A football jersey can represent more than being part of a team – it can symbolize unity, cohesion and can often times be used to effect social change. 25-year-old Lawan Yaru from Bama, Borno State Nigeria, joined his first official football league through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and European Union (EU) supported Peace through Sports Engagement Programme, an initiative that aims to use sports as a way to promote social cohesion among communities to help address stigmatization and internal community crisis.
As peace is gradually returning to communities who have been impacted by the crisis that struck north-east Nigeria since 2009, former members of the Non-State Armed Group (NSAG) who were once abducted and lived for extended durations of time under the authority of their captors are now rehabilitated and have reintegrated back to their communities to restart life. Although this process is helping with the return of individuals to their respective homes, the difficulty, trauma and impact of the longstanding conflict has affected many. This development has often challenged the acceptance of returnees by some community members, as some still feel uneasy with their return.
The Peace through Sports Programme is helping people rebuild intercommunal trust, heal from the effects of the conflict, and cultivate tolerance which are all critical components of achieving social cohesion.
Lawan reflected that at first, the returns caused added strife and internal crisis within the community:
“When former NSAGs started returning to Bama, I felt that they didn’t have the right to live in the same community as us and so many others felt the same way” he said. “We refused to have any contact with such individuals”.
With the introduction of football activities in Bama, the community has continued to slowly see a change in perception, helping to build unity and mutual trust among its residents. This has proved the importance of using sports as a tool to create a sense of shared identity and companionship among groups that were once inclined to treat each other with violence and hostility.
Lawan shares that through the football league, his friends and others now have a reason to connect, “We have learned how to engage very well with the surrendered NSAG because we are now teammates that play football together. It has made me realize that they too aren’t so different after all”.
For Lawan, the level of trust and unity that has been formed among residents in the community since the inception of the programme is proof that sports indeed bring people together and can help to promote peace and communal living.
To date, over 15 football teams have been formed across three locations in Borno State, providing a community platform for peace and stability, as well as acting as an important tool to prevent other community members from joining in violent extremist activities in the region.
As he put on his football jersey and prepared for the next game, Yara smiled and shared, “We never thought we could relate so well, but it is happening, and we are happy. It is my hope that this will also encourage others in our State to surrender and embrace peace too.”