/ 30 January 2022

Monsieur le Président? Samuel Eto’o’s second act

Tc72cover Samuel Eto'o
Samuel Eto’o

On Monday morning, 17 January, Samuel Eto’o officially began a new job.

At the age of 40, Cameroon’s most famous son has already completed one glittering career. His magical right foot took him all the way from Ngambé, a small village in the Littoral region, into a starring role at some of the world’s biggest football clubs, including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter Milan. At Barcelona he was part of arguably the greatest club team ever assembled, playing alongside Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho and winning two Champions Leagues and three La Liga titles in the process. 

He is perhaps the greatest African footballer of all time. He won his first cap for the Indomitable Lions the day before his 16th birthday, and went on to lead the team to two Africa Cup of Nations trophies and Cameroon’s first ever Olympic gold medal.

After retiring from football in 2019, he could be forgiven if he were to sit back in one of his four houses – he splits his time between Paris, Milan, Abidjan and Douala’s New-Bell neighbourhood – and admiring his many, many trophies.

Instead, the world-famous striker threw himself into the messy politics of Fecafoot, Cameroon’s football federation – and, with tactical acumen reminiscent of his brilliance on the pitch, emerged on top. As of this week, he is officially the federation’s new president.

But few believe that Eto’o’s political ambitions will stop there.

The Continent reached out to Eto’o for comment via his foundation, Fecafoot, and a close friend, but received no response.

A natural politician

Despite his sporting pedigree, and his enormous popularity within Cameroon, no one thought Eto’o stood a chance when he first announced that he was running for the Fecafoot presidency. Except Eto’o himself, that is. “I will be the next president of the federation despite all the cheating,” he said as he filed his nomination papers in November. 

One obstacle in his way was his dual citizenship. Having acquired a Spanish passport during his Barcelona days, Eto’o was initially ineligible to take part. But this rule was later thrown out in court.

Another hurdle was that the position was already occupied by a powerful member of the country’s ruling elite. Seidou Mbombo Njoya is royalty: a son of the Bamum Kingdom in western Cameroon, which wields enormous political and cultural power. Having assumed the position in 2018, Mbombo Njoya had no intention of relinquishing it, and enjoyed strong support from both the Confederation of African Football and Fifa, the sport’s global ruling body – neither of which welcomed Eto’o’s promise to clean up Cameroonian football. 

But Eto’o outmanoeuvred the incumbent at every turn. He did it by running a sophisticated political campaign that would not have been out of place in a presidential election. Instead of focusing his attention on the 76 delegates who actually vote, he criss-crossed all of Cameroon’s ten districts visiting schools, community centres and army bases, charming local authorities and traditional leaders as he did so. Every moment was documented on social media. He forged alliances with prominent businessmen and key power brokers like the new lamido (Fulani ruler) of Garoua, Ibrahim el Rachidine, who helped sway delegates to his side. And he appointed the services of a top PR consultant, who carefully framed Eto’o as a champion of the people.

“People were asking themselves: Is this guy paving his way to become Fecafoot president or the president of the republic?” said one journalist who followed the campaign closely, speaking to The Continent on condition of anonymity. In Cameroon, where President Paul Biya has been in power since 1982, it can be dangerous to even speculate about who might come next.

More curious still was Eto’o’s energetic courting of regional leaders, who could have no influence on the Fecafoot vote. In 2021, he met with the presidents of Cape Verde, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mauritania and Togo; the prime minister of Côte d’Ivoire; and even Assimi Goïta, the colonel who orchestrated Mali’s military coup – an itinerary more typically associated with statesmen than footballers.

Seeking Biya’s blessing

On 11 December, with 11-million people watching on TV – the first televised election in Cameroon’s history – Samuel Eto’o was elected as president of Fecafoot. Thousands of young Cameroonians gathered outside the Fecafoot headquarters in Yaoundé to cheer him on. In Eto’o, they saw hope for change.

When it comes to Cameroonian politics, and the country’s octogenarian president, change is a commodity that is in short supply.

But Eto’o has close links with Cameroon’s presidency – so close that online publication Africa Is A Country once described him as a “PR pawn for the protracted rule of the country’s ageing and hard-line head of state”. In 2011, in the run-up to the national election, he was among the guests invited to party with Biya and his wife at the president’s residence in Mvomeka. In 2018, Eto’o enthusiastically endorsed Biya’s bid for a seventh consecutive term in office, saying that he would be voting for Biya and that “the most important thing is that my brothers do like me”.

(Eto’o is not the only footballer to shill for the regime. Roger Milla, hero of the 1990 World Cup, is the president’s “special goodwill ambassador”. Rigobert Song, the former Indomitable Lions captain, also parties in Mvomeka and wears ruling party attire.)

Before launching his bid for the Fecafoot presidency, Eto’o sought the blessing of Biya, whom he refers to as his “father”. Biya gave it, but attached one condition, according to the magazine The Africa Report: Eto’o’s political ambitions must go no further. Biya is thought to be grooming his son, Franck Biya, to succeed him, and does not need a wildly popular football star to get in the way.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – MARCH 09: Samuel Eto’o of Barcelona in action during the La Liga match between Barcelona and Villarreal at the Camp Nou on March 9, 2008 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

A shiny distraction

Earlier this month, the Africa Cup of Nations kicked off at Yaoundé’s shiny new $326-million Olembe Stadium (also known as the Paul Biya Stadium). Cameroon’s hosting of the tournament is three years late, delayed first due to security concerns and then because of the pandemic. Finally, however, President Biya got his moment in the international limelight, waving regally to his subjects as the presidential motorcade did laps around the pitch. 

It was easy to forget, amid all the exuberance and flag-waving, that this is a nation at war with itself. For the last five years, a bitter conflict has raged between Biya’s security forces and separatists from Cameroon’s Anglophone regions (English speakers make up about 20% of the country’s population, and have been historically marginalised). At least 4 000 people have been killed, and a million more forced from their homes. A generation of children have been denied access to education. Both sides have been accused of war crimes including extrajudicial killings and sexual assault. 

The separatists have pledged to disrupt the tournament, and have made good on that promise: shots were fired to disrupt a Malian team practice, while Gambia’s team bus was near the scene when a homemade bomb went off in the town of Buea, injuring three police officers. “Do not put football fans’ lives at risk thinking Africa’s most corrupt regime will guarantee security,” said a spokesperson for the rebels.

Samuel Eto’o has carefully steered clear of the conflict – pretending, for the most part, that it doesn’t exist. In 2018, he announced a plan to tour schools in the conflict-affected areas, but was forced to cancel after a public outcry from Anglophone leaders who saw it as an endorsement of the regime’s brutal approach.

But a clearer endorsement came in January last year when Eto’o visited a battalion of the Rapid Intervention Brigade, or BIR – the elite military unit that reports directly to Biya himself. The BIR is one of the key ways that Biya keeps himself in power, and it has been repeatedly implicated in human rights abuses including torture, assault and the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

Eto’o is a fan. “Had the pleasure of spending time in Maroua with my brothers and sisters in the army and witnessed their discipline, professionalism and selfless commitment to putting their lives on the line for our country,” he tweeted. “Good luck to the BIR and to those who fight for the honor of 237!” (+237 is Cameroon’s dialling code).

Only one president

As the crowds cheered Biya on Afcon’s opening day, Eto’o was conspicuously absent from both the ceremony and the television coverage. He was spotted walking alone in a tunnel into the stadium, without any escort or protocol. Later, a video emerged of him speaking to his long-time friend Fally Ipupa, the Congolese singer who performed at the ceremony. Fally said he was going to give Eto’o a shout-out on stage, but Eto’o told him not to. “No, please, I don’t want any problem. There’s just one president and he’s here today.”

But not everyone is so circumspect. “Wherever Samuel Eto’o goes these days, everyone calls him president. We don’t know whether they are referring to him as Fecafoot president or president of the republic,” said the veteran journalist.

Either way, and no matter how loudly Eto’o affirms his loyalty, Paul Biya will be watching his back very closely indeed. If Samuel Eto’o is as skilled at politics as he is at football – and the early signs suggest that he is – then the president might just have something to worry about. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here