Football players from across East and Central Africa will gather in the Ugandan capital of Kampala on September 21 and 22 to take part in the finals of the Great Lakes Peace Cup, a tournament organized to help former combatants – many of them abducted child soldiers – become part of their communities through the healing power of sport.
The Great Lakes Peace Cup is being organised by the World Bank’s Transitional Development and Reintegration Program (TDRP), and the government amnesty and reintegration commissions of the four competing countries.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2012, teams across Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda played for national Peace Cup titles. Now the winning teams from the four countries will meet and compete on the weekend of International Peace Day (September 21) for the title of Great Lakes Peace Cup champion.
This tournament is not just about the right to lift a trophy and be crowned as victors in a football game. The Great Lakes Peace Cup aims to break down barriers and prejudice left over from years of conflict. Each team consists roughly of half former combatants and half community members. As returning ex-soldiers often find it difficult to be welcomed back to their villages or towns, playing alongside men not called or forced into war is helping them to be accepted by their peers and feel part of their communities again.
Many of the players taking part in the Peace Cup finals will be leaving their countries, and in some cases their communities, for the very first time. During the national tournaments they met players and people from different parts of their country. Now they will play against, and fraternize with, footballers from other parts of Africa.
Louis Emmanuel Oloyotoo Okello of Winterbury FC in Gulu, the team that won the Uganda Peace Cup title, expresses his joy simply: “I feel very happy to participate in the Peace Cup. My teammate Za, I pass the ball to him, he passes it to me. I don’t see him as an ex-soldier”.
The tournaments in the four African nations show that the stigma of having taken part in combat can be worn away by humanizing ex-combatants and their host communities through collective social action that can begin to repair the social fabric torn apart by years of violent conflict. Development is, of course, the great leveller, but it takes time, and for its benefits to be shared widely it requires more cohesive and inclusive societies.
Nelson Mandela stated that sport “has the power to unite in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” With the help of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela unified a nation that looked to be on the path to civil war. Mandela and South Africa stand as proof that sport can be a vital means to help the healing of traumatised nations and peoples.
The games of the Great Lakes Peace Cup contribute to understanding, teamwork and friendship among participating players, who may have at best ignored each other and at worst harboured enmity and resentment. Football alone cannot bring peace to a troubled region, but it can be an important step on the long path to reconciliation and hope for a better future.