The Africa Cup of Nations in January and February is a “beacon of hope” for a Cameroonian economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic and two conflicts, businessmen and traders say.
A sign of depressing times is that only a few merchants populate the once crowded aisles of a handicraft market in coastal city Douala, the economic hub of the central Africa country.
“We first had the Boko Haram crisis in the far north, then the separatist conflict in the English-speaking zone. Covid-19 has finished us,” says Mouhamadou Isolha, president of the Douala craft market.
“We had very complicated months. No more visitors came. We are experiencing something unheard of,” he continues.
“The CAN (Cup of Nations) can change a lot of things with the influx of tourists and spectators.”
In Yaounde and Douala, the largest cities, the 24-nation biennial tournament is eagerly awaited.
Cameroonians are dreaming of an economic upturn and of success for the national team, known as the Indomitable Lions, who have been African champions five times, most recently in 2017.
The economy, which represents more than 40 percent of the GDP of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community, is the most diversified in the region.
But a third of the inhabitants live on less than two euros a day, and the poverty rate is almost 40 percent.
Covid-19 has lowered public and private investment and consumption. According to the World Bank, the worst affected sectors include hotels, restaurants, and transport.
Francoise Puene, chief executive of a Yaounde hotel, told AFP: “For us, the CAN is the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We have invested 12 billion francs ($21 million/18 million euros) in the future,” she says as expansion work continues at the four-star establishment.
Cameroon Tours director Alain Pokam says: “A little more than 10 years ago, tourists came back regularly.
“With Boko Haram and the Anglophone crisis, they now have the feeling that everything can change at any time. I hope the CAN will give tourists the desire to come back to Cameroon.”
But economist Dieudonne Essomba believes the “CAN cannot have a strong macroeconomic effect”.
“The stadiums are prestigious investments, but do not have a structural impact on the lives of the people,” he told AFP. “The average Cameroonian needs water, a job, access to healthcare.”
Jean-Michel Nintcheu from the opposition Social Democratic Front party criticised the government of President Paul Biya for creating “a vicious debt” by choosing to host the Cup of Nations.
“We are talking about more than 3,000 billion CFA already granted for this event,” he told AFP, a figure the government has not confirmed.
“We could have used part of this money to support economic operators, build hospitals and schools, invest heavily in agriculture, boost agribusiness and strengthen the supply of (electricity),” he said.
The draw for the tournament takes place in the country on Tuesday.
HOSTING CUP OF NATIONS ‘IRREVERSIBLE ACHIEVEMENT’ FOR CAMEROON
“We are the champions” resonates in the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde as Cameroon sports minister Narcisse Mouele Kombi enters the main venue for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, surrounded by journalists.
With the January 9 kick-off of the 24-team tournament drawing closer, the government is emphasising that the central African country is set to stage the biennial showcase of African football.
“Cameroon is ready to host the CAN (Cup of Nations),” Mouele Kombi tells AFP, adding that its organisation was “an irreversible achievement”.
Geremi Njitap, a former Cameroon star and now president of the footballers’ union in the country, believes the tournament is a “great opportunity for African football to regain a high level.
“We must develop the local championships and that starts with the development of infrastructure. The players must be well paid,” he told AFP.
Others are more sceptical.
“The CAN will be done. There are no more fears. But at what cost?”, asks Dimitri Mebenga, head of sport for the daily Mutations.
“This tournament will have been a financial abyss for the country and will have made the Cameroonian taxpayer bleed, all in a great opacity.”
Originally chosen as 2019 hosts, Cameroon fell behind with preparations and Egypt had to step in at the last minute and stage the event.
Given a second chance, Cameroon have twice had to change the dates for the 2021 version, that will now be held a year later.
Fears that torrential seasonal rains could wreak havoc with a tight 52-match schedule resulted in the first change, then the coronavirus pandemic caused another delay.
Now, the marquee African football tournament is set to begin at the Olembe Stadium late in the afternoon of January 9 and conclude at the same venue on February 6 with the final.
After work delays, the Olembe Stadium in the Cameroonian capital offers 60,000 seats and an already green pitch.
But as Cameroon prepare to host the Cup of Nations for the first time since 1972, when it was just an eight-team tournament, there are security concerns.
Boko Haram jihadists have launched attacks in the north while there have been clashes between the army and separatists in the two English-speaking regions in the southwest.
Cameroon successfully hosted the African Nations Championship (CHAN), a competition for footballers playing in their homelands, early this year, but controversy continues over infrastructure backlogs.
Media and analysts wonder whether the country will be ready for the January 9 start with Cameroon to feature in the opening match against opponents who will be known after the draw in Yaounde on Tuesday.
Initial plans for the Olembe Stadium included a swimming pool, a gymnasium, and tennis courts, but only the stadium seems set to be completed.
An Italian company working on the project since 2015 was replaced at the end of 2019 by one from Canada.
There are red, blue, green, orange and yellow panels on the outer rim of the venue, symbolising the scales of a pangolin, a small mammal dear to Cameroonians.
The total cost of the Olembe project, according to the authorities, is 163 billion CFA francs ($290 million/250 million euros).
Work to be completed includes hotels in Garoua and Bafoussam and roads in Douala, a coastal city and the economic capital.