Nigeria, Bosnia and National Unity

On Tuesday night, a bomb exploded at a World Cup viewing center in Damaturu, Nigeria, killing two dozen people and seriously injuring at least 27 others. Hospital workers described “truckloads full of young men and children” being carried into overcrowded wards. The dead and injured had gathered to watch the Brazil vs Mexico game.

Watching a football match in a public place is a dangerous activity in northern Nigeria today, much like walking down the street in Sarajevo was 20 years ago. Tuesday’s bombing was the latest in a series of attacks on football enthusiasts and other civilians carried out by the militant group Boko Haram —  the same organization responsible for the kidnapping of 276 Muslim and Christian schoolgirls in April.

Similar sports viewing venues in AdamawaBorno and Plateau states have been bombed by Boko Haram militants in recent months. International news reports offer imprecise numbers, but most say that “dozens” have been killed. Boko Haram believes football is unIslamic — an idea rejected by most Muslims, including those in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose team Nigeria will be playing in the World Cup tonight.

The climate of elevated violence and fear, coupled with corruption and the brutality of state security forces, has intensified calls for the “balkanization” of Nigeria. The government’s commemoration of the country’s own “centenary” earlier this year offered another opportunity for reflection. In 1914, the British colonial administration oversaw the amalgamation of its northern and southern protectorates, creating the modern state of Nigeria. Many commentators have turned to the Yugoslav example in order to draw parallels and tout the “destiny of dismemberment” — or to tell cautionary tales about the disempowerment that comes from division.

I won’t pretend to know any more about the intricacies of Nigeria’s political or territorial organization, its various groups’ claims to self-determination, or whether the current governments’ promotion of the theme “One Nigeria, Great Promise” is sincere or merely self-serving.

But some Bosnians and people across the former Yugoslavia might recognize the hopeful sentiment (some will undoubtedly say “wishful thinking”) expressed by Joachim MacEbong, a commentator on Nigerian politics, on the “unifying power” of football earlier today:

“In Nigeria, football is a religion. It is one of the few things that brings the country together across ethnic and religious lines. The senior national team, the Super Eagles, are the ultimate symbol of that unity. After a period of underachieving, Nigerians are once again optimistic about the national team, who attend the World Cup as reigning African champions, their first title in nearly twenty years. That title, won in Feb. last year, made the public fall in love with the team again and brought the country together.”

Following last month’s Balkan floods, we might add that another “unifying factor” may be a growing intolerance for the senseless loss of life, inflicted by indifference. And we hope that everyone watching tonight’s game in Nigeria is safe.



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