These are politically charged days in Uganda.
We have the continuing attempt to throw ruling NRM party secretary-general Amama Mbabazi under the bus; the tear-gassing of Opposition leaders in Mbale; that small matter of the anti-gays law and the token aid cuts by donors that followed…the list is long.
Then, on the weekend, in the English Premier League (EPL) Arsenal was walloped 0-6 by Chelsea. I was in Johannesburg on the day of the game, and you didn’t have to ask who was an Arsenal fan. Back in Nairobi, when you get those kinds of results in the EPL, someone usually dies. Killed either by rivals fans or suicide. This time, fortunately, there was no death. The taunting of Arsenal fans, however, lit up the Internet.
I believe that if you want to understand African politics in general today, follow its football passions, not its politics.
Here is why: A few days ago, the communications agency Portland released its second “How Africa Tweets” report.
The report said that the most Twitter-active African cities are, in descending order, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni (a town 34 kilometres from Johannesburg), Cairo, Durban, Alexandria, and then Nairobi.
The report said that “football is the most-discussed topic on Twitter in Africa. During Q4 2013, football was discussed more than any other topic, including the death of Nelson Mandela”.
The subject of why football, whether local or foreign, is such a profound part of societies, provides unending discussion. In our part of the world, I think football, not nationalism, is what keeps our countries together.
Last year in Kenya, Gor Mahia FC won the Kenya Premier League – for the first time in 18 years. To the casual observer, that news would have come as a surprise, because every day for years, Gor Mahia acted like it was a champion, not a loser.
Gor Mahia is a religion in the Lake Victoria belt of Kenya, which is also the political stronghold of Kenya’s equivalent of Kizza Besigye, Raila Odinga (except Raila was prime minister for five years following a violent post-election period in 2008 in which he alleged he had been cheated out of victory, and a grand coalition government was formed to save the country).
The Lake region is full out of highly educated outspoken folks, who think time is overdue for a son – or daughter – from the area to provide a Kenyan president. It is burdened with a high sense of victimhood.
It would seem that football helps them construct a world in which being Kenyan makes sense. It was thus cathartic for them, and possibly even poetic, that in the year Raila lost an election, Gor Mahia finally won the championship again.
There was a time when Arsenal, at the height of Thierry Henry’s blossom, was so dominant, they almost made the EPL boring. Early this season, it seemed they might take the silver.
Their humiliation seems less, if one considers that they inflicted the same pain on others in the past. And that is why the game appeals to Africans in very different ways than to, say, a European.
It is a great meritocracy. Both victory and defeat are earned. A team battles for years, suffering defeat, until it gets to top and claims glory, as Manchester City has done. Another rules the roost for years, as Manchester United did, then endures torrid seasons of failure. Like Arsenal, ManU has earned the right to be beaten.
Our politics, though, is different. The incumbent and ruling party are destined to “win” the election however incompetent and corrupt they have been in power, because they have the ability to fiddle the results. Can you imagine a Manchester United match in the time of the legendary Alex Ferguson, in which his son was a referee? Impossible. Yet that is what happens with elections in Africa.
Football makes so much effort to be fair, even though there are cases where match officials have been bribed, that there is no way a CECAFA match between Kenya and Uganda, would be refereed by either a Ugandan or Kenyan official.
And even when a referee makes a bad call, it happens before thousands of fans. He will be denounced in the media, and these days on Twitter and Facebook. And, indeed, sometimes the fans get opportunity to exact on the spot revenge by pelting the referee with beer cans, stones, or oranges.