Morocco’s refusal to host the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) from 17 January to 8 February next year, due to fears of Ebola, has sparked a furore among soccer lovers across the continent.
The North African kingdom has since become the target of some of the most aggressive xenophobia from fellow Africans, notably on social media. ‘Morocco is scared of outsiders,’ ‘Morocco is not an African country,’ are some of the insults that have been directed at the country in the wake of its decision.
Morocco initially explained that it would be willing to host the event in six months or even a year’s time, when fears around Ebola have died down. However, the Confederation of African Football would have none of this, and decided to maintain the dates. The competition has now been moved to Equatorial Guinea, co-host of the 2012 Afcon with Gabon. This decision has huge financial and political implications. Morocco has also been barred from participating in the 2015 Afcon, and risks more sanctions for its national team and Moroccan clubs.
Human rights and human dignity are the first casualties when there is fear and panic
One of the key questions around the debacle is whether Morocco was justified in its fears of an Ebola outbreak during the competition. The proximity of Ebola-affected countries like Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to Morocco, Rabat said, poses a serious threat to the country since spectators would travel overland and screening would be near impossible.
Critics of the decision point out that Morocco has been hosting a number of other events in recent months without any problems, and will host the football club competition in December. It also hosted Guinea’s home qualifying matches in Casablanca, which had been moved from Conakry due to fears over Ebola. So why withdraw now?
Medical specialists also tend to agree that with the proper protection and scanning of visitors, there is no greater risk of Ebola entering a country during a big event than there would be otherwise. In fact, experts and humanitarian workers have decried the stigmatisation and xenophobic reaction against citizens of the countries that are at the epicentre of the epidemic.
They point out that with the necessary measures – like hand-washing, for example – Ebola can be contained. Good communication and rapid reaction when someone does get contaminated can ensure that it doesn’t spread. How else did Nigeria, with its massive population in crowded cities like Lagos, contain Ebola to such a point that it was declared ‘Ebola-free’ by the World Health Organisation last month?
Some Moroccans say an Ebola outbreak could scare off tourists, which would be disastrous for the economy
Doctors, experts and representatives of non-governmental organisations present in the Ebola-affected countries earlier this month spoke about this issue during a discussion entitled ‘Unpacking the impact of Ebola on health systems and regional Integration,’ held at the University of the Witwatersrand medical school in Johannesburg on 11 November. The panic around Ebola is fuelled by the high mortality rate, but there are many misconceptions about how it is spread, they said.
Dr Frew Benson, Chief Director for Communicable Diseases in South Africa’s Department of Health, also pointed out that Africa has successfully dealt with isolated cases of diseases like Ebola for years. He said Ebola has killed a smaller percentage of the population in countries where the disease has spread than, for example, HIV/Aids in South Africa.
Sharon Ekambaram, head of the Neil Aggett unit of Medecins Sans Frontieres in South Africa, said it was highly regrettable that Africans are resorting to xenophobia because of the uncertainty and ignorance around how Ebola is spread. ‘Human rights and human dignity are the first casualties when there is fear and panic,’ she said.
Some Moroccans say that if an Ebola outbreak does occur in their country, it could scare off tourists, which would be disastrous for the economy. Morocco hosts around 10 million tourists per year. Others reply, however, that terrorism poses a much greater threat to Morocco. The fact that France has included Morocco in a list of countries at risk of terror attacks is far more damaging than Ebola, critics say.
Whatever the real motivation, another casualty of this decision is certainly Morocco’s efforts over the last few years to reconcile with its African neighbours, and perhaps also to re-apply for membership of the African Union (AU). Morocco left the organisation’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), in 1984 when the OAU decided to recognise the Western Sahara, the stretch of land bordering Mauritania to the south that is occupied by Morocco.
Others reply, however, that terrorism poses a much greater threat to Morocco
Not being part of the AU has been damaging to Morocco’s international relations and its standing on the continent. It has also prevented North Africa from taking its rightful seat as one of the regions of the AU. Morocco’s non-membership of the AU and its acrimonious relations with Algeria have paralysed the Arab Maghreb Union for years.
Also, international partners like the United States or the European Union invariably have to make special arrangements for Morocco when there are summits or big meetings between themselves and the AU. Allowing Morocco to participate is always preceded by lengthy negotiations.
Re-admitting Morocco to the AU seems a pipe dream while the Western Sahara issue remains unresolved, especially since its most ardent enemy on the continent, South Africa, is taking the lead on many issues within the AU. However, Moroccans have made important strides in the last number of years to try and win support among countries in West and Central Africa.
The country has, for example, decided to send 250 peacekeeping troops to the troubled Central African Republic, and has played a role in the fight against Islamic militants in the rest of the Sahel.
At the Ebola discussion in Johannesburg, Benson pointed out that Royal Air Maroc was the only commercial airline still flying regularly to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. All the other airlines have cancelled these routes, making it extremely difficult to get supplies and health workers to the Ebola-hit countries. This seems to contradict the nation’s stance over the soccer event.
Hosting Africa’s biggest sporting event would have brought much goodwill to Morocco, but this has now backfired in a big way. Not only is the country barred from playing; it has also been given a red card by the rest of the continent.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant