
And the tournament itself is likely to be the most open and exciting to date. There are three debutants in this year, the most since 1972 (hosts Equatorial Guinea along with Niger and Botswana). With eight of the last nine winners failing to qualify, including seven time winners Egypt and the West African powerhouses Cameroon and Nigeria, the strength in depth of African football is evident. With global coverage, young players will be looking to book a move to Europe and the quality of African football is getting better all the time.
Relatively speaking, the impact on the Premier League will actually be quite small this year. Remarkably, only 11 players from England will be in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea (compared to 34 who went to Ghana in 2008), but there are some big names to look out for. Alan Pardew will be hoping to see new signing Papiss Demba Cisse combine well with Demba Ba for Senegal, justifying his Demba-Demba experiment (as opposed to Ferguson’s failed Djemba-Djemba trial), whilst Chelsea will miss Drogba and Man City will be depleted without the Toure brothers. Meanwhile, Arsenal fans will probably be glad to see the back of Chamakh and Gervinho for a few weeks, and Kalou will hardly be a big miss at Stamford Bridge.
This African Cup of Nations is set to be the most exciting yet. As an entire continent looks forward to seeing some of the world’s best players back at home I for one am eagerly anticipating the colour, vibrancy and excitement of the menagerie of Lions, Crocodiles, Panthers, Eagles, Zebras and Elephants descending on West Africa this month. This is a tournament for Africa, but we are all fortunate enough to be able to enjoy it too and share in this celebration of the power of football.
In the Middle Ages, people watched public hangings as a form of entertainment, and took their children with them to learn. Today, we are watching the video of Muammar Gaddafi’s death, or searching Google Images for gruesome photos of it. Or, if we are Libyans from the neighbourhood, we take our kids to look at the dictator’s decomposing body. Gaddafi’s death has attracted a lot of attention. It is a fact, and one that represents the end of a war; but it is also a media phenomenon, a sign of sensationalist Western interest.
As part of the Libyan war of liberation (a catchy term), the ‘non-democratic’ murder, for that is what we really are dealing with, has been legitimated by several international leaders: Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council, talked of “the end of an era of despotism”, while Barack Obama said “the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted”. All very nice, but somehow not right. Before the revolution, the US was amongst Libya and Gaddafi’s political partners (as was the UK), and the European Council did not then call attention to “despotism”.
Furthermore, this was (is?) a war, and a horrible one at that. As Reuters reports, at the same time as killing Gaddafi in the street, without bringing him to trial, Libyan soldiers also left the decapitated body of one of his guards behind them. Unnecessarily cruel behaviour from the point of view of a war for ‘freedom’ and no better than the way pro-Gaddafi troops have acted and talked.
Without dealing with the comparative engagement in condemnable behaviour, it is necessary to recognise this: in this war, by the end of it, the two sides used methods that were very similar, and all that separated them were perceptions of a “good cause”. This makes Western legitimation very important. But the way Gaddafi died also shows the very real difficulties Libya is likely to face when trying to establish a functioning democracy. Western legitimation seems to be allowing this to be overlooked.
As a media phenomenon, Gaddafi’s death is potentially more revealing of our own Western attitudes than the slightly tribal character in Libya. Media representation is, again, an act of legitimation on one level. But far more dominantly it is sensationalism: we are clearly very interested in the dictator’s death. On the day he died, there was already a photo of his bloodied head circulating online. From Reuters reports to articles in the Daily Mail, the events of his last minutes have been discussed and the video of his demise made freely available. Our newspapers are allowing the voices of soldiers – by now used to violence, and with a justifiable sense of achievement, but without an institutional check – to be heard. Despite the appearance of objectivity this creates, it is in fact a type of “catastrophe tourism” which mixes fear with fascination. Our behaviour is no better than what the ‘non-democratic’ murder. This should raise some questions about the legitimacy of Western influence (I dare not say legitimation) in Libya.
Think you had an exciting summer? Not compared to Chris Jeon, a 21 year old student at the University of California, Los Angeles, who became an internet sensation in the USA in early September. In case you haven’t heard of him, the story goes as follows: having already completed a banking internship this summer, he decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his holiday by joining the rebels in Libya. Amazingly, after flying into Cairo (with a one-way ticket so that “if I get captured or something, I don’t want to waste another $800″) and taking a collection of buses, he managed to link up with some Libyan rebels on the road to Tripoli. His story became known after a chance encounter with two journalists from The National and the Christian Science Monitor near An Nawfaliyah. In a video taken by them, he is shown in an LA Lakers shirt, surrounded by rebel fighters, being taught to fire a few awkward rounds of an AK-47 and asking to be taken to Sirte, the frontline in the fight against Gaddafi.
Since then, there has been a wide variety of reports about his progress: Al Jazeera English reported that the rebels had grown weary of the American student and sent him home, but The National, the Australian paper which first broke his story, rejected this version of events. Instead, it claimed that he had became a “celebrated mascot” of the rebels, known as “Ahmed El Maghrabi Saidi Barga”, a conglomeration of the names of local tribes. Later, it emerged that he was still in Libya, unaware of the media coverage he had created, pleading with journalist Bradley Hope: “Whatever you do, don’t tell my parents. They don’t know I’m here.”
So what possesses an American student who speaks no Arabic and can’t fire a gun to fly thousands of miles to take part in a war with which he has no personal connection? Answer: “I thought it would be cool to join the rebels,” the self-confessed thrill seeker told the two journalists he encountered. Indeed, he claims that he had first mooted the idea months ago: “At spring break I told my friends a ‘sick’ vacation would be to come here and fight with the rebels.”
Now some Libyans might be pleased or amused by this, but I expect that many more will not look upon Chris Jeon’s actions so kindly. And while it is Libyans themselves whose critiques will be more authoritatively outraged than mine, a few comments seem necessary. Someone needs to tell this American student that what is happening in Libya is neither “sick” nor “cool”, and that this isn’t the Spanish Civil War – at no point have there been appeals for international brigades of amateur fighters. It’s one thing for him to travel to Libya to witness events, but his efforts to join the rebels trivialise a conflict in which, according to recent estimates, tens of thousands of Libyans have already been killed. To him, this trip may be on a par with some of his previous adventures – the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, reported that he has previously lived with a tribe in Costa Rica for four months – but it is in no way comparable. The Libyan conflict is not a tourist attraction; it is not an opportunity for adventure junkies to get their highs. After 42 years of autocratic rule, Libyans do not deserve an American student, in a typically western act of unintentional arrogance, belittling the suffering of so many by treating their civil war as a holiday, to be participated in for a few weeks before jetting off home. I’m sure Jeon, described by his friends as quite unassuming and modest, does not mean any harm, but war is not a game and we can only hope that he does not endanger any lives by compelling rebel soldiers to look after him.
Moreover, Jeon possesses the same smug thoughtlessness as all those young adventures who pick too difficult a challenge and thus force others to go out of their way to save them. I’m sure you can think of the kind I mean: the kids who decide to climb a mountain without proper equipment or training (maybe with some novelty items for great photos at the top) but instead have to be rescued by helicopter after a week in which they fall ill and their supplies run out. To put it another way, what if Jeon were captured Gaddafi loyalists? Or by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb? Has he thought about the strain he would be putting on US military and civil authorities, who would have to try to rescue him, negotiate his release or simply just fly in and pick him up from someone? Has he considered the time and effort others would have to invest in such an eventuality, merely because he wanted his kicks? What about all the diplomatic problems he could cause, as an American citizen, by either killing someone or even being killed himself? Make no mistake, I hope Jeon gets home safely, but in disregarding the US State Department’s advice which “continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to Libya”, he has made light of a vicious and bloody conflict and not thought through the potential ramifications of his trip.
So maybe your holiday wasn’t as exciting as Chris Jeon’s, but still, next summer, please don’t try to emulate him – inter-railing is always a better option than thrill-seeking in a conflict zone.
Postscript: Chris Jeon recently returned home safely.
Britain is set to become the “most respected and most efficient” aid agency is the world, according to Malcolm Bruce, Chair of the International Development Select Committee. The coalition recently confirmed that it will keep to the pledge of devoting 0.7 percent of our gross national income to international aid, which currently amounts to £7.8 billion.
As part of the government review on aid spending, the number of countries receiving UK aid will fall from 42 to 27, a move widely welcomed as likely to promote efficiency. The government argues that if fewer countries receive aid, it will be easier to keep track of the money, making sure it is spent more effectively.
However, a closer look at those countries which will still be pumped with millions of pounds of UK taxpayer aid raises some questions about the process of selection. India will still get millions, despite the fact that its economy is growing by 10 percent and that it can afford to fund space and nuclear programmes. But of greater concern, many other countries lurk worryingly near the bottom of the Transparency International index on corruption.
The link between international aid and corruption has been the subject of extensive research. When one government gives tax money to another, the money often goes to the authority, strengthening the public sector. For a country that already suffers from appalling levels of corruption the economy becomes worryingly exposed to political pressures, bribery and embezzlement as different factions vie for access to the aid money. This indicates that international aid may not only consolidate pre-existing corruption in a country, but even increase it.
When Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan, allegations of corruption at the highest level made headline news. And yet this is a country which is to have its aid doubled as part of the new budget.
US government statistics show that in Ethiopia, a country which fares much better than Pakistan on the corruption index, in 2008, 88 percent of food aid never made it to its target. The UN also reported that in Afghanistan, less than 10 percent of foreign aid reached its intended recipient.
In conflict zones such as Afghanistan, this can have dire effects as the givers of aid may be inadvertently strengthening their enemies. This worry does not seem to have affected the UK government however as by 2014, 30 percent of UK international aid is expected to go to war-torn or unstable countries.
Aside from the issues surrounding corruption, aid can intensify conflict. Michiel Hofman, the ex-Afghanistan representative of Médecins Sans Frontières, expressed concern that Afghans are “put off” from seeking assistance from any international aid organisations as “doing so can endanger their lives”, since the Taliban regard it as cooperating with the enemy.
So what alternative is there? If funnelling aid through governments leads to greater corruption, perhaps we should direct our money at grass-roots organisations. This clearly violates the sovereignty of a nation state’s government, but judging by recent events in Libya, that doesn’t seem to be regarded as much of an issue these days.
We also need to strive to separate politics and aid. Michiel Hofman criticised Non-Governmental Organisations in Afghanistan saying that it is “inaccurate” to claim that most of them are basing their work on humanitarian principles. Aid organisations are not vehicles of Western ideologies. It would be incredibly dangerous to lose sight of their true purpose.
In such times of economic strain, ring-fencing international aid was a bold move, and an admirable one at that. But we must ensure that the money is accounted for and spent in an efficient and culturally sensitive way. When some of the neediest countries in the world are also the most corrupt, we have to abandon the hope that aid will trickle down through the layers of bureaucracy. To combat global poverty there is no option but to find ways of giving directly to those in need.
How do you quantify a war? Politicians will learn lessons from the diplomacy employed, the distinctions drawn in international law. Military men will tot up the losses in manpower and machinery. Economists will measure the drop in GDP, the cost to restore infrastructure. ‘Collateral damage’ has to be one of the world’s most flexible euphemisms, yet in what it hides it can be the most sinister. In addition to the quantifiable, it provides an umbrella for damage that cannot be calculated.
Alison Criado-Perez is someone whose job it is to deal with collateral damage. She is a nurse with Medecins Sans Frontieres, the humanitarian aid organization whose sole purpose is to step in when other medical safeguards have failed. As the name suggests, MSF follows human need, irrespective of borders and independent of political influence. As we speak, its 26,000 medics are providing care in over 60 countries, though the frontiers of race and religion, creed and political conviction are as real as the physical in the work of MSF. Part of their work is in providing relief from natural disasters, but the human suffering they deal with is, as often as not, the result of human folly.
Last week, Alison returned from three months on the Libyan-Tunisian boarder, leading a series of medical projects around the refugee camps and evacuating Libya’s war wounded. Though the scale of the humanitarian crisis in and around Libya is still largely unquantified, it cannot be doubted that ‘crisis’ is no exaggeration. ‘Displaced people’ is another euphemism that subsumes the personal, and the numbers are beyond any human scale. Of a population of just over 6 million, 500,000 have fled the country, a vast number into the Tunisian hinterland.
The resulting camps that have sprung up mirror the pattern of every mass displacement, though in many ways the indignity is greater. Libya may not be a rich country by European standards, but to most intents and purposes it is an economically developed state, and its people are used to a standard of living not dissimilar to our own. It is not, despite the title of its ostensible ruler, much of a military nation. Of the human collateral damage, Alison found the vast majority to be “young guys like you who are at university, or truck drivers who said they had never thought of taking up arms.” The images that blaze from our TV screens every night seem dehumanized in comparison, like most aspects of this conflict.
I ask how the Tunisians have reacted to the vast influx of refugees, and it becomes very clear that our concerns with the ‘mission creep’ of the NATO coalition and the Arab reaction are not shared on the ground. “The solidarity of the Arab world is amazing. They’re providing everything for the camps, and building latrines.” From the United Arab Emirates, to the Sudanese, to the Tunisians themselves, the support for the refugees has been “remarkable”. This last group, with whom Alison had the most contact, come in for special praise. “They provided food, they provided clothing, they say they are ‘our brothers’. They obviously feel they’ve been through a revolution which was luckily for them fairly peaceful, with about 50 people killed. I think that’s a thing that inspires them to help the Libyans with their revolution, because they’re so happy with the outcome of theirs.”
This brings up an uncomfortable point. MSF is a non-political organization, and in its history has only once taken sides in a military conflict, in response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Throughout our conversation numerous examples of manifest abuses of the pro-Gadaffi forces become apparent. In Misrata, NATO troops can’t do anything about the shelling because it’s being done from behind hospitals or schools. Two of Alison’s team went into the city to see what the conditions were like, and found the hospitals themselves had been shelled and were in the process of being abandoned. Elsewhere, the retreating rebel forces were chased into the refugee camp across the Tunisian boarder, where a child was hurt in the discharge. These are just the tip of the iceberg – news outlets tell us of many more every day. The more one thinks about it, the more one realizes that Gadaffi is simply unfit to govern, and the more inconceivable it becomes that he can stay in power.
I ask how she can reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable – stand by and watch the wanton destruction of a civilization, before quietly spending months picking up the pieces. I expect the response to be anger, but the mark of a true humanitarian is one who can reply ‘upset’. It is telling that on numerous occasions, both regime and rebel troops were treated side-by-side, in the same hospitals and on the same wards, and were evacuated from Misrata on the same boats. This is the beauty of organizations such as MSF: “You’re neutral, when you’re nursing people you just get on, you see a human being and you do all you can to help them, regardless of their political persuasion.”
Alison has her own thoughts on the meaning of collateral damage. As in all war-zones, she tells a story that speaks louder than a statistic. A colleague providing psychological support to the refugee children in the camps showed her a drawing, which she recalls with profound simplicity.
“There were great big machine guns pointed at a person, and at a child’s house, with windows. At each window there was a face, and each face had red pouring out of it. These are things that children should never see, and they only could have drawn because they have seen it.” As with the thousands of young men that have been physically maimed in the carnage, these children will remain mentally so far beyond the life of this conflict. This is the collateral damage that will linger long after Gadaffi is gone, long after Misrata has rebuilt its hospitals and life has returned to normal for the Tunisians.
Whether you think the political or the humanitarian crisis is the story, I am once again reminded that only when a conflict is witnessed and humanized can we understand its significance. The most poignant moment of the conversation came at its end: “I came back and found England to be very pleasant and green and peaceful, and that was ok.” The understatement here speaks as loudly the sound of human folly.