The question on the lips of African football players and fans, and especially administrators at the Confederation of African Football (CAF), is where will the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) be held? One thing is sure: Scheduled from June 15 to July 13, 2019, it will not be held in Cameroon. After bitter discussions lasting nearly 10 hours at the CAF General Assembly, which took place on November 30, 2018, in Accra, Ghana, members of CAF's Executive Committee unanimously decided to strip Cameroon from its hosting rights for this major African football event. Rumors were rife following the decision, marking the beginning of a long and dramatic soap opera around what country would replace Cameroon as host. Finally, on December 6, 2018, the CAF sent out a call for applications to all its member federations in order to find the next host country for Africa's biggest football competition. Interested federations had to submit their application no later than December 14. The winning country will be chosen after a rigorous selection process. Unless a major surprise takes place, the CAF should choose one of the two contenders: Egypt or South Africa.
Cameroon not ready
In a long press release put out after the assembly, the CAF explained its decision. It said that both the compliance conditions and the deadlines had not been respected during the construction process. There was also a "gap between the requirements and obligations related to CAN specifications and the reality on the ground," added the press release.
The CAF based its decision, among other things, on reports from its various expert missions sent to Cameroon to inspect the construction works being carried out. According to the reports from the recent security mission, as well as those of the site inspection mission, it appears that at each of these visits, Cameroon was found to be wanting and considerably behind its deadlines. In terms of security, the rise of secessionist groups poses a threat to football matches to be held in Limbe, while those in Garoua in the northern part of the country, are said to be in the potential crosshairs of the militant organization Boko Haram.
After the press release, the CAF President Ahmad Ahmad said his priority was "to preserve the interest of our stakeholders and especially our players," and that "many were injured during the previous CAN due to organizational conditions."
The CAN 2019 will be the first competition to be held in its new format, bringing together not 16 but 24 African nations, and will be the first one to take place during the summer. The CAF decision was a major blow to Cameroon, which has won the competition five times and still holds the trophy of the 2017 tournament. But despite its glorious history, Cameroon hosted the CAN only once, in 1972. Moreover, the country made considerable efforts to make this event a success. Cameroon has, among other things, benefited from the help and expertise of Chinese companies. Indeed, China Machinery Engineering Corp. (CMEC) built two 20,000-seat sports stadiums in Limbe and Bafoussam in preparations for the CAN.
A few days after being stripped of its holding rights for the 2019 CAN, Prime Minister Philémon Yang met with the CAN Central Organizing Committee on December 5, 2018. The meeting, over which he presided, examined the reasons behind this withdrawal, and identified which measures should be taken in the future. Ministers involved in the CAN organization agreed that Cameroon was not ready to hold the competition. This is due to misunderstandings, disagreements and even clashes between different offices and administrations. This led to a number of delays in the decision-making process. Louis Paul Motazé, Cameroon's Minister of Finance, for example, revealed that he had been asked to pay for projects that were completely unrelated to the specifications required by the CAF.
Motazé also proposed to carry out a review of all ongoing projects under construction, in order to prevent any further wasting of resources and increase in costs. Yang also ordered construction works to continue and even to be accelerated with an aim of completing their delivery by the end of March 2019. Companies reviewed the progress of their own projects and put forward the measures they intended to implement to accelerate construction works. Local committee heads have been asked to settle their accounts and to support companies in overcoming the various difficulties they may face, so that all remaining construction projects can be completed on time.
The day after the CAF's decision, Cameroon's Communication Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary cried foul. "This surprising decision, on more than one count, certainly does not do justice to the colossal investments made by our country, which have resulted in the beautiful modern infrastructures that we can see today, nor to the determined commitment of Cameroon's president and people to make all needed efforts to host a vibrant celebration of African football in 2019."
Félix Zogo, Secretary General of Cameroon's Ministry of Communication and Chairman of the Communication Commission for the CAN 2019, had also noted that the CAF had made its decision without taking into account local realities.
"The way in which review works were carried out did not even give the Cameroonian side the chance to respond to any of the observations described in the reports. The Cameroonian delegation, which went to Accra, was unable to take part in the review process and comment on the observations that required further explanations," he said.
Yang called for his country to focus on the future and to rebuild ties with the CAF. The Cameroonian Government's only option is, in all likelihood, to work twice as hard to complete all construction works, in order to be fully equipped to host the next tournament of the CAN, scheduled for 2021.
Indeed, current CAF president Ahmad was quick to give some words of comfort to Cameroon, which invested huge sums in the organization of CAN 2019. He offered the country the chance to host the 2021 CAN.
"This would enable Cameroon to complete all construction projects planned for this sporting competition in comfort and safety," he said. But for this to happen, Cameroon will have to overcome another hurdle: in September 2014, the CAF Executive Committee already designated Côte d'Ivoire as the host country of the CAN 2021. The CAF will therefore need to settle this new issue between Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire.
(Reporting from Cameroon)
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