African Cup of Nations, a regional approach for sustainable peacebuilding

Context

Complex dynamics of conflicts in Africa over the past years have increasingly led several global, regional, and local stakeholders including schools of thought to brainstorm alternative approaches to peacebuilding. Besides the already recognized classical approaches to peacebuilding whose effectiveness has been subject to debates at various levels, alternative approaches such as exploring the power of arts have recently taken precedence in peacebuilding initiatives across the global stage. In addition to the United Nations General Assembly which has further boosted this initiative by consecrating April 6th as the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (IDSDP) (1), the African Union has committed to commemorating the African Union Day of African Sport (AU-DAS) (2) for the promotion and development of sports in Africa. Believing that a sustainable and effective approach to peacebuilding encompasses a bottom-top approach where grassroots actors are actively involved in shaping policies decided at the highest decision-making level, artistic works have as a result become a common tool for public expression by individuals and corporate entities. Several cases have for example been witnessed in the past where arts positively influenced peace and stability in some countries with one of the most prominent cases being the 2007 ceasefire between the Ivorian government and opposing forces in the civil war that raged in Ivory Coast (3). In view of this, it is therefore proven that sports have the potential to influence outcomes and trigger positive change in communities. The African Cup of Nations (AFCON), a regional football tournament hosted by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has progressively set the stage for mass sensitization and public advocacy of SDGs besides just organizing teams to oppose each other for the conquest of silverware. With multiple conflicts currently plaguing the African continent, the 2023 edition of the AFCON currently hosted in Cote D’Ivoire with 24 states actively represented offers again another golden opportunity for conflict stakeholders to broker peace agreements. This paper aims to examine some current conflict dynamics (I); the positive impact of sports on peace-building (II) and table some policy recommendations orientating how stakeholders can leverage the power of sports to resolve conflicts and reconstruct conflict-affected communities.

  1. Current conflict dynamics in Africa

    Amidst the ongoing AFCON, Africa is severely battling with multiple conflicts ranging from civil uprisings to asymmetric warfare notably, terrorist and rebel groups which have created devastating economic and humanitarian consequences for individuals across communities. In Cameroon for example, government forces are confronted by the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram (4) in the Far North region of the country alongside a multitude of armed separatist groups in the North West and South West popularly recognized as English-speaking regions of the country (5). In the East African Region, government soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are confronted by the rebel group, M23 Rwanda due to accusations of the latter providing support to M23. International organizations such as the UN have further warned of the risk of a confrontation between both countries (6). In Ethiopia, government forces are confronted by the rebel group, Tigrayan People’s Liberation Force (TPLF) in a civil uprising that witnessed a surge in mass killings and displacements in 2022 (7). Conflict between Paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese army erupted into a full-blown war leaving thousands of persons dead and displaced (8). Out of the few conflicts enlisted above, it is, however, important to highlight that besides armed confrontations, the Sahel region is hoping to build back after a series of coup d’etats in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger which distorted the rule of law and set the above-mentioned countries in transitional status (9). In most countries, a pacific resolution of the ongoing conflicts is a far-fetched dream as classical approaches to conflict resolution are not yielding much desired results hence the need for African states to adopt a collective approach to conflict resolution by exploring alternative approaches to peacebuilding.

  2. Impact of Sports on Peacebuilding

    Multilateral stakeholders is increasingly coming to terms with the reality that sports have a positive influence on the welfare of individuals. Further to this, sports have been proven to contribute to building social cohesion and facilitating integration among communities. The universality of sports has even contributed to imposing the art as an indispensable tool for development. Interestingly, sports have been proven to influence political outcomes and to help in the post-conflict healing of some countries. In 2007, the Ivorian government signed a peace agreement following a period of heated civil insurgency. This agreement was largely influenced by public advocacy from the Ivorian national team which had just qualified for the 2006 World Cup (10). Also, former U.S. President Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China in the 70s, putting an end to a 25-year era of no communication between both countries due to the exchange of table tennis players between the U.S. and China, a historic event termed the «ping – pong diplomacy» which marked a turning point in bilateral relations between the U.S. and China (11). In addition to these, Armenia and Turkey reopened diplomatic dialogues in 2022 following a World Cup qualifying match between both countries (12). Besides states and international organizations that have taken a huge step in leveraging sports as a tool for reconciliation and development, civil society and community-based organizations have not relented their efforts in rebuilding conflict-affected communities through sports. This is the case of Local Youth Corner (LOYOC), a youth-led NGO in Cameroon that has consistently invested in the power of sports for public advocacy and facilitating the re-integration of ex-combatants through a local sports jamboree captioned «Na We We Sports Jamboree» (13). In view of these, it is therefore evident that besides the regular competitions amongst persons and teams in tournaments, sports can influence positive outcomes in many communities as such, stakeholders at various levels must look beyond the entertainment it provides and invest in the platform tournaments create, the integration it boosts and the power of social cohesion experienced during tournaments to drive positive change across the global stage.

Policy Recommendations

In alignment with the ongoing African Cup of Nations and current socio-political dynamics in Africa, the following recommendations are provided to guide key stakeholders in leveraging on the power of sports as alternative  regional  and community peacebuilding in Africa.

  1. Stakeholders from the enlarged sports community can specifically align messages, strategies and operations towards promoting SDGs. Regional tournaments should increasingly serve as platforms for public advocacy on policies and reforms that can impact communities positively. Human rights propagation especially rights of women and children must take central stage as they are the most vulnerable persons in times of armed conflicts.
  2. Regionaltournaments can strategically bring to the spot-light states, organizations and individuals that are contributing positively to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (SDG 16). Such a move could prove strategic inchampioning positive outcomes across communities to serve as catalyzer and a mirror for other states to emulate.
  3. It has been observed that the prevalence of sports tournaments often set the stage for public entertainment and widely spread emotions from individuals.  As such, violent extremism may sometimes be mitigated by prevailing circumstances hence further creating favourable conditions for actors in a conflict to engage in constructive discussions towards conflict resolution and reconstruction of communities in post-conflict contexts. It can therefore be strategic for countries currently plagued by conflicts in Africa to take advantage of the ongoing tournament to manifest political will and examine prospects of conflict resolution.
  4. On a civil society perspective, local NGOs can build on the power of sports to enhance cohesion and preparedness to mitigate future conflicts. This can be done by identifying and incorporating sporting activities to boost human welfare, enhance communication and team building, raise awareness and build positive relationships around key community values.
  5. Besides solely relying on self-centred approaches and organizational-led initiatives, individuals, key opinion leaders, influencers, activists can invest their skills, competences and build on their networks and influence during the AFCON to raise awareness on ongoing conflicts to a global audience and advocate for positive change.

Conclusion.

The African region undoubtedly boasts of great economic potential to effectively curb livelihood challenges for the present and future generations if properly exploited. It is a known fact that Africa has for a long time been the hub of numerous and prolonged armed conflicts stemming from multiple sources amongst which we can recall, civil uprisings, terrorist insurgencies, secessionist tendencies and random violent extremism. These conflicts largely contribute to retard economic development across the continent. However, need arises to exploit possible avenues for conflict prevention, resolution and post-conflict reconstruction. Sports diplomacy offers such a huge potential and therefore, it maybe worth considering for stakeholders across all levels of society, to leverage on the power of sports to collectively map pathways for peacebuilding.

Antem Anthony
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Antem Anthony is a Policy Analyst in peace & security at the Foretia Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, he served as conflict, policy and security assistant at the International Crisis Group, Kenya. Anthony is a certified administrative and operations professional from the United Nations University for Peace and the Pan African Institute for Development, West Africa (PAID-WA)

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