Two teams from Bangui compete against each other on July 9, 2013. It was one of the country's official matches held in the capital's Palais Omnisport. Photo by Hervé Serefio Diaspora.
In the Central African Republic, even sport has fallen victim to the country’s raging conflict. With the breakdown of security hampering an already decaying infrastructure, the authorities have had no choice but to suspend the popular national basketball championship league since December 2013.
Basketball is king in CAR for historic reasons: since gaining independence in 1960, the national team has been the reigning African champion twice (in 1974 and 1987). In 1988 they chalked up a 10th place finish at the Seoul Olympic Games. Bangui – the capital - is the beating heart of basketball in the country, counting 14 men’s and six women’s clubs. Some of these clubs - such as the ‘Red Star’ or ‘Hit Trésor’ - have dominated African basketball since the beginning of the 1970s. The basketball federation has nearly 1,200 people registered to play [thus giving them the right to make use of the country’s sporting facilities], making it the country’s most widely played sport.
The gynmasium with 3000 seats was often packed full during championship matches.
In December 2013, as violence broke out in Bangui between the anti-Balaka – mainly rural Christian militias – and the Seleka Muslim rebels in power at the time, several sporting facilities were looted. The Palais Omnisport was occupied by Seleka members and had part of its roof destroyed during fighting. The gymnasium has an added significance: it was here that Jean-Bédel Bokassa – the country’s former president - declared himself emperor. It still hasn’t been repaired.
Photo taken last week by Hervé Serefio. Holes in the ceiling have left part of the gymnasium flooded.
“If nothing is done, the Palais Omnisport will soon be totally unusable”
Jules (not his real name) is a sports teacher who looks after professional basketball players as well as youth teams in Bangui.
“We’re very worried to see that Bangui’s largest gymnasium, where major basketball competitions generally take place, is in a dilapidated state, even though it was renovated during the summer of 2012 [under the presidency of François Bozizé]. Balls and even bibs were looted. There are several holes on the roof, and metal sheets keep blowing away in the wind.When the weather is fine, it’s possible to train in the gymnasium. But with the onset of the rainy season [editor’s note: the rainy season runs from March to June], rain regularly falls in the hall. I had to cancel training two days ago because part of the floor was flooded. If nothing is done, the wooden basketball court will soon be totally unusable.Distrubition of basketballs, organised by the country's basketball federation in July 2013. According to basketball coaches, these balls were stolen during the fighting in December 2013.The state of the infrastructure is not the only problem. Before the battle for Bangui in December 2013, I created a basketball team for young girls. I had 85 regular players of all ages. Now, I even have trouble just getting 20 of them together. The parents hesitate letting their children go out to come to training because the places where we meet are close to Seleka bases. A generation of potential players is passing us by. It’s a real problem for the development of basketball in our country.
Since December 2013, no work has been undertaken to repair the roof.
“Because we lack secure courts, we train with players from opposing teams”
Youth teams are not the only ones affected by the insecurity. Wilfried Pollagba is a senior player for the Hit Trésor club in Bangui.
Our last matches were in July 2013. Since then, no official training session has taken place. Some of my teammates have stopped practising completely: they found it too dangerous to train at night after work as they used to do, because the security risk is greatest after dark.
In order to train, we gather basketball players from opposing teams, such as FC Mazanga and Red Star. Their court is in the KM5 neighborhood [where numerous clashes have taken place] and getting there is not safe. We try to find other places, preferably one that’s well lit. We still don’t know when we can start the league again. It’s a shame, because basketball could be the thing that brings the people of Bangui together and allows us to move forward.
Before leaving to compete in Afrobasket, the country's team had organised a match at the Palais Omnisport in June.
For now, the Basketball Federation has not set a date for the championship league to start again nor for damaged sporting grounds to be repaired. When contacted by FRANCE 24, several basketball club presidents in Bangui say the lack of decision making is down to some members of the Federation. Some point to irregularities in spending incurred during the last FIBA Africa Championship – otherwise known as Afrobasket - while others blame Central African Republic’s failure to win the right to host Afrobasket in 2015, which was instead awarded to Tunisia. A general assembly meeting is due to take place on 17 May to decide whether or not to restart the championship.
This article was written with FRANCE 24's Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).