Cameroon has added three players – Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Joel Matip and George Elokobi – to its initial squad called to camp ahead of an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Senegal on 26 March and a friendly against Gabon three days later, a statement issued by the country’s football federation (FECAFOOT) said late on Friday.

These players are among Cameroon’smost in-form internationals and it was surprising to many that they were left out of the by the coaches. It remains to be seen if all of them respond positively to this late call-up.

However, their inclusion in the squad suggests that the coaching staff have been cowed by popular outrage and/or they (staff) have crumbled under the weight of intervention from officials and the political management of football in that west-central African country.

Javier Clemente, the Spain-born, head coach of Cameroon is known in international football circles as  being  direct to a fault, telling his players his mind and ready to pick a fight with anyone who thinks they are too big to toe the line. In keeping with that character trait he  felt he had to assert his authority by leaving out players he deemed had slighted him.

Sadly, it seems Clemente didn’t get the memo about the country he signed up to train. Football in Cameroon is more than a game for the ruling elites. It is a political tool.

The national team’s success is usually branded (in presidential speeches) as an achievement of the government in power and the team is used as an example of national unity, courage and determination as well as  a model of what can be achieved if the nation worked for a common purpose.

A political tool

When socio-political turbulence looms, the authorities play up  the greater national cause – focusing on a match, tournament, or qualification campaign – thus letting off the steam that could have exploded in the form of protests and riots against bad governance in a country where the economy has stagnated, and unemployment and inequality have risen, according to Crisis Group.

Curiously Clemente’s assistant, Francois Omam Biyick who is a former national captain and hero, may have failed to warn the Spaniard that in delicate political times as is the case now – with revolutions in the north of Africa and people tempted to replicate them in sub-Saharan Africa – sports authorities in Cameroon would not take chances on issues that could unleash discontent.

Deliberately omitting players that fans regard as vital to the squad for a must-win game is one of such issues.  The thinking in Yaounde is that there could be anger that might mutate into political protests should the team lose and/or fail to qualify for the Africa Cup as a result of such a decison.  Such a scenario happened in  the February 2008  riots that started-off as a taxi-drivers’ strike over fuel prices and veered into full scale unrest.

Political intervention in team selection is not new.

In 1990, with Cameroon struggling to build a convincing team for the World Cup in Italy  in a political context of growing discontent against the regime and calls for multi-party politics, a presidential decree got Roger Milla out of retirement and imposed him on the coaches and players of the national team.

His exploits – scoring four goals at the age of 38 – which contributed to Cameroon becoming the first African team to reach the World Cup quarter-finals gave the regime a two-month breather during which it tried to regroup and unleash a media campaign. The government stuffed the people with patriotic songs of unity exemplifying “the brave Lions” on State radio and TV (which were monopolies then).

Eventually, international and local pressure led the authorities to legalise multi-party politics and issue several laws on freedom of association and expression

Political manipulation doesn’t end at squad selection.

In 1993, a lacklustre Cameroon team struggled its way through the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup in the U.S.A. The final qualifying game was against Zimbabwe on 10 October with close to 100,000 people (according to State media), including president Paul Biya,  crammed in the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium whose official capacity is about 35,000.

Biya had been re-elected in controversial circumstances in the country’s first multi-party elections in 1992. The opposition had called for a “ghost-town” (civil disobedience –no work, not business activity, etc) on 11 October which was the anniversary of the proclamation of Biya’s victory by the Supreme Court. The operation was meant to be a protest at what the opposition considered as a “stolen electoral victory”.

Omam Biyick scored twice, and Maboang Kessack (if my memory hasn’t failed me) scored a third and Cameroon beat Zimbabwe 3-1. As the stadium and the country exploded in joyous frenzy, Biya declared 11 October a public holiday in honour of the great victory. Technically, there could be no ghost-town again since it was effectively a holiday.

More than a game

But Cameroon is not alone when it comes to using football for political gains.  From Kwame Nkrumah’s and Jerry Rawlings’ Ghana, through Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire to  Muammar Khadafi’s Libya, Abdoulaye Wade’s Senegal and Goodluck Johnathan’s Nigeria, football is a vital tool to those in power in Africa.

Authorities in Senegal have been using the recent run of good form by the Lions of the Teranga to shift people’s focus from a myriad of challenges rocking the country including excessive power outages, high cost of consumer goods and increased poverty,  local media have said.

The WalfAdjiri newspaper reported that Senegalese authorities are so wary of an explosion of discontent should their national team lose to Cameroon, that they promised to provide everything requested by the team coach who complained of poor lodging and logistics for the team during a recent friendly against Guinea.

This 19 March, however, civil society groups have called for a mass demonstration on the streets of Dakar to raise these issues and ask for government to tackle them. The government has authorized the protest but has warned that it would not accept any vandalism. Some youth groups are suggesting that these demonstrations would run until next Saturday’s game but that remains to be seen.

It is evident that when the national football teams of Cameroon and Senegal lock horns on the pitch of Dakar’s Leopold Sedar Senghor stadium next Saturday, the ruling elites in both countries won’t consider the encounter as a leisurely contest of 22 athletes seeking to qualify for an African Cup of Nations.