In January 2010, the entire continent of Africa was preparing for the Africa Cup of Nations that was being held in Angola. A couple days before the tournament began, Togo was traveling from the Republic of the Congo through Cabinda, an Angolan exclave province, to get to their site for the tournament. All of a sudden, gunfire erupted, and the bus is consumed with bullets. Togo’s national team was the inadvertent victims of a group promoting independence for Cabinda, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC).
Togo was considered one of the main contenders to challenge for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations title. With players like Emmanuel Adebayor (Manchester City), Moustapha Salifou (Aston Villa), Serge Gakpé (Monaco), and Assimiou Touré (Bayer Leverkusen), the tiny nation of 5 million people had hope that its team could do some damage. Still, it was in a tough group that included Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso. Adebayor, Togo’s captain, its best player and all-time leading scorer, was the heartbeat of the team, and Les Eperviers (The Sparrow Hawks) were expected to go as far as Adebayor would take them.
The Togo team bus was crossing the border from the Republic of the Congo into Cabinda. Cabinda is separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of land from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Cabinda is the center of a power struggle between the Angolan government and separatist groups who want Cabinda to be independent. One of the main reasons: Cabinda has some of the largest offshore oil reserves in the world. Those oil reserves were responsible for over half of Angola’s oil production. The potential for oil money in a poor province means violence has always plagued the exclave.
About 15 minutes after crossing into Cabinda, attackers from FLEC started spraying the bus with bullets from machine guns. “The driver [Mário Adjoua] was shot almost immediately and died instantly so we were just stopped on the road with nowhere to go,” Adebayor later recalled. Moustapha Salifou said of the gunfire: “The shooting lasted for half an hour and and I could hear the bullets whistling past me. It was like a movie.” Because the driver was dead, the team was stuck while the bullets flew. They recalled diving under their seats in an effort to protect themselves as the gunfire persisted.
The result of the attack: 3 people dead, 9 injured. The bus driver, Mário Adjoua, the team’s press officer and sports commentator, Stanislas Ocloo, and an assistant coach, Améleté Abalo were killed in the attack. Several players and coaches were among the injured. The attack cast a dark shadow over the Africa Cup of Nations just mere days before it was set to begin. Emmanuel Adebayor spoke of the shock surrounding the tragic event:
“It was like we were living in a dream. I’m still under shock...I am one of those who carried the injured players into the hospital, that is when I realised what was really going on. All the players - everyone was crying, calling their mums, crying on the phone, saying their last words because they thought they’d be dead.”
Adebayor would also call it “one of the worst things I’ve ever been through in my life.” The news of the attack shook Africa and the world, as many struggled to comprehend why they would be the subject of attack. It turns out that their targeting was inadvertent. FLEC intended to target the Angolan military escort that was taking Togo to their home base for the tournament. It was part of a series of attacks meant to try and drive Angola to grant Cabinda its independence.
After the attack, Togo was still set to begin play in the tournament against Ghana. However, despite the team’s desires to continue to play to honor their fallen teammates and staff, the Togolese government demanded the team return home, and they withdrew from the Africa Cup of Nations. It left their group forced to play only 2 games instead of 3.
No one knows how Togo would have done in the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. They could have crashed out in the group stage or they could have won it all. Violence denied one of the bright teams in Africa its chance to show and prove. This tragedy overshadowed the tournament and, with the World Cup being in South Africa that summer, prompted more questions about the readiness of the continent to handle security issues for big tournaments. The attack robbed Togo of its chance to be represented on the field and have its national anthem played before its opening match. And, the players and coaches who overcame that tragedy will never be the same.