OP-ED: Beyond the Excitement of Hosting AFCON

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Apollo Tusiime
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OPINION – The excitement is real after Uganda, together with Kenya and Tanzania – all East African countries, were selected to host the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) football tournament in 2027. Not a small achievement, considering the prestige that comes with hosting a continental event, Uganda’s international image, and the economic benefits as national teams and delegations converge to enjoy the game of football in the selected host cities.

This is not the only major international event coming to Uganda, as the country has also been endorsed to host the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in January 2024 – the largest gathering of Heads of State Uganda has ever hosted, with a total of 135 countries and China in attendance. It’s a significant moment for the residents of the Pearl of Africa.

As such, nearly all sports enthusiasts across East Africa, politicians, and the business community must be excited (for various reasons) about this rare opportunity to host a continental sports event on home soil.

In Uganda, the excitement is palpable because we love “the game.” However, beyond the excitement in anticipation of a glamorous event, technocrats must roll up their sleeves to create substantial budgets that will facilitate a memorable AFCON. Additionally, one must reflect on the outcomes of past events of the same caliber as AFCON, specifically the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM 2007) held in Uganda.

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The excitement was at an all-time high during CHOGM 2007. The street cleanings, tree and flower plantings, as well as the renovation and construction of new hotels in Kampala, all signaled the significance of CHOGM for the country. ‘CHOGM’ became a household name across Uganda. However, immediately after the summit ended, reports of corruption scandals emerged.

The optimism, excitement, and hype from government officials who rallied support for CHOGM quickly dissipated after traders in the Kampala Metropolitan area (some of whom had acquired loans in anticipation of bigger rewards) failed to see an increase in sales and instead incurred losses.

The market vendors who had erected stalls along Kajjansi and Abayita Ababiri, hoping for significant returns from the event, have painful stories to tell about CHOGM. The roadside furniture dealers in Nsambya along Ggaba Road, who were forcibly evicted “to avoid a bad impression of Kampala city” as high-level delegates were chauffeured to Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort Hotel, can recount the hardships caused by the CHOGM illusion.

Nuwa Wamala Nyanzi, who runs an art gallery/studio at the National Theatre Crafts Village, still calls CHOGM a total disaster. Nyanzi recalls how, for no clear reason, their market was closed by authorities throughout the CHOGM period, leading to significant losses since they had invested heavily in anticipation of many customers, especially foreigners who usually buy art crafts as souvenirs.

The value-for-money audit reports that emerged from the CHOGM 2007 debacle suggest that it became an occasion for government bureaucrats to enrich themselves. To many Ugandans, the much-hyped event turned into a nightmare. CHOGM left taxpayers regretting why Queen Elizabeth II (now deceased) had ever come to Uganda.

One might argue that mistakes were bound to happen, as Uganda had not hosted an international meeting of CHOGM’s magnitude since the OAU summit in 1975. This required high-level facilities far beyond what the country had at the time, including modern hotel rooms, conference halls, ICT infrastructure, transportation facilities, and airport upgrades. This time, however, a significant portion of these deficiencies has been addressed, considering the improvements made since then.

That’s why, this time, the organizers should not only maximize the benefits of hosting AFCON but also avoid the CHOGM nightmare and ensure that the benefits are distributed broadly. The anticipated construction of football facilities, opportunities in the hospitality industry, and the expected influx of cash must be consciously directed to prevent a repeat of the CHOGM scenario, where the privileged few benefited at the expense of the common man.

Recalling how the glamour of hosting CHOGM quickly faded after revelations of high-ranking government officials dipping into the treasury is discouraging. Procurement scandals, including the importation of expensive cars for transporting delegates and the mismanaged award of contracts for city beautification, have dampened the excitement surrounding AFCON.

One can only hope that the ghosts of CHOGM 2007 have been exorcised and won’t return to haunt Uganda. The sad reality is that these same ghosts are still here and hungry for more. The recent iron sheets scandal in the Office of the Prime Minister, which left almost all top government officials exposed, indicates that the ‘CHOGM ghosts’ are still active.

This also diminishes the hope that lessons have been learned from the CHOGM scandal, which would provide hope that AFCON 2027 will be a different case altogether. What is true, however, is that Ugandans will flock to the stadiums and enjoy the beautiful game—because they love it—but one must also expect another investigation into AFCON 2027 funds.

Written  By Apollo Tusiime

The author is a multimedia journalist working with Salt Media.

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