English football may be the game of the people in Africa, but heads of state and prime ministers are equally engaged. Ufabet Presidents Mugabe and Nkurunziza of Zimbabwe and Burundi respectively both publicly declared for Chelsea. Ian Khama, the President of Botswana, watched the national team play Togo wearing a vintage Manchester United jersey. The vice-presidents of Nigeria and Kenya declared for Arsenal on Twitter.
How African leaders passionate about English & European football
The first tweet from Kenya’s William Ruto read: ‘DP @WilliamsRuto: I support #Arsenal. I just don’t know where we are at the moment. #GOKInteracts.’ Atiku Abubakar, Nigeria’s Vice President under Obasanjo in the 2000s, tweeted, in the midst of a particular fraught party conference, ‘this was just what is needed an @Arsenal win to lift me up at a moment like this.’
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was amongst many African Arsenal fans who joined the Wenger in/Wenger out debate. Less vocal on social media but no less supportive were Rupiah Banda, President of Zambia between 2008 and 2011, Prince Seeiso, the younger brother of the King of Lesotho, Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma, and President Adama Barrow of the Gambia, who acquired the Ufabet Arsenal habit whilst working as a security guard at an Argos catalogue store in north London.
Both of Africa’s richest individuals – the Nigerian king of concrete Aliko Dangote and Ethiopian-Saudi business magnate Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi – support Arsenal and have both suggested that they would like to buy the club. The intersection of politicians and English football clubs has become so pervasive that African newspapers have begun to use the Premier League as a metaphor or analogy for their domestic political conflicts.
In Kenya, for example, politicians were systematically compared to Premier League clubs. William Ruto was Leicester City, who “emerged from nowhere and took the position of the big boys’, while Kalonzo Musyoka, an ex-vice-president whose own presidential ambitions had faded, was Manchester United, ‘once the talk of the town … but slowly depreciating.’
The preponderance of Arsenal fans amongst African leaders was broadly reflected on the ground. Measured by numbers of official African supporters’ clubs – more than twenty compared to Manchester United’s four – Arsenal was Africa’s team, its fanbase reaching to the most unlikely corners of the continent, from South Sudan to Tunisia.
Kenyans were the second most common visitors to the club’s website, Nigerians the fifth. Africans were particularly prominent in the global “Wenger Out campaign, with banners noted and shared on social media at an anti-Zuma protest in South Africa, a big music gig in Nairobi and in the stands at a game in Ethiopia. Sharp-eyed visitors to the Emirates in recent years may have noted the large banner of Emeka Onyenuforo, founder of Arsenal Nigeria, hanging from one of the flagpoles outside the ground.
The group had 10,000 members in 2017, while Onyenuforo was on the road establishing new supporters’ clubs in Benin, Ghana, Togo and Niger. Research by Twitter on the geography of the clubs’ online followers suggests that Arsenal has support all across Africa, especially in the east, but has conceded top spot to Chelsea in West Africa, where the presence of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Jon Obi Mikel at the club has won over many fans.
More anecdotal evidence suggests that there are still plenty of Liverpool supporters out there but, as a young Nigerian and Ghanaian both said to me, ‘Liverpool is for old guys.’ This may yet change.