The affective politics of AFCON

This year’s AFCON in Côte d'Ivoire showed that it’s not just the politics of the football that matters, but the politics of the vibe as well.

Image credit Monnivhoir Aymar Kouamé via Pexels.

The dust is settling on the training pitches and stadiums of the 2023 edition of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), as Morocco gears up to host the next tournament in 2025. To be sure, it was a spectacular AFCON. Not only did the host nation’s team make quite the comeback—deemed by some to be a resurrection—but the performance of other teams as well, which sent some of the most revered giants of African football home earlier than expected, was nothing short of astounding. This AFCON absolutely delivered on plot twists. It also delivered on fun and banter or, to put it more succinctly in Nouchi, an Abidjan urban vernacular, on enjaillement. The incredible music produced for the tournament, along with the endless videos on social media of fans and football players engaging with this music, will certainly be remembered. Ivorian artists had promised this AFCON would be la CAN de la joie. Fun it certainly was, and it was also food for thought about the politics of affect in Côte d’Ivoire and in the transnational Africanity showcased by the tournament’s musical production.

President Alassane Ouattara had undoubtedly mobilized this year’s AFCON as part of a hardly covert pre-electoral campaign in view of the presidential elections due to be held next year. However, his concern is not just with the upcoming elections; in fact, he has been on a campaign of affective politics for the better part of his thirteen-year presidency. Earning several sobriquets—including “PRADO” earlier in his presidency, “le PR” and “Papa Ado” more recently—Ouattara has focused heavily on building an image of a president who delivers on infrastructural development, harkening back to the days of Côte d’Ivoire’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Consolidating his image in the Ivorian public imaginary has been a core feature of his presidency, and it is more critical now than ever with Tidjane Thiam’s return to Ivorian politics

In light of historical and current political developments in Côte d’Ivoire, the stakes with AFCON were high. For Ouattara, it mattered that the tournament was well organized and that the Ebimpé stadium bearing his name hosted key matches, including the final. It mattered that Côte d’Ivoire’s national team, the Elephants, won on home soil. This had never happened before, not even in 1984 under Houphouët’s presidency, when Côte d’Ivoire first hosted AFCON and the victory placed Ouattara in a league of his own. Thus, it will go down in history that during Ouattara’s presidency, the Elephants won AFCON twice (in 2015 and 2024), including once on home soil. This achievement helped tamper the growing disgruntlement of many Ivorians, who perceived that the expensive tournament would eventually translate into higher taxes for businesses and higher utility costs for the general population.

Furthermore, and critically, it mattered that the president’s affective campaign drew not just on infrastructural development but also on astute cultural engagement. The realm of popular culture has become an important frontier in Ivorian politics. The official AFCON 2023 theme song, “Akwaba,” is evidence of this. Featuring the now-iconic bridge over the lagoon between Cocody and Plateau (which also bears President Ouattara’s name), the song and music video bring together Ivorian Zouglou group Magic System, Nigerian artist Yemi Alade, and Moroccan artist Mohamed Ramadan. The song is multilingual, celebrating Africa’s diversity and welcoming other African nations to the Ivorian cities where the tournament was held: Abidjan, Bouaké, Korhogo, Yamoussoukro, and San-Pédro.

But while “Akwaba” might have enjoyed great levels of popularity, the tournament’s official theme song had to reckon with the fluidity and spontaneity of musical production in Côte d’Ivoire. Having emerged a few weeks before the start of the tournament, “Coup du Marteau” by Tam Sir and collaborators very quickly supplanted “Akwaba” as the most popular AFCON song in Côte d’Ivoire and online. “Coup du Marteau” pays homage to one of the most loved Ivorian coupé-décalé artists, Douk Saga, and inscribes the more recent iteration of Saga’s artistry, le Paiya. The song weaves together Ivorian French, Nouchi, and Lebanese Arabic, speaking to multiple segments of Ivorian society and various urban generations. It certainly was not the only popular song that contributed to creating an electrifying atmosphere in the country throughout the tournament. Official interventions tried to keep up, but it was difficult to steer the general euphoria to align with the objectives of the government and the president. Some songs, like Francky Dicaprio’s “Desserrez,” became popular as the Elephants posted videos dancing to them. In other instances, TikTok challenges popularized songs, as in the case of Obam’s “On a pris.” Other songs worth listening to in the now-lengthy Ivorian AFCON playlist include Yodé and Siro’s “La CAN c’est Chez Nous,” VDA’s “Zouzouwôwô,” Team Décalé’s “Ambiance,” and Kehou Mousso, Soukeïna, Dre-A, and Le Juiice’s “Mouiller Maillot.” 

One of the most powerful things that these songs did was destabilize the direction of affective politics such that no single political entity could monopolize or control it. Song production over the month-long tournament revealed the workings of public affect beyond electoral politics. Ivorian coach Emerse Faé’s stellar performance made him a favorite with football fans and the Ivorian population at large. This was after widespread anger in the face of an embarrassing loss against Equatorial Guinea, leading to the firing of Jean-Louis Gasset, and after the Ivorian Football Federation’s plan to rehire Hervé Renard was thwarted. Not only did Faé’s performance make him popular, but he has gained further popular affection for his fluency in urban Abidjanais banter and for his sense of fun, having been caught on tape dancing to “Coup du Marteau.” If one considers recent AFCON wins and the role of black African coaches in leading teams to take the cup, it is hardly surprising that the Elephants would win with Faé, a black Ivorian national, as their coach. Emerse Faé has become quite the national hero, taking us back to 1992, when the workings of public affect and a protest on the part of the Elephants helped put Ivorian coach Yeo Martial Paul at the head of the team when white French coach Philippe Troussier was the Ivorian Football Federation’s preferred pick.

The musical production of this AFCON reveals the making of Africanity at the boundaries of nationality and citizenship. Through various forms of what anthropologists have called joking relationships, the songs playfully allude to and, in the process, archive historical African transnational rivalries and relations. If the official theme song highlights Africanity as the bond underpinning the tournament, Ivorian artist Molière’s song “Vous va voir” examines the Cameroon–Côte d’Ivoire rivalry by framing this AFCON as payback for Cameroon’s win in 1984, when Côte d’Ivoire first hosted the tournament, explaining that forty years on, with the caliber of players on the Ivorian team, Cameroon would not win again. Further exploring this rivalry, Fior 2 Bior’s “Qui a mis huile sur riz de Zaha? and VDA’s “Ils seront logés” revisit the last AFCON hosted by Cameroon and the ways that the Cameroonian public jeered at the Ivorian team and its fans after the Elephants’ elimination. Through tongue-in-cheek references, these songs capture how the African experience is emotionally negotiated at the interstices of nationality.

There is much more to be said about AFCON. For instance, just after the tournament ended, a video circulated of the women’s football team describing the unacceptable conditions they are subjected to and the sexism that still structures football. Paying attention to the affective politics of this and other AFCON tournaments has the potential to shift considerably how the international relations of francophone Africa, as well as the wider African region and its diasporas, are framed, studied, and taught.

Further Reading

Back in Bouaké

‘Les Éléphants’ quarterfinal match against Mali is happening in Cote d’Ivoire’s second largest city. Can the place once ravaged by war be a site of national redemption once again?