Nigeria’s army set up a soccer league to stop Boko Haram from radicalizing youth

Internally displaced children training on a soccer pitch. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba )
Internally displaced children training on a soccer pitch. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba )
Image: AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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To stay winning in the fight against Boko Haram, Nigeria’s army is turning to soccer.

The army has made steady progress in the battle against the terrorist sect Boko Haram in Nigeria’s northeast over the past two years. It has sacked the terrorists from their stronghold in Sambisa forest and recovered swathes of territory previously occupied by the sect and rescued thousands of abductees.

But as Boko Haram’s ranks and power shrink, the army faces a new task: ensuring that the sect no longer has a steady supply of willing recruits. That’s where soccer, Nigeria’s favorite pastime, comes in.

According Nigerian newspaper Punch, the army has organized a soccer tournament in Sambisa forest. The idea is to “make vulnerable youths in the communities unavailable for Boko Haram radicalization and recruitment,” says Timothy Antigha, the army’s deputy director of public relations. The tournament kicked off last month and will run till the end of the year. Antigha told the paper the tournament is aimed at “engaging” and “winning the hearts of youths” as well as “fostering civil-military cooperation.”

There’s some reason for the army to worry about winning those hearts as several allegations of human rights violations throughout the years of Boko Haram’s insurgency have likely dented trust in the army. The most damning allegations came back in June 2015, when an Amnesty International report (pdf) alleged that the army had “extrajudicially executed” over 1,200 people and “arbitrarily arrested” at least 20,000 people most of which were young men and boys. Boko Haram, like many terrorist groups, has likely thrived on the discord between angry youth and law enforcement agents to swell its ranks.

The  army’s choice of soccer is particularly crucial. Boko Haram’s ideology is to stand against Western education and values—including soccer—and the group has attacked local soccer viewing centers killing tens of fans watching European league matches.