By Hassan Shire Sheikh
By hosting a regional football championship in conflict ridden Darfur and South Kordofan, Sudan is using sport as a propaganda tool to conceal ongoing human rights abuses. Players and fans should not be forced to buy into the cover-up.
Africans love football. It is a universal sport that has the power to inspire and unite across deep divides. Sudan is certainly no exception – you need only visit one of the refugee camps of Darfur and you’ll see children kicking around footballs made of whatever pieces of rag and debris they can find. But just as it can promote strong social ties and even act as a catalyst for peace and cooperation, football can also be misused and manipulated to serve narrow political interests. Sadly this is exactly what is happening in Sudan.
Earlier this week footballers from Central and East Africa donned their jerseys in Sudan’s war-torn states of Darfur and South Kordofan to compete for the regional Kagame Cup. Sadly the decision to locate this tournament here has not been taken to support the development of peace in this region. Instead, it is clear that hosting the Cup is part of Khartoum’s charm offensive to convince the world that ‘all is well’ in its border regions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Former African Union (AU) Darfur Special Envoy Salim Salim, recently declared the conflict in Darfur to be as dire as it’s ever been. A senior UN official fresh from visiting the region last month spoke of more than 300,000 people being newly displaced by the fighting this year alone. And in recent months, human rights groups have documented serious increased restrictions on the operation of civil society and a crack-down on the political opposition across Sudan.
We all need to pause and think about the human reality of what this scale of violence and repression means for our brothers and sisters in Sudan. We also need to remember that it is mostly women and children who are caught in the cross-fire between Sudanese armed forces, armed rebel groups and warring tribal communities.
These vulnerable groups suffer most when the Government of Sudan severely restricts or denies humanitarian access for vital aid and medical care. The injuries inflicted on them by fighting and indiscriminate bombing often result in deaths, when they could often be prevented. This is the terrifying reality that the people of Darfur have lived with for 10 years, and the people of South Kordofan for two years. Incredibly, there is no end in sight to either the fighting or the suffering.
The Secretary-General of the regional football association CECAFA, Nicholas Musonye, insists that Darfur and South Kordofan are safe places to host the event.
Fortunately, several major football clubs are refusing to play ball in Sudan. Tanzania’s Simba FC has urged the venue to be changed, warning that “we will not go to Darfur to put on bullet proof vests." Echoing similar security concerns, Kenya Premier League Champions Tusker FC pulled out, only to face stinging public criticism and threats of ‘disciplinary action’ from CECAFA.
Hopefully a very blunt warning last week by Sudanese armed rebel groups will bring an end to this fanciful debate about security. Not only did they single out the stadiums in Darfur and South Kordofan as legitimate military targets, but they appealed to players to stay away for their own safety.
If peace and stability were a reality in Sudan, this football tournament would be a welcome sight. Every African football fan should be able to witness the spectacle of top teams competing. But this should not come at the cost of disguising the level of human suffering on display in Darfur and South Kordofan. The grim reality is that while Sudan welcomes footballers and dignitaries with open arms to plush hotels for this thinly veiled public relations stunt, hundreds of thousands are left desolate. In some cases, the bombs that forced them to flee their homes fell only a matter of miles from the football stadiums that have been custom built for the Cup. What message are we sending to the children in their extremely unsafe places who look up to the region’s football stars?
No footballer should be ordered to prop up a government that has been at war with its own people for 10 years – that’s way beyond their job description. They are meant to be the role models and mentors for their communities. We should all be showing our solidarity with the people of Sudan by sending their government a very clear message: football will not be used to cover up war and human suffering.
It is time for the AU, the closest thing there is to a referee in the Sudan conflict, to blow the whistle on this charade. Our African leaders know only too well the reality of what’s been happening inside Sudan. They have a responsibility to act now to stop the violence and help the people of Sudan. In football, if somebody commits a foul or reacts violently they get sent off, not given accolades. If one of the players is injured they receive medical attention, rather than being left to suffer. It shouldn’t be any different in the world of politics.
Let’s ensure that the potential of football to unify and inspire the youth of our continent is preserved and keep it out of cynical political maneuvers that might indirectly cost more innocent lives.
The writer is a Somali-Canadian Pan-African human rights defender who was forced to flee his native Somalia.