Scoring own goals is how we stay sane here in Africa

Monday July 9 2018

Liverpool's Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah. AFP

Liverpool's Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah. His exploits at Liverpool, have their roots in excellent Egyptian tradition. PHOTO | AFP 

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Words ranging from “disappointing” and “dismal” to “shameful” have been used to describe the showing of the African teams at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

This year, Africa was represented by Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria and Senegal.

Unlike in the past, not a single African team made it past the first round, into the round of 16, never mind the quarter-finals.

The withering comments followed fast and furious. “That’s Africa for you”, many said. “Unworthy,” others dubbed the Africa brigade in Russia.

However, compared with past World Cup showings, the difference between the African teams in Russia and previous tournaments was like day and night.

For a range of reasons, including the fact that more and more African players are honing their skills in extremely competitive European club football, this year’s bunch were technically superior.

The wild, unruly, embarrassing play of past years was absent. Like all the rest, the African teams were thoughtful, and clinical. However, they have improved in a context where very many others have become better.

So why was there little nuanced examination of Africa’s outing at this World Cup by Africans?

It really is the same reason, if you posted a tweet about an African government’s plan to carry out an ambitious project, that many Africans’ response would be that it will fail.

When the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) was signed in Kigali in March, there was a cynical reception on social media.

African leaders are a bunch of inept, small-minded, hot-air-spewing, selfish, and greedy leeches who sign things they don’t intent to and will never implement, was the majority verdict.

Some — even possibly most — of the cynicism is justified, but it has become so rife, it is nearly making it impossible to sprinkle the fuel of hope that’s necessary for success.

Matters are not helped by the fact that, while it can lead to paralysis, this cynicism serves an unlikely purpose — it helps most of us to remain sane, and not despair.

If you assume the worst, and bet that the leaders you elect will be corrupt; that projects announced with much fanfare will not be built on time, if at all, and their cost will be inflated by thieving officials, you are likely to be proved right.

In most places in Africa, the optimistic and hopeful are several times more likely to suffer heartbreak than the pessimists and cynics.

Defaulting to expecting failure: That incumbents will steal elections; presidents are more likely to amend constitutions to extend their stay in office than to leave when their time is up; and seeing it all come true, produces the predictability that makes it possible for many to remain level-headed and function in most of Africa.

But it’s time to break the hold the cynicism has on the continent’s ability to have big dreams, and to imagine that Africa can be a world beater.

Mohamed Salah’s exploits at Liverpool, have their roots in excellent Egyptian tradition.

Lupita Nyong’o’s screen stardom is quintessential Kenyan chutzpah.

To thrive in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, we may want to consider that the first-round collapse of African teams in 2018 was not typical. It was the surprise of the tournament. I know that’s tough.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of and explainer [email protected]