LIBREVILLE, GABON - The Africa Cup of Nations enters the elimination phase Saturday in Gabon as eight of the 16 football (soccer) teams that started the tournament compete for the four places in the semi-finals. But many seats in the stadiums remain empty after the political opposition called on its supporters to boycott the event.
Hundreds of secondary school students lined up at the government high school in the center of Libreville to receive entry tickets for AFCON matches.
Youmbi Betrand, 16, says their head teacher gives them tickets - the value of which ranges between $5 - $10 to go to watch matches. A bus transports them to the stadium and then takes them home after.
But despite the distribution of free tickets around the capital, the stands were not full for many of the matches in the group round. It’s a stark contrast to the packed stadiums back in 2012 when Gabon co-hosted AFCON with Equatorial Guinea.
This year, Gabon opposition leader Jean Ping urged people to boycott the event to protest last year’s disputed presidential election.
Martin Nguipso, deputy director of Ping’s campaign, says Ping's supporters are upholding the boycott. He says people do not love President Ali Bongo and want him out. They are using the tournament as a political weapon to show his unpopularity, Nguipso says.
Ping pushed for an independent recount of the vote. Allegations of fraud led to deadly protests in September when results were announced.
Sociologist Abdouraman Abba of the Omar Bongo University says poor turnout at AFCON may be more an indication of the continued level of political tension than support for the opposition.
He says many people in Gabon are not ready to go to the stadiums for fear of the unknown.
Some people, like football fan Narcise Mbomba, prefer to watch the games on television at popular spots like Liberty Square.
"If Ali Bongo was popular, Jean Ping wouldn't have been able to convince the people to stay out of these games. Ali Bongo is unpopular," Mbomba said.
The president has not yet reacted to Ping’s call for a boycott.
But not everyone has responded kindly to the opposition’s attempt to mix politics and football.
Ndong Gabriel, a businessman in Libreville, has been going to the stadiums.
He says he decided to do so as a sign of patriotism because his country needs more visibility. He says he is also out to support Africa's football and its youth who, for the most part, are more highly competitive than their peers on other continents.
Some observers say the bad economy, not politics, is keeping fans at home.
The global drop in oil prices since 2014 has hurt Gabon and reduced people’s purchasing power. Some of the stadiums being used for AFCON matches are far from city centers, which only adds to the expense.