The top billed sports event this year will be the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament in June. And for the first time in the event’s 60-year history, two of the countries that made up the original East African Community — Kenya and Uganda — will be in it together.
Between them, they have previously qualified for the tournament 11 times: Uganda six and Kenya five. But whenever one was in, the other was not.
The competition was first held in 1957 and the Cranes, as the Ugandan national team is christened, featured in 1962, 1968, 1974, 1976, 1978 and 2017. Kenya — known as Harambee Stars — first participated in 1972, followed by 1988, 1990, 1992 and 2004.
Kenya and Uganda are the bitterest of football rivals. The concept of a friendly match does not exist in the minds of their supporters. Though far less successful as far as winning the big cups go, this rivalry still ranks up there with the fiercest on the continent — Egypt versus Algeria, Ghana versus Nigeria, Senegal versus Cote d’Ivoire, and Zambia versus South Africa.
Tanzania, the third country in the original trio, has gone to the Nations finals only once in the past — 1980. It still hopes to make the 2019 edition when the qualifying phase comes to a close.
The irony of the rivalry between Kenya and Uganda is that it was fomented in an era when a country called East Africa existed in all but name.
Connected by a vibrant infrastructural network that went by names such as East African Railways and Harbours, East African Airways and East African Posts and Telecommunications, every sport played by the people of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania gave the name East Africa to its top competition.
Thus, for football, the East African Challenge Cup was the region’s premier tournament while in motor sports, it was the East African Safari. This one was so prestigious across the world that pundits christened it “the toughest test of man and machine” and nobody seemed to dispute it. There was an East African Cup in almost everything — boxing, volleyball, athletics, netball etc.
It was an era when the non-existent country routinely fielded one team. When West Bromwich Albion, the 1967 English FA Cup champions, toured the region in 1968, they played two games against East Africa. International cricket matches regularly featured an East African side against a diverse array of opponents from Asia and Europe. Some sports, like snooker and billiards, organised themselves in regional terms with the East African Billiards Control Council at the helm.
Currently ranked 75th by Fifa, Uganda missed the 1978 Afcon title by a whisker, losing 1-2 to hosts Ghana in a hard-fought final in Accra. The late dictator Idi Amin Dada, himself a notable sportsman as the country’s former heavyweight boxing champion, spared no expense in supporting the team. His reign may have been the country’s darkest period, but his sportsmen and women weren’t complaining.
Abbey Nasur, right winger for the Cranes during their halcyon days and a key member of the 1978 Afcon campaign, once told me: “When we won the 1976 East African Challenge Cup, Amin gave us $5,000 each and sent us to Libya to do shopping. He told us Col Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, was his friend and that we would be his guests.”
As there were no direct flights between Entebbe and Tripoli then, Amin had a cargo plane that freighted cotton to Europe partly reconfigured to accommodate his VIP passengers, drop them in Tripoli and collect them with their shopping on its return journey.
The honeymoon ended the following year. Fed up with Amin’s perennial provocations, President Julius Nyerere sent his army, the Tanzanian People's Defence Force, alongside Ugandan exiles, to remove the dictator from power.
Amin fled to Libya and onwards to Saudi Arabia where he lived out the rest of his life leaving his orphaned sportsmen and women to bear the brunt of pent-up hatreds. For like in neighbouring Kenya, most of them were drawn from the armed services — the army, the police and the prisons.
The people’s ire was turned on them and many, Nasur included, fled to Kenya to save themselves. It would be years before the country would regain its footing on the international sporting scene.
In qualifying for Afcon 2019, Uganda made it twice in a row but before 2017, they had waited an agonising 39 years — since 1978 — to make their return.
Upon qualifying for Afcon 2019 last year, fans in Kenya expressed great delight — but with a caveat.
They hoped this would be the start of good things to come but feared it was a flash in the pan. They pointed out the chronic problems in the game, such as technical staff going for months on end without pay. Kenya is returning after a 15-year hiatus.
But the fans who cheered these two countries and lived in that East African country that almost existed in the 1970s are very different from today’s crowd. Things have changed — and radically.
First, the East African identity was discarded for a rabid nationalism that sometimes startles in its ferocity. And in Kenya in particular, people have been seriously flirting with the idea of breaking up their country into several ethnic nation states. Technology, which has virtually erased distances in time and space, has only made it easier and faster to express their prejudices.
In purely technical terms, the gulf between North and West African countries and East Africa is wide. Kenya and Uganda are therefore not expected to proceed beyond the group stages. After this happens, fans will briefly flood social media with the most cynical comments about what should have happened.
They will curse the incompetence and corruption bedevilling their sports federations. But this will only be a momentary distraction from where their attention is permanently fixed — the English Premier League. This means the world to them.
In the 1970s, football fans were able to engage sports editors for months on end about the fortunes of their team in major tournaments like Afcon and the East African Challenge Cup. But today, Afcon is a distraction from the EPL.
This is how much today’s fan has become alienated from the superstars their predecessors supported. If the billion-dollar benefits of the global football industry are to be felt in East Africa, this is where imaginative and focused officials must begin.
Roy Gachuhi is a senior writer and film producer with The Content House.