A couple weeks ago, the lamps were extinguished on the 26th African Cup of Nations football tournament where spectators witnessed the success of the Zambian team. Beyond the game, this Zambian victory is full of lessons that we Africans should use as seed for real development.
According to Christine Maillard, Professor of German literature and civilization at the University March Bloch, “When a mythical event occurs, its strength comes only from the light of the history which legitimizes its author. Strength of character is shaped by actions that help to transform events into legend.” In the same way, the story of the “Chippolopolo” is primarily about the refusal to be vanquished and it has allowed one nation to establish itself as the model for an entire continent.
1) The conscious effort made to choose life in spite of death
April 27, 1993: It is certain that this date represents a tragedy for the Zambian people and Africans in general. My goal is not to continue mourning the team that perished in Gabon, but to celebrate the rebirth of the “phoenix Zambia”. That fateful day, the entire Zambian team perished in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon, headed to Senegal to play a qualifying match. The country was plunged into mourning the loss of not only a hopeful and energetic national team and staff, but the hopes and dreams an entire nation.
Since difficulties are a part of life, they are not optional. But when we deal with them, two options are always available: avoiding them altogether or dealing with them head on. Regardless of the toughness we encounter, we still have the choice between seeing them as impenetrable walls or approaching them as challenges. Zambia has chosen to “live” and to confront its own reality.
Less than three years after the tragedy, Zambia, with a rebuilt team, played the final of the African Cup of Nations (ACN) in Tunis, lost (2-1) against Nigeria and then played another semi-final game in the same ACN in 1996. This was a genuine feat for a team filled with the memory of the recently departed, and guided by the ambition to honor the spirit of the players from the 1993 national team. Nineteen years have passed since that military plane crash in Zambia, and now the players of the 2012 team are vested with the mission of winning the most prestigious African cup.
2) Confidence in local potential
If I’m not mistaken, never in living memory has an African national team won the ACN exclusively with a team made up of players from the national championship. Some people could contradict me citing the examples such as the Egyptian national team but they would also have to acknowledge that Egypt and Zambia are not really “boxing in the same category” in terms of the quality of their sports facilities and the level of their championship tournaments. Considering the poor quality of the sports facilities as well as the low overall performance of various national championships among Sub-Saharan countries (excluding South Africa), this victory was certainly unexpected for Zambia.
Unexpected by most, except the leadership of the Zambian team. “We still cannot realize what is happening. We have always believed and we thought it was our day. I told the players that a team of “substitutes” had succeeded in taking Zambia to the final in 1994 (note: after the crash of 1993), so why not us? ” said Herve Renard, Head coach of Zambia.
He was perhaps the only one who believed in the potential and the quality of his team. The Zambians defied the odds and defeated the Senegalese in the first round. They went on to eliminate the Ghanaians in the semifinal and then pummeled the team from Ivory Coast. For Rabat Madjer, a former Algerian international soccer player, the secret of the success lay in the Zambian local players. The day after Zambia’s victory, Madjer expressed himself in these words: “Zambia gave a lesson to all African nations because they won the African Cup of Nations with local players and young people. It proved to be the most effective policy.”
3) The emphasis on humility and discipline
What impressed me the most and went largely unnoticed, is the humility shown by not only the Zambian team but the Zambian people. The newly elected president Michael Sata Chilufya represented the Zambian government at the ACN; the incumbent president had chosen to stay in Lusaka and left the honor to his successor to represent the country. The nation was placed before personal ambitions and although this may seem trivial, in my humble opinion, it deserves to be highlighted. It is highly unusual because within most African states, fair play politics does not exist.
Renard stated: “I would like to thank Claude Le Roy and Kalusha Bwalya, the only survivor of the 1993 tragedy, because without them I would not be here. I owe them everything.” Not at all surprising for someone who was literally unknown in his home country and who found himself under the spotlight without any significant coaching experience in France. However, behind this humble individual lies a man with a strict and strong work ethic. He rallied the team around the value of discipline, the key to success. Clifford Mulenga would certainly not deny this fact; he was excluded from the selection during the tournament for his indiscipline.
4) The organization of administrative structures and good governance
It is no secret that the lack of good governance and capacity building is central to all of Africa’s problems. According to the Association for Good Governance in Africa, “governance is the set of processes, policies, laws and institutions affecting the way a country, institution, corporation, etc.., are directed, administered or controlled.” Essential for preventing corruption, good governance is also a tool that should be used by the ultimate authority as well as all other institutions in order to be accountable, effective, efficient, participatory, transparent, responsive and fair. However, it is be necessary that authority be granted where expertise is proven. The administration must be allowed to fulfill the mission entrusted to it by the society that put it in power.
Zambia understood that the state’s ability to effectively perform its role required the existence of institutional and human excellence. And that fact was proven through the election of Kalusha Bwalya as the head of the Soccer Association. According to Rabat Madjer, “Bwalya has proved that with an experienced athlete, you can be successful in soccer management. We should not overshadow the achievement of Bwalya as the head of the Zambian Federation. He is a former player who knows the secrets of soccer, who knows that only hard and smart work pays off, not dirty politics. I salute him on this occasion and I congratulate him on this success. He proved the experience of a player can be the key to success in soccer management.”
We Africans have an unfortunate tendency, when we encounter a problem, to feel completely helpless because our usual solutions do not work or because we do not have the energy or courage to apply those that allow us to adjust. The problem appears to us as an impenetrable wall. The Zambian National soccer team reminds us that no matter the difficulty we face, it is still possible to change things. We should stop saying that we will achieve nothing and banish the Afro-pessimism that kills us! We should no longer call our countries under-developed because we have the potential and the resources just waiting to be utilized. We should believe in our youth by giving them the means of education and good example; we should offer them the opportunity to express themselves and they will not disappoint us. We all have a role to play. Yet it will take each of us to be introspective and figure out what we can do for our country and not what the country can do for us. We should not be afraid of our differences, rather we should believe that they are our strength. We must be the torch bearers of this generation of young African leaders and positive ambassadors of Africa.
Serge Tiendrebeogo is an African development expert. Originally from Burkina Faso, he now lives in New York.