North Africa just can’t catch a break—nobody wants them in Africa, not even football

The Afro-Arab integration dream is not working too well. It may be time to rethink it, or let history run its course.

POOR North Africa—it seems no one wants it hanging around on the continent—not themselves, not the Bretton Woods holy trilogy, not geography, not even black African presidents. 

And now it seems not even football, that great uniter of all sorts of people. One of the teams that represented the sub-region at the just-ended Africa Cup of Nations, Tunisia, is currently under the cosh after a bitter run in with CAF, the body that runs football in Africa.

Tunisia’s misstep was to cast aspersions on the conduct of CAF—not particularly known for winning integrity competitions— in the aftermath of a contentious game against hosts Equatorial Guinea. The Equatoguineans had been awarded a dubious penalty which helped send them on their way to the semi-finals in a game Tunisia had been winning with only a few minutes left on the clock.

CAF, an angry Tunisia charged, was of “questionable behaviour” and was “biased against Tunisia in general”. The Confederation of African Football are a bunch of highly prickly if grizzled people, and in a fit fined the North Africans $50,000 and demanded a letter of apology with days, failure to which Tunisia would be thrown out of the tournament’s next edition in 2017.

That first deadline has since passed, with no contrition yet from Tunisia, whose football chief quit CAF in a huff. A new deadline to apologise has now been now set for the end of March.  

Interestingly, CAF also canned the offending referee for six months with immediate effect, noting his “poor performance” (ironically, the last referee sent home by CAF was from Tunisia, only this time for an indefinite period). 

CAF is not a bluffer—it carries a typical African Big Man mentality, including being prone to throwing a tantrum when it feels slighted. They had earlier thrown the book at Morocco, after the North Africans pulled out of hosting this year’s tournament over fears of contagion from Ebola.

In addition to having been thrown out of the Equatorial Guinea tournament, Morocco are also barred from the 2017, and 2019, Cup of Nations, to go with $10 million in fines and damages. Even the miffed Africans who recoiled at Rabat’s reason—especially after it a few weeks later hosted a major global club competition, would have been taken aback at the severity of the sanctions.

It is hard for both North African countries not to feel hard done, especially after the emergency hosts got away with a slap on the wrist in the form of a $100,000 fine following globally-televised riot scenes that followed their defeat to eventual finalists Ghana.

Christened the “Malabo night of shame”, the riots threatened to take the sheen out of what had been a major feat of putting together such a tournament on a tight time leash. 

Existing narrative
The tough stance on North Africa by CAF builds into a prevailing narrative—that despite how hard it tries (which is itself debatable) North Africa has made little headway being seen as part of Africa.

The Ghana-Cote d’Ivoire decider dubbed the “dream” final—two black African countries competing for the continent’s most prestigious competition. It is unlikely the same would have sold for an Afro-Arab final match-up, if the match commentators consciously having to pinch themselves to say “North Africans” and not “Arabs” were anything to go by. 

Part of this attitude is self-inflicted—horror tales of North Africans racially mistreating black Africans are rife, as is the condescending attitude it adopts when dealing with the South. 

Attend any African Union summit and you can tell that despite their haughty presence, they are barely tolerated, even if they tend to heavily bankroll the cash-strapped bloc. This clout has in the post-Arab spring years however taken a knock, with the North greatly shorn of its economic power. 

The other argument is historical. North Africa’s half-hearted attempts at integration did not start yesterday—they hark back to the early 1960s, when Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Morocco spearheaded a pan-Africanist effort that sought for a rapid, and radical, integration of the newly-independent continent.

Guard sovereignty
Despite roping in Guinea, Ghana and Mali, the attempt was railroaded by pretty much the rest of black Africa, which under the so-called moderate Monrovia grouping jealously sought to guard its sovereignty. 

Libya’s self-styled ‘king of kings’ Muammar Gaddafi also did not help the region’s cause too much by looking to buy his way into overall leadership of the continent, leading to his being humiliated when African leaders gave short shrift to his attempt to retain the chair of the bloc in 2010.

The divide has not only been ideological—even geography has attempted to have its say. A climato-geographic transitional belt splits northern Africa from what geographers in typical wonk-speak term the Sudanian Savanna, or black Africa if you may.

Add that to the Holy Trinity that is the UN, IMF and World Bank going to great lengths to lump it together with the Middle East in what they exotically call the MENA region—or the Middle East and North Africa—and you have every man and his pet queuing to play up the differences.

There is hope however —even black Africans are starting to glare at each other, as shown by xenophobic events further south. Very soon colour will not matter, just the quality of football—that is, if we will still be there to play it. 

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