Sweeper Special: World Reaction to Togo Tragedy

Togo crisis

There is only one story to cover this morning in a rare Saturday roundup, after waking up this morning and learning three more travelling with the Togo team have reportedly died from yesterday’s terrorist attack in Cabinda, Angola, apparently a reserve goalkeeper, assistant coach and a PR official. Togo have withdrawn from the tournament.

The complexity of the situation is such that we can only scratch at the surface at the politics behind the attack, and the decision to host games in Cabinda in the first place, as we attempted to do yesterday.

And yet, as we said we feared would happen in our initial reaction piece, most journalists are choosing not to try and learn more and appreciate the depth of the issues underlying this incident, but to instead use it to paint broad brushstrokes about Africa and the World Cup.

And so Ralph Ellis in (surprise, surprise) the Daily Mail:

As details emerged last night of the horrific attack on the team bus carrying Togo’s players across the border into Cabinda, a province of Angola, it left growing fears about the future not just of the Africa Cup of Nations but of the World Cup in South Africa itself.The decision to take the game’s most colourful tournaments to a region that was scarred by a bitter civil war was always a gamble.

But the organisers reckoned it a risk worth taking to show the world how the continent was moving into a new era.

Instead last night there were calls from England’s Premier League clubs for their players to come back home as the full shock began to sink in. And the question will be asked: ‘If Angola can’t keep players safe from terrorists, can South Africa protect the world’s biggest stars in the summer?’

Nevermind that “home” for these players is actually in Africa.

Nevermind that South Africa does not plan to host any games in a region with an active armed separatist resistance as Angola decided to do. We would never make the same comparison in Europe between regions far apart and with incredibly distinct histories and political situations. Indeed, even when terrorism strikes in western countries during major sporting events, we go on. Many will recall that in England, an IRA bomb exploded in the city of Manchester on the 15th of June, 1996. The very next day, Russia played Germany in Manchester at Old Trafford in Euro ’96. The very next day (“City shows its defiance by throwing a Euro 96 party”, the Independent headlined after). Obviously, footballers had not been targeted in the Manchester attack; the Olympics, of course, were directly targeted in Atlanta in 1996, and the Games went on. Nobody suggested the entire continent of Europe or North America would be unfit to host the next major sporting tournament to be held there, however near or far it was from the attacks.

The point I’m making is not that the ACN tournament should necessarily go on as those tournaments did (I do believe no more games should be held in Cabinda). It’s just to wish so many did not make lazy generalisations on safety, security, and the entire continent of Africa. Rob Crilly makes this argument well at the Huffington Post: “Once again the continent is treated as a single country. The problems of one place easily transposed to another, whatever the similarities or differences between South Africa and Congo-Brazzaville. South Africa has its security concerns, there’s no doubt. Rebel groups is not one of them. Nor pirates, famine or elephants marauding through stadiums. The attack on the Togo team bus is an horrific tragedy. But let’s forget easy clichés. Let’s get a grip.”

Onto to more misleading comments: perhaps the man under most pressure today should be Angolan government minister Bento Bembe, a former leader of the separatist movement in Cabinda who led the partially recognised peace accord in 2006 and pushed for holding games in Cabinda seemingly to prove the central government’s hold on the oil-rich region. Only a day before the attack, Bembe assured concerned observers that Cabinda was safe, and security was “guaranteed”. Today, he continues to claim that “Cabinda is a province like any other in Angola. And the Nations cup is positive for Angola. It does not represent a threat. There is no reason not to organise the Nations Cup in Cabinda.”  It is patently not true that Cabinda is just like the rest of Angola, as even the most casual observer can learn from the State Department or British Foreign Office’s travel advisories. It’s a shame more press reports have also not realised this reality when drawing their conclusions about Angola and Africa.

There are still many unanswered questions. Why did Togo decide to drive directly from their training base in the Republic of Congo to the city of Cabinda, meaning they had to go through the hinterlands of Cabinda, an obviously dangerous area?  Did their federation know about it? If not, was this because of yet another dispute between the players and the federation?  The ACN organisers have said they did not know the team planned to bus it, apparently believing they had planned to fly to Luanda and from there to Cabinda. But if so, surely they would have had some information about the itinerary to provide security in Luanda? (Not the world’s safest place, either)  Clearly, it was far cheaper to take the bus down from their base than fly past Cabinda to Angola and fly back again (there being no direct flights from the Republic of Congo to Cabinda, as far as I can ascertain). Whose decision was this, though? Did the Angolan authorities really not know about it? Who was providing the security that was travelling with the Togo team? Is anyone asking these questions?

Summing all this up, I’d like to highlight a comment made just now by ursus actos on yesterday’s post. The points he makes are far more pertinent than anything we’ve read in the press today.

Two non-playing members of the Togo delegation (the assistant manager and press attache) have died from their wounds and there are unconfirmed reports on French forums that the reserve keeper has also died (he was reported by L’Equipe this morning to be one of three members of the delegation in critical condition).

Togo have withdrawn from the tournament. Togo players have also been quoted as saying that they have spoken to players on other teams in their group in an attempt to convince them to boycott the matches or insist that they be moved. I still believe that those teams should refuse to play in Cabinda, partly out of respect to their Togolese counterparts.

To follow up on my geographical point of clarification from yesterday. Togo were training in Pointe Noire (on the coast of the Republic of the Congo, and clearly visible in the map above). A quick look at that map shows why taking a bus would have seemed reasonable under normal circumstances. It is also worth keeping in mind that the Togolese FA has a long record of dysfunction (you may recall all of the disputes with the players over promised but unpaid bonuses at the last World Cup).

The Angolans and the CAF continue to maintain that they were unaware of the Togolese travel plans, but the presence of an armed Angolan escort makes that claim very hard to take seriously. Clearly, someone in the Angolan security forces knew what they were planning to do, and the organisers and the CAF clearly should have known.

As to why there were matches in Cabinda to start with, I can only repeat what I have said elsewhere:

The Angolan government’s entire approach to the Cabinda situation in recent years has been to deny that there is an active insurgency, while at the same time engaging in human rights abuses (as documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others). Having one of the CAN groups centred in Cabinda (which isn’t even geographically contiguous to the rest of Angola) was a profoundly political statement by the government and part of their campaign to show the world (and the multinational oil companies active there) that they were in full control of the situation and that there was nothing to worry about.

Just how hollow those claims were is now crystal clear to the entire world.

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