As the final whistle blew to end the best Cup of Nations final for at least 17 years, it was impossible for anyone at the Stade de l’Amitié, Egypt fans excepted, not to be uplifted. A packed crowd largely supporting Cameroon celebrated an improbable victory. On the pitch, the green-shirted players tossed their 64-year-old manager Hugo Broos in the air. From a football point of view, the tournament had been a triumph. But football was only part of the story of Gabon 2017 – and far from the most important part.

On August 27 last year, Gabon held presidential elections. Four days later, the incumbent, Ali Bongo, who had succeeded his father Omar in 2009, was declared the winner by a narrow margin over Jean Ping, the leader of an opposition coalition. Ping’s supporters were outraged, sure they had been cheated. They took to the streets in protest, marching down Boulevard Triomphal and setting fire to the Assemblée Nationale, which still bears the scorch marks in two large black patches either side of the door. After tear gas had failed to disperse demonstrators, police opened fire. 

Later that night, Ping supporters gathered at his campaign headquarters. As police stormed the building in the early hours, there were a number of fatalities. As the tournament went on, I became aware that there was a need not merely to cover the football but also to try to work out exactly what happened, exactly how many were killed. There had been a media blackout, with many journalists expelled and a moratorium on the issuing of visas to journalists that was only lifted for the Cup of Nations – which was one of the reasons getting a visa was such a wearying process. Having got in, we had to probe what had happened after the election. This, then, is about the football, but it is also about far more. If the juxtaposition seems awkward, that’s because it was. Again and again, I found myself torn between revelling in what was arguably the best football I’ve seen in the eight Cups of Nations I’ve covered and a knowledge of what lay beneath, the profound moral quandary of a tournament being held at great expense in a country that in October slashed spending on health and education and being used, as the prime minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet openly admitted, to “help people forget”.

But let us begin with Cameroon, who shouldn’t be denied their glory. And it was glory. Their build-up had been dogged by problems. Eight players turned down call-ups. “When I came to Cameroon I found a group of players who were old and not motivated,” said Broos. “So I took some new players, put some young players in and we started working. I did a good job and now we have a team. This is not a group of football players: it’s a group of friends and that’s why players on the bench keep their motivation.”

That final point was pertinent. Cameroon’s comeback to beat Egypt in the final was the result of goals by two substitutes, both of them established names who had found themselves ousted from the first team by his new broom. Egypt had gone ahead after 22 minutes, Mohamed Salah exchanging passes with Amr Warda on the right then slipping a ball inside for Mohamed Elneny to score with a finish clipped in cleverly at Fabrice Ondoa’s near post. At that point, the narrative felt familiar: Egypt defending deep, holding more enterprising opponents at arm’s length and emerging victorious largely through will and their extraordinary winning mentality.

But after half-time, Christian Bassogog switched flanks. Cameroon had looked the fittest side in the tournament and as he began to have rather more success against Ahmed Elmohamady than he’d enjoyed against Ahmed Fathi, the game shifted decisively in Cameroon’s favour. Just before the hour, Nicolas Nkoulou headed in a Benjamin Moukandjo cross. And then, with two minutes remaining, Sébastien Siani launched a long pass for Vincent Aboubakar. Just outside the box, he controlled the ball on his chest, then, stretching up, flicked it with a toe end over Ali Gabr and, as it came down, hit a bouncing volley into the corner.

A stadium that was surely full to a little over its 38,000 capacity celebrated wildly. A lot of Cameroonians live in Gabon and they had been supplemented by busloads of fans who had poured south over the border from Douala and Yaoundé. Local Gabonese were also supporting their neighbours, their presence marked in the space between the anthems of the two competing sides and kick-off by a remarkably moving unaccompanied rendition of their own anthem. 

From the crossroads between the Ping campaign headquarters and his residence, we walked through a market and past a rubbish dump into the residential area of Ambowe. Behind a low wooden building we came into a sun-baked courtyard, where lizards scuttled and chickens pecked at the dust. Beyond was a small graveyard, a series of simple crosses poking out of the long grass. By a rectangle of earth, surrounded by stones, stood a cross bright in its newness. Beneath the name, it gave the date of death as 1 September 2016. His family asked for anonymity so we’ll call him Paul. He was a plumber. He was 31. He had a girlfriend and a son who is now two.

The victim’s younger brother suggested we should speak to his elder sister so we walked further through Ambowe to meet her. She sat on the wooden porch of her house, her nephew, Paul’s boy, sitting on her knee playing with an outsized inflatable orange hand produced by one of the tournament sponsors. 

Her anger and grief were obvious as she recounted what had happened after Paul had gone to join other Jean Ping supporters at the campaign headquarters on the day the election results were announced. “I can’t say what he did that night,” she said. “He wanted the elected president to be proclaimed as the real president. He wanted the real leader to be proclaimed. That was his motivation. He was really involved in politics. He was one of the people who made democracy and he was really involved in this.”

At around 9am on September 1, the hospital called the family and spoke to the eldest sister. They told her Paul was dead but didn’t reveal the cause of death. Only when they got to the hospital did they discover he’d been shot. By then he’d already been moved to the morgue at Casepga. “At first,” said the sister we were speaking to, “we thought he must have been shot in the body but when we checked we didn’t see anything apart from a wound in his right leg.”

It seems probable Paul was shot at around 1am but that he didn’t reach hospital until much later, by when it was too late. It turned out one of his fellow Ping supporters who was helping us with introductions had been with him at the hospital, had seen him shortly before he died. 

“We went to the Ping headquarters,” Paul’s sister said. “Our aim was to bury the body rapidly. We wanted him buried the same week. We were told not to do that because if we did people wouldn’t know that he had been killed by a bullet. We were asked by Ping to bring information about the injury so they could have evidence.”

She showed us the death certificate. It gave no cause of death. 

She then brought out a framed portrait of Paul, smiling against a stylised backdrop of clouds, doves and a cross. Along the bottom was written, “We will never forget you or your courage.” 

Paul’s son reached out his hand towards the picture. “Papa,” he said.

Gabon is an equatorial country on the Atlantic. With an area of 100,000 square miles, it is slightly larger than the United Kingdom but it has a population of just 1.8million, of whom around 600,000 come from Mali, Cameroon, Senegal, DR Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. Its popularity among immigrants is indicative of its relative stability, its low population a reflection of the fact that it is the second-most forested country in the world, after Suriname. Around 88% of the country is forest, providing a home to an estimated 80,000 elephants and 20,000 gorillas. 

When the French occupied the territory in 1885, it was home to a number of Bantu tribes. In 1910, Gabon became one of the four provinces that made up French Equatorial Africa, gaining its independence in 1960. Léon M’Ba was elected as the president the following year, with Omar Bongo as vice-president. M’Ba gradually dismantled the nascent democracy and dissolved the national assembly in 1964, at which he was deposed by a coup led by the military who claimed to be intent on restoring parliamentary democracy. French paratroopers, though, swiftly restored him to power. French soldiers remain billeted in the Camp de Gaulle on the northern outskirts of Libreville.

M’Ba died in 1967 and was succeeded by Omar Bongo. The following year, Bongo declared Gabon a one-party state, dissolving all previous parties to found the Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG). He remained in power until his death in 2009. When his son, Ali, won the subsequent election there was, for the first time, protracted political violence, with a curfew being imposed in Port Gentil, a centre of anti-PDG sentiment, for three months.

The following year, opposition figures, many of whom had served under Omar Bongo before leaving the PDG on his death, formed the Union Nationale, an uneasy coalition aimed at unseating Ali. Foremost among them was Jean Ping, a senior minister under Omar who was very close to the Bongo family. He was once married to and has children with Omar’s daughter, Pascaline, Ali’s half-sister.

The opposition are convinced that Ali should not even have been allowed to stand in last year’s election. Gabonese law states that only those who are Gabonese by birth may become president. Ali says he was born in Brazzaville, now the capital of DR Congo but at the time the capital of French Equatorial Africa, but his opponents – and members of his family who are trying to claim Omar Bongo’s inheritance – claim he was born in Nigeria and was adopted during the Biafran War. What is clear is that when registering for election in 2009, Ali offered a different birth certificate to the one presented in 2016. Nonetheless, by a margin of five to three, the Gabonese National Electoral Commission (Cenap) voted to allow his candidature. That prompted a demonstration by trades unionists which was suppressed by police, a first hint at the violence that was to come.

Initial results on the day of the 2016 election suggested Ping had won in seven of Gabon’s nine provinces. As time went by and Cenap failed to announce the result, the opposition became increasingly convinced the election was being fixed. A subsequent EU commission was highly sceptical, their report criticising a lack of transparency and the non-independence of certain institutions and finding, as the observer-in-chief Mariya Gabriel put it, “significant weaknesses in the electoral process”. 

On August 31, opposition supporters gathered at Ping’s headquarters to march on Cenap and demand a result. Among them was Sylvie Mbot, the head of the doctors union. “While we were marching, we heard that Bongo had won,” she said. “That’s why we were angry. We said that wasn’t possible. The government was ready. There were police already on the street.”

At Lac Bleu, just before the right turn onto Boulevard Triomphal, the march reached crisis point. “The soldiers and police were all in front of us, lorries full of policemen,” Mbot said. “They had real weapons – Kalashnikovs and tear gas. They fired the tear gas and then shot at the crowd.

“People were really angry. They wanted to overthrow the lorries and started pushing at one. The policemen took guns and shot directly at a man I recognised. He had a knot of hair on the top of his head. The shot hit him in the thigh. 

“At about 4pm we took the injured to hospital with the Red Cross. In every neighbourhood people were very angry. People were standing as one man. It was the same thing in every area. Everybody was running here and there. I didn’t even know where I had parked my car. I went back to the HQ at about 7pm. On the second floor they’d collected all the injured people. There was blood everywhere and very few doctors to look after these people.”

The Red Cross sent three cars and two more were found to take the most seriously injured to hospital. Mbot went with them. 

The two are related, of course, but even without the election crisis there would have been significant economic doubts about the wisdom of hosting the Cup of Nations in Gabon. A leaked budget for the tournament put the cost at US$770m; the government claims the cost was US$313m. Either way, it’s difficult to see how the expenditure can be justified. The October budget slashed spending on education and healthcare, while in the fortnight before the tournament there were strikes by both civil servants and workers in the oil industry.

Perhaps – perhaps – the outlay could be justified if there was a genuine belief that there might be some genuine legacy, but there seems little prospect of that. The stadiums in Libreville and Franceville were used in 2012, when Gabon co-hosted the Cup of Nations with Equatorial Guinea. Five years on, the budget suggested it cost US$72.7m to bring them to functionality. The new stadiums in Oyem and Port Gentil are significant distances out of town. Neither was more than half full for any game at the tournament. It’s hard to imagine them ever being sold out.

But the most egregious wastage stands in the capital. The 38,000-capacity Stade de l’Amitié (Sino-Gabonaise), which stands 10 miles north of the centre of Libreville in the suburb of Angondjé, was a host stadium in 2012. It is a fairly soulless place and hard to get to, so a decision was taken to build a new, larger, more central stadium. 

The Stade Omar Bongo looks as though it will be an exceptional venue when it is finished, but that doesn’t seem as though it will be any time soon. A sign by the entrance says building work has been delayed by seven months. The concrete struts reach steeply into the sky. Peering through the gate, the pitch looks good – so good, in fact, that Cameroon were able to train there. But around the unfinished stands is a wasteland of building materials and weeds. Mechanical diggers stand unused in a fenced-off compound. Goats graze in the long grass. In a ditch, people wash. The ramshackle housing that surrounds the site offers a reminder of just how deep the gulf is between haves and have-nots. 

Nearby, two locals sat on a concrete bollard. I asked why the stadium was unfinished. They looked at each other and laughed. “Politics,” one said. Further round the stadium, another passer-by, with a furtive glance over his shoulder, answered, “The president.” Opposition figures claim the issue is one of corruption; that so many officials siphoned off funds at various stages there was nothing left to pay the contractors.

The stadium cost a reported US$220m; you wonder if it will ever be full, if it will ever be used.

The days before the tournament began were rife with talk of resistance. In Paris, Gabonese ex-pats arranged demonstrations against the tournament, and there was talk of a boycott. In Oyem and Port Gentil, areas that backed Ping, there seemed genuine fears of violence. But Ping, who had left Gabon for France at the end of October to raise international support for his cause, returning at the end of November, remained quiet. Younger radicals wanted action; he kept a low profile. 

Given his background, Ping is an equivocal figure. After years in the PDG, he differs little ideologically from Ali Bongo. As another member of the opposition said, “He may not be the leader we want, but he is the leader we have.”

A demonstration scheduled for the day of the opening match in Place Rio, in the centre of Libreville, failed to materialise. Neither, though, was there much of a crowd for the opening ceremony. By the time the rapper Booba took the stage, the crowd still numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands. By kick-off in the opening game between Gabon and Guinea-Bissau, the Stade de l’Amitié was about half full. By half-time, there were perhaps 30,000 people there. 

On social media Bongo’s opponents hailed a crushing blow for the regime. The following day, the headline of l’Echo du Nord, the opposition newspaper, read, “Le grand flop!” Throughout the tournament the crowds were held up as an example of a boycott in action, but that is to misunderstand Cups of Nations. Crowds are almost always small at the tournament, largely because there are very few places in Africa where there is a culture of going to games. Some people go to domestic games, of course, but the football that is most keenly consumed is the Champions League or the Premier League, perhaps la Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga, and that means it is watched on television. Why, if your habit is to watch football with a beer in the comfort of your own home or a bar, would you then schlep to a stadium several miles out of town to sit in for hours in the heat? Although it was rare for stadiums to be more than half full, the truth is that the large immigrant communities meant attendances were probably better at this Cup of Nations than for most previous ones. That said, the failure to sell out any Gabon game also suggested a lack of enthusiasm, certainly compared with five years ago. But whether that was because of the boycott, because of economics or simply because there was no novelty factor, no sense that this was a once-in-a lifetime-event, is very hard to say.

And Gabon generally played poorly. The first half of the opening game was dismal, 45 minutes that yielded barely a pass let alone a shot. The hosts improved after the break and took the lead as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang touched in a cross from Denis Bouanga, the left-sided forward who was by far Gabon’s best player in the tournament. But in the final 20 minutes, Gabon sat back and Guinea-Bissau, in the first tournament for which they’d qualified, suddenly began to look dangerous. They’d already wasted a couple of decent opportunities when, two minutes into injury-time, Juary Soares headed in Zezinho’s free-kick to equalise and earn Guinea-Bissau their first ever tournament point. For Gabon, it would prove a costly slip.

The first half of the opening game had suggested the worst of recent Cups of Nations: big, muscular teams endlessly battering into each other without much in the way of craft or guile. The second part of the double-header, though, was a breath of fresh air. A young Cameroon attacked a composed Burkina Faso with gusto and took the lead through Moukandjo’s free-kick after 35 minutes. Gradually, though, Burkina Faso’s greater maturity and quality showed and Issoufou Dayo nodded in the equaliser from close range with a quarter of an hour remaining after Fabrice Ondoa had parried a free-kick.

Oyem is a timber town with a population of 60,000 that lies on Gabon’s borders with Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. It would be an odd place to hold matches of a major football tournament in any circumstances, but even odder is to hold them 12 miles out of town on the road to Bitam. The stadium was finished in time – just – but it is surrounded by rubble and waste ground, while it was completed in such a rush that most of the signs were still covered in their plastic wrappings. Set in rolling forest, it’s an undeniably picturesque venue, the stadium with its swooping roof a world away from the identikit Chinese-built stadiums that used to blight Cups of Nations, but the scrums to get on heavily overloaded minibuses back into town after the game highlighted the problems posed by its location. 

If the venue is non-traditional, though, the first game in Group C was about as typical of recent Cups of Nations as it’s possible to get, as two West African teams, playing grimly percussive football, ground out a 0-0 draw. The champions, Côte d’Ivoire, under their lacklustre coach Michel Dussuyer, were disappointing; Claude Leroy’s Togo were delighted with the stalemate. Emmanuel Adebayor, such a different presence when leading his country from the disaffected figure he often cuts in England, was inspirational, leading the line, cajoling, encouraging and, despite not having had a club since the end of last season, lasting 88 minutes before being substituted.

The second game brought some relief with Florent Ibengé’s attractive DR Congo side beating Morocco, finally bringing an end, after 18 games, to Hervé Renard’s record of never having lost a Cup of Nations game while wearing his lucky white shirt. Morocco had begun the game by far the brighter, but Ibengé pushed Junior Kabananga higher up the pitch to occupy the two Morocco central defenders and DRC slowly got back into the game. Their goal, nonetheless, was somewhat freakish, a cross from the left hitting the near post, wrongfooting the goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi and bouncing out for Kabananga to knock home.

Oyem is not a town overly blessed with hotels. We ended up staying that night in a motel whose name, Notre Affaire, and pink walls perhaps gave some indication of the clientele it usually attracted. My room was large, but the only light was one of the ultra-violet ones they put in station toilets to stop anybody looking to shoot up from locating their veins. In a bar a few minutes walk from the hotel, music blared, beer flowed and Cameroonian prostitutes plied a brisk trade. In that sense, this was a very typical border town.

The next morning, making for the airport, three of us stopped a cab outside the hotel. We all had bags but when we went to the boot, both the driver and the local in the passenger seat shouted in alarm. It wasn’t entirely clear what the issue was but we piled into the back seat and continued a few hundred yards into the centre of town, where the man in the passenger seat got out. He made for the boot and struggled for some time to remove a roll of black tarpaulin as the driver shouted advice. When he finally wrestled it onto the pavement, a goat jumped out. The passenger caught my eye and shook his head sadly, slowly running a finger across his throat.

Côte d’Ivoire’s struggles continued. They fell behind to Neeskens Kebano in their second game against DRC but seemed to be finding some rhythm when Wilfried Bony levelled after 25 minutes. Within two minutes, though, Kabananga was left unmarked to head in at the back post and Côte d’Ivoire’s self-belief evaporated. Serey Dié did force a draw with a second-half equaliser, but it left the Ivorians vulnerable in their final group game against Morocco and Renard, the manager who had led them to the title two years ago.

Morocco themselves recovered from going a goal down against Togo in their second group game – a thrillingly sweeping counter-attack finished off by Mathieu Dossevi – to win 3-1, meaning a point was enough for them to go through and eliminate Côte d’Ivoire. As it was, Morocco won 1-0, Rachid Alioui bending in a superb finish from 30 yards. Dussuyer resigned as coach of Côte d’Ivoire a few days later. DRC beat Togo 3-1 to top the group. 

The idea of a train line running from Owendo, just south of Libreville, to Franceville, 416 miles to the south-east, was first raised in 1885 but it was 102 years before the railway was finally opened. We booked on the night train and got to the station, a bright yellow concrete construction, just before kick-off in the match between Gabon and Burkina Faso. Nobody else seemed bothered about watching it, but after some persistence (and taking the digital decoder from the restaurant and attaching it to a television from the lounge) we were able to get a picture. Préjuce Nakoulma gave Burkina the lead midway through the first half as Johann Obiang misjudged a long ball over the top, but Aubameyang levelled from the penalty spot just before half-time after being upended by a rash challenge from the Burkina goalkeeper Hervé Koffi. Tellingly, the bigger cheers came from the largely Burkinabé stall-holders around the station car park than from any Gabonese passengers. It finished 1-1.

The train was unexpectedly comfortable, air-conditioned and with vast reclining seats. The restaurant car not only served decent beef stew and ham sandwiches but also a more than passable merlot. The train left on time and, twelve and a half hours later, it arrived on time. The only disappointment was that the journey took place entirely in darkness, as it swept through jungle, along the banks of the Ogooué River, over the Abanga swamp and across the bridge over confluence of the Ogooué and Ivindo rivers.

It turned out we missed a flurry of fine goals in the second game of the day as Piqueti gave Guinea-Bissau the lead with a superb run and finish, only for Cameroon to hit back with two goals in the final half-hour, from Sébastien Siani and Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui. That left Gabon needing to beat Cameroon in their final game, something that never looked likely after an opening flurry in which Aubameyang missed a sitter. Bouanga hit the bar late on, the rebound falling to Didier Ndong, whose awkwardly bouncing follow-up was pushed over the bar by Fabrice Ondoa. Burkina Faso ensured they topped the group by beating Guinea Bissau 2-0.

Franceville is the main city in the home state of the Bongo family – there is a nearby town, where Senegal were based, called Bongoville. It turned out the hotel we had booked into what was a down-on-its-luck brothel. It had a lovely view over the Mpassa River at the back, but the pink-painted walls, the heart-shaped key-fobs and the risqué painting outside the in-house Feelings Club left little doubt. On a hill in the centre of Franceville, facing a Union Gabonaise bank whose ATM spoke with a distinct Scottish accent, stands a golden statue of Omar Bongo, right finger raised in the air, as though decisively giving a controversial lbw decision. The city also had by far the best pitch in the tournament and the result was the best football of the group stage.

Algeria were much fancied before the tournament but they had begun badly, salvaging a 2-2 draw against Zimbabwe only with a late Riyad Mahrez strike that skidded under the body of Tatenda Mukuruva. Clad in pink and with a blonde streak in his hair, the Zimbabwe keeper soon emerged as one of the figures of the group stage, carrying about him a perpetual sense of a mistake about to happen while also pulling off a series of unorthodox saves. Tunisia, meanwhile, had played with an unexpected attacking intent in their opener against the much-fancied Senegal and had been picked off twice on the break early on to lose 2-0. 

Defeat for either of the North African powers was likely to put them out, and so it proved. Tunisia again played uncharacteristically open football and this time were rewarded, beating Algeria 2-0. Senegal secured their place in the quarter-final with an emphatic 2-0 win over Zimbabwe. For Algeria, the damage was irreparable. They drew their final game 2-2 against a much-changed Senegal and were eliminated as Tunisia hammered Zimbabwe 4-2. Their manager, the Belgian John Turturro-lookalike George Leekens, resigned almost immediately, leaving them looking for a fourth manager in a year, which perhaps goes some way to explaining their underachievement.

The stadium in Port Gentil is perhaps the most attractive of the four used for the tournament. Sadly, it has also been built about 10 miles out of town, while a public housing development alongside the stadium appears to have been abandoned for some time, although the government insists that work will restart after the tournament. In a Cup of Nations of poor pitches, it also had by far the worst, something that is at least in part a result of the haste with which they were built. Pitches take time to bed: in Oyem, Libreville and especially Port Gentil, the joins between the strips of turf were obvious. Port Gentil tried to cover the issues with sand and then with grass clippings, but the problems were obvious: huge bobbles, great divots being kicked up and, according to the Ghana manager Avram Grant at least, several injuries. There was even talk of shifting the quarter-final from Port Gentil to Oyem, until Egypt, who won the group by beating Ghana in their final game, realised that to do so would mean playing Morocco at a ground at which they’d already played three matches and talks were shut down.

Egypt had begun with a grim 0-0 draw against a physical Mali side. The two centre-backs, Ahmed Hegazy and Ali Gabr, were outstanding but the key incident of note was a save by the Egypt keeper Ahmed El-Shenawy that damaged his hamstring. With the first-choice keeper Sherif Ekrami already out through injury, that meant Egypt were forced to turn to the 44-year-old veteran of their three triumphs between 2006 and 2010, Essam El-Hadary.

Ghana were a little fortunate to beat a sprightly Uganda in their first game, André Ayew getting the only goal from the penalty spot. It was a similar story for Uganda in their second match as well as they had the better of the game against Egypt only to concede on the break to Abdallah Said in the final minute. The Cranes, back in the tournament for the first time since 1978, had played well in both games but were the first side eliminated. Ghana, meanwhile, had another performance of two halves, playing very brightly in the first half against Mali to go in 1-0 up through Asamoah Gyan, but then being pushed deeper and deeper after the break as Mali got back into the game. Avram Grant subsequently praised his team for their “maturity” in handling the Mali fightback but it seemed possible that their defensive approach had invited the pressure.

That took Ghana through, while Egypt needed just a point against them in their final game to make the final eight. As it was, they won 1-0 thanks to a Mohamed Salah free-kick in a game that kept threatening to take off before being dragged back into mediocrity by the awful pitch. Ghana, you suspected, weren’t too bothered to lose the game, finish second in the group and move to the slightly better surface in Oyem.

For us, leaving was rather trickier. Port Gentil stands on a peninsula, all but unreachable from Libreville overland, although a road is being constructed. A catamaran does the journey in three hours and the morning of that final group game we set off the port to buy tickets for the following day. A local woman took it upon herself to help, but on the way she realised that the sun might be too much for the baldest among us. Taking off her headscarf – pink and tasselled – she wrapped it round his gleaming skull, to the hilarity of other locals, with the admonitory rhyme:

“Le soleil, c’est dangereux,

Pour les hommes sans cheveux.”

Despite her best efforts, though, it turned out the boat didn’t run on a Friday, and we were forced to throw ourselves on the mercy of the so-called “Hayatou Express”, hoping to blag seats on the plane that left Port Gentil that night with the CAF president, Issa Hayatou, and his coterie. We phoned people, we spoke to people, we emailed people but when we followed another journalist onto the coach after the game it was more in hope than expectation.

As we got off the bus at the airport, though, having zipped through the streets amid a convoy, blue lights flashing either side of us, we found a woman approaching any possible candidate and asking if they were me. I was the fourth to say yes, but the first with appropriate ID, at which a boarding pass was thrust into my hand. Remarkably, it bore my name. The other three journalists I was with, meanwhile, had to make do with pretending to be journalists and CAF officials who hadn’t turned up. Hayatou was aboard, noticeably thinner and frailer these days, as was the Gambian referee Bakary Gassama who can only have had the briefest of showers after the final whistle. Somehow we were back in our bungalow in Libreville two hours after the game had finished.

The day before the first quarter-final, I met Ping at his home about 10 minutes walk from the campaign headquarters. At one corner of his swimming pool stands a pagoda, a nod to the fact that his father was a Chinese trader who settled in Gabon in the 1930s, marrying the daughter of a tribal chief. He was due to give a press conference at which a spokesman read out a speech he had written denouncing the Cup of Nations, but took aside the four European journalists there for a private briefing. A number of senior opposition figures, including three former prime ministers, sat silently along one wall.

Why, we asked, had Ping not called for mass demonstrations while the world’s media – or at least a far larger section of it than usual – were in Gabon? “The [Cup of Nations] is about 54 countries,” he said. “We should not punish the others for our internal problems.”

He was otherwise scathing of the tournament and the expenditure upon on it. “There are not enough schools, classrooms,” he said. “Even chairs they do not have. How can you invest in stadiums when you are facing such big problems?” Delighted at the non-capacity crowds, he referred to the Cup of Nations as “a total failure for the young man” – his preferred term for Bongo, who turned 58 on February 9.

Ping has kept a generally low profile since the election, but his rhetoric is tough. In November, he met UN representatives in Washington and was warned that if he didn’t maintain a dialogue with Bongo the result could be civil war. “You are paid to avoid civil war,” he told them, “and you are trying to sub-contract. Do your job – don’t ask me to do it for you!” He insists he will “never, ever” return to government while Bongo is in power. “Dialogue is a good thing, but you are not solving the problem. The problem is Ali.”

Yet it’s hard not to believe that the failure to organise at least one protest during the tournament was a tactical error. There seem two plausible explanations: firstly, that he feared if he called for a demonstration he would not get people on the street, that the momentum behind the opposition coalition is waning, in part because of fear of reprisal. 

And second is what one opposition supporter referred to as “a rupture of the generations”. Ping does not want to dismantle the system; he wants to replace Ali Bongo at the head of it. Younger members of the opposition want an entirely new system and are frustrated at Ping’s apparent lack of action. Four activists were arrested on the day of Gabon’s draw against Burkina Faso for unveiling anti-tournament banners in the centre of town and charged with public order offences. They were released on bail a week later.

The headquarters of Jean Ping’s election campaign are a five-story brick apartment block in Charbonnages, a district just to the east of the centre of Libreville. In front of them, across an uneven road are rows of plants for sale (the Gabonese love gardening), then a line of bushes and then the four-lane highway rising into an overpass that swoops right into the centre of town. On the other side of the road are a supermarket and the concrete shell of a tall building that appears to have been abandoned during construction.

As you face the headquarters, there is a gate to the left and beyond that a small gatehouse. A drive runs down to the left of the building into a large car park at the back. On the right is the embassy of Equatorial Guinea. The gateposts are dimpled with bullet-holes. The windows of the gatehouse are shattered, as are many of the windows of the headquarters itself. Inside, many of the internal doors, which are heavy because they were front doors when the building was used as an apartment block, hang open, the locks hacked out with axes. On the walls of numerous rooms blood is still evident, finger marks, handprints, splashes. There can be no doubt that something extremely serious happened there.

After the march on August 31, Ping supporters gathered at the headquarters. Video shot at around 8pm shows a fire burning in the distance beyond a row of small shops, near where the end of the road past Ping’s headquarters joins the main road that cuts under the overpass. There are crowds of people around the gate and among the plants. There seems to be some sort of attempt to build barricades, although witnesses are sketchy on the detail. It may be the fire is part of that.

We spoke to three people who were in the headquarters that night. I’ll call them Christophe, Franck and Didier but those are not their real names. Another Ping supporter, a journalist, showed us video and photographs. There are many gaps and doubts about the narrative of what happened there but this is an attempt to piece together a coherent account. 

Sometime between midnight and 1am, government forces approached the headquarters. “They came from over there,” Christophe said, indicating the road. He estimates there were around 500 of them, all dressed in black, wearing helmets and balaclavas. In a pile of rubbish heaped by the gate was hidden one of their helmets: it was plain and black, with a leather flap to protect the neck. Christophe, Franck and Didier all believe there were mercenaries among the government forces, saying they heard them speaking English. It’s a claim that seems widely believed among opposition supporters but one that has proved impossible to verify. Another witness, Serge, a disaffected former government advisor who lost two family members at the headquarters, finds it implausible. He still attends weekly judo classes with the army and is sure he would have heard something had mercenaries been drafted in. 

First the government forces – who, if they were not mercenaries, seem most likely to have been drawn from the elite presidential guard – fired tear gas. Many of the protesters fled into the Ping headquarters, others threw stones in retaliation, at which the government forces opened fire, initially with rubber bullets. There were shouted threats from the government forces to leave or “We’ll kill you all”. Christophe was struck in the right calf by a rubber bullet and sought sanctuary in the building, climbing to the fourth floor. Others fled over the back wall or into the Equatoguinean embassy. At some point the government forces began using live ammunition. “They came to kill,” said Christophe.

Cars were parked down the driveway. As they retreated, many of the protestors used them as cover. In the cracks between the small irregular paving stones that border it, small crystals of shattered glass remain. “Those who couldn’t get over the wall went under the cars,” said Franck. “They shot under the cars – young people, old fathers, old mothers… I was on the top floor and could see down. I tried to bring people inside but unfortunately they had already fired tear gas into the lobby.” Some people tried to escape from the roof, but two helicopters were circling.

The lights in the building had been turned off so as not to present a target to police. Christophe lay on the floor, keeping below the level of the windows. He could hear the police working along the line of cars, picking off their victims. “I could hear their cries,” he said. All night this was happening. I could hear people crying, ‘Please don’t kill me! I’m Gabonese! I won’t demonstrate any more.’ Then they went quiet. We guessed they were killed. That went on from 1-2am to 5am.” He believes the bodies were taken away in police cars and that some are still missing. 

Again, it’s very difficult to know with any certainty what happened. But when Serge, after a week of searching, finally tracked down the bodies of his nephew and uncle, he found they had both been killed by a double gunshot to the head. Usually the government would pay a coroner to conduct the autopsy, which may explain why Paul’s death certificate recorded no cause of death. Serge, though, sick of waiting for the government, paid the coroner himself. His nephew’s death certificate is quite clear: he had been shot twice in the leg but also showed “a puncture-like wound on the right eyebrow at the inner edge and on the lower part of the right cheek” leading to “two small perforations of the cranial sac opposite the wounds/perforations of the forehead… He died as a result of secondary intracranial haemorrhage, wounds caused by the penetration of small-calibre bullets at the forehead.” 

It’s almost impossible to square that with government claims of a firefight or jittery riot police panicking against violent protestors: that sounds like a cold-blooded execution. Were Serge’s nephew and uncle hiding under the cars? We can’t know for sure, but the two pieces of evidence seem to fit.

The government have claimed that they were under gun attack from within the headquarters but when we asked if they had had weapons, Christophe simply laughed. “From where?” Libreville is not a gun-owning culture. In Oyem, perhaps, where hunting is common, it’s a different story and there are confirmed reports of a policeman being killed there, but not in the capital. “Some people threw stones,” Franck confirmed. “That’s all.” 

As the attacks were going on, people within the building called the French and US embassies and the EU. None of them responded.

At around 5, police broke into the building. “They told us to kneel down, take our shirts off and put our hands on our heads,” said Christophe. “We did it. We couldn’t do otherwise. They had weapons. They told us one by one to get into the cars to drive to the police station. They made sure there was nobody left.” Franck believes there were around 1500 Ping supporters in the building at the time. He got away because he knew one of the policemen.

The injured, Christophe included, were taken to hospital. He was lucky, and escaped. “I got my brother to come and get me,” he said. “I told the doctor I was just going outside for a moment to give my brother a key. I was walking with a stick so they thought I couldn’t go far, but my brother was in a car so I got in and left.”

Didier wasn’t so fortunate. He was taken to the headquarters of Cedoc, one of Gabon’s five secret police forces. “They questioned me about what my problem was with Bongo, why I was causing trouble,” he said. “They told me that he is here and he will always be here.” He wasn’t beaten: those who suffered worst were those who, like Ping, are Myene, an ethnic group that predominates in the north and west of the country. Among them was Ping’s main bodyguard, Anicet, who was arrested on his way to the pharmacy to buy medicine. He was accused of keeping weapons and beaten before being released.

Vanessa Ngoma Kambissa is Myene. She was at home with family on the night of the disturbances, far from the Ping headquarters. She went outside to go to the toilet and was seen by government forces, who arrested her and took her to Charbonnages. Near the Ping headquarters, they asked her for her ethnicity. When she replied she was Myene, they gave her a choice of being shot or burned. She asked to be burned, at which they poured kerosene over her and lit a match. The skin of her shoulders and arms was badly damaged and she would probably have died had her husband not been a policeman in Port Gentil. When Vanessa’s mother called him to say her daughter had disappeared, he rang contacts in Libreville and managed to have Vanessa diverted to a clinic. The EU subsequently arranged for her to be moved to Paris, where she is undergoing treatment.

Nobody would pretend l’Amitié is a great stadium. It has two large, shell-like stands, one a little bigger than the other, that swoop up from a low ring. There is nothing to hold the atmosphere in and the seats are so far from the pitch that it makes the London Stadium feel like the Dell. Yet it was there that I witnessed the greatest moment I’ve ever seen in football as Zambia beat Côte d’Ivoire to win the 2012 Cup of Nations 19 years after a great Zambia side was destroyed in a plane crash off the coast of Libreville1. Burkina Faso’s quarter-final victory over Tunisia didn’t reach those heights – what could? – but it was pretty special. The final would prove even better (and, if we’re giving a stadium credit, those who were at Gabon’s 3-2 victory over Morocco in 2012 speak fondly of that as well).

The first half had been tight, Burkina Faso playing the more progressive football, Tunisia looking dangerous on the break and from set plays. A brilliant run from Préjuce Nakoulma down the right after 22 minutes led to the ball being worked into the box to Bertrand Traoré, who turned sharply only for his deft shot to hit the top of the bar and as the second half wore on the Burkinabé dominance became increasingly evident. But, with 10 minutes to go, it was still goalless. Enter Aristide Bancé.

The phenomenon of Bancé is almost impossible to explain. He is 32 now and plays in Abidjan for Mimosas. The cynical may say that he is mainly famous for his bleached hair, which used to be red. His career, after all, is that of a journeyman: he has played for 19 clubs in 12 countries, including Belgium, Ukraine, Qatar, Finland and Latvia. Only three times has he ever scored more than 10 goals in a season. But Bancé is not a forward to be categorised by facts or statistics. He is a pulsating force of nature, a bristling leader of the line whose importance to his country lies primarily in his capacity to inspire. As he trotted back to the bench after warming up to remove his bib and come on as a substitute for Cyrille Bayala, a great rumbling roar swept around the stadium. 

Bancé’s first touch was as part of a one-two that led to a free-kick for handball. His second, as the set-play was touched off for him, was to smack the ball low into the bottom corner. His third was to hit the post from a Bertrand Traoré cut-back, from where it was cleared. A second goal for Burkina came soon enough, though, Tunisia overcommitting for a corner to the extent that when it was cleared, every single outfield player was in the Burkina half. The Tunisia keeper Aymen Mathlouthi seemed determined to join them and charged from his box. Nakoulma took the ball past him about 45 yards from goal and held his nerve to roll it into an unguarded net from just outside the box. In the stands, there was pandemonium, the predominantly Burkinabé support charging about in a swirl of white shirts, inflatable orange hands and green-and-red flags.

Senegal had been the most impressive side in the group phase, awakening hopes that they might be able to win the tournament for the first time. This was certainly the best they’d played since losing in the 2002 final, and a coaching staff of Aliou Cissé, Tony Sylva, Omar Daf and Lamine Diatta added to the sense that this side was a worthy successor to that one. They began at a furious pace against Cameroon in Franceville but failed to score and, by the hour mark, seemed almost to have blown themselves out. Cameroon defended diligently and in extra-time were the more dangerous side. 

With a sense of inevitability, the first nine penalties were scored and then it came to Sadio Mané. As he approached the ball, he gave an anxious glance to his left, an obvious tell. The excellent Ondoa dived the right way and, although he went slightly too far, reached up his left hand to paw the ball away. Devastated, legs collapsing under him, Mané had to be helped off the pitch by his teammates.

In Oyem, Ghana rode their luck again to beat DR Congo. Jordan Ayew put them ahead with a smart curling finish before Paul-José Mpoku levelled with a 30-yard screamer. But then Christian Atsu was clumsily tripped by Joyce Lomalisa. André Ayew put away the penalty and Ghana were through.

There remained just Egypt’s game against Morocco. The magic having left Renard’s shirt utterly, Morocco had chance after chance, hit the woodwork twice but couldn’t score, allowing Essam El-Hadary to break the record for the longest run for a goalkeeper without conceding in a Cup of Nations. Remarkable achievement as that is, at 44 he looked far less reliable than he had when he won his third consecutive Cup of Nations in 2010, and the fact he was able to extend his record run without conceding in Gabon was more to do with the pitch in Port Gentil and the excellence of Hegazy and Gabr than any brilliance of his own, the shoot-out in the semi-final notwithstanding. Kahraba eventually poked Egypt’s winning goal in the 88th minute as Morocco failed to clear a corner. 

A number of journalists had been invited to have dinner with the prime minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet between the end of the group stages and the beginning of the quarter-finals. He was affable and charming, but suggested the EU commission into the election had been “biased”. On my final day in Gabon, I met him for a formal interview at his offices in central Libreville.

He was adamant that the cost of the tournament had been exaggerated and that any claims it had cost more than US$313m were opposition propaganda. He insisted that there was a legacy benefit to hosting the tournament, saying it had led to investment both in roads and electricity as well as the social housing in Port Gentil. He seemed to believe that Oyem would eventually grow out to meet the stadium and suggested league games would be held at the stadium. The local club US Oyem, which has never won the Gabonese title, was relegated to the second division in 2016. Its need for a 20,000-capacity out-of-town arena is far from obvious.

Asked why the EU commission would be biased, he blustered and prevaricated. “You should ask them,” he said eventually. “But what we do know is that we negotiated with them and we said that the mission will be conducted under the authority of the Gabonese law. During all the mission, they refused to respect the law and they wanted to do as they want.”

When I asked for specific examples he offered three: “According to the rule of Cenap, nobody except the members of this administration could attend the meeting when they consolidate the results of the election. But the EU observer wanted to attend this meeting, which is not admitted by the law. But they wanted to be there and they went there, encouraged by some members of the opposition, the vice-president of the opposition… In our rules, nobody except the members during the constitutional court could attend the meeting within this organisation [Cenap], but the EU wanted to go there. And they fought the law to be there… One more example. On 27th in the night, or 28th August, they applied for a recount of the Haut-Ogooué result. They felt there was something wrong with the result in this province. But according to the rules, it’s only when the case came to the constitutional court we could recount the votes. But before the case came to the constitutional court, they were claiming everywhere, here in Libreville, around the world, that we should recount the votes in Haut-Ogooué.”

The problem is that Gabonese law here seems deficient: by the time the case reached the constitutional court, the ballots had – by law – been burned. All that could be recounted was the summaries. When they were, the supreme court decided that Bongo’s margin of victory had been not 5,500 but 11,000.

Issoze-Ngondet had a rhetorical technique when asked an awkward question of offering an extreme version of events supposedly proposed by somebody else and asking what I thought of it. When I asked about the events at Ping’s headquarters on August 31, he said that the opposition had claimed the building had been attacked by helicopters and tanks and asked if I thought that was likely. This is the transcript of the following two minutes:

JW: No, clearly that hasn’t happened, but equally clearly–

EI–N: If it is clear you should not ask me–

JW: What is clear is that there have been shots fired there. There are holes in the walls, bullet holes–

EI-N: What is clear is that the people inside were also firing at people outside.

JW: Do you believe they were also shooting at the police?

EI-N: I don’t believe. It is sure.

JW: So has there been an investigation into that by the government?

EI-N: There was a witness.

JW: From the police?

EI-N: From the police. Even a policeman was shot.

JW: How many policemen were shot?

EI-N: I don’t know. Maybe the Minister of the Interior, the new Minister for Foreign Affairs could give you the figures.

JW: But there’s been no formal investigation?

EI-N: Errrrrr… according to what I know the Minister of Justice was instructed by the president to open an investigation into this matter.

JW: So we’ll wait for that?

EI-N: Exactly.

It seems incredible that, five months on, that investigation, if there really is one, has yet to report.

The only serious reports to date have been compiled by the opposition, the first of them by Sylvie Mbot, the head of the doctors union. Meticulously, she compiled a list of victims. Her preliminary report comprised the names and photographs of thirty injured and six dead. One of them is Paul.

But she knew that was only the beginning. When Serge found his nephew, he was one of seven unclaimed bodies the Casepga morgue showed him. A journalist for Radio France Internationale, Sébastien Nemeth, saw five at the Gabosep morgue. 

Mbot continued her investigation, until she was stopped on October 6. “I was going to visit an injured person at the military hospital – two bullets in the thigh,” she said. “At the hospital one of the injured had had his leg amputated because the wound had become infected. Another had a bullet in the upper arm. 

“When I was there they arrested me. My phone was taken from me and they found photos of the injured. They asked what they were of and I explained. They asked, ‘Are these all people killed in Gabon? Or are they from previous years or from the war in Côte d’Ivoire?’ I said they were all from Gabon, that they were nothing to do with Côte d’Ivoire. They also asked why I did not mention the policemen who had been killed. I didn’t have any proof of that. They wanted me to mention that.”

After her interrogation, Mbot was imprisoned in a small cell with no light and no food. “I was alone,” she said. “I didn’t speak to anybody for nine days.” On October 14 at around 7pm somebody came in with her bag. It was empty. He told her to follow him and she was put in a pick-up with armed guards. She had no idea where she was being taken. “They took me to the DGR [the Directorate of Police Research, one of the intelligence agencies],” she said. “It was much more comfortable there – space and light. Then I was released.” Her car was returned but not her phone or her notebook. She says she is trying to reconstruct her second report, but it’s a slow and difficult process. 

Another opposition report lists 89 injured and many suggest a figure of 27 fatalities, although it’s not clear where that originated. Many parents, the opposition says, did not claim their children’s bodies out of fear. At the end of last year, Libreville’s morgues buried 23 unclaimed bodies in a mass grave. That is a matter of practicality; the corpses cannot be kept forever. But it is an unprecedentedly high number for such a small country where everybody knows everybody, which gives some credence to the opposition claims.

What is clear is that with Mbot’s list of six, plus the seven bodies Serge saw, plus the five Nemeth saw, there are at least 18 dead in Libreville alone. The Red Cross reported at least 15 dead across the country on September 5. But Mbot goes beyond that. “There are more than 27 dead,” she said. “I can confirm that. The biggest number were in the headquarters. But people were also killed in the prisons. There were protests in the prisons, people who had been unjustly arrested, people who had planned democracy.”

Egypt’s progress was remarkable. They may have won the Cup of Nations each of the three previous times they’d qualified, but the fact that they hadn’t reached any of the last three tournaments tells its own story. League football was suspended for two years after the deaths of 74 fans amid rioting in Port Said in 20122 and even when it did restart amid the political chaos matches have been played behind closed doors. During this tournament Mohamed Aboutrika, Egypt’s playmaker as they won the Cup of Nations in 2006 and 2008, was added to Egypt’s ‘terror list’ for his alleged links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. 

This side wasn’t anything like as good as the team of 2006-10 but they shared with them a capacity to win games, even when they had not been dominant. Egypt spent most of the semi-final against Burkina Faso on the back foot as Charles Kaboré dominated midfield. But Burkina Faso, fluent and impressive as they were in the build-up, lacked a little incisiveness in the final third. Egypt resisted and took the lead after 66 minutes, Mohamed Salah sidefooting powerfully into the top corner from the edge of the box. The assumption was that Egypt then would shut the game down, as they had so often before, but seven minutes later Bancé took down a Kaboré cross on his chest and volleyed with characteristic awkwardness into the bottom corner, a goal of significant technical skill made to look oddly clumsy by Bancé’s furiously enthusiastic approach.

It went to penalties and a battle of El-Hadary and Hervé Koffi, who hadn’t been born when the Egyptian made his international debut in 1996. Koffi saved from Abdallah Said but then, as the young goalkeeper took Burkina Faso’s fourth kick, he was denied by a remarkable save from El-Hadary, diving up and to his left. This, perhaps, was the 44 year old’s last great flourish: he then saved Bertrand Traoré’s slightly timid kick and Egypt were through for a repeat of either the 2008 or 2010 final.

Cameroon’s win over Ghana, itself a repeat of what had happened in Accra in the semi in 2008, represented their best performance of the competition. They attacked from the off, could have been three up within quarter of an hour and, after a brief stutter just after half-time, eventually went ahead after 72 minutes as a stooping John Boye, apparently trying to leave a free-kick, deflected the ball away from his goalkeeper Brimah Razak to Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, who stumbled, startled, and then lashed the ball into the top corner. Was it Boye’s fault? Was it Brimah’s? Without knowing who had shouted what, if anything, it was very hard to tell, but the laxity, the self-destructiveness, seemed characteristic of a Ghana side that has reached each of the last six Cup of Nations semi-finals without winning the tournament. The day before, Brimah had been fined after a sweary rant at a fan who had criticised Ghana during an ill-advised Facebook Live event conducted from his hotel room; he presumably stayed clear of social media in the weeks that followed.

Christian Bassagog added a second with a deft finish on the counter-attack in the final minute and Cameroon, to widespread surprise, were in the final. In Franceville and in Angondjé and no doubt elsewhere, Cameroon fans processed with large cooking pots, beating them with spoons and chanting that they had made “Ghana, Ghana sauce”.

They’d outlasted Senegal and they’d outplayed Ghana and, based on their second-half performance in the final, when their superior fitness was again evident, Cameroon fully merited their victory, their fifth in Cups of Nations. The fervour of their fans – and the attendances at the Women’s Cup of Nations that they hosted last year – suggest that the 2019 Cup of Nations, to be held in Cameroon, should be a memorable one. Yet even as they celebrated, there were reports of an internet shutdown in Cameroon as the president Paul Biya, who has held power since 1982, cracked down on dissent in Anglophone parts of the country.

That was the problem throughout this tournament. However good the football, however improved the prognosis for African football, however impressive underdogs such as Uganda and Zimbabwe were, however inspiring in their own ways Burkina Faso, Egypt and Cameroon were, it was impossible to escape the dark underside, the sense of the tournament as an indulgence in a struggling nation. 

I doubt I will ever forget Vincent Aboubakar’s winner, but equally I will never forget the Ping headquarters and the bloody handprints on the wall.