This guest post was coauthored by Emily Mellgard, research associate, and Amanda Roth, volunteer intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.
Even with their immense diversity, nearly all Africans love soccer. There is a cultural obsession with the sport similar to that of Americans for football, and it has, in the past, caused riots between fans of rival teams. Most of the time however, Africans’ passion for soccer is a constructive social pastime, and national teams can be a focus of unity and identity.
Soccer is a point of national pride for many nations. Hosting the highly successful 2010 World Cup tournament in some ways marked South Africa’s re-emergence as a continental power. Ghana rationed electricity from their hydroelectric dam on the Volta River and imported fifty thousand extra megawatts of electricity to ensure that all Ghanaians could watch this year’s June 16 match against the United States. Yet, the crowds watching the 2014 World Cup tournament at public viewing centers and gathered around communal televisions, in some places represent a unique security concern.
The World Cup opened in Brazil on Thursday, June 12; on June 17, a suicide bomber set off an explosion in Nigeria’s northern Yobe state capital Damaturu. At least twenty-one people who had gathered around a public screen to watch the Brazil vs. Mexico match died. The bomber is suspected to be a Boko Haram member, though no one has yet claimed responsibility. Public viewing centers, which are popular venues to watch soccer, are currently banned in Yobe state precisely because of the potential for such an attack. There are conflicting accounts about whether those killed were at a clandestine viewing center or if they had simply gathered around a communal screen.
In Nigeria’s Adamawa state, some establishments that normally screen the World Cup matches came together to organize an informal security cooperative with local vigilantes in an attempt to mitigate the security risks. Nevertheless, some fans said they will not risk going to the public centers during this World Cup. However, others stated that even with the risks, they were unwilling to forego the atmosphere and excitement and would still watch the matches in public.
On Sunday June 15, more than fifty people were killed in Kenya’s coastal town Mpeketoni as they watched a match in a public viewing hall. Somalia’s militant Islamist group al Shabaab claimed credit for the attack, though some have claimed it was instead carried out by internal Kenyan actors. During the previous World Cup in 2010, al Shabaab claimed credit for twin blasts in Uganda’s capital Kampala that targeted World Cup viewers. It was their first successful international attack. The Kenyan government has strongly urged people to watch the matches from their homes. Bars, cinemas, restaurants, and other venues with communal screens have been advised to implement extra security measures during matches.
These attacks represent a disturbing trend. The crowds who gather to watch the 2014 World Cup present a security threat that militant groups have proven willing to exploit. The so-called “beautiful game” should be a time of national pride and celebration—and not carry the risk of death.