Nigeria’s star goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie dreams of Olympic glory in Paris

Nigeria’s Chiamaka Nnadozie, voted Africa’s best goalkeeper in 2023, has also been a key player for Paris Football Club (Paris FC) since 2020, helping the team to a clear victory (3-0) over Montpellier last weekend. Her Super Falcons, Nigeria’s national women’s football team, face South Africa on April 4 and 9 as they vie for a spot in Paris. In the run-up to her adopted city’s Olympic Games, “Maka” is staying strong in her belief that nothing happens by chance.

On July 25, the eve of the opening ceremony of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, Chiamaka Nnadozie hopes to take to the field with her team against Brazil to kick off her first Olympics. Before that, the 23-year-old goalkeeper must help the Super Falcons overcome the last African obstacle in their path: South Africa, whom Nigeria must beat in a double-header on April 4 and 9.

“South Africa have a very, very good team. I think one of their strengths is keeping the ball. They don’t believe in physical football at all. They’re good tactically, technically. I think we will try to work on that to see how we can stop them,” she says with a confident smile.

“It’s meant to be,” she adds. France has had a special importance for the Nigerian goalkeeper throughout her career.

‘The connection is just there’

Nnadozie first captured attention at FIFA’s 2018 Under-20 Women’s World Cup in France, where her performance earned her a call-up to the senior squad for the Africa Cup of Nations that same year. She was the Super Falcons’ goalkeeper for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, also held in France. 

There, the 1.80-metre-tall goalkeeper came up against Les Bleues in the group phase, persistently stymying the French forwards before finally being forced to concede defeat on a disputed penalty. But it didn’t matter: Nnadozie had caught the eye of the footballing world.

So much so, in fact, that her club future was sealed when Paris FC signed her in January 2020. Initially seen as third in their goalkeeping hierarchy, Nnadozie quickly established herself as the first-choice keeper and became a fixture at the club’s training centre in Orly, a southern suburb of Paris.   

“It was so, so terrifying ­[to leave home]. Because I’m the last child of my parents and I have a very, very good relationship with my mom. She’s like my best friend,” she recalls with emotion.

“But you know, at this point in life, you need to work for yourself. You need to hustle to make a living.”

Life in France was a bit difficult at first. “At first I didn’t like it because it was cold.  But with time … I’m used to it now. Now, apart from the language barrier, I’m very happy here … I need to learn French,” she says with a laugh.

“I think I’m a Parisian because I play for Paris, see? And it’s in my blood, and I love it … The connection is just there,” she adds.

And she hopes to be here for the Olympics, even if the road is a long one. If the Super Falcons get over the hurdle presented by South Africa, they’ll have to reach the quarterfinals, or even the final, before they can play in Paris.

An extraordinary 2023

The year 2023 was rich in emotion for the player known as “Maka” by her teammates and fans. In March, she officially extended her collaboration with Paris FC until June 2025.

In the summer FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Nnadozie once again shone on the world stage. Nigeria came within a whisker of eliminating England, the eventual finalists, in the Round of 16 (losing 4-2 on penalties after a 0-0 draw). In the group phase, she saved a penalty to snatch a draw against reigning Olympic champions Canada. 

Nnadozie also contributed to her team’s success at the club level last year. In September, she helped her side to a surprise victory over Arsenal and Wolfsburg, giving the Parisian club their first-ever appearance in the Champions League finals.


So when the Confederation of African Football added a CAF Award for the best African goalkeeper of the year, the choice was clear. On December 11 in Marrakech, Nnadozie won the prestigious individual award at a ceremony where Nigeria ended up with a veritable haul: Victor Osimhen was voted best African player of the year and Asisat Oshoala won best female player of the year.


Chiamaka Nnadozie with her trophy for best goalkeeper in Africa at the 2023 CAF Awards. © AFP

“It was incredible. It was a real incentive for me to keep working hard. I now know that the whole world is watching me,” she says. “In Africa, there’s a lot of talent, particularly in Nigeria. So I think that in the next 10 or 20 years, Nigeria wouldn’t lack any good teams in all the categories. So I’m really happy and proud to be part of this project and I’m happy to be Nigerian.” 

The dream of a lifetime

Nnadozie, a native of Orlu in southern Nigeria, faced an uphill battle at the beginning. “In the beginning, my dad was mad at me. ‘Hey, what are you doing? Girls don’t play football,’” Nnadozie recalls him saying.

“Everything changed for him when he saw me playing with the national team. Now he’s my No. 1 supporter and encourages girls to take up soccer.”

She grew up in an environment steeped in the sport: “Nobody was a professional, but my father played, my brothers played and even my older sister played.” 

While Nnadozie had sometimes imagined becoming an accountant, her parents couldn’t afford to send her to school. “I saw girls playing football and making a living from it. I had a bit of talent, so I told myself I’d give it until I was 20 to see if I could break through.”

While she loved playing on the pitch, it was as goalkeeper that she set herself apart. She found herself between the goal posts after her team’s goalkeeper was injured. Her coach saw her immense potential right from the warm-up and gave her an ultimatum: become a goalkeeper – or leave the team. 

“I wanted to play in the field. I refused and went to another academy, but they asked me for money to play. So I had no choice but to come back and become a goalkeeper. And today, I just want to thank Coach Alex for seeing that in me,” she says.

“Sometimes, what’s meant to be is meant to be.”

The rest unfolded like a fairytale. She was spotted at the age of 16 by the Rivers Angels FC, based in the Nigerian state of Rivers, at a scouting tournament for which she won the title of best goalkeeper. The coach and president approached her and offered her a contract.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she recalls.

Paris and the Olympic dream

Eight years on, Nnadozie is hungry for more – and she isn’t afraid to dream big.

“I want to win the Women’s Champions League with Paris FC and I want us to win the championship. I want to win the World Cup with my country,” she says.

“The Olympics is also an experience I want to have. It’s very special.”

A Nigerian team hasn’t played in the Olympics since the 2008 Games in Beijing – which Nnadozie doesn’t remember watching. In the current squad, only the experienced 36-year-old Tochukwu Oluehi, also a goalkeeper, has played at the Olympic level.

And Oluehi is passing on her aspirations to those following in her footsteps. 

“I love how she talks to us about it, the advice she gives us and how insistent she is in telling us that it’s important to qualify for the Games. We’re a new generation. We have a lot of talented young players. We have ambition and a great state of mind. We can do it,” Nnadozie says.

She hopes the Super Falcons will be able to emulate the triumph of the Super Eagles, the Nigerian men’s team, who in 1996 became Africa’s first Olympic champions by winning gold. If Nnadozie’s enthusiasm and confidence are any indication, Nigeria may even be ready to challenge the US or Canadian teams that have dominated women’s football in recent years.

This has been translated from the original in French.




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Two days after gunmen kidnaps 300 students in northwest Nigeria, some have lost hope of finding them

Rashidat Hamza is in despair. All but one of her six children are among the nearly 300 students abducted from their school in Nigeria’s northwest, riddled with Islamic extremists and armed gangs.

It has been more than two days after her children — ages 7 to 18 — went to school in the remote town of Kuriga in Kaduna state only to be kidnapped by gunmen. She was still in shock on March 9.

Authorities said at least 100 children aged 12 or younger were among the abductees in the state known for violent killings lawlessness and dangerous roads where people get regularly snatched.

Also read:At least 200 people, mostly women and children, abducted by extremists in northeastern Nigeria

“We don’t know what to do, but we believe in God,” Ms. Hamza told The Associated Press during a visit to the town.

Mass kidnappings in Nigeria

The mass kidnapping in Kuriga was the third in northern Nigeria since last week; a group of gunmen abducted 15 children from a school in another northwestern state, Sokoto, before dawn on March 9, and a few days earlier 200 people, mostly women and children displaced by conflict, were kidnapped in northeastern Borno State.

The kidnappings are a stark reminder of the security crisis plaguing Africa’s most populous country.

Parents wait for news about the kidnapped LEA Primary and Secondary School Kuriga students in Kuriga, Kaduna state, Nigeria, Saturday, March 9, 2024.
| Photo Credit:
AP

No group claimed responsibility for any of the recent abductions. However, Islamic extremists waging an insurgency in the northeast are suspected of carrying out the kidnapping in Borno. Locals blame the school abductions on herders who are in conflict with the settled communities.

It’s not the first time for a student kidnapping in Nigeria to shock the world. In 2014, Islamic extremists abducted more than 200 schoolgirls from Borno’s Chibok, sparking the global #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign.

Also read:Boko Haram abduction of Chibok girls: A photo essay

A decade later, at least 1,400 Nigerian students have so far been abducted from their schools in similar circumstances. Some are still held captive, including nearly 100 of the Chibok girls.

Recalling Thursday’s kidnapping, Nura Ahmad, a teacher, told the AP that students were just settling into their classrooms at the government primary and secondary school when gunmen “came in dozens, riding on bikes and shooting sporadically.”

The LEA Primary and Secondary School, one of the few educational facilities in this area, sits by the road just at the entrance of the town, tucked in the middle of forests and savannah. Even with its decaying roof and wrecked walls, it gave parents hope for a better future for their children.

“They surrounded the school and blocked all passages … and roads” to prevent help from coming before kidnapping the children in less than five minutes, Ahmad said.

Fourteen-year-old Abdullahi Usman braved gunshots to escape the captors. “Those who refused to move fast were either forced on the motorcycles or threatened by gunshots fired into the air,” he said. “The bandits were shouting: Go! Go! Go!” he said.

Nigerian police and soldiers headed into the forests on Friday to search for the missing children, but combing the wooded expanses of northwestern Nigeria could take weeks, observers said.

“Since this happened, my brain has been muddled,” said Shehu Lawal, the father of a 13-year-old boy who is among those abducted. “My child didn’t even eat breakfast before leaving. His mother fainted (upon hearing the news),” he said.

Some villagers like Lawan Yaro, whose five grandchildren are among the abducted, say their hopes are already fading.

People are used to the region’s insecurity, “but it has never been in this manner,” he said. “We are crying, looking for help from the government and God, but it is the gunmen that will decide to bring the children back,” he said. “God will help us.”

But schools are not the only targets. More than 3,500 people have been abducted across Nigeria in the last year, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Some were even kidnapped from their homes in the capital of Abuja.

Fighting armed gangs

Last year, President Bola Tinubu took office after he successfully campaigned on the promise to tighten security and stop the kidnappings.

Experts say it is easy to smuggle in arms, used in kidnappings, over Nigeria’s poorly policed borders. More than half of its 1,500 km border with Niger, for instance, stretches across the northwest. Though mostly covered in woodland savannah, the region also has vast ungoverned and unoccupied forests where organised gangs hide and keep their kidnap victims.

In 2022, lawmakers passed a bill to penalize ransom payments, but Nigerian kidnappers are known for their brutality, forcing many families to succumb to their demands.

Nigeria’s military continues to conduct air raids and special military operations in the region as well as respond to pockets of crisis across the country but is fatigued by the 14-year Islamist insurgency in the northeast. Armed gangs also keep on multiplying in the region where many are poor and often work with extremists, seeking to expand their operations.

The military previously said that sometimes kidnap victims were used as “human shields” to prevent aerial bombardments of the forests where their captors hide.

The gangs are “adapting their strategies and further entrenching themselves in the northwest through extortion,” said James Barnett, a researcher specialising in West Africa at the U.S.-based Hudson Institute.

“Their mentality is that they should be allowed free rein to do what they please in the northwest and that if the state challenges them, directly or indirectly, they will have to respond and show their strength,” Mr. Barnett said.

More than a dozen checkpoints and military trucks now dot the dangerous 89 km road running from Kuriga town to the city of Kaduna. But the soldiers are likely to be redeployed elsewhere soon, depending on security needs.

People in Kuriga can only hope their children are returned unharmed and the safety they now feel with the presence of military personnel endures.

Hamza, the mother whose five children were kidnapped, hopes the government will arrest the kidnappers and return the students. “The gunmen don’t allow us to have peace.”

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Niger’s ousted president is running low on food under house arrest

Niger’s deposed president is running out of food and under increasingly dire conditions two weeks after he was ousted in a military coup and put under house arrest, an adviser said Wednesday.

The US State Department expressed deep concern about the “deteriorating conditions” of his detention.

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President Mohamed Bazoum, the West African nation’s democratically elected leader, has been held at the presidential palace in Niamey with his wife and son since mutinous soldiers moved against him on 26 July.

The family is living without electricity and only has rice and canned goods left to eat, the adviser said. Bazoum remains in good health for now and will never resign, according to the adviser, who wasn’t authorised to discuss the sensitive situation with the media and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bazoum’s political party issued a statement confirming the president’s living conditions and said the family also was without running water.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Bazoum on Tuesday about recent diplomatic efforts, a statement said, and Blinken “emphasised that the safety and security of President Bazoum and his family are paramount.” The State Department statement on Wednesday called for their immediate release.

This week, Niger’s new military junta took steps to entrench itself in power and rejected international efforts to mediate. On Wednesday, it accused former colonizer France of trying to destabilise the country, violate its closed airspace and discredit the junta leaders. France’s foreign and defence ministries in a joint statement called the allegations unfounded.

On Monday, the junta named a new prime minister, civilian economist Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine. He is a former economy and finance minister who left office after a previous coup in 2010 toppled the government at the time. Zeine later worked at the African Development Bank.

“The establishment of a government is significant and signals, at least to the population, that they have a plan in place, with support from across the government,” said Aneliese Bernard, a former State Department official who specialized in African affairs and is now director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a risk advisory group.

The junta also refused to admit meditation teams from the United Nations, the African Union, and the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, citing “evident reasons of security in this atmosphere of menace,” according to a letter seen by The Associated Press.

ECOWAS had threatened to use military force if the junta did not reinstate Bazoum by Sunday, a deadline that the junta ignored and which passed without action from ECOWAS. The bloc is expected to meet again on Thursday to discuss the situation.

It’s been exactly two weeks since soldiers first detained Bazoum and seized power, claiming they could do a better job at protecting the nation from jihadi violence. Groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have ravaged the Sahel region, a vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert that includes part of Niger.

Most analysts and diplomats said the stated justification for the coup did not hold weight and the takeover resulted from a power struggle between the president and the head of his presidential guard, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, who now says he runs the country.

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The coup comes as a blow to many countries in the West, which saw Niger as one of the last democratic partners in the region they could work with to beat back the extremist threat. It’s also an important supplier of uranium.

Niger’s partners have threatened to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance if it does not return to constitutional rule.

While the crisis drags on, Niger’s 25 million people are bearing the brunt. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, and many Nigeriens live hand to mouth and say they’re too focused on finding food for their families to pay much attention to the escalating crisis.

Harsh economic and travel sanctions imposed by ECOWAS since the coup have caused food prices to rise by up to five per cent, according to traders. Erkmann Tchibozo, a shop owner from neighbouring Benin who works in Niger’s capital, Niamey, said it’s been hard to get anything into the country to stock his shop near the airport.

If it continues like this, the situation is going to become very difficult, he said.

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The junta shut Niger’s airspace this week and temporarily suspended authorization for diplomatic flights from friendly and partner countries, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Acting US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with the coup leaders but said they refused to allow her to meet Bazoum. She described the mutinous officers as unreceptive to her appeals to start negotiations and restore constitutional rule.

The United States has some 1,100 military personnel in the country and has seen Niger as a strategic and reliable partner in the region.

Still, Nuland made more headway than other delegations. A previous ECOWAS delegation was prevented from leaving the airport.

It’s unclear how much coordination is involved in the various mediation efforts. Some experts have worried that if the work is not coordinated, it could undermine ECOWAS.

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“I think the US would come to a modus vivendi with this junta if the junta proved particularly amenable to U.S interests, but that doesn’t seem to be on the table for now,” said Alexander Thurston, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

Analysts say the longer it takes to find a solution, the more time the junta has to dig in and the less momentum there will be to oust it. Other African nations are also divided on how to proceed.

Neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which are run by military regimes, have sided with the junta and warned that intervention in Niger would be “tantamount to a declaration of war” against them. In a joint letter Tuesday to the UN, the two countries appealed for the organization to “prevent by all means at its disposal, armed action against a sovereign state.”

Mali and Burkina Faso also sent representatives to Niamey this week to discuss military options. Officials from all sides said the talks went well.

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From Argentina to Zambia, the A-Z of how fans are celebrating the Women’s World Cup

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It runs in my blood. That’s the common catchcry from fans all around Australia, who reflect on what it means to them to see their country perform at a FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

Chicken, beer, and South Korean football

Employees at the Korean Cultural Centre in Sydney are excited to support the women’s team.()

A roar emerges from inside a replica of a traditional Korean hanok, or house. 

Employees from the Korean Cultural Centre in Sydney give a taste of the noise they’ll be generating during the Women’s World Cup as they support their country. 

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Jenny Chung was born in South Korea, but grew up in Australia, and looks after events and concerts at the centre. 

“Even though I’ve lived in Australia for most of my life, I would call Korea my home,” she says. 

Jenny Chung, Jihee Kim, and Joanne Tae will be attending some of South Korea’s matches. ()

“I think a lot of people feel the same way that have been living in Australia for a long time. They feel like Korea is closer to them.

“So every time we have a match like this, we go to a pub and we have chicken and beer, and we watch the tournaments together.”

The Korean Cultural Centre in Sydney runs K-Pop dance classes.()
Joanne Tae is proud to support her team.()
Kate Minji Jung is the manager of education and literature at the Korean Cultural Centre, Sydney.()

Joanne Tae is the Korean language program manager. 

“Hopefully they’ll get to the finals and win the Women’s World Cup,” she says.

“But even if they don’t, we’ll be definitely proud of our players.” 

General Manager of the Korean Cultural Centre, Inji Jung, in a traditional Korean hanok. ()

J-League star gets behind Japan’s women

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As a former J-League star, Kentaroh Ohi knows how much football means to the Japanese public.

A junior national representative, Ohi went on to make 483 appearances with three different clubs between 2003-2022, before crossing to Australia in 2023 to represent the Eastern Lions in Victoria. 

During a World Cup, Ohi says, it is common for families to “wake up at all hours”, glued to the TV as they cheer on the Japanese national team. 

Former J-League player Kentaro Ohi is excited to follow the Japanese women’s team at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.()

“It’s an amazing atmosphere,” he says.

“Everyone’s up and about.” 

After the Japanese women’s team won the World Cup as underdogs in 2011, the country “went crazy”, he says.

“As soon as they won, the popularity [of women’s football] just skyrocketed in Japan,” Ohi says.

Some of those players also went on to become television celebrities.

Kentaroh Ohi played over 400 J-League games in Japan.()
Knick knacks inside Paprica Japanese restaurant in Melbourne.()
Paprica is run by Japanese football fans.()

Watching women’s sport grow in Aotearoa New Zealand 

Kiana Takairangi and Harata Butler hope the Women’s World Cup can elevate all women’s sport in Aotearoa New Zealand.()

Kiana Takairangi and Harata Butler play in the NRLW for the Cronulla Sharks, but when it comes to the World Cup, they’re ditching the code wars, to support their fellow female athletes.

“I’m a big fan of it myself, the more exposure, the more recognition that we get as female athletes, it’s really great for women’s sport in general,” Takairangi says.

“I feel like I’m in a privileged position to witness women’s sports, women athletes being recognised on an international stage,” Butler adds.

“Being hosted in our little part of the world for our girls to see women striving and achieving and reaching the goals and their dreams to be an athlete. It’s really massive.”

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Harata Butler’s Tā moko represents her family’s ancestry.()

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Takairangi was born in Australia, and has Cook Islands and Māori heritage, while Butler is from the North Island in Aotearoa. 

“To me, being Māori is my identity,” Butler says.

“It runs in my blood, it holds me grounded, wherever I go in the world, whether that is at home, on home soil, or afar, like here in Australia, it keeps me in tact with my spirituality, my beliefs and my cultural practices.”

Harata Butler plays for the Cronulla Sharks NRLW team. ()

Small, but loud and rowdy Panamanians 

The Altamiranda family are proud of their Panamanian heritage.()

There are only 300 people born in Panama who live in Australia, including the Altamiranda family. 

Andrewfer Altamiranda is the youngest of three boys — the only one of his siblings born in Australia — but his love for Panama, and especially football, runs deep.

“[My family has] been embedding the culture and the customs of the country in me since birth,” he says.

“And that’s how I’m close to Panama, and I’m passionate about my country’s heritage.

“[Panamanians are] very loud and rowdy. We’re very passionate about the culture, the music, the food.

“And once we find someone from Panama as well it’s an instant connection, like a brotherhood or sisterhood.”

Andrewfer Altamiranda plays a Panamanian drum.()

Andrewfer’s mother, Sofia, her husband and two oldest children came to Australia to escape the dictatorship of Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno. 

“We came to this wonderful and beautiful country to make them happy, better life for all of us,” she says.

“We still have [Panama] in our blood. The first time Panama [plays] in this event, it’s wonderful for us to give a lot of support to them.”

The Altamiranda family prepare dinner, while sharing their thoughts about the Women’s World Cup.()
Dayal Ortiz is excited to see Panama’s women on the world stage.()
The Panama women’s team have proven themselves equal to the men by making it to the big stage.()

Andrewfer’s wife, Dayal Ortiz, has only been living in Australia for a few years, and seeing Panama’s women here means a lot.

“We’re going to support [them] because they have done a magnificent job.

“They need to have fun, enjoy. I hope after this they receive all the support for the government that they need to.”

Andrewfer Altamiranda was born in Australia but is passionate about supporting Panama.()

Jamaica punches above its weight

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Ranked 43rd in the world, Jamaica punches well above the weight of its just 2.8 million population, qualifying for the two most recent tournaments.

Roderick Grant, a former professional player who now runs a Jamaican food truck business, moved to Australia when he was 15.

He sees the tournament as a new opportunity to inspire young girls to take up the sport.

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“It’s going to be excellent because Jamaica is so isolated as a small island,” he says.

“It’ll be a great motivator for the young girls to focus in on something and show that it can be achieved. It’s just hard work and dedication.”

Roderick knows first-hand how ingrained football is in Jamaican life, having gone on to represent his family worldwide.

Ranked 43rd in the world, Jamaica will be hoping to advance past the group stage for the first time at a FIFA Women’s World Cup.()

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Roderick Grant knows first-hand how ingrained football is in Jamaican life.()
Roderick Grant found a balance between playing football and bringing Jamaican cuisine to Australian.()

“Football, man, it’s one of those things growing up in Jamaica, you finish school, go home and get changed, straight to the football field in the evening,” he says.

“It’s not even to play as a club, it’s just to play with your friends, your mates, and everyone just pulls teams together. It’s a big part of what we do in Jamaica.”

Football part of Norwegian identity

Sebastian Grøgaard (centre) says football is a central part of Norwegian life. ()

At a celebration for Norway’s ‘Constitution Day’, Norwegian ex-pats get together to celebrate. 

“It was the day that the constitution was signed back in 1814, and it’s also known as the Children’s Day,” says one of the attendees, Bente Ryan.

Norwegian Constitution Day is also known as Children’s Day.()
There are many proud Norwegians in Australia.()
Traditional Norwegian food.()
Norwegian Constitution Day is a time for socialising.()

“So in Norway people will gather in towns and have parades, national costumes, flags, brass bands, lots of ice cream, lots of hotdogs. And it’s a whole lot of fun.”

Amongst the group is Håvard T. Osland, the Norwegian Chaplain to Australia and New Zealand, mainly working as a university chaplain for Norwegian international students. 

“It’s always exciting when your national team is doing really well, and football definitely is a big sport in Scandinavia,” he says. 

“So it really is one of the things that connects us, and is part of our DNA and our identity.”

Chocolate cake brings a smile at the Norwegian Constitution Day.()
Traditional Norwegian outfits.()
The Norwegian colours.()
Traditions are celebrated by Norwegians.()

Generations of Italians share joy together

The Raspoli and Pafralis family say football runs in the blood, with everyone playing locally or watching the national team.()

For generations, family has meant everything to Carmela Rispoli, who moved to Australia in the 1960s and raised four children.

As Italian-Australians, her daughter Philomena Pafralis and granddaughter Natalie Pafralis know when they come together and watch or play, it’s always special.

Italian-Australian mother and daughter, Philomena Pafralis (left) and Natalie Pafralis (right) love to watch Italy play.()

“It’s just beautiful to get together with the family,” Philomena says.

She was born in Italy and moved to Australia at just one year of age.

Italian nonna Carmela Rispoli (centre) moved to Australia in the 1960s, raising four children including Philomena Pafralis (left), and third-generation Natalie Pafralis (right).()

As for Natalie, there was really no other option, being born into an Italian family and raised in Australia.

“If I didn’t want to do it I didn’t have a choice. I was playing all my life, all my childhood,” she says.

And after all – “Italy has to win because they’re the best in the world,” Carmela cries in Italian.

Portuguese community linked by football

As soon as you walk into the grounds of Fraser Park FC in Sydney’s inner-west, the melodic sounds of an accordion ring throughout the area.

Members of Sydney’s Portugal Community Club are enjoying a meal and listening to the traditional music, while on the football field next door, the senior men’s team is preparing to play.

A man plays an accordion at Sydney’s Portugal Community Club.()
Fraser Park FC in Sydney’s inner-west is connected to the Sydney Portugal Community Club.()
David Palma used to play for Fraser Park FC, and is now a supporter.()

Football and community are inseparable here. 

Andrew Alves was born in Australia, after his parents migrated from Portugal. He used to play for Fraser Park, but now supports the team from the sidelines.

“It’s always been a massive part, the Portuguese community here, and has been for many years,” he says.

His niece, 13-year-old Annabella Vasconcelos, plays football, and is amongst the generation of players watching the tournament and being inspired.

“[I’m] more excited than to have the men’s World Cup here,” she says.

The glue that binds Argentines in Australia

Argentines in Australia are still on a high after the men’s team won last year’s World Cup in Qatar.()

“The women’s World Cup means a lot to Argentinians,” says Alfredo Couceiro of Melbourne City Football Club, based in South Kingsville, Victoria.

This is especially the case, he adds, for those like him who have relocated to Australia. 

“Even if you migrate to another country, your heart is beating for Argentina,” adds fellow Argentinian Melissa Gugliara. 

“Football is born into you [as an Argentinian]. 

“It’s in your veins, it’s in your blood.

“You love it, you become passionate.”

Argentina fans at a fan day in Melbourne.()

Cristian Emanuel Mansilla adds that football is the glue that binds Argentinian migrants.

“We are always trying to connect with other Argentinian people within our community,” he says.

“[With football], we are together the whole time. It’s why we love it; hugging, supporting, singing together.”

Even pets are roped in to support the team.()

Brazilian football ‘like a religion’

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No one does football like Brazil, with some of the most passionate supporters and best players in the world.

When Adilson Andrade de Melo Júnior moved to Australia, he knew there was a spread of sports compared to back home in Brazil.

“It’s hard to explain … in Brazil when you talk about football, soccer, it’s part of the culture. It’s a religion in a way,” he says.

Brazilian supporter Adilson Andrade de Melo Júnior performs on drums and other instruments at any match he can attend when they’re playing in Australia.()
Brazilian supporter Adilson Andrade de Melo Júnior performs on drums and other instruments at any match he can attend when they’re playing in Australia.()

“Everyone follows, every four years we stop for this magnificent event.

“Whenever Brazil comes here, myself and a couple of other friends, we get together trying to organise tickets for everyone and being close to each other.

“Last game that Brazil had here we probably had over 300 people sitting together cheering, which was an amazing atmosphere.”

Zambia’s Copper Queens inspiring a nation

Dr Elias Munshya is Zambia’s High Commissioner to Australia and New Zealand.()

Zambia is one of eight countries making its tournament debut, and no one is more excited to sing their praises than the country’s High Commissioner for Australia and New Zealand, Dr Elias Munshya.

“It’s a huge, huge time for us,” he says.

“It’s amazing just to see the impact that this qualification of Zambia National Women’s [team] has had on young girls in Zambia.

“These players have inspired a whole generation of young girls that believe in themselves, that they believe they can achieve, that are fighting for equality, that are fighting for equity.”

Nigerians use sport as a form of survival

As Africa’s top-ranked nation, Nigeria’s women’s national team has plenty of support, including from Toyin Abbas.

“From day one, we embedded with soccer because we were colonised by Britain,” he says.

“It’s one of the reasons people play sports in Africa.”

As he knows well as a former professional player, Toyin played football, just as the Super Falcons players do so across the globe.

“People started to see soccer as a form of survival. Like you want to earn a living and it’s tough for some families, it’s very tough for some individuals.

There’s plenty of support from Melbourne’s Nigerian community with sport being a way to make a living for some players.()

“It unifies relations, the people, it binds people together.”

Nigerian supporter, Toyin Abbas says the Super Falcons can win it all at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.()
The Super Falcons are 11-time champions at the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations tournament, but have never made it past the quarter-finals at a World Cup in nine attempts.()

As Toyin says, the Super Falcons players will have success if they stay tactically disciplined together.

“We’re going to win the trophy, I will tell you,” he says.

“The Nigerian team, we have what it takes, we can be world beaters.”

Canada to ‘knock people’s socks off’

Stacey, Dylan, and their boys come from Edmonton, Canada.()

Stacey, Dylan and their three boys hail from Edmonton, Alberta.

They’re a long way from home but their Canadian national pride is never far away.

“We’re really, really proud. I think they have a really good chance of winning, [we’re] really hopeful, we will be cheering them on,” Stacey says

Rod Johns is the president of the Canada Club in Melbourne.()

Equally ecstatic is Rod Johns, president of the Canada Club in Melbourne.  

“I think it’s great that they’re coming because the girls don’t get enough exposure, it’s good for soccer in Australia, and it’s good for women’s sports in general, Mr Johns said. 

“Based on their pre-performance I think they’ll knock some people’s socks off, they should do very well.” 

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In Nigeria’s hard-hit north, families seek justice as armed groups seek control

Christian Jonathan’s mother was holding the 9-month-old boy in her arms when she was shot dead during an attack on their village in northwestern Nigeria. The assailants cut off one of Christian’s fingers and abandoned him by the side of the road with a bullet wound in his tiny leg.

“They left him on the ground beside his mother’s body,” said Joshua Jonathan, Christian’s father. “They thought the boy was dead.”


Also read: Toll in Nigeria clashes between herders and farmers rises to 85

The late-night attack in April in Runji in Kaduna State left 33 people dead, most of them burned alive or shot dead. Many more have been killed since in the continuing clashes between nomadic cattle herders and farming communities in northwest and central regions of the West African nation, including more than 100 this month in Plateau state.

The decades-long violence is becoming more deadly, killing at least 2,600 people in 2021, according to the most recent data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Once armed with sticks, the groups now fight with guns that have been smuggled into the country.

Both sides accuse the government of injustice and marginalization, but the clashes have also taken on a religious dimension, giving rise to militias that side with the herders, who are primarily Muslim, or the farmers from Christian communities.


Also read: Gunmen kill at least 50 in attacks on village in Nigeria

The growing security crisis presents a huge challenge for Nigeria’s incoming president, Bola Tinubu, who rose to power in Nigeria — Africa’s largest economy and among its top oil producers — promising to improve the lives of affected communities and address the root causes of the crisis by providing jobs and ensuring justice. Tinubu’s inauguration is scheduled for Monday.

If the violence isn’t reined in, analysts say, it could further destabilize the country and drive more of its 216 million people into poverty. U.N. agencies say the violence affects mostly children, who are already threatened by malnutrition, and women, who are often abducted and forced into marriage.

The response of security forces can be slow and arrests are rare, prompting a growing number of communities to defend themselves when they come under siege.

“There is a substantial loss of confidence in the government as a protector of citizens,” said Nnamdi Obasi, the senior adviser for Nigeria at the International Crisis Group. Obasi warned that the failure of the incoming administration to speedily resolve the conflict would lead to “more people seeking their own self-defense, more proliferation of weapons, more criminal groups and a rise in organized armed groups.”

In Runji, an agrarian village, The Associated Press spoke to some survivors in hospital beds and others touring a mass grave and their razed houses. They said they were under attack for hours and that the gunmen fled long before security forces arrived.

Every household bears a scar.

Christopher Dauda’s family was trying to escape when the gunmen caught up with his wife and four children, killing all five. Danjuma Joshua’s two daughters were shot in the back while they tried to flee. In the home of Asabe Philip, who survived but has burns all over her body, the assailants burned five children alive as they cowered in one room.

Christian’s aunt has tried to fill the void left by the killing of his mother. His father said Christian cries a lot and barely sleeps, although his physical wounds are gradually healing.

“We try to manage with what we have left,” Joshua Jonathan said.

On the other side of the conflict, the herders say they are also under attack. They complain of cattle rustling and extrajudicial killings by local security groups working as community vigilantes.

Abdullahi Bello Bodejo, the president of the national herders’ association, denied that anyone in the group was responsible for the violence. Most of the herders belong to the Fulanis, an ethnic group.

“Fulanis are not the killers. Any person carrying out killings is not our member. Sometimes, when communities accuse us of killings, 75% is not true; they have their own crisis but always blame Fulanis,” said Bodejo.

Nigerian security forces say they have arrested dozens of gunmen and recovered their weapons. But the assailants are estimated to number in the thousands and can easily recruit new members, according to Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, a conflict researcher.

“There is a limit to the kinetic (military) operations, as it doesn’t address the socioeconomic issue that gave rise to banditry in the region in the first place,” said Oluwole Ojewale of the Africa-focused Institute of Security Studies. He said the incoming Tinubu administration must work with state governments to address unemployment, poverty and social injustice.

The recent violence has led to the formation of community, state and regional security outfits that experts say could create bigger problems for Nigeria’s security architecture if not properly monitored.

And their recruits are young.

Felix Sunday, a college student in Kaduna, said that he was 16 when he joined a local vigilante group in 2021, and that he struggles to combine the night watch with his studies.

Across much of West and Central Africa, porous national borders facilitate the smuggling of weapons. A survey-based report published in 2021 by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey in collaboration with the Nigerian government found that at least 6 million firearms may have been in the hands of civilians in the country at the time.

The military and police have recovered hundreds of firearms in Nigeria in the last year, but weapons dealers elsewhere are exacerbating the problem.

“Things have gotten considerably worse. Some are large military weapons imported from other countries,” said Confidence MacHarry with the Lagos-based SBM Intelligence security firm.

With sophisticated weapons, the gunmen have launched daring attacks in areas with a heavy security presence, including a military base and an airport in Kaduna, indicating that the problem may be the motivation of the security forces themselves.

Survivors of the attack in Plateau told the AP that the police didn’t arrive until the next day, echoing comments from people living in Runji, which has a security checkpoint nearby.

“When we call the soldiers, it is after the attackers have left that the soldiers come. Even if we hear they (the attackers) are coming and we report to the government, they don’t take proactive action,” said Simon Njam, a vigilante leader near Runji who uses bows, arrows and locally-made guns to secure the area.

Part of the problem is that the security forces are disorganized and unprepared to respond to the attacks, according to Kabir Adamu, the founder of Beacon Consulting, a security firm based in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

“We don’t have a coordinated security sector that identifies and counters threats,” he said. “They need to work together to protect lives and currently, we are not seeing enough of that.”

The Nigerian military and police didn’t respond to written and phone inquiries seeking a response to the claims.

As more families mourn the loss of their loved ones, forced to replace farmland with graveyards, their priority is demanding justice.

“How can people just come and kill and nothing will happen?” asked Dauda in Runji, remembering his life with his wife and four children. “They cannot bring back my lost family, but the government can at least rebuild my home and ensure justice.”

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Can Nigeria’s Peter Obi ride his newfound momentum all the way to presidency?

The rise of Peter Obi in the campaign for Nigeria’s presidential election on February 25 has shaken up the country’s politics, hitherto dominated by two major parties since the end of military rule in 1999. But analysts say that Obi still faces an uphill struggle.

Promising a different way of doing things, Obi hopes to defeat the two favourites and political heavyweights from traditional parties: Atiku Aboubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

With speeches hailed as fresh and unifying – but criticised as populist by his detractors – the 61-year-old businessman has caught the attention of Nigeria’s young population, 60 percent of whom are under the age of 25.

“The current government is in a bad situation, and the way many young people see it is that people like Abubakar and Tinubu are part of the problem,” said Dele Babalola, a Nigeria expert at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent. “Obe is 61 but he’s the youngest of the candidates [the other two being in their 70s] and a fresh face.”

‘Obidients’

Over the course of the five-month presidential campaign, Obi has gone from minor curiosity to credible candidate, with vast social media support amongst Nigeria’s youth turbocharging his standing. Obi has also enjoyed endorsements from prominent Nigerian figures such as ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo and renowned novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

As Nigeria endures an economic slump and a troubled security situation, Obi’s supporters (nicknamed “Obidients”) see him as an antidote to a political class they accuse of corruption and bad governance.

In this context, Obi has cultivated an image as the picture of integrity and prudence. “I have two children, they are graduates, they have never participated in any public life. I have a son that is going to be 29, 30 soon, he doesn’t own a car because he has to buy his own car, not me,” Obi said in a speech last year to his supporters’ applause.

Obi’s candidacy first emerged in October 2020 as Nigeria saw the #EndSARS protest movement – in which young demonstrators demanded the disbandment of the SARS police unit they accused of violence and saw as benefitting from total immunity, a movement Obi largely supported. 

The #EndSARS movement then took its demands further, denouncing corruption and economic inequality. These are burning issues in a country where oil revenues lavishly reward a small proportion of Nigerians while nearly half of the population live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. 

A Nigerian Macron?

Born to Christian parents from the Igbo ethnic group – Nigeria’s third-largest – Obi’s background is a common one in the country’s economic elite: studies in Lagos, at Harvard and at the London School of Economics, followed by a business career including management roles in several Nigerian banks. 

As an ex-banker who wants to smash through the old two-party system and reinvigorate his country with a technocratic style of politics, Obi has prompted comparisons to French President Emmanuel Macron – who described himself as “neither left nor right”, created his own political party and swept aside the traditional vehicles of social democracy and conservatism when he took the Élysée Palace and then won a crushing parliamentary majority in 2017. 

Obi became leader of Nigeria’s Labour Party last year. Unlike the established British party bearing the same name, it is a rather marginal party – without much political machinery nationally, nor governors with power bases in Nigeria’s provinces. 

But “likening Obi to Macron is a mistake”, said Ladipo Adamolekun, a Nigerian public administration expert and Francophile. “Macron created his En Marche! party when France’s traditional parties were already in decline – it’s not like that for Obi.” 

And unlike Macron – whose sole political experience when he ran for the Élysée was a short stint as François Hollande’s economy minister – Obi is very far from a political neophyte. 

Obi was governor of Anambra, a southern Nigerian state, from 2006 to 2014, before standing as the PDP’s vice-presidential candidate at the last presidential elections in 2019. He has changed his political allegiance four times since 2022, leading to accusations of opportunism. 

Obi’s critics also question his probity, since he was mentioned in the Pandora Papers in 2021. However, his supporters say he has proven his integrity with effective governance of Anambra during his eight-year tenure there, which ended with huge savings in the state’s coffers – a compelling argument in an economy burdened by heavy public debt. 

Igbo vote ‘won’t be enough’

But for all the hype surrounding Obi, many analysts doubt he can pull off a victory – even despite strong polling figures.

“In reality, a lot of the young people who’ve created all that social media buzz live abroad and can’t vote in Nigeria,” Babalola said. “As for polls, the numbers aren’t as reliable in Africa as they are in Europe,” he added.

Then there is the classic phenomenon of young voters’ poor turnout – which may well be amplified in Nigeria, which tends to have low turnout overall, with just 33 percent going to the polls in the 2019 presidential elections. 

Finally, analysts doubt Obi can transcend the issues of ethnicity, religion and regional identity, all of which tend to be crucial factors in Nigerian voters’ choices. “The Igbo vote won’t be enough for Obi to win,” Babalola emphasised, while highlighting the importance of winning votes in the predominantly Muslim north. 

Whoever wins at the ballot box, they will face colossal challenges. Nigeria’s economy is Africa’s largest but is troubled by inflation running at more than 20 percent, fuel shortages, a lack of cash during the ill-timed introduction of new bank notes, and an energy crisis causing frequent blackouts. 

Public finances are in a bad shape, with debt servicing consuming 41 percent of public spending in 2022. The country’s sovereign ratings downgrade by Moody’s at the end of January is unlikely to help matters. 

“As things stand, I doubt the new president will be able to put in place good governance,” said Adamolekun – who favours a “more decentralised federal system” to replace the current political structures. 

“The new president will have to accept that the current political system isn’t conducive to the effective governance,” Adamolekun said. “The 1999 constitution was too centralising, especially when it came to the police, and that is a big factor in Nigeria’s security problems.” 

Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari’s last term was plagued by a marked deterioration in Nigeria’s security situation, fuelled by inter-ethnic conflicts, criminal gang activity and jihadism. According to the UN, jihadist violence has killed more than 40,000 people and displaced some 2.2 million in northeastern Nigeria since 2009.  

So regardless of whether Obi pulls off an almighty political upset, the new Nigerian president will find plenty of challenges waiting in their inbox. 

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Nigeria: Protests at banks and ATMs break out amid ‘cash scarcity’ concerns

Issued on:

Destroying ATMs, breaking into banks and setting up blockades in the street: angry protests erupted on February 15 in several cities across Nigeria as people struggle to get their hands on newly designed banknotes. Frustration is mounting as some citizens can’t even purchase basic necessities amid widespread shortages of the new currency, just a week ahead of the 2023 general elections. 

The Central Bank of Nigeria began circulating newly designed banknotes worth 1,000, 500 and 200 naira (2.03, 1.02 or 0.41 euros) on December 15, 2022. The move was intended to replace dirty, old cash currently in circulation, tackle inflation and counterfeiting, as well as promote a cashless society

The old banknotes were set to expire on February 10, before Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari extended the deadline for citizens to continue using their old 200 naira banknotes until April 10. The 500 and 1,000 naira notes must be exchanged or deposited in banks. 

But a lack of new notes in the banks – as well as allegations that banks are hoarding the new notes – have left people desperate, with lines forming outside banks and at ATMs. 


A video shared on Twitter on February 2, 2023 shows a long line of people queuing up to collect naira banknotes at a United Bank of Africa branch.

Some merchants have already stopped accepting the old banknotes, rendering them essentially valueless. In a cash-based society where around 40% of the population do not have bank accounts, the currency redesign has caused growing anxiety among those who can’t access the new money. 

Protests at bank branches erupted in Ibadan and Benin City as well as several towns in Delta State, in southern Nigeria, on February 15.


A video shared on Twitter on February 15, 2023 shows damaged ATMs outside First Bank in Benin City, Nigeria.


A video shared on Twitter on February 15, 2023 shows protesters blocking a road in Ibadan, Nigeria.

‘The people in the streets feel massive frustration’

In Benin City, a crowd of protesters attempted to breach the local branch of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Local residents had gathered around the bank to wait for a chance to exchange their naira notes. 


Protesters in Benin, Nigeria attempt to break into the local office of the Central Bank of Nigeria on February 15, 2023.

However, according to local media, they began throwing stones at the building and were met with teargas and gunshots from security forces. 

Protesters, armed with sticks and weapons, also attacked other bank offices and destroyed ATMs around Benin City.


A video shared on Twitter on February 15 shows people gathered and tyres burning outside of a United Bank of Africa branch in Benin City, Nigeria.

Godsent Clement Ogumu is a tech entrepreneur who lives in Benin City.

 

Yesterday [February 15], I unknowingly bumped into one of the protests that was going on in the middle of town in Benin City. I was almost mobbed or lynched by some very, very angry, protesting youths. They are very frustrated by the whole situation of naira scarcity. The frustration is very high and the youths are willing to take it out on anybody who happens to be someone that they perceive to be better off or in a position of power. During the time I witnessed the protests, the crowd was not exactly very violent, but they were very agitated. And a lot of damage has been done already. 


A video shared on Twitter on February 15, 2023 shows protesters near a Union Bank and United Bank of Africa branch in Benin City, Nigeria. Protesters appear to be breaking windows at the Union Bank. One protester appears to be wounded.

It started escalating between protesters and police. That’s when I left the scene, because we all know what the Nigerian police is capable of. Not too long after I left, we started getting information that some of the protesters were shot dead.

At least three people were shot dead by security forces on February 15 as protesters attempted to break into the CBN building in Benin City. 

Protests also forced many bank branches in Benin City to temporarily close. Many ATMs were also out of service or destroyed. 

‘A family told me they haven’t eaten because no one is willing to take their old banknotes’

The people in the streets feel massive frustration. A family came to me and told me they haven’t eaten since the previous day – even though they have the money – because no one is willing to take the old banknotes from them. 

The instruction was to deposit all your old naira notes and then withdraw the new naira notes. The funny thing is that the banks are not even allowing the withdrawal of new naira notes. There is no way anybody is coming across the new naira notes, even in this very, very serious situation. I know none of my family or friends have actually come across the new naira in quantities that are actually useful. Once in a while, you come across one or two of the new naira, which is barely enough to do anything.

A lot of us use online banking and transfers, which is an alternative, but a lot of families don’t know how to use these channels so they basically rely on cash transactions. These people can’t make payments, buy food, buy water – they are stranded. It’s a very dire, serious situation for a lot of people living in my neighbourhood.

‘It feels as though we are no longer in control of our lives’

Oyinkitana, who declined to provide his full name for security reasons, lives in southwestern Nigeria and is the CEO of a startup. 

The scarcity of Naira currency has had a significant impact on the Nigerian population, particularly those who depend on cash for their daily transactions, such as small business owners. As for myself, I find it challenging to purchase fuel for my car since many fuel stations prefer cash over POS [Point of Sale vendors who use card machines to make transfers for people, but often charge commissions for the service] or bank transfers. Moreover, some small business owners […] see cash as the only source for certain items, and their sales have been directly affected due to the lack of cash circulation. 

The current state of affairs in Nigeria is truly unbearable, as feelings of uncertainty loom over everything. It seems as though we have lost our bearings, with even the simple task of determining whether to use new or old notes becoming a challenge due to inconsistent acceptance by vendors. It feels as though we are no longer in control of our lives, as businesses shut down and the purchasing power of individuals continues to plummet. It’s a confusing time and nobody seems to understand what’s really going on in the country anymore.

‘The federal government wants to mop up all the cash in circulation so that politicians wouldn’t be able to buy votes’

Both our Observers told us the timing of the new currency redesign, coming just before the general elections, is no coincidence. They believe that it is also a mechanism to prevent politicians from hoarding cash and using it to buy off votes.

Clement Ogumu explained:

We all feel like this agenda is targeted at politicians who have stacks of cash stashed away in warehouses, in their bedrooms, or in various locations to buy election votes. They want to bribe their way into office by buying votes. I believe that’s the reason the federal government wants to mop up all the cash in circulation so that politicians wouldn’t be able to buy votes from those that are impoverished and willing to sell their votes for some cash.

I think it’s a good thing that the government is doing something about vote buying, but the truth of the matter is that it is coming with a lot of huge consequences for the population. The people bearing those consequences are people with little education, little money. 

The general election in Nigeria will be held on February 25, with three main candidates vying for the presidency: Bola Ahmed Tinubu, from the ruling All Progressives Congress party; Atika Abubakar, of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party; and Peter Obi, a favourite of the youth vote who represents the Labour Party.

Insecurity – including a kidnapping crisis and a militant Islamist insurgency – and economic concerns, such as inflation and unemployment, are among the top electoral issues ahead of the vote.



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Chairman FAO: Western powers pressure China’s UN food boss to grip global hunger crisis

ROME, Italy — The Chinese head of a crucial U.N. food agency has come under intense scrutiny by Western powers, who accuse him of failing to grip a global hunger crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has alienated the Western powers that are the agency’s main backers with his technocratic leadership style and connections to Beijing that, in their view, have damaged its credibility and capability to mitigate the crisis.

POLITICO has interviewed more than a dozen U.N. officials and diplomats for this article. The critical picture that emerges is of a leader whose top-down management style and policy priorities are furthering China’s own agenda, while sidelining the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was met with weeks of eerie silence at the FAO, and although the messaging has since changed, Qu’s critics say FAO should be showing stronger political leadership on the food crisis, which threatens to tip millions more people into hunger.

“Nobody actually takes him seriously: It’s not him; it’s China,” said one former U.N. official. “I’m not convinced he would make a single decision without first checking it with the capital.”

In his defense, Qu and his team say a U.N. body should not be politicized and that he’s delivering on the FAO’s analytical and scientific mandate.

Chairman FAO

Qu Dongyu was elected in 2019 to run the Rome-based agency, handing China a chance to build international credibility in the U.N. system, and punishing a division between the EU and the U.S after they backed competing candidates who lost badly. The election was clouded by allegations of coercion and bribery against China.

Now, as he prepares for a likely reelection bid next year to run FAO until 2027, Qu — who describes himself as a conflict-averse “humble, small farmers’ son” — is under intensifying scrutiny over his leadership during the crisis.

After three years of largely avoiding the headlines, Qu drew criticism from countries like France and the U.S. for his sluggish and mealy-mouthed response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a massive exporter of food to developing countries.

The EU and U.S. forced an emergency meeting of the FAO’s Council in the spring in order to pressure the FAO leadership into stepping up to the plate, with Ukraine demanding he rethink his language of calling it a “conflict” and not a war. The communications division was initially ordered to keep schtum about the war and its likely impacts on food supply chains. In May, Ukrainians protested outside FAO HQ in Rome demanding Russia be kicked out of the organization.

At a meeting of the FAO Council in early December, countries like France, Germany and the U.S. successfully pushed through yet another demand for urgent action from FAO’s leadership, requesting fresh analysis of impact of Russia’s war on global hunger, and a full assessment of the damage done to Ukraine’s vast farm system.

China has not condemned Russia outright for invading Ukraine, while the EU and the U.S. use every opportunity in the international arena to slam Moscow for its war of aggression: Those geopolitical tensions are playing out across the FAO’s 194 member countries. Officials at the agency, which has $3.25 billion to spend across 2022 and 2023, are expected to act for the global good — and not in the narrow interest of their countries.

Qu is said still to be furious about the confrontation: “[He] is still upset about that, that really annoyed him,” said one ambassador to the FAO. “He sees the EU as an entity, a player within the FAO that is obstructing his vision.”

Qu featured on a TV screen inside the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Though Qu has now adapted his language and talks about the suffering being caused by Russia’s war, some Western countries still believe FAO should respond proactively to the food crisis, in particular to the agricultural fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The FAO’s regular budget and voluntary funds are largely provided by EU countries, the U.S. and allies like Japan, the U.K. and Canada. The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the regular budget, compared to China’s 12 percent.

Qu is determined to stick to the mandate of the FAO to simply provide analysis to its members — and to steer clear of geopolitics.

“I’m not [a] political figure; I’m FAO DG,” he told POLITICO in October, in an encounter in an elevator descending from FAO’s rooftop canteen in Rome.

FAO’s technocratic stance is defended by other members of Qu’s top team, such as Chief Economist Máximo Torero, who told POLITICO in May: “You are in a war. Some people think that we need to take political positions. We are not a political entity that is the Security Council — that’s not our job.”

Apparatchik

Qu can hardly be said to be apolitical, as he is a former vice-minister of agriculture and rural affairs of the Chinese Communist Party.

On top of his political background he has expertise in agriculture. He was part of a team of scientists that sequenced the potato genome while he was doing a PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In an email to POLITICO his professor, Evert Jacobsen, remembered Qu’s “enthusiasm about his country,” as well as is “strategic thinking” and “open character.”

Yet Western diplomats worry that many of the policy initiatives he has pushed through during his tenure map onto China’s foreign policy goals.

They say that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals have been eclipsed by his own initiatives, such as his mantra of the Four Betters (production, nutrition, environment, life), and Chinese-sounding plans from “One Country, One Priority Product” to his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

Some Western diplomats say these bear the hallmarks of China’s Global Development Initiative, about which Qu has tweeted favorably.

Detractors say these are at best empty slogans, and at worst serve China’s foreign policy agenda. “If the countries that are on the receiving end don’t exercise agency you need to be aware that these are policies that first and foremost are thought to advance China, either materially or in terms of international reputation, or in terms of diplomacy,” said Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

Insiders say he’s put pressure on parts of the FAO ecosystem that promote civil society engagement or market transparency: two features that don’t go down well in Communist China. The former U.N. official said Qu had subjected the G20 market transparency dashboard AMIS, housed at FAO, to “increased pressure and control,” causing international organizations to step in to protect its independence earlier this year.

The diplomat said Qu was trying to suffocate the Committee on World Food Security, which invites civil society and indigenous people’s groups into FAO’s HQ and puts them on a near-equal footing with countries. “What has he accomplished in two-plus years? You can get Chinese noodles in the cafeteria,” they said.

Flags at the entrance to the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

But at a U.N. agency that has historically been deeply dysfunctional, Qu is popular among staff members.

“Mr. Qu Dongyu brought a new spirit on how to treat staff and established trust and peace between staff and management,” said one former FAO official.

Even his sharpest critics concede that he has done good things during his tenure. He made a point of shaking every staff member’s hand upon his election, even turning up occasionally unannounced to lunch with them in the canteen that he’s recently had refurbished. There’s also widespread appreciation among agriculture policymakers of the high quality of economic work turned out by FAO, and support for his climate change and scientific agenda.

“The quality of data FAO produces is very good and it’s producing good policy recommendations,” one Western diplomat acknowledged.

FAO play

Three years into his term, there’s a much stronger Chinese presence at FAO and Chinese officials occupy some of the key divisions, covering areas such as plants & pesticides, land & water, a research center for nuclear science and technology in agriculture, and a division on cooperation between developing countries. A vacant spot atop the forestry division is also expected to go to a Chinese candidate.

Experts say those positions are part of a strategy. “China tries to get the divisions where it can grow its footprint in terms of shaping the rules, shaping the action and engaging more broadly with the Global South,” said Ghiretti, the MERICS analyst.

The EU Commission is closely monitoring trends in staff appointments and data collection. “He’s hired a lot of young Chinese people who will fill [the] ranks later,” said an EU diplomat.

Mandarin is heard more than before in the corridors of the Rome HQ, a labyrinthine complex built in the 1930s by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to house its ministry of overseas colonies.

Western diplomats and staffers past and present describe Qu as a poor communicator, who displays little care about engaging with or being accountable to countries and who tends to leave meetings after delivering perfunctory remarks, all of which leaves space for rumor and suspicion to grow.

Even those who acknowledge that Qu has made modest achievements at the helm of FAO still see his leadership style as typical of a Chinese official being kept on a tight leash by Beijing. The EU and U.S. criticized Qu’s move to push back an internal management review that was meant to be conducted by independent U.N. inspectors, and will now likely not emerge until after the next election.

And although FAO is still receiving bucketloads of Western funding, its fundraising drive specifically for rural families and farmers in war-torn Ukraine is still $100 million short of its $180 million target, a pittance in an international context — especially amid deafening warnings of a global food supply crisis next year. 

That’s partly because the U.S. and EU prefer to work bilaterally with Kyiv rather than going through FAO. “This is the time for FAO to be fully funded,” said Pierre Vauthier, a French agronomist who runs the FAO operation in Ukraine. “We need additional money.”

A plaque outside Qu’s fourth floor office at the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

There’s no love lost on Qu’s side, either. In June, he went on a unscripted rant accusing unnamed countries of being obsessed with money, apparently in light of criticism of his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

“You are looking at money, I’m looking to change the business model because I’m a farmer of small poor, family. You from the rich countries, you consider the money first, I consider wisdom first. It’s a different mentality,” Qu said, before complaining about his own salary being cut.

Asked repeatedly, Qu did not confirm to POLITICO whether he would stand for a second four-year term, but traditionally FAO chiefs serve at least twice and he is widely expected to run. Nominations officially opened December 1. The question is whether the U.S., EU or a developing nation will bother trying to run against him, when his victory looks all but inevitable.

There’s competition for resources between the World Food Programme (WFP), a bastion of U.S. development power, and FAO. A Spaniard, Alvaro Lario, was recently appointed to run the third Rome-based U.N. food agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, while WFP’s chief David Beasley is expected to be replaced by another American next year.

In any case, the countries that Qu will likely count on to be re-elected are not so interested in the political machinations of the West or its condemnation of the Russia’s war in Ukraine, which it seeks to impress upon FAO’s top leadership.

“Our relations with the FAO are on a technical basis and not concerned by the political positions of the FAO. What interests us is that the FAO supports us to modernize our agriculture,” said Cameroon’s Agriculture Minister Gabriel Mbairobe.

Other African countries defend FAO’s recent track record: “They’ve been very, very active, let’s be honest,” said Yaya A.O. Olaniran, Nigeria’s ambassador to the FAO. “It’s easy to criticize.”

This story has been updated.



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