Beyond Borders: After Côte d’Ivoire, when will S/Leone host the Africa Cup of Nations?

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By Sulaiman Momodu

Warmest greetings from Abidjan where the Africa Cup of Nations ended a few days ago in what was a thriller for the host nation Côte d’Ivoire that came back from zero to hero.

The last AFCON in 2022 was hosted by Cameroun and Sierra Leone proudly participated after 25 long years. After taking a break from my international career and excitedly returning home following President Bio’s election victory during which I set up my own media, I sadly discovered that we still have a very strong appetite for corruption and are not yet ready for positive change. Sometimes I went without water or electricity for days and there was practically nowhere to report. You write about it, the authorities just don’t care. The masses generally resign to fate and leave such blatant incompetence “to God”. During my stay in the country, I discovered that the atmosphere was very toxic and almost everything was (or is) examined from the political lens. Like an alien in my own country, I once again left the shores of Sierra Leone with a promise to return in future. We can’t disown our mouths because it stinks, so we will return to clean it up.

Following my unforgettable experience back home, my next destination was Cameroun. During my sojourn, I visited some of the stadiums or stadia ahead of the tournament and was looking forward to seeing Leone Stars in action when reassignment called and I answered. I left Cameroun almost on the eve of AFCON, but I passionately followed the games as Sierra Leone had a buoyancy of hope that the cup would come to our trouble-prone and corruption-infested country.

During that tournament in Cameroon, President Julius Maada Bio was in very high spirits. His joy was palpable. “I, President Bio, I am your talk and do president…When I promise, I deliver. I promised to improve football…”  However, even before he could finish telling the nation that he was the Head of State that took the Leone Stars to AFCON some 25 years ago, and that it was once again happening with his return, the Leone Stars were eliminated. End of story.

Fast forward to 2024, President Bio was loudly quiet this time.  Before the AFCON tournament started, the Leone Stars were in Cote d’Ivoire for a friendly. It was the last friendly Cote d’Ivoire played before the football festival got underway. The result? Côte d’Ivoire thrashed Sierra Leone 5-1. Was the president watching by the way? Just curious!

As someone who is currently on assignment in Cote d’Ivoire, I must congratulate the Government and people of Cote d’Ivoire for organizing the best AFCON ever. I enjoyed every second of it. I have had a long relationship with Cote d’Ivoire in my question-asking career and would eventually relocate to improve on my French language skills. As a country that has also witnessed civil war – like Sierra Leone – Cote d’Ivoire has parted with its dark past and is today a shining example of peace and stability in the region.  

AFCON has been an incredible achievement for Cote d’Ivoire for a side that was on the brink of elimination in the group stage after losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea on January 22. That was their heaviest ever home defeat and the Ivorians parted company with their foreign coach, replacing him with Emerse Fae, an Ivorian and a former player.

Admittedly, the fans were very upset by the humiliation to Equatorial Guinea, and with some changes, the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire started charging on to the finals.  They began a remarkable turnaround which saw them eliminate defending champions Senegal on penalties, beat Mali with a last-gasp goal in extra time, and edge out DR Congo in the last four minutes.

I must say that the journey of the Elephants of Côte D’ivoire to the final has been a hard-fought battle. Côte d’Ivoire or Ivorian religious leaders prayed very hard before AFCON started. I know it. It is good to pray, yes, but faith must go with hard work. Côte d’Ivoire’s journey was inspiring and unforgettable, spiced with a lot of emotions. The country got a second chance when Morocco beat Zambia 1-0 in the group stages making the country one of the best third place teams.  The country celebrated way into the night with fireworks.

Well, personally, I play tennis and I know what it means if you really want to win. I never play without first setting an objective. While respecting my opponent, I first declare by what score I would like to win before playing.  With a score in mind, I now work towards it. If I were a coach, I would use the same method. If I were the president, I would use the same strategy. If I say that I am going to fight corruption, I will start with myself and will give unhindered access to the country’s Anti-corruption Commission or the Auditor-General’s office. Understand this: it is good to pray, yes, but to win in life also requires hard work, staying focused, and evaluating strategies from time to time. To change the story of an individual, family or nation, it requires determination and discipline.

The truth? We can’t be a corrupt nation like Sierra Leone and expect not to have endless issues. President Bio was delighted to let people know that he took Leone Stars to Cameroun in 2022. But does he know that Leone Stars have been going to beg neighbours to “host” games the country was supposed to host? Is he aware of the constant civil war we have in our football association largely rooted in corruption and greed and not the interest of the country? Do I believe that change is possible and that Leone Stars cannot only become one of the best teams on the continent but that  Sierra Leone can actually host AFCON in future?  Absolutely! It is very embarrassing and disappointing that many years after the civil war, which I personally covered for both the national and international media, our leaders cannot even provide regular power supply or electricity in a very small country. Why should we even be thinking of constructing Lungi bridge when we have more pressing and burning issues to address, including a disastrous quality of education? President Bio’s return to power and his promises to change the story of the country spurred some people to return home, including yours truly, to support that vision without necessarily belonging to SLPP or APC. The question today is – what is the difference between the selfish and greedy SLPP and the kleptomaniac APC?

I am a strong believer that all things are possible, but expecting God to do everything while we become our own enemies is absurd and ridiculous. My encouragement? President Bio must go on an attacking masterclass to defeat corruption and by doing so, the country cannot only become the pride of Africa, but Sierra Leone can potentially host AFCON in future. Nothing is impossible to those who believe, but we must go beyond unbridled rhetoric and be sincere in providing servant leadership. Let us first start by providing basic services and not focus on projects that would only impregnate the pockets of very corrupt so-called public servants. Best wishes!

Editor’s note: Sulaiman Momodu is a Sierra Leonean journalist who covered the civil war in Sierra Leone and has no interest in partisan politics.  He has lived and worked in many countries in Africa and Europe. He is bilingual and is also a student of Theology.

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