A football tournament organised by the Nigerian Army for youths in a community in Boko Haram’s former so-called caliphate is an innovative tactic in the fight against the group. If successful, this approach will pacify angry youths, immunise them against recruitment, and build mutual trust. This initiative should be sustained and replicated in other areas affected by the insurgency. Policymakers should invest more in such ways to capitalise on sport’s potential to promote co-existence.
In early November, the Nigerian Army told reporters that it was hosting a football competition for youths in Gubio local government area, a former Boko Haram territory and one of the communities worst hit by the group’s insurgency. The army spokesperson said the competition, which began in September and runs until the end of the year, is intended to win the hearts of youths, stop radicalisation, and improve civil-military cooperation.
The north of Nigeria, especially the northeast, where Boko Haram largely operates, is home to millions of vulnerable youths.
These young people are ignorant of the basic teachings of Islam, which jihadis exploit. Supplementing religious ignorance are economic factors such as poverty and employment, which are abetted by socio-cultural factors such as poor upbringing and neglect of children.
These factors, coupled with systemic corruption and ineffective governance, have combined to produce angry and disgruntled youths ready to be recruited at the slightest exploitation. Added to this are the army’s high-handedness and egregious human rights abuses, which have affected relations between the military and local communities. In June 2015, Amnesty International alleged that state forces had carried out more than 1,200 extrajudicial killings, arbitrarily arrested at least 20,000 people, and allowed the deaths of at least 7,000 people in detention due to starvation, severe overcrowding, or denial of medical assistance. A UN study published in September found that such mistreatment was the major factor that had pushed over 70 per cent of Boko Haram recruits to join the group.
In view of this gloomy picture and amid the continued military onslaught against Boko Haram, there is a need for efforts intended at depleting the group’s human resources. The army’s choice of football is strategic. It is Nigeria’s most popular leisure activity. Youths in cities and towns turn out en masse every weekend to watch European league matches, especially the English Premier League, in commercial viewing centres. Young people give themselves nicknames after European football stars, whose jerseys they fashionably and passionately wear.
But Nigerians’ love for football largely stops at watching matches on screens. The army’s initiative would increase the population’s active participation in local leagues, which could not only prevent radicalisation but also douse ethno-religious tensions.
Boko Haram stands against Western values and civilisation, including football and music, which the group says are part of a ploy to spread immorality and distract Muslims from their religion. Boko Haram has repeatedly targeted football fans. In March 2014, twin explosions at a football viewing centre killed dozens of aficionados in Maiduguri, Borno state. Two months later, the group targeted a football screening in Jos, Plateau state, killing three people. And at least 21 supporters were murdered and 27 others severely injured by a blast at another viewing centre in Damaturu, Yobe state, immediately after a World Cup match between Brazil and Mexico.
Football’s basic values of teamwork and equality could help instil mutual respect, tolerance, and co-existence in youths.
Greater participation in the sport would engage them, give them a passion and a goal, and promote cooperation. It would also boost public confidence and build trust in the organisers, who are the forces fighting Boko Haram.
Moreover, this initiative would encourage a return to stabilisation and normality in an area trembling with terror. The communities worst hit by Boko Haram, like Gubio, have become so familiar with explosions, gunshots, and abductions that horror has become the new normal in these areas. Sporting events would give affected societies a breath of fresh air and help them put the past behind them. To produce the required results, this initiative must be well organised and carefully implemented. If successful, it should be replicated in other communities afflicted by Boko Haram’s insurgency.