World Cup 2014 panel

Nigeria’s World Cup campaign starts amid a crisis at home

Raising support off the pitch, as well as on it. Anthony Devlin/PA

Nigeria’s World Cup campaign takes place amidst violent crises at home. The “bring back our girls” campaign following Boko Haram’s kidnapping more than 300 school girls last month has brought the militant group to global attention. But, with the start of the World Cup and Nigeria’s frustrating, goalless opener against Iran, there is a risk that attention will fade from fighting the insurgency that has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people this year alone, with eyes fixed on the football.

Boko Haram have caused havoc in Nigeria through bombings, assassinations and abductions, in their bid to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state. And the Islamist group’s insurgency affects the nation on many levels, having a real impact on Nigeria’s World Cup experience. Two stories have emerged from the Nigerian football team’s camp, underlining the impact violence has had on the team’s preparation for the tournament.

The first was a story about Nigeria’s starting midfielder, Ogeny Onazi, who barely escaped the recent bombing in his hometown of Jos. Onazi who plays professionally at Lazio in Italy said: “There was chaos and pandemonium. There was smoke, I was confused, lost and just wondered what had happened. I had no idea what was going on and it was scary.”

But that is life in Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s activities have ratcheted up insecurity in several parts of the country and particularly in the north. While it remains unclear whether they were directly involved in the Jos attack, the group’s serial bombing makes it the most deadly terrorist group operating in the country.

Boko Haram operate mostly in the North, but the terror of their activities has spread to the capital, Abuja. In the run-up to the World Cup, this meant that security was tightened around the Nigerian Super Eagles’ camp and training sessions. Though the team played a warm up in the northwestern city of Kaduna, some of the top players were absent and the qualifying games could not be played in Abuja, even though the stadium was available for some of the qualifiers.

As the Nigerian team marched onto the field before the start of their World Cup warm-up friendly against Greece, they sought to bring attention to the ongoing issue. Each player came onto the pitch accompanied by a child holding a sign with the message: “#BringBackOurGirls”. This was the trending twitter hashtag, attempting to hasten the return of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, more than two hundred of whom are still missing.

Afterwards, Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi noted that the team had family in areas where Boko Haram activities have become increasingly deadly. Defender Efe Ambrose for instance has said that Chibok was not far from where he grew up in the North.

As well as affecting the team and its preparations, instability in northern Nigeria is also having an impact on supporters at home. Now authorities in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Adamawa have ordered the closure of all venues that were planning to screen live coverage of the World Cup. This follows a bomb attack on a bar that was screening a televised football match in this troubled region.

And yet there is a danger that the start of the World Cup will turn attention significantly away from those that have been kidnapped and the need to stop Boko Haram. Instead, all eyes will be on the Nigerian football team’s campaign on the pitch. Even the team’s attempts to draw attention to the crisis in their friendly with Greece was not really picked up by the Nigerian media and the actions have not been a point of conversation there. But, perhaps if they decide to act during the tournament itself, they may capitalise on having the eyes of the world on them in bringing attention back to the Boko Haram crisis at home.