Love for European football transcends violence in Northern Nigeria

Some Almajiri know more about English Premier League than the Quran.

The word Almajiri strikes an innocent observer as a young child that wanders through the towns of Northern Nigeria; out of school, looking tattered, bare-footed, un-catered for, and often recruited to vend violence against non-Muslims and opposing groups.

But underneath this seeming despair ascribed to most Almajiris lies a mental power and kindheartedness, uncultivated, which I found out during a chat with a handful of them on Premiership football.

Bashir Abdullah, an Almajiri, and a fan ofManchester United of England looks nine, but he claims he is 13-years-old. He has only visited his parents once a year in the past four years somewhere in Katsina State, during the Muslim Eid celebrations. We settled down for a bottle of coke in Bauchi, in the northeast where he is based, while his friends looked on during a recent reporting trip to the region. The following was our encounter:

Q. Where is Manchester United?

Bashir: “In England.”

Q. What is the name of their coach?

Bashir: “Alex Ferguson”

Q. Do you know the names of the players in Manchester?

Bashir: “Yes, Robin Van Persie, Rooney, Valencia, Ferdinand, Rafael,

Anderson, (…caught in)”

Q. Who is your favorite player?

Bashi: ” Robin Van Persie”

Q. Do you know his sign of fee?

Bashir: “Yes (laughs) Van was bought from Arsenal at 25.5 million pounds”

Q. Do you know the sign on fees of other players in the team?

Bashir: “I know some but not all”

Q. Do you know how to read or write?

Bashir: “NO”

Q. Name three places you would like to go?

Bashir: “Mecca, old Stratford stadium and my family home in Katsina”

Remarkably, Bashir knows almost every striking detail of Manchester United but has very little knowledge of Islam, which contrast sharply with the reasons Bashir’s parents sent him to Bauchi in the first place.

Still in the northeast, an A’level student (names withheld) said the most unexpected happened to him, recently. Months after a violent sectarian conflict that nearly cost his life and that of members of his family, he saw himself embracing the leader of a mob who would have killed him were it not for the intervention of security agents.

The rivaled youths that hardly see eye to eye in the region because of sectarian conflicts, found themselves watching an English Premier League match on cable television, in a commercial, public screening venue. The venue was filled up with youth, mostly unemployed, who notwithstanding, paid a compulsory admission fee into the screening hall.

When Chelsea Football Club, the team the distraught young student supports, scored, the hall erupted in celebration and he saw himself embracing the person that nearly killed him and his family.

“At first, I didn’t I recognize him and when I did, he was already in my warm embrace,” he said, adding that “if not for football our part will never cross, let alone, a hug each other.”

The craze for international football cuts across different segments of our society. Parents and children jubilate in the event of victory and husband and wives belonging to opposing teams frown at each other during or after a match. Friendship or marriage unions are destroyed or formed by the affinity of this sport; and rivalry as a result has lead to several deaths and injuries in different parts of the country.

Interestingly, in 2007, a group of youth, mostly commercial motorcycle riders, known as yan achaba, and fans of Real Madrid in Hausari ward in Maiduguri, unarguably the vortex of sectarian violence in Nigeria, were excited after an impressive outing in the Laliga, and Real Madrid’s delicate position in the Champions league. Realizing that their team was in a ticklish situation, they resorted to mystical means to save Real Madrid. The youth bought a big ram of 12,000 naira (about $80) and gave it to a spiritualist to offer sacrifice to influence the result of the game.

During a recent reporting trip to the area to find out how these die heart fans of European football are doing. Sadly, most of them have either died or fled from the Boko Haram insurgency in the state.

Northern Nigeria, indeed all of Nigeria is embroiled in violence; divided by faith, politics and power struggle. But strangely many youth finds a bond of unifying force from strange affinity to English Premiership, Bundesliga, Laliga, Serie A, Champions league and now China has joined the quest for this overwhelming spectator product.

The local leagues don’t interest many youths.”It is very boring,” said Musa Aliyu. Another youth said “the European leagues have raised the standard of football, so anything short of that can be dull.”

People leave anything just to rush to watch a game. Long ago, during the Civil war in Nigeria in 1967, an inspiring story was told of how armed men took a 48 hours break from bloodshed just to watch Pele in a football match.

“I doubt if fans of Man U and Chelsea can abandon watching a game to participate in violence. They would rather reschedule” said Iliyasu Ali, a young Chelsea fan and a mechanic in Kaduna. Among the unemployed youths, professionals and traders, the vile of sectarian and political enmity melts rapidly when bonds of Premiership clubs are in play.

Essentially therefore, how can well meaning individuals use this sport with an overwhelming influence on people to foster peaceful co-existence in restive areas. For the same reasons, can Mikel Obi and Victor Moses of Chelsea, Nigerian players, bring John Terry, their team mate and a marvel in this new cult religion to mentor youth in Nigeria.

Arguably, teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Bayern Munich can work with government and international agencies to contribute in a program to deflate and diminish all incidences of corrosive doctrinal and ideological causes of violence and steer many youth to engage in skill acquisitions.

In October 2010, a great sportsman, Venuste Niyongabo of the Democratic Republic of Congo, sponsored the very first “Friendship Games” a day of trans-border sports competitions to promote peace and unite young people from the troubled Burundi and the DRC around the values of friendship and fraternity offered by sports, a report said.

The universal values of tolerance, hard work, and honesty conveyed by sports to areas that have witnessed lingering sectarian violence can be applied to improve and save lives; not the idleness by being mere spectators glued to TV screens denying youths like Bashir the benefits of learning the values of tolerance and self-reliance taught by fate based organisations.

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