Osasu Obayiuwana: Is Libya safe for a 2017 Cup of Nations?

As the opening stage of the 2014 World Cup play-offs for Africa ended on Tuesday, another four weeks must pass before knowing, for certain, the quintet that will represent the continent in Brazil.

But Algeria, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria and particularly Ghana’s Black Stars, which gave Egypt a surprising 6-1 wallop in Kumasi, will be feeling they are closer to earning their qualification tickets.

Whilst fans were concentrating on the action taking place across the continent, something that ought to gravely concern lovers of the African game is the volatile political situation in Libya, which is to stage the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

For those who have not been paying particular attention to what is taking place in the North African country, Ali Zeidan, the country’s Prime Minister, was kidnapped on October 10, by a group of armed bandits, at the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, the capital city.

Zeidan’s abduction in the early hours of that day, by about 100 men, followed the capture (or abduction, depending on your point of view), by US special forces, of suspected terrorist Anas Al-Liby in his Tripoli home, days before.

Al-Liby, who had a $5 million bounty placed on his head by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had been indicted, in absentia, by a grand jury in New York since 2000 and is now standing trial there.

Although Zeidan’s abduction was for a few hours, as he was subsequently released in the afternoon of the same day, the ease with which a Prime Minister, a major political figure, could be kidnapped, is a clear indication of the lack of security and political stability in the country, following the forced removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011.

It was the chaotic state of affairs in Libya, originally given the right to stage the 2013 Cup of Nations, that compelled CAF to permit a tournament swop with South Africa, scheduled to host the 2017 edition.

The rationale behind the swop was to give Libya, which was just emerging from a bloody civil war, sufficient time to create the atmosphere of safety and security needed to prepare for and stage a trouble free event.

As the recent incident strongly indicates, the situation is deteriorating, which should compel the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to seriously re-examine its suitability for the tournament.

Even for host countries not having the political and infrastructural challenges of Libya, following devastating civil strife, CAF usually gives them three years (which I believe is grossly insufficient) to prepare for the 16-team tournament.

How Libyans will manage to have that insufficient length of time, in the current circumstances, should concentrate the minds of CAF chieftains.

Lessons ought to have been learnt from the unprecedented tragedy that claimed the lives of two members of the Togolese national team in the Angolan region of Cabinda, ahead of the start of the 2010 Nations Cup, when they were caught in a gun battle between government forces and the separatist Front for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda, whilst travelling by road, from Congo, to the tournament.

As a member of the CAF inspection team which assessed Angola’s suitability, recalled, three years ago, their report had warned CAF chieftains that the political frailty of the oil-rich Cabinda region, in which some of its people were keen to secede from Angola, made that particular region of the country unsuitable to stage games.

“Unfortunately, our advice was not heeded and we all saw what happened there,” he told me.

Kodjovi Obilale, who was to have been the goalkeeper for Togo at the 2010 tournament, continues to pay a very heavy price for that decision.

Barely escaping with his life, after two bullets were lodged in his back, the 29-year-old no longer has a career, as the former French fourth division player fought to recover the basic use of his legs, after months of treatment and rehabilitation in South Africa and France.

The furore and global attention on Angola has dimmed, as three and a half years have passed since the deeply sad incident.

But CAF is duty bound to learn, from the avoidable nightmare, that the security of players and officials, not boardroom or political considerations, must be the primary consideration for whether a country – or a particular region within it – is fit to stage a tournament.

From where I am standing, much more time needs to be given to Libya, to resolve its deep-rooted political and social problems, before it is in a proper position to safely stage the Cup of Nations.

They will not be ready, for the foreseeable future, which should compel CAF to find a less worrisome host for the 2017 tournament, without having to wait until the proverbial eleventh and a half hour, as they often do, before finding a suitable alternative.

African football cannot afford to have a repeat of the tragedy that took place in Angola.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1660275678labto1660275678ofdlr1660275678owedi1660275678sni@a1660275678nawui1660275678yabo.1660275678usaso1660275678

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.