May the gods bring Afcon to East Africa

What you need to know:

  • To qualify, the footballing trio will have to invest a lot in infrastructure. Afcon might, therefore, be the grease that finally oils cross-border infrastructure in EAC, which regional leaders have spoken a lot of big English about but done little to deliver on.

Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are making a joint bid to host the 2027 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) tournament. Should they succeed, it will bring Afcon to the East Africa region for the first time.

Not even the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the newest member and the bloc’s most successful Afcon campaigner, has hosted it. But DRC has bagged the title twice—in 1968 and 1974.

This is one to root for, especially if you are not a football fan and, therefore, will not have elevated expectations of an East African team winning it, thus saving yourself the heartbreak.

However, you would enjoy the wider benefits before and well after the tournament has been played.

So far, the only stadium that can host continental matches in the entire EAC is the National Stadium, in Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, according to a report on standards of stadiums in Africa that was released by the governing body Confederation of African Football (Caf) in February.

To qualify, the footballing trio will have to invest a lot in infrastructure. Afcon might, therefore, be the grease that finally oils cross-border infrastructure in EAC, which regional leaders have spoken a lot of big English about but done little to deliver on.

The first opportunity is to build up the East African Tourist Visa (EATV). In February 2014, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda formally launched the joint tourist Visa.

The three were then in a tizzy about what the media called “the Coalition of the Willing [CoW]”, trying to fast-track the regional integration project. Tanzania was at the time still playing the reluctant spouse in the East African marriage and Burundi was the relative fretting about not having the right dress for the wedding.

The results were interesting but could have been more spectacular. With Tanzania, the region’s second-largest economy (and now probably its most exciting), the return on EATV should have been more rewarding.

Afcon is the perfect opportunity to issue the EATV with Tanzania, or better still, for all the EAC states, including Burundi, South Sudan and the DRC. It would offer far greater value to people travelling to watch the tournament than every country issuing its own little thing.

Transport infrastructure

The next great opportunity is with transport infrastructure, beginning with travel over Lake Victoria. A once-lively network of water travel that became moribund is seeing a promising revival.

Kisumu Port was brought back from the dead and goods are being loaded from there to Uganda’s Port Bell, which has had the most significant investment in its infrastructure in 110 years. Again, the Tanzania shore of the lake is the most hectic, with a lot of tinkering at Mwanza and Musoma.

Early in the year, Tanzania launched East Africa’s largest-ever domestically manufactured freshwater passenger and cargo ship, the MV Mwanza Hapa Kazi Tu, on Lake Victoria. It has the capacity to carry 1,200 passengers, 400 tonnes of cargo, 20 small vehicles and three trucks.

Three more MV Mwanza Hapa Kazi Tu-size vessels on the lake and upping of the ports would dramatically bolster the lake region economy and provide affordable transport to thousands of football fans to travel to Afcon venues.

This is also the best opportunity to do something long-talked about—the open East African skies. As usual, there has been a lot of saliva but no action.

It is a shame that, today, East African aircraft still can’t fly directly from any of the regional airports outside the international one in the capital to a smaller airport upcountry inside a member state. You can’t take off from, say, Wilson in Nairobi, by some reckoning the busiest airport in Africa, to anywhere in East Africa.

At this point, we don’t know which stadia games would be played at if East Africa gets Afcon. Some of the most football-crazy Kenyans are in its western region. If Harambee Stars were playing a game in the eastern Uganda city of Mbale, they would need to take a 45-minute flight from Kisumu to Jomo Kenyatta International in Nairobi.

From there, they would fly for one hour and 10 minutes to Entebbe International, and then battle Kampala traffic and on to get to Mbale for the match eight hours later. This is insane! They could fly from Kisumu to Tororo and get there in 20 minutes. Then drive from Tororo to Mbale and get there in 35 minutes.

In 2027, Kenya will be going to the polls. President William Ruto could use the Afcon spending binge and EAC reforms as an electoral sweetener. Tanzania goes to the polls in 2025. President Samia Suluhu Hassan could use early Afcon goodies to garner the votes of the millions of football-mad Tanzania.

President Yoweri Museveni might emerge from clinching a record ninth term in Uganda in 2026. If he wins the usual way, broken bones and bashed heads of the opposition, Afcon could be a massive healing event for a bruised nation.

Everybody wins, and some of the reforms, like on the open East African skies, won’t cost money. EAC chiefs only need to sign a piece of paper for that.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3