By Sunny Awhefeada
Watching the final match of the just concluded African Cup of Nations was quite emotional for me. It was not about the presence of twenty-two players on the football pitch in Paul Biya’s Cameroon. It was not about the charged atmosphere, the shouts, anxiety, fear, significant and telling as they were.
What competed for my attention with the aforementioned was our past, the history of Africa, her not too distant past. The two countries that played in the final, Egypt and Senegal, hold so much allure for our history. Egypt remains at the core of the narrative of civilization.
It popped up again and again in humanity’s unending sojourn. The first military coup in Africa took place in Egypt in 1952 and the figure who led it, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, not only became an icon of Arab nationalism, but occupies a place in the global pantheon of ideologies. Senegal also gave Leopold Sedar Senghor to the world. Poet and one of the three founders of Negritude, Senghor became a symbol of black artistic genius on whom was bestowed the befitting cognomen of poet-president..
As I watched the Terenga Lions of Senegal made their delicate, purposeful and determined moves, I could only mutter Senghor, Senghor and Senghor!!! Our history, the chequered, but enchanting history of Africa was at play. Nasser was a great African leader, albeit a soldier. He came to power through the aberration of a coup. He gave Egypt and the Arab world a new direction and became the face of Arab nationalism.
Nasser died in 1971 and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat. Despite the many hiccups occasioned by the misrule which one of Nasser’s successors, Hosni Mubarak, bequeathed Egypt and the consequences of the Arab Spring ,the nation still manages to sustain her leading role in the Arab world. She has also to a large extent maintained a stable slot as a leading entity on the African continent and consolidated her dual Arab-African heritage. Egypt has won the African Cup of Nations for a record seven times, the highest in the history of the tournament.
Senghor maintains a unique place in African history as he enjoys the rare attributes of not only being a politician, but also a philosopher and man of letters. These attributes rarely combine. Politics and poetry are in perpetual conflict. Philosophy holds politics in scorn and suspicion. This is a universal verity, but it is more telling in Africa. Senghor as an embodiment of politics, philosophy and poetry was thus a rare bird. Together with Aime Cesaire and Leon Damas, he gave Africa, and the Black world, Negritude which was the first ideological codification of the essence of the African being. If Eurocentric thinking could only ascribe philosophy to Aristotle and Plato, here was Senghor, Cesaire and Damas telling the world that Africa could think and envision her own mission. Beyond Philosophy, Senghor wrote some of the most memorable poetry the world has known. He was at the bridgehead of Negritude poetry. In politics, he was the father of modern Senegal.
He became politically conscious as a student in Paris where he was elected into the French National Assembly. He returned to Senegal and championed the cause of independence as a nationalist. When Senegal became independent in April 1960, Senghor emerged as president and ruled the country until 1980. Although rated like most African countries as a poor and indebted nation, Senegal benefitted from Senghor’s humane disposition which radiated in his philosophy and poetry. The country remains one of the very few on the African continent that has never experienced a military coup. Her neighbours namely Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Mali have had to contend with the “bitter taste” of military rule, while Senegal waxed stronger as a republic. Senghor’s successors from Abdou Diouf, Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall although of varying temperament have been able to navigate the country through Africa’s turbulent moments.
As the Terenga Lions took the battle to the determined Pharaohs of Egypt, Africa if not the whole the world watched breathlessly. Sympathy tilted in favour of the sons of Senghor. They narrowly missed the cup in time past and they have in recent times got favourable ratings in football. The Senegalese coach, Aliou Cisse, is indigenous and had captained the team in time past. The team’s captain, Sadio Mane, also has an enchanting story of grass to grace woven around him. Both teams matched each other. The feat of Mo(hammed) Salah, the Pharaohs’ skipper, by all accounts approximates legendary achievement in soccer. The goalkeeper, Gabaski, is a mythmaker. His magical water bottle could have intimidated any player. Interestingly, the two skippers, Mane and Salah, play for the same team, Liverpool!
The AFCON has come and gone and the sons of Senghor prevailed. They will hold the cup and title until the next edition. Leopold Sedar Senghor must be happy wherever he is. His sons did him proud. He gave Senegal a sense of purpose in more ways than one and slowly, but surely the country is evolving to achieve her destiny. Sadly, our Super Eagles, they are in truth ”un-super”, were dogged by the Nigerian spirit of complacency and “big for nothing” tendency. Their first three matches were great and they defeated strong teams to emerge tops. Then they slumbered when it mattered most and lost to Tunisia. Cameroon saw their back so early as they crashed out and left. A joke has emerged in the social media pointing at President Buhari’s phone call to the team on the morning of the match as being the jinx factor. The joke further tells us that Buhari had been calling Bola Ahmed Tinubu all day, but the latter refused to take the call. Who wants to be jinxed?
It is trite to say that leadership matters. Nigerian leadership has failed and monumentally so. This has created a missing link in everything Nigeria and Nigerian. Our country is in a free fall in every sphere. If not, when was it ever told that Nigeria couldn’t go beyond the second round in a tournament in a continent where she brags to be the giant? I have not heard Buhari’s spin doctors, Lai Mohammed, Femi Adesina and Shehu Garba, talk about the waterloo that the 2022 AFCON turned out to be for Nigeria. E be like say e shock dem! For now let the sons of Senghor enjoy the moment.