In Cameroon, one week ahead of the African Nations Soccer Championship, officials have deployed troops to protect players from across Africa as separatists vow to stop the games in restive English-speaking regions. The government is assuring football fans from across Africa that the games will be safe and that measures have also been taken to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The official song of the African Nations Championship (CHAN), by Cameroon singer Jane Mary Ihims, plays in markets and popular spots in Cameroon's capital city, Yaoundé, ahead of the official kickoff of the tournament on January 16.
The local organizing committee of CHAN asked the song We Are All Champions to be played to keep football fans in the mood for the competition.
Thirty-one-year-old Telesphore Ndoumbe says he supports Cameroon and is looking for the team's supporter's T-shirt to buy.
"Football is a unifying factor in Cameroon and the world at large, so I am expecting that during this period, hatred, anger will subside," Ndoumbe said. "And I think that will be the beginning of a new live that we are going to experience."
Ndoumbe said he would be watching the matches in stadiums in Yaoundé and the games in other towns on TV.
CHAN matches will be played in Yaoundé, the coastal city, Douala, and the English-speaking southwestern town of Limbe.
Thomas Ndive Mulungo, president of the Cameroon Football Federation (FECAFOOT) in the English-speaking South West region, where Limbe is located, says people are anxiously waiting for the tournament to begin.
"The people of the South West region are passionate about the game of football," Mulungo said. "With the facilities, the infrastructures we have today in our region, we are proud. It is not only the football in the field of play, but it has economic multiplier effects to the community and the host towns."
But separatists have warned on Social Media that countries taking part in the championship should not go to the South West region. The separatists, in messages on Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp, say the English-speaking regions are crisis-prone and the safety of the teams cannot be assured there.
Bernard Okalia Bilai, governor of the English-speaking South West region, says measures have been taken to ensure the safety of soccer fans, officials and players from Africa and beyond. He spoke via a messaging app from Buea, capital of the South West region.
He says when the separatist crisis started in November 2016, the 20,000-capacity Limbe stadium hosted the Female African Football Cup of Nations. He says in 2017 and 2018, Cameroon's national soccer team played against Gabon and Gambia in Limbe. He says the successful hosting of such international matches is indication that the security and safety of football fans from across Africa and beyond will be assured despite separatist threats.
Bilai added there are still some pockets of resistance from separatists fighting to create an English-speaking state in French-majority Cameroon. He said the military and police have been deployed to deal with separatists who fail to surrender.
Cameroon's sports minister, Narcisse Mouele Kombi, says the central African country has also taken measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.
He says the African Nations Championship will be one of the world's first major sporting events since the advent of COVID-19. He says in order to respect COVID-19 prevention measures, Cameroon will strictly apply recommendations from the Confederation of African Football and admit into each stadium only 25% of capacity. He says the number of spectators will be increased to 50% of each stadium's capacity starting with the quarter finals level. He says besides keeping a distance of at least 1.5 meters, every spectator will be required to wear a face mask.
Cameroon will play in Group A with Mali, Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe, while Group B comprises Libya, DR Congo, Congo and Niger. Group C has Morocco, Rwanda, Uganda and Togo, while Group D has Zambia, Guinea, Namibia and Tanzania.
The African Nations Championship exclusively features players from each nation's respective national champions.
CHAN will serve as a warm-up for Cameroon ahead of the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations the central African state will be hosting.