Sport has at times acted as a powerful force against the mightiest of divisions. That ability to bring people together may soon be tested once again in Somalia. Abdiqani Said Arab, the chairman of Somalia’s Football Federation (SFF), has suggested that the militant group al-Shabaab could be allowed to join the country’s top league should they declare the desire to do so.
“We are not against them and they are not against us,” Arab told the BBC.
Arab is a respected figure within the African game. In January, he was appointed vice chairman of the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa). And last Friday (Jan. 7) he was named African football leader of the year at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) awards that took place in Abuja, Nigeria for his efforts to revive the game in Somalia.
The call to al-Shabaab may be his way to communicate to the group that it can be a part of Somali society rather than fighting it.
“Not only [al-Shabaab] but also those fighting for the warlords, the moderate Islamists or anyone else involved in Somalia conflict are welcome to our football,” Shafi’i Mohyaddin Abokar, a spokesman for SFF, explained to Quartz. “If they show interest for playing football it means they accepted peace and football is all about peace and integration. So we are welcoming any one who embraces peace and wants to play our football.”
War-torn Somalia and its UN-backed government has been battling the al-Qaeda-affiliated group for almost a decade, with the help of African Union (AU) forces. While it’s been driven out of most of areas of the country it once controlled, al-Shabaab is still a threat, periodically staging deadly attacks in the capital Mogadishu and neighboring countries.
But the AU force has helped the Somali government establish some semblance of stability. This increasing sense of security has created the space for cultural life to return—the re-establishment of the country’s football league being one example. The eight-team league saw one of its matches broadcast live on TV for the first time ever last month, reports the BBC. And according to Arab, due to better security, foreign players are also flocking to Somalia to ply their trade in the country’s domestic league. ”More than 20 foreign players are now playing in our Premier League in about six clubs,” Arab told the BBC.
This post has been updated.