Niger's taxing journey to the Africa Cup of Nations

By Jonathan Josephs
BBC News

Image source, AFP
Image caption, The people of Niger have a special interest in hoping the Mena does them proud

As shock qualifiers Niger take on co-hosts Gabon in their first game in the Africa Cup of Nation finals, it is a bitter-sweet feeling for the people of Niger. Football fan or not, they are helping to foot the bill for the Mena's maiden tournament - every time they use their mobile phones.

Back in September Niamey's General Seyni Kountche stadium erupted into joy as Koffi Dan Kowa and star striker Moussa Maazou scored the two goals that helped Niger to a shock 2-1 win over South Africa and ultimately sent them to their continent's most prestigious tournament for the very first time.

Few of the 35,000 spectators watching that day probably realised that victory would also add 10 CFA francs to the cost of each minute they spend on their mobile phones.

It will fund some of the $5m (£3.8m) that taking part in the Africa Cup of Nations is expected to cost the Mena - the local Hausa name for the Dama gazelle, which features on Niger's football strip.

The tax, which runs from 25 December until 25 January, is a significant burden given that the average cost of a minute's call is 100 CFA francs.

Respect, not charity

Football is of course a global sport of riches, the international governing body Fifa gives all members $250,000 a year and in January 2011 even paid out a $300,000 bonus to each, but that doesn't go far when for every other game you have to travel huge distances across a vast continent.

So should some of the global game's huge resources be made available to spare Nigerien mobile phone users an extra burden?

The Vice-President of Niger's Football Federation, Colonel Ibrahim Yakubu, is adamant that his country "doesn't want the charity of Caf, all we want is respect".

To raise a reported $130m over eight years the regional Confederation of African Football (Caf) even sold the naming rights to its showpiece competition.

It is part of a deal, which ironically for Niger's four million subscribers (25% of the population), has been struck with the mobile phone company Orange.

The company stresses that the new tax and its involvement with the Cup of Nations are not related, adding that it also sponsors the Nigerien national federation.

Col Yakubu says the federation hasn't asked anyone for extra money and doesn't believe Caf or Fifa would give it anything anyway.

"If it's a team for the people they should contribute," he adds, promising that in return the players "will try to give their maximum" despite having to get by on the smallest budget of all the teams who have qualified for the finals. The new tax has of course divided public opinion.

Image source, AFP
Image caption, The Mena are this tournament's surprise qualifiers - and, coming from one of the poorer countries, have to survive on the smallest team budget

Journey of a lifetime

International aid agencies, such as Unicef, are warning of an impending food crisis in Niger, which already languishes at second to bottom of the UN development ranking of countries.

So it is little surprise that, the government, according to Col Yakubu has "lots of things" to spend money on and simply can't afford to pay the full cost itself.

So what exactly will the new tax fund?

The Nigerien Football Federation says that the money raised will be added to private donations and a small contribution from the government to meet the accommodation and food bill in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

It will also pay for transport costs, including the two planes that have taken the Mena on this journey of a lifetime.

Additionally there will be some modest financial rewards for the 23 players, seven of whom play in the amateur domestic league. Of those that play abroad in countries as diverse as Belgium, Thailand and South Africa none earn huge sums of money.

The pride they have given their countrymen after qualifying against the odds is worthy of recognition, according to Col Yakubu.

'Beauty of football'

In a country where World Bank figures show the average income is about $1 a day, questions are being asked as to whether this is the best way to pay for their team's participation.

Niger has benefited from millions of dollars' worth of debt relief and so good governance, the tax system included, is seen as essential by much of the international community.

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Qualification could inspire of generation of footballers from Niger

One mobile phone industry source told BBC News that the new tax was "not a favourable approach" and could be "detrimental" to the industry, especially as it raises fears of customers being taxed for other short term projects.

Mahaman Tidjani Alou, a professor of political science at Niamey's state-funded Abdou Moumouni University, argues that there is nothing to worry about.

"For me, it'll all depend on how this money is going to be used," he says.

"If it's used for other purposes, this will be a dangerous way of going about it," he says, adding that civic society groups are already calling for an audit once the tournament is over.

But it is not just about ensuring that every cent is spent properly in such a poor country as landlocked Niger.

There is also the danger that such a tax could dent economic growth in the country where the mobile phone is expected to play a significant role in raising living standards.

A recent International Monetary Fund working paper suggests that for every 10% of people with a mobile phone there is likely to be a 0.7% growth in the economy. The global trade body for mobile phone operators, the GSM Association, puts this figure even higher - at 1.2%.

Of course the better Niger does in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea the less controversial their finances will be.

Col Yakubu won't be surprised if once again they exceed expectations. He says that "Niger can win because its football and any team can win, that's the beauty of football".

Media caption, The colourful Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Gabon

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