Morocco has been eliminated from the African Cup of Nations – a row over alleged racism has marred the tournament for the team

“I take responsibility for everything that happened. I never hide.” This was said by Moroccan national coach Walid Regragui after Morocco was eliminated in the eighth finals of the African Cup against South Africa on Tuesday evening. He was referring to the unexpected loss, but his words could also be heard differently: Regragui was the center of a riot around the Moroccan team in this tournament, which distracted attention from the sporting performance. A riot that also sparked a historic discussion about racism on the continent and thus partly marked the tournament in Ivory Coast.

It started with an incident on Sunday, January 21, after the group stage match between Morocco and Congo. Congolese captain Chancel Mbemba was on his knees praying after the match when national coach Regragui walked up to him to shake hands. Mbemba held out his hand, but did not look at Regragui. A lack of respect, said Regragui, who repeatedly “regarde moi” said – look at me. When Mbemba refused to look at him, people shouted at each other. It attracted the attention of other players, who then fought with each other.

What exactly happened and said on the field is still unclear, both key players have not provided clarity. This could not prevent public opinion from immediately assuming that there was racism. Fans from both countries clashed on social media. Mbemba was subjected to racist treatment online and national coach Regraui received death threats. “It was like an explosion of racist nonsense back and forth on social media,” said Danielle Kliwon, an expert on African football. “It became Sub-Saharan Africa against North Africa. Those relationships were always on edge and that now became visible again.”

But where does this division come from?”

Colonial influences

Part of the answer lies in colonial times. From 1912 to 1956, Morocco was a ‘protectorate’ – colony – of France. Under French influence, a form of ‘colorism’ emerged – discrimination within a race based on skin color. The thinking in that construct: the lighter the skin color and the softer the hair, the more prestige. It is a hierarchy that arose during slavery and still influences relations within the continent, say Kliwon and historian Gijsbert Oonk, who teaches about Africa at Erasmus University.

“In North Africa, because of this history, there is often the feeling that they do not belong to the rest of Africa. That is not historically correct, but it is a feeling that reflects on French rule,” says Kliwon. Oonk agrees, but also states that it was already happening centuries before the French arrived in Morocco. “It was strengthened and reinvented by the Europeans. Not only the French, but also the British and Dutch participated in this. White is the highest rank and the blacker the lower your rank.”

Oonk sees it as a form of “social Darwinism”, with which the French, for example, have created an “ideological justification” for inequality: “The colonizers pitted the North Africans against the Sub-Saharans. It is a divide and conquer method.”

It has changed and helped shape African societies. This can be seen, for example, in Morocco, where in 2011 the constitution stated that the country must be protected “in its fullness and diversity”. There are no specific anti-discrimination laws, while there is certainly anti-black racism in Morocco.

This is evident from, among other things, a report that the Minorty Rights Group, a human rights organization that is mainly active in Africa, published at the end of last year. The research focuses on black Moroccans, Amazigh peoples and black migrants from other parts of Africa who live in Morocco. The conclusion was that these minorities are structurally discriminated against.

According to the report, black people in Morocco are discriminated against in education, housing and sports institutions, among others. They are also less likely to find work. The report also states that social stigma often leads to verbal and physical violence. Figures are not kept because minorities often do not dare to report crimes.

A similar 2022 study on racial discrimination in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region) found that a third of Moroccan citizens have experienced discrimination in other parts of Africa. And 43 percent acknowledge that discrimination against black people is a problem in their own country.

Migration flows from various parts of Africa to Europe are fueling social unrest in North African countries. Migrants or refugees from black Africa often travel through countries such as Morocco. Kliwon: “The North African population will therefore see the black African population as a problem. This creates friction that we also experience in Europe, for example social exclusion of people and calls to close the borders.”

Hatred is sometimes also stirred up by politicians. A year ago, Tunisian President Kais Saied said that Sub-Saharan migrants are “part of a criminal plan to change the demographics of Tunisia.” He also linked crime to Sub-Saharan migrants, after which there were cases of manhunts for black Africans by people in the country.

Not long afterwards, Senegal played against Tunisia in an African Cup of Nations tournament for teams of players under the age of twenty. Senegalese players celebrated their victory after that match by proudly pointing to the color of their skin. According to Kliwon, it points to a “non-Afro-centric discourse” among black Africans, who in turn rebel against various groups of North Africans.

Players from Morocco and Congo during a riot after an alleged racist incident.
Photo Sia Kambou/AFP

Solidarity in Qatar

Strikingly enough, an opposite movement also seemed to have started in recent years, as a young African generation (both from the North and from Sub-Sahara) sought out each other more. They share a proud, and above all joint, African feeling. The Moroccan national football team was a poster child for that movement. Last winter, during the Football World Cup in Qatar, Morocco performed very well and the country was seen throughout Africa as the pride of the continent.

“We are Africans,” Regragui said proudly at a press conference in Qatar after the quarter-final victory over Portugal. Kliwon: “Morocco positioned itself as a symbol for African football. That was also nice because it was often different in the past.”

The Moroccan national coach also mentioned that moment in the days after the riot with Congo. “We were all one at the World Cup and now that the African Cup is underway, we are again talking about skin color, religion or origin. But I will never participate in that myself.”

It is still not clear to the outside world what exactly happened between Regragui and Mbemba. The African Football Association (CAF) suspended Regragui during the Africa Cup, although that punishment was later lifted. Congo filed another complaint, but it will be null and void now that Morocco has been eliminated. Congo will play the quarter-final against Guinea on Friday.

Kliwon hopes that despite the riot, the tournament will still have a positive turn – even though all North African countries have now been eliminated. “It is a shame that such a fight is being waged on a continent. Football has a uniting effect, so I hope we will see that in this Africa Cup.”