What a blessing that two major global events – the 27th edition of the United Nations Conference Of Parties (COP 27) and the 22nd edition of the FIFA World Cup are happening back to back in Egypt and Qatar respectively! This provides a fair opportunity to easily compare the value of the two to different periodic events, and in our case, their relevance to Africa.
We can assume, as anybody can sample their neighbourhood to confirm, that the people of Africa are more interested in the sporting action unfolding in Qatar than the supposed life-and-death discussions just-ended in Egypt’s resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. This does not necessarily mean that Africans value sport more than the climate. Africans’ greater interest in the World Cup than in COP 27 has more to do with the relevance, usefulness and consequentiality of the two events in their lives and the inspirational value they get from them.
One common thing about these two events is the big sums of money spoken about. Money arouses interest. What the Africans should be asking is their stake therein and how to go about securing it. Press releases from different parties at COP 27 have been spelling tens and hundreds of millions of dollars committed by institutions and rich nations for this or that cause. Similarly, dazzling figures both about what has gone into preparing the Qatar World Cup and the worth of players from big clubs, now representing their countries, have been tossed about. However, there is also much dissimilarity between the two events.
First, the COP billions may take very long to – if they ever do – reach the Africans, while on the other hand, the monies associated with football are actually available for the Africans to claim their share, depending on how far they can excel.
Secondly, African teams/players have inspirational value for the continent’s youth, and not necessarily only those who are eyeing a sporting career. These teams/players show the African youth, and their parents, that one can take on the world and make it.
In comparison, there is no similar inspirational value from hearing that hundreds of Africans attended COP. Granted, inspiration is hard to measure. But, it’s still unclear whether Africans even relate their plight to the changing climate patterns. If they do, how empowered are they to do something about it? What value do Africa’s delegates get from COP and bring home? For several editions, they have been told an alternative version of the truth about $100 billion dollars to be paid per year into mitigating the damage the rich nations have caused only to find out that these remain empty promises.
Thirdly, Africa’s five country teams have gone to the World Cup as equal participants and not as beggars. In fact, each of the 54 states on the continent seeks to participate in the World Cup as equals to the defending champions. They go through preliminaries for the zone/continent until the five national teams qualify to take part in the final. And what is more, Africa’s share of the World Cup is soon doubling, as next time in 2026 when it will be scattered across the Americas (Canada, US, Mexico) Africa will be sending nine teams. So every national coach in Africa sees a realistic chance of taking his team to America in four years’ time, with all the prestige – for the team and the country – associated with a great performance.
On the other hand, all African nations qualify to attend COP, however unprepared, spend two weeks complaining and begging, with hardly any possibility of coming back on any slightly better footing in matters of climate and finance at the end of the COP.
For all these reasons, African nations have put a lot of effort in preparing for the World Cup. Notably, there is something very different about African teams in this edition: they are all under native, national coaches. For the first time, no coach from the former colonizing states or anywhere else outside the continent is leading an African team. Cameroon, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, and Ghana are all shepherded by their own natives. This fact speaks to the continent’s growing confidence in the capabilities of its own human resources. The decision to appoint native coaches to lead African teams during the World Cup is not just symbolic; it rewards hard work, talent, and experience. Coach Rigobert Song, for instance, played for Cameroon in four editions of the World Cup. This shows Africans, the youth in particular, that there is nothing like overnight success – you have to work for it.
African teams have played in the World Cup for some decades now and their performance gets progressively better. So, while sports events like the World Cup have played a positive role in reinforcing Africans’ confidence in their own capabilities, the Egypt COP 27 has perpetuated the idea of Africa’s dependence, and weakness. This has to change.
There is nothing stopping the African delegates at COP from arguing that the crippling debt owed to the polluting countries and their institutions should be offset by the billions that the polluters acknowledge that they owe Africa. Why plead with a creditor who also has your debt? Today, Africa is heavily indebted and countries are being choked with more debt. Do the African delegates to COP not see the connection between debt and the inability to build resilient economies in face of Climate Change? Where is Africa’s debt on the COP agenda year in and year out?
African delegations should be going to COP when they are very clear on what they need to get from there. In fact, after Africans politely accept being shepherded into the UN’s Conference Of (many) Parties, Africa should convene a bi-partisan climate finance conference between itself and the polluters where the hard question of settling debts should be the only topic. Such a conference of two parties would come nearer to the World Cup in relevance to the people of Africa.