When the Africa Cup of Nations was first held in 1957, it was an inherently political event. The majority of Africa was still under colonial rule and, as such, its very name (then 'the Africa Nations Cup') was an appeal to the nationalism which was sweeping the continent like wildfire. To put things in context, inaugural winners Egypt had only gained true independence from the United Kingdom in 1952, while Britain would not emancipate its last colony in Africa for another 23 years. The Africa Cup of Nations was meant to be a clarion call to ideas of national identity, and a statement of cultural and sporting independence from countries which had long been governed by their supposed superiors in Europe. Since its inception, however, it has been used to further political agendas of all different stripes, and utilised as a powerful propaganda tool by some of Africa's most ruthless regimes.
The first ever Africa Cup of Nations took place in a fraught political atmosphere. The founding nations, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa, were all facing critical developments in the domestic sphere. Gamal Abdel Nasser had taken full power in Egypt several months prior, while the Suez Crisis was fresh in the collective memory of the African and Arab worlds. There was serious tension between Egypt and the former colonial powers in the region, along with with the young nation of Israel, but for his defiance in the face of invasion Nasser was widely seen as a hero of the nationalist cause. Meanwhile, Sudan had gained its independence a year previously, Ethiopia was still struggling with the devastating aftermath of Italian occupation, and South African apartheid had already alienated many in Africa, Europe and beyond. The South African side would in fact be disqualified from the tournament, having steadfastly refused to change their policy of debarring non-white footballers from their national team.
Accordingly, only three sides competed in the 1957 edition of the tournament, with Ethiopia given a walkover to the final. Egypt beat Sudan in the semis, before dispatching the Ethiopians by a 4-0 scoreline in Khartoum, all of their goals coming from the boot of iconic centre-forward Ad-Diba. Considering their place at the vanguard of African independence, Egypt were fitting winners of the competition. It was certainly a propaganda victory for Nasser, especially considering that Egyptian representatives had long been petitioning a European-dominated FIFA for an independent African tournament. In a sense, the birth of the Africa Cup of Nations mirrored Africa's struggle for autonomy, in that the few independent bulwarks of the continent were forced to fight for recognition from European powers that be.
With Egyptian football fans delighted by the victory and Nasser's regime gaining much-needed domestic capital, the potential propaganda value of the tournament was made infinitely apparent to his political successors. The popularity of the first Cup of Nations was so great that, after cursory deliberations, the incipient African Football Confederation decided to make it a biennial occurrence, held in a different country on each occasion. The Cup of Nations was always intended as tournament for an independent Africa, and to attest to Africa's ability to organise and maintain its own sporting institutions. As more and more countries gained their independence, the tournament was strengthened immeasurably, and soon enough numerous African leaders wanted to emulate Egypt's success.
So, in the early sixties, Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah became an enthusiastic backer of the newly formed national team, funding them on the road to continental dominance. The first president of Ghana and a dedicated proponent of pan-Africanism, he saw football as a means of securing Ghana's place on the international stage, as well as a potential symbol of Africa's political and cultural ascendancy. Nkrumah's backing had the required effect, and the Black Stars won the Cup of Nations in both 1963 and 1965 to raucous acclaim. That would not be enough to save Nkrumah, whose increasingly authoritarian rule saw him toppled in a military coup months after Ghana's second Cup of Nations triumph. Still, much like Nasser before him, he had recognised that football could be used to stir up national sentiment and to encourage a distinct African identity, too.
While Nkrumah was largely driven by his sincerely held pan-African ideals, there were plenty of other African leaders who saw football as a means of rampant self-aggrandisement. So, in 1974, Zaire won the Cup of Nations having been extensively bankrolled by Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu had seized power in the Republic of the Congo in 1965, renaming it Zaire six years later, and had soon established a violent kleptocracy in which he and his supporters monopolised the political establishment and amassed grotesque personal wealth. In a bid to give his regime a veneer of legitimacy, he began to invest heavily in Zaire's football infrastructure with the aim of turning them into Africa's first sporting superpower. While his forces carried out widespread human rights violations and he embezzled billions of dollars from the nation's coffers, the Zairean national team were being lavished with gifts, favours and general largesse, with the added incentive of knowing that failure on the pitch could mean confiscation of property, imprisonment or death.
Mobutu lost interest in football after the 1974 World Cup, when Zaire's national team was exposed on the world stage, losing three times over the course of the group stage including a humiliating 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia. So disgusted was he by the perceived slight to the nation's pride, and indeed his own, that he cut off funding to his former pet project and left Zairean football in a parlous state. Many of the same players who had won the Africa Cup of Nations ended up living in abject poverty, national heroes reduced to outcasts and untouchables over the course of a single year. Mobutu wasn't the only despot to attempt to harness the power of football, with Idi Amin another huge benefactor. Amin also recognised that success on the pitch was the easiest way to raise his dictatorship's international profile, and so financed the Ugandan national team lavishly throughout the seventies, resulting in their unlikely journey to the final – where they lost to a resurgent Ghana – in 1978.
With the political winds on the continent blowing in a different direction at this point, the significance of the Africa Cup of Nations in terms of propaganda had changed. No longer was it about independence, African pride, or throwing off the yoke of colonialism, so much as it was an opportunity for individual rulers to drum up support at home and prestige abroad. So, in 1982, Libya won the right to host the competition, and Muammar Gaddafi gave a two-hour speech at the opening ceremony touching upon the ideology of his Green Revolution, and the general splendour of his leadership. Over the course of the next three decades, Hosni Mubarak's Egypt would go on to win the Cup of Nations on four separate occasions, with football sponsored heavily by the establishment, while Nigeria under military rule became a serious footballing force, with the Super Eagles contesting four finals over the course of the eighties, winning one.
Though the tournament was, for quite some time, hijacked by the continent's dictators and autocrats, the propaganda value of the Cup of Nations could nonetheless be used for good. In 1996, post-apartheid South Africa earned hosting rights, and the subsequent victory of a multiracial team was a significant part of the reconciliation process, and a boon for South Africa's international standing. As their side downed Tunisia in the final, the sight of white and black South Africans celebrating alongside each other in the stands served as further affirmation of Nelson Mandela's 'Rainbow Nation', and helped to perpetuate the positive imaging of the iconic 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela himself could be seen celebrating in the stands, wearing his Bafana Bafana football strip with pride.
Since then, the Africa Cup of Nations has seemed a slightly more straightforward endeavour, drawing considerable global interest owing to the presence of so many African players in the world's most prestigious domestic leagues. There have been fewer overt attempts to commandeer the competition for ideological purposes, even if the shadow of nationalism still falls heavy across the pitch. That said, there are numerous political undercurrents swirling beneath the surface of the tournament, and various tensions threatening to burst forth.
When Gabon hosts the Cup of Nations this January, it will do so in the aftermath of the tense re-election of Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose family have held presidential office since the late sixties. Opposition parties have promised protests, while some observers have predicted a serious government crackdown. As is so often the case with the Africa Cup of Nations, then, someone will be looking to make capital out of the tournament, and to use it to further their political cause. Accordingly, there will be two winners: the side that plays the best football, and the side that best understands how to triumph in the propaganda war off the pitch.