The positive impact of eminent people in shaping up a country’s national consciousness is a phenomenon that should never be understated. In doses of unwavering patriotism and moral authority that transcend the material realities of eminent people such as footballers, a compromise of a relatively positive national consciousness can be forged. But these existential realities should be viewed with an iota of caution since it is dangerous to live under the default order of “messianic politics”.
‘Ceteris paribus’, narratives of such a national consciousness are conventionally (as is the historical norm) borderline fragile, but somewhat coherent — contradictions and ironies that reflect the prevalent hegemonies of the day. But in the grand scheme of things, a widely loved and immensely palpable instrument such as football can be employed to foster peace in a warring nation; the longevity of such peace being another separate matter altogether. The operative element here being that football can help restore stability to a country divided against itself.
Didier Drogba is a name that resonates with millions of football fans across the world, particularly from his superb exploits as the leader the Ivory Coast national football team throughout the 2000s up to his retirement from international football in 2014. No one can forget Drogba’s powerful and irresistible aura as the captain of the Elephants from 2006 up to 2014 – in that illustrious period he became the country’s leading goalscorer with a total of 65 goals from 105 appearances. It is a remarkably daunting (yet for Drogba effortless perhaps) feat which earned him the African Footballer of the Year accolade twice — in 2006 and in 2009.
An ostensible landmark achievement in his career was leading the Elephants towards their first-ever FIFA World Cup appearance when they featured at the 2006 edition. Although he never won the AFCON title, he led Cote d’Ivoire to the tournaments finals twice — in 2006 and 2012. His fellow Ivorians indelibly cherish him for all the sweat he poured towards the success of the West African nation on the international state, especially as the country went through turbulent periods of divisive warfare against itself.
On a much grander scale, the greater part of his gigantic fanbase worldwide is more acquainted with the Didier Drogba at Chelsea Football Club, a leading trophy-machine football enterprise based in London, England. It was at this club that he created a concrete brand for himself — a firebrand and feisty central forward whose artful net-busting works eventually led Chelsea to a UEFA Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich. And expectedly, Chelsea F.C. (under the ownership of unscrupulous Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich) he was rewarded with a life of material comfort, although this was often subsumed under the waves of organic love he received from football fans across the world — he never lost sight of what was important. The bigger picture, if one fancies such a phrase.
And it was this sort of consciousness that made him endearing and enduring relationship to his fellow Ivorians, even those intransigently bearing arms, both from the north and the south. Just when Drogba was widely touted as the next best striker to terrorize defence structures across European leagues, his country was descending into an abyss of a bitter civil war. From circa 2002, Ivory Coast was a nation divided against itself — deep-seated power disputes emanating from hardened electoral disputes saw the north fighting the south; a bitter civil war in which all love was lost.
A conflation of a litany of issues compounded the immediate hostilities that lasted from around 2002-2007. These hostilities were between the northern part of Ivory Coast (Muslim-dominated) and the southern part of the country (Christian-dominated and the commercial/administrative capital of Ivory Coast). Since the country’s independence in 1960, Félix Houphouet-Boigny [Ivory Coast’s first president] ruled the country in a fashion amenable to his whims only – he was the face, heart and soul of Ivory Coast in all facets of life and as such his “persona” and “charisma” were closely tied to the “nation’s political system” and “economic legitimacy”.
But through this form of administering the Ivorian political economy, he was able to maintain an enduring impression of peace between the north and south regions. His departure and the introduction of multi-party “democratic” elections his successors found it difficult to maintain a balance between the antagonistic regions. With the passage of time, Muslims in the north had gained a numerical advantage over Christians in the south, with the bone of contention being a huge influx of Burkinabes under Boigny’s leadership.
Identity politics aggravated the animosities — the term “Ivoirité” was a “cultural identity” was used in nationalist and xenophobic undertones and overtones particularly by those from Abidjan (representing the south) to antagonize Muslims from the north, mainly of Burkinabe origin [and other foreigners]. Neoliberal economic failings heated the tensions and a referendum  providing for the presidential candidates to “have parents born within Ivory Coast” were the immediate causes of the civil war in 2002 – the provision was designed to exclude northerners (Alassane Ouattara was from the north).
In the First Ivorian Civil war from 2002 to 2007, the northern part was comprised of rebel forces led by Guillaume Soro. He controlled the north, while the south [encompassing Yamoussoukro and Abidjan] was controlled by government forces under the leadership of Laurent Gbagbo, who was the country’s president then.
Conflicts raged on from September 2002, waning around 2004, but stability was still a remote possibility. Peace was far from over. In 2005, when the war started to intensify in some parts of the country, a fiercely determined squad of Ivorian footballers — the likes of “Drogba, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Didier Zokora” — who “were all shining in the Premier League a world away in London” was tasked with the extraordinary onus of carrying the nation to its first FIFA World Cup appearance.
It was pitted against Sudan, Cameroon, and Egypt. In the last round of qualifying matches in 2005, Ivory Coast faced a fiery Sudan, only needing a victory over Sudan and a better result over Cameroon’s against Egypt.
Ivory Coast braved the odds and defeated Sudan, and much to their pleasure, Cameroon squandered their chance in the match against Egypt, missing a late penalty. Drogba and his footballing patriots had just booked Ivory Coast’s first-ever appearance for the 2006 World Cup.
At that stage, the football team, led by Drogba’s undeniable leadership, called for peace in the country — calling on the country to unite under one rallying call of a World Cup berth, regardless of whether one was loyal to the south or the north. In the heat of the celebrations in 2005, Drogba was acutely aware of the moral authority that football euphoria commands.
In a keenly apoplectic but fervent message [as per the BBC], Drogba declared, “Men and women of Ivory Coast. From the north, south, centre, and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared aim - to qualify for the World Cup.”
He went on, “We promised you that the celebrations would unite the people - today we beg you on our knees.” Drogba’s call was an unconditional one — football must unite people, instead of fighting, immiseration, death, and perpetual animosity.
“The one country in Africa with so many riches must not descend into war. Please lay down your weapons and hold elections.” In a truly emotion-filled but carefully calculated tremendous unison, the players boldly proclaimed, “We want to have fun, so stop firing your guns!” The celebrations in the wake of such a feat were not immediately impactful in uniting the country, but such bold proclamations of peace paved the way for the easing of tensions.
As Drogba and his fellow players were relentless with strikes on the football field, Laurent Gbagbo and the rebel forces had been relentless in war strikes against each other. However, on 4 November 2007, a peace agreement was signed between the government and rebel forces in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. To get to that truce, the Ivorian national football team as led by Drogba has been widely and duly credited for thawing tensions between the obdurate warring factions in the north (the rebel forces) and the south (the government).
In 2006, Drogba announced that a qualifier match between Cote d’Ivoire and Madagascar set for the 3rd of June in 2007 would be played in Bouaké — a stronghold and capital for the rebel forces. The match was moved from the original venue in Abidjan, a stronghold for the south. It was a unifying gesture that was applauded in regional and international circles, but a deeper introspection reveals that he was not the originator of that idea.
As said by respected Ivorian sports journalist Mamadou Gaye, “ruling politicians” knew very well the value that football commands in the country as a unifier for stability and also as a source of unquestionable moral authority in such trying times.
Gaye is quoted as saying, “The party decided to have a direct dialogue, and Jacques Anouma, the former president of Ivory Coast Football Federation, was [also] the financial director of the presidency, very close to Gbagbo … That’s where the idea emerged and Drogba happened to be captain.” Didier Drogba was from the south, and his influence as an intermediary for peace was naturally admirable and respectable given the context of Ivory Coast at that time, bearing in mind Gbagbo also hails from the south.
But the underhand agreements aside — the fragility of a somewhat coherent national consciousness as conveyed by “messianic politics” [as referred to in the beginning] — the day of the match between Cote d’Ivoire and Madagascar in June 2007 was a miraculous occurrence for Ivory Coast. It was the nation’s chance for national healing after years of war-induced trauma and wounds. The home country won the match with a resounding 5-0 victory over Madagascar, ushering an epoch of temporary but needed peace.
The country enjoyed a brief period of peace before descending into a Second Civil War from 2011-2012. However, when all that is put aside, Drogba’s moral authority on-and-off the field is beyond reproach. His enduring moral authority in helping his country end a bitter period of civil war will forever be remembered.
The symbolic match of unity and tranquility in Bouake is forever cherished in the psyche of Ivory Coast — everyone realized the ineluctable importance of mending their divisions,“ …the Toures from the north, Drogba from the south.”