The failure of the Ivory Coast’s ‘golden generation’ of footballers to claim the ultimate price at this year’s African Cup of Nations has led to calls for the changing of guards in the national team. Six players who were involved in the tournament have been replaced in the 28-man squad for the World Cup qualifiers. Among those, is the shocking omission of the 35-year old talismanic ex-captain Didier Drogba, who has in recent years not only carried the entire Nation’s hope of glory on the pitch, but also that of peace in the political arena.

“Sport can reach parts politicians can’t reach. It can help in bringing divided conflicts together in a way nothing else can.” Tony Blair.

The Ivory Coast has been embroiled in civil conflict since 2002, with fighting between Government forces acting under the then-President Laurent Gbagbo, and the Rebels representing the largely Muslim population of the north of the country (and poor immigrant workers in particular). Following years of rising tension, the exclusion of the Northern Presidential candidate, Alassane Ouattara, from the 2000 Presidential elections due to a newly approved law just before the election date, was the tipping point which lead to the civil war. Despite most of fighting ceasing towards late 2004, the country remained torn in 2 with the rebel-held north and the Government-held south. Peace efforts by the UN and French military proved futile as the country remained gripped in such tense and hostile settings.

Under such circumstances of a political stalemate, the population’s uncertainty over its future, and not to mention the volatility and unpredictability of everyday life, few would have thought the intervention of the national football team would help secure a truce. But it was indeed the playmakers of the game rather than political leaders, who made negotiations possible.

In 2005, the Ivory Coast qualified for their first ever World Cup. Following the match that put them through to the finals in Germany the following year, Drogba and his team mates fell on their knees in the dressing room on live television to plead with the 2 warring parties to lay down their weapons, enter talks and hold elections. With the level of unrest in the country, this was a bold act, considering the backlash that the team could have potentially faced. Instead, it would become a fine example depicting the ever-growing influence of football in politics.

“I knew that we could bring a lot of people together. More than politicians. The country is divided because of politicians; we are playing football, we are running behind a ball, and we managed to bring people together.” Didier Drogba.

The divided nation and its warring leaders heeded the pleas and began peace talks, eventually signing a peace agreement in March 2007. In an act to sustain this truce, Drogba further proposed that a qualifier for the upcoming African Nations Cup be played in the Rebel stronghold of Bouake. As a result, in June 2007, the world witnessed a match symbolizing, and in effect aiding, the peaceful reunification of the two sides of the civil war for the first time.

While soldiers form the rebel army controlled the security of the pitch and players, the invited government soldiers watched over from the stands – as 25,000 fans, from across the country, cheered on. While troops from either side had obligations to ensure the match went without any disturbances, one may have assumed the reception of the crowd to be somewhat apprehensive. However, there was a genuine feeling of hope and belief that the war was ending for good. This was not thought to be a temporary truce, as was the case in other key events in history.

One such was the 48-hour ceasefire declared by the two warring factions in Nigeria in 1967, amidst the Nigerian-Biafran civil war. The purpose of the truce was so both sides of the war could watch one of the greatest every players the game has ever seen – Pelé. It was a truce for a player rather than for politics or the people affected by the war, which to some extent questions the state of morality of the event. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Pelé and the sheer power of football, stopped a war, bringing brief respite in war-torn Nigeria.

The ‘Christmas Truce’ during World War I was a series of unofficial cease fires during the festive period of 1914, when German and British soldiers stopped fighting and ventured into no-man’s land to exchange seasonal greetings and, importantly,  play football. Here, the basic yet beautiful game took centre stage in the expression of mutual respect from troops from both sides of the war. The truce wasn’t to last, yet a psychological impact would remain in the participants.

In contrast with these events, Football played a catalytic role in bringing about a ceasefire in the Ivory Coast for the sake of the people and for peace, rather than taking centre stage.  It also aimed for a permanent solution, not mere short-term halts in the civil war. Identifying football as one of only unifying forces in the Ivory Coast, Drogba helped transform the love of the nation into a political coup.  Football alone however, is not enough to maintain peace. It requires the compliance and approval from the public and politicians involved. The Ivory Coast would set a fine example for this too.

Despite the peace process, tension continued to linger in the country. In 2010, following numerous delays, the Ivorian presidential election was finally held. The Independent Electoral Commission and UN recognized the Northern candidate, Ouattara, as the winner. However, the Constitutional Council ruled certain results from the Northern regions unlawful and therefore named Gbagbo as the winner. The disputed election only plunged the Ivory Coast into civil war again, the finale of which came in April 2011. Ouattara’s forces (backed by French forces) gained control of most of the country, entrapping Gbagbo in the city of Abidjan, eventually arresting him. Gbagbo became the first former head of state to be detained by the International Criminal Court, who now awaits charges against humanity.

In May 2011, Ouattara was inaugurated as President and in an attempt to heal the Nation from years of conflict, he set up the ‘Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission’, inspired by the body that helped South Africa move on after the end of the apartheid. Recognizing the importance that football and, namely, Drogba played in the bridging of the political gap during 2005–2007, the footballer was asked to join the commission as a representative of the country’s diaspora, to which he duly agreed.

“The best way to prevent it is to stick together, to talk together, and find reasons for why this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Didier Drogba.

It’s been nearly 2 years since the commission was set up, but little appears to have been achieved. Presently, national reconciliation appears to be the bleak hope of light at the end of a very long tunnel, with the perception of a biased judicial system, with no amnesties in place to those who confess to crimes. Any emerging truth also appears one-sided, with increasing mistrust in the Ouattara administration – which stands accused by Amnesty international of committing acts of revenge and repression under pretence of security. The Ivory Coast appears to be stuck in a vicious cycle of repression amid a power struggle of its leaders, only destined for further political crises.

The divisions in the country have not disappeared nor addressed, since there appears to have been only a shift in the power-struggle between two groups, rather than a balance to meet half way to secure peace.  The issues are further rooted, than a matter of taking ‘political sides, and the role of the reconciliation commission is to not only acknowledge and punish the perpetrators  of the war, but also address the underlying issues of the conflict, from both a public and political perspective.

Under such circumstances of continued unrest and human rights violation, how effective would a Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission be?  How can the unity that is brought through a simple game of football be replicated in the nation’s ideologies and politics?

As with the Ivory Coast’s dream of success on the pitch following their defeat at the African Cup of Nations to Nigeria, the nation’s hope of peace appears to be uncertain. Despite coming so close, they seem somewhat, so far from the ultimate goal. The national team must now pick themselves up and rebuild the team in the attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The national leaders must take a good look at history, learn from the past,  listen to the people, and make amendments to ensure a fair and just outlook is implemented in terms of ‘reconciliation’ to move the country forward.

While Drogba has been left out of the national team for the World Cup Qualifiers for ‘tactical’ reasons (which many disagree with), his place in the hearts and history of Ivorians is permanent. He is no unsung hero in the Ivory Coast, he symbolizes strength and hope.  In the same manner, while Football may not have achieved the permanent solution to the civil war in the Ivory Coast as initially thought, how it has been used as a powerful tool to bring a significant level of social change, stands an ode to the influence of the beautiful game over the murky stage of politics.

By Sankeetha Nadarajah

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona