Ahead of the World Cup kick-off today, Boko Haram terror attacks on football fans have forced the closure of centres for watching the tournament in northeast Nigeria, a state government official said on Wednesday.
And in the Central African Republic, Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke has called for a pause in the country’s devastating sectarian violence so that the beleaguered population can enjoy the World Cup.
Nzapayeke said the football tournament—and the month of Ramadan that starts at the end of June—were an opportunity to step back from the brutal attacks that have killed thousands over the past year.
Nigeria’s Adamawa state said it had been warned by the local military that so-called “viewing centres”—where large crowds congregate to watch matches on big screens—were possible targets.
The centres have been targeted before in Nigeria, where football has a fanatical following and the national team—the “Super Eagles”—are playing in the showpiece tournament in Brazil.
In May, three people were killed in a blast outside a viewing centre showing the European Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the central city of Jos. In April, suspected Boko Haram gunmen stormed a packed venue in Potiskum, in northeast Yobe state, shooting dead two people as they watched Champions League quarter-final matches.
Earlier this month, at least 40 people were killed when a bomb went off after a football match in the town of Mubi in Adamawa. The apparent target was fans trying to leave after the final whistle.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has previously preached against football as part of the Islamist group’s agenda to impose strict Islamic law in northern Nigeria. In several video clips, he described football and music as a Western ploy to distract Muslims from their religion.
Ahmed Sajo, spokesman for Adamawa state governor, Murtala Nyako, said the government was concerned that fans in remote areas would ignore the ban, as they had no other means of recreation and because power cuts made watching matches at home impossible.
“We know this measure will adversely affect football lovers who will be deprived the opportunity to watch the World Cup tournament, which starts in two days,” he added. “The ban will no doubt have economic implications as operators of the viewing centres will lose their source of income.”
Hostile to football
Militants in Africa, as elsewhere, tend to be hostile to TV and many forms of sports. When Somalia’s Al Shabaab was controlling several parts of the country in the past, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, it banned TV football and western music.
The “ban” will be particularly hard felt in northeast Nigeria, as the country is one of the African representatives in Brazil.
The Nigerian authorities’ concern also echo the World Cup 2010 finals bombings in the Uganda Kampala. Bombers hit a sports pub and a viewing centre on the night of July 11 as Netherlands faced off with Spain.
Nearly 80 people were killed, and over 150 injured. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the the bombings, saying it was in retaliation for attacks by Ugandan forces in the African Union Somalia peacekeeping AMISOM.
In CAR, the Premier Nzapayeke has suggested that the warring factions might more open-minded than Boko Haram.
“Many people have agreed to an end or a suspension of the social unrest, to allow the population and particularly young people, to fully enjoy this event that happens only once every four years,” said Nzapayeke at a press conference in the capital Bangui. “Let’s not waste this period during which the whole world is united around a single king called football,” he added.
He warned the nation’s youth, many of whom have been dragged into the violence: “Those who are 16—if you waste this period, know that you will be 20 before the next cup comes along. “Take this opportunity that the world has offered to admire our stars,” he added, citing African heroes Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba.
Central Africa Republic itself failed to make it to the World Cup finals in Brazil, losing in the second round of African qualifiers. The country has plunged into an unprecedented cycle of violence since a coup by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group in March 2013, and the emergence of a mostly Christian militia in response.
Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee, with almost the entire Muslim population driven out of Bangui since the Seleka regime was pushed out of power in January.