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Didier Drogba's Mediation Efforts: Solo Act or the Start of a Trend?

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A well-publicized list of western celebrities has attracted enormous attention for their engagement in African development as well as peace and conflict issues.

Many of these celebrities have received abundant coaching from international organizations notably United Nations specialized agencies such as UNICEF and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Such mentoring is valuable in a variety of ways. It gets the celebrity attuned to humanitarian work on the front lines. And it also reduces the risk of embarrassment.

Others, even if they have had an earlier association with the UN, prefer to work on a freelance basis, allowing them more space to operate without institutional constraints.

This is particularly the case in such sensitive areas as mediation efforts with respect to crisis conditions.

Angelina Jolie notably travelled to West Africa in 2005, where she met with the President of Sierra Leone Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and an array of non-state actors, under the auspices of Witness, an NGO funded by entertainer/activist Peter Gabriel.

But more recently at least one African celebrity has entered into mediation efforts while a civil war was still going on in his homeland.

Didier Drogba as football/soccer fans around the world know is a star player not only for Chelsea in the English premier league (getting ready for another season) but for the Elephants, the national team of Cote d'Ivoire or Ivory Coast.

National is the key word here -- as in the midst of a protracted struggle between the supporters of Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara (which escalated after a contested November, 2010 presidential run-off) -- Drogba used his stature as captain and even for a spell in 2008 player-coach to urge an end to the conflict.

After one victory in the African Cup of Nations, Drogba stated: "We won for all Ivorians. Stop (the war) now, we want peace, we won for you, it must restore peace in Côte d'Ivoire, we will do anything to it."

If in many ways a solo act in this mediatory effort, Drogba is as networked as any of the western celebrities.

As a goodwill ambassador for UN Development Program, Drogba has been a prime face and voice in the campaign for the advance of Millennium Development Goals in Africa built around the concept of "Teaming Up Against Poverty."

And prior to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Drogba teamed up with U2 frontman and mega-activist Bono along with Nike to launch an initiative to fight HIV and AIDS through a partnership with the "Red" brand and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which is designed to coincide with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Under this initiative Nike sold special red laces -- which Drogba wore when playing football -- under the banner "Lace Up. Save Lives," the proceeds of which will be split equally between the Global Fund and football-based community programs aimed at educating people about AIDS.

Still, even with his combination of charisma and connections, Drogba cannot be credited with a major breakthrough to end the civil war. Indeed the crisis escalated through 2011 before armed intervention by the UN and France eventually toppled Gbagbo.

Yet three features stand out that merit attention as harbingers for a larger constructive trend in Africa.
The first is the sheer persistence that Drogba displayed in his mediatory efforts.

Instead of a one-time intervention he tried repeatedly to bring about peace, helping negotiating a ceasefire in 2006 during an earlier round of World Cup qualifiers.

Later he tried to consolidate the peace process by pushing to have an African cup match held in a rebel-held town, with high level representatives of the contending sides singing the national anthem side by side.

The second is the sheer risk Drogba took in intervening, a situation revealed as houses occupied by his relatives were burnt down in the last stages of the civil war.

Such a commitment is at odds with the image of a luxury-soaked and disengaged life of many other star footballers.

The third is the decided lack of interest that Drogba has demonstrated for translating his fame and activities as a means to grab political power for himself.

Drogba may appear to be a classic African big man, but these attributes have not led him to opportunistic paths.

All three characteristics bode well as ownership of celebrity activism in Africa shifts inevitably towards Africans, even as the standouts in this revised model continue to be globally networked.

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