When most things around you appeared to be depressing, you hold dearly to whatever can keep you entertained. And so, for most Nigerians, faced with inefficient to non-existent public infrastructure and political leaders more interested in feathering their own nests and creating conflicts to cover up their sins, a few stolen moments dedicated to watching soccer could indeed be heavenly.
Nigerians love their soccer, especially if it served with a foreign flavor. In a poll conducted in 2012 by a local polling agency, NOI polls, all the respondents—both male and female—express a love for the game, however the football obsession in Nigeria is for the English Premier League, and not for the Nigeria Premier League. Even though 71% of the respondents said they were aware of the existence of the Nigerian league, only 42% follow it. Nigerians fans follow the European leagues religiously and own sport jerseys of international stars and their clubs.
It is little wonder, therefore, that the World Cup would generate a buzz in the county. And with the recognition of the fan’s abiding fascination for the games comes interest from all those who will benefit from this—from marketing companies, to government officials, and terror groups.
Nigerian fans have had to watch this World Cup with half a mind wondering if it was the last thing they would do on earth. Over the past two months, several well-attended viewing centers in the northeastern part of the country have been attacked by Boko Haram terrorists. The group, which fights western education as sinful, has gained world-wide notoriety with its recent kidnap of some 129 school girls while they were writing their final year secondary school examination. Despite international outcry and the presence of security forces from countries such as the US, UK and France to help local forces, the girls are yet to be found.
Boko Haram’s problem with soccer
Boko Haram considers it a sin to watch soccer—or indeed Television—and is not above killing those who violates this rule. Ironically, the group is adept at social media and posts regular updates—including YouTube videos of its atrocities and messages from its leadership.
On Jun 12, a suicide bomber in a tricycle detonated explosives as people watched Brazil’s match against Mexico in Damaturu, the capital of Yobe state. At least 21 people were killed, while 27 others are said to have been seriously injured. Earlier in the month, at least 40 people were killed when a bomb went off at another viewing centre in the town of Mubi in Adamawa. The target were fans trying to leave after the final whistle. In May, a blast outside a viewing centre showing the European Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in Jos, the capital of Plateau state killed three fans. In April, suspected members of Boko Haram stormed a packed centre in Potiskum, also in Yobe state, shooting at fans who were watching a Champions League quarter-final match. Two people died. In March, another five were killed when a bomb went off while fans were watching football at a centre in Borno’s Maiduguri.
Ismail Ibrahim, a communications teacher at the University of Lagos and observer of the activities of local groups such as Boko Haram, said the attack by the group on football viewing centers “is another example of the perverse strategies adopted by the group to seek attention and relevance.”
“In spite of the appalling nature of this crime,” he told Quartz, “it falls within the very absurd, wicked, evil and inhuman ways Boko Haram has been using to achieve its aim of communicating and spreading terror in the land.” According to him, the attack on the centers is another cynical attempt by the group to ensure global recognition after its kidnap of the girls.
‘The viewing centers were attacked with the aim of getting maximum publicity because the world’s attention is now on the World Cup,” Ibrahim said. “Anything that relates to the World Cup will attract the attention of the media and this is the intention of Boko Haram. To the extent that attack attracted global coverage, Boko Haram achieved its objective of maximum publicity.”
The vulnerability of public viewing centers has led to official clampdown on their operations, especially in the terrorist-infested areas of north-east Nigeria. Public screenings of the World Cup have been banned in the three states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno. The Nigeria Police also sent a warning that fans in other parts of the country should stay away from the centers and watch the games at home.
According to police spokesperson, Frank Mba, it is better for fans to watch the games with their loved ones in the comfort of their homes than expose their lives to danger. “As a first choice, we are advising Nigerians to actually avoid these viewing centers as much as possible” Mba said.
The role of viewing centers
The viewing centers grew out of the love for foreign soccer leagues and they are a huge source of revenue for satellite stations such as the South African-owned DSTV. In a country where electricity supply is inadequate and homes are stuffy and unappealing without power to run air-conditioning and TV sets, a lot of Nigerians patronize these centers to watch soccer games. Sometimes, entire families relocate to these centers in the evening to pass the time.
Even in communities that are yet to be electrified or connected to the national grid, these centers are run with small generators. A majority of the centers are crowded and lack adequate ventilation, and all their dark rooms are furnished with the basic tools: one or two tables, dozens of benches or wooden chairs and one or several television sets linked to huge speakers to amplify the voice of sports commentators. The roofs proudly sport antennae and dishes to facilitate good signal reception and signal that such a centre exists in the area. At some of the centers, the managers also serve drinks and the local delicacy called “pepper soup” to provide a “total viewing experience,” as Chima Ebere, the operator of one such centre in Ikeja, Lagos said.
Government and big corporations are also not beyond keying into this. Several state governments and local politicians provide huge screens at community halls to offer fans “free” viewing opportunities, and multinationals such Heineken and Guinness also run high-end viewing centers where their clients are entertained.
A fan, Tijjani Dauda, said he prefers viewing centers to watch soccer games because being with other fans brings drama to the exercise. “Football is a spectator sport,” he told Quartz. “It is not a family sport to be watched by husband, wife and their children. If we are far from the field of play, viewing centers are adequate replacements. That is why we call them ‘local stadia.’ People bring color to the games and spontaneous analysts are a delight at the centers.”
That is perhaps why Boko Haram’s campaign of terror has not stopped the Nigerians flocking to the centers. If the group decided to attack another centre, it would have a wealth to choose from. But this is one campaign terrorists are unlikely to win because of the deep seated love Nigerians hold for soccer.“The attack has not affected the following of the World Cup in Nigeria,” Ibrahim said, although he concedes that “it will, maybe, have some effect in the states where governments have banned TV viewing centers due to fears over Boko Haram attack.”
But the Nigerian soccer fan is too involved to be held back by this.