Time for Didier Drogba?
Can Didier Drogba do anything to ease the peace process in Ivory Coast? Photo by Flickr user Ben Sutherland used under a Creative Commons License 2.0
Laurent Gbagbo’s time as President of Ivory Coast is over. This will hopefully put an end to the civil war in the country that have led to hundreds of deaths and a million people displaced.
Hostilities started in late November last year when Gbagbo refused to acknowledge his defeat to Alassane Ouattara in the Presidential election. He has since clung to power despite international pressure. The Presidential election should have been the final solution to the civil war which has lasted for about five years from 2002. What has happened in recent months shows that peace and reconciliation are farther away than we thought.
One question in the forthcoming peace and reconciliation process is if Didier Drogba’s time has come?
Drogba is best known as a Chelsea player and the biggest star of The Elephants (the national team of Ivory Coast’s nickname), but he has also played a central role in the peace process in Ivory Coast. His role in this process shows both the powerlessness and the power of the world-famous soccer player.
The elephants are acting
The reason that we can once again discuss Drogba’s role in what will now happen in Ivory Coast is his statements made in the run up to the African Cup of Nations qualifier against Benin in late March, where he and the rest of the Elephants took a strong stand against Ivory Coast politicians in letters to all the warring parties asking for peace. They felt sorry for the politicians destroying their country.
Because of the unrest the match was moved from Abidjan in Ivory Coast to Accra in Ghana. There, Ivory Coast beat Benin 2-1 and dedicated the victory to all the Ivorians and expressed hope that this victory would help bring more sense to the country. It remains to be seen if 2-1 against Benin holds in this context. Great faith has been put in football and Drogba before, without getting all the way across the goal line.
The role of football in the peace process in Ivory Coast started during the qualifying for the World Cup in 2006. After each playoff Drogba led his teammates, who came from all parts of Ivory Coast, in prayer for peace and reconciliation in the country. When Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup, it triggered a day of celebration, and led people in the government-controlled capital Abidjan to call bars in the rebel-controlled north telling bar guests to order beer on their bill.
The qualification made Drogba and the Ivorian team icons in Ivory Coast. (It also increased the interest of Chelsea FC in the war-torn country.) Drogba was no less popular when he during a tour of Ivory Coast in March 2007 suggested that the match against Madagascar should be played in Bouake, the rebel capital. When Ivory Coast on 3 June 2007 beat Madagascar 5-0 Drogba and his teammates were thought to be Ivory Coast saviours.
Brothers in Arms
Security during the match against Madagascar was handled by 300 soldiers from the rebel forces, while 200 government soldiers watched the match from the stands. Government soldiers had been invited to symbolize reconciliation between the rebels and the government, and it was reported that the pro-government soldiers backed their football troops in perfect harmony with the rebel-friendly football supporters.
This was the first time in five years that the pro-government soldiers were in Bouake and that soldiers from the two warring parties met face to face in a peaceful way. All this because of a football match.
Back to life
After the match, a spokesman from the Ivorian Ministry of Sports said that what Drogba and his teammates did in Bouake was a bigger peace effort than any the well-educated politicians and intellectuals had ever managed. And he praised the players in Madagascar for agreeing to play the match in the government-hostile North. Some of the Ivorian newspaper headlines the day after the match said "Five Goals to Erase Five Years of War " and " Drogba Brings Bouake Back to Life ".
The question we must ask in this context is whether Didier Drogba and his teammates alone can take credit for this historic moment. The answer is no.
Although Drogba has had great influence in this process there are other underlying factors that have made this particular football game stand out as a symbol of reconciliation between two warring parties.
Earlier in 2007, rebel leader Soro Gauillaume signed a peace agreement with President Laurent Gbagbo. As part of the peace agreement, Soro was appointed Prime Minister, while he was allowed to retain the title as General Secretary to the rebels. Many peace agreements were broken in Ivory Coast during the Civil War, but this formal "power sharing" was a signal of new times. It thus laid the ground for the football match to be played in the rebel capital.
Politics without politicians
Didier Drogba has said that he will never enter politics such as George Weah tried in the civil war-torn Liberia in 2005. Drogba prefers to continue building hospitals where he finds it useful. And it is in politics that the most important peace and reconciliation efforts are made.
This is despite the fact that Didier Drogba (and his teammates) has become an important symbol of reconciliation in Ivory Coast. In times of crisis it is important to have symbols to gather around. Didier Drogba is one such symbol. Perhaps it is precisely because he does not seek political power that he might continue to be a symbol of reconciliation in Ivory Coast.
This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 5 April 2011. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on sportensuutholdeligeletthet.blogspot.com