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Cranes, sporting failure and politics

By Allan Ssekamatte

What the mammoth crowds at Nambole say about the state of our democracy

To my left was John Kanyanya, 72, a diehard Cranes aficionado who has not missed a national team game in two years. The septuagenarian is a brother to 1970’s freedom fighter Mawumbe Mukhwana. To my right was Abel Kugonza, 24. He is a bubbly character with an infectious enthusiasm, who took his 72-year-old father to watch his first Cranes game since 1978.


These fans are just samples of the hordes that thronged the Mandela National Stadium on Oct. 8 hoping to witness an end to 33 years of collective national failure. Alas, despite the gallant efforts of the men in the black-yellow-red stripe, it all ended in tears as the Cranes were held 0-0 by Kenya’s Harambee Stars. The wait to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations thus continues for at least one more year. Above and beyond the despair that gripped the nation, there was a very intense political contest to win the hearts of millions of Ugandans whose principal symbol of nationhood are the Cranes.

The contest begun in the preamble to Saturday’s game. You have probably seen the PR stunt. Released simultaneously with his US$10,000 (Shs28m) donation to the Cranes, the ad asks: Did you know that Amama Mbabazi was an athlete? The judicious premier then points out how he was a superior hurdler to John Akii-Bua, the country’s finest athlete of all time. A day earlier, we had witnessed a picture-shoot of the team with Special Forces Group Commander Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba. The First Son, has of course, been mooted as a possible successor to his father, President Yoweri Museveni.

Not to be outdone, President Museveni showed up with Shs50 million and his picture juggling the ball made front page news. Never a passionate sports fan, but an uncanny political calculator when it comes to winning peoples’ hearts, he promised a further Shs600 million. FDC leader Kiiza Besigye chipped in with a token Shs2 million. They were not the only politicians falling over themselves to show their patriotic credentials. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga delivered Shs10 million and promised Shs 30 million more from Parliament. What we were witnessing was a rebirth of sport as a vehicle to shape Uganda’s political landscape.

It is a throwback to the days when Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada was head of state. Uganda’s finest sporting moments came under the late dictator, whose sound bite imploring boxers to knock out opponents not to give referees a chance to cheat them is the stuff of legends. John Akii Bua’s 400m hurdles gold medal at the 1974 Munich Games remains the country’s best track and field achievement while the Cranes qualified for all four African Nations Cup finals (1972,1974,1976 and 1978) under Amin. They have not qualified since he was deposed. Ironically, all other sectors of life under the bulky former heavyweight boxer were at a virtual standstill, with the economy in tatters and security of life and property non-existent.

This scenario is replicated across Africa with several countries achieving major sporting milestones while in the throes of authoritarian regimes. Egypt’s Pharaohs are the continent’s most successful footballing country with seven African Nations Cup trophies, four of which (1998, 2006, 2008, 2010) were registered under fallen dictator Hosni Mubarak. Cairo club Al Ahly are Africa’s top soccer side with seven Champions League trophies, and were equally feted by the political establishment. Hence, it is nothing short of remarkable that the Pharaohs have failed to qualify for the Nations Cup just one year after Mubarak was deposed.

Tunisia’s Ben Ali used football to meet similar ends with Tunis clubs Esperance and Club Africain used for propaganda purposes. Not surprisingly, Tunisia hosted and won the 2004 African Nations Cup.  The continent’s second most successful footballing nation Cameroon have won all four of their titles under the close watch of President Paul Biya – in power since 1981. Matter of fact, such is the closeness of his association with the Indomitable Lions, he often decides who features for them. A case in point is the inclusion of the legend, Roger Milla, in the 1990 World Cup squad at the dictator’s insistence. Just across the border, Nigeria’s only continental success in quarter of a century was achieved in 1994 under brutal tyrant General Sani Abacha who made the Super Eagles his personal pets. Closer to home, Democratic Republic of Congo’s only Nations Cup trophies (1968, 1972) came under fallen strongman Mobutu SeseSeko. When Zaire became the first African country to play at the World Cup, he lavished the Simbas with huge mansions and expensive sedans. Though he later withdrew the gifts following a 9-0 battering from Yugoslavia, the power of their motivation had not been lost on observers of the intriguing relationship between sporting success and politics. Thus an argument that sports teams do well under authoritarian leaders because of their largesse and personal interest would not be misplaced.

On the flip side, an equally compelling synopsis suggests poor living conditions in which political space is shrinking and chances of self actualisation are scant, leads wananchi to identify themselves with sporting success in what psychologists describe as projected identification. This is partly why Cranes games are a national event on which we witness a staggering outpouring of patriotic fervour. The loudest cheers during Saturday’s game were for opposition political stalwarts. Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, FDC’s Odongo Otto and Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze stole the show with the vociferous applause they received from the 55,000 fans, while boos followed Vice President Edward Kiwanuka Sekandi and Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah. His maverick credentials meant Kampala Central MP Mohamed Nsereko was the only NRM politician to be applauded.

The fans reaction was a blunt rejection of the government’s scattergun approach to sports management. A visit here, and a cash donation there are not good enough to deliver the sporting glory Ugandans so dearly crave. Only a well drafted sports policy and proper, sustained funding can.

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