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Nigerian World Cup watchers defy Islamist threat after attacks

Police officers walk past the school in Chibok, northeast Nigeria where more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram Islamists on April 21, 2014
File picture shows police officers walking past the school in Chibok, northeast Nigeria where more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram Islamists on April 21, 2014

Football fans defied the threat of violence in Nigeria on Monday to support their team in the World Cup after a suspected Boko Haram attack on churches killed more than 50 people.

Nigeria's game against France -- which saw the Super Eagles' lose their first World Cup knockout game in 16 years -- came a day after gunmen stormed church services in four villages near Chibok in Borno state, where Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in April.

Police had urged fans to stay at home to watch the tournament amid a growing insurgency by Islamist militants across north and central Nigeria.

"I defy security fears to come and watch the Eagles play, for my passion for football and love of my darling national team," said Kabir Usman, a fan from Kano, Nigeria's second city, sharing the defiance of crowds gathered in front of big screens across the country.

In Abuja -- hit last week by a shopping centre bombing which killed more than 20 people -- fans in a downtown bar said they wouldn't let the threat of further bloodshed stop them supporting their team, which lost the game 2-0.

Map of Nigeria locating the northeast state of Borno, where suspected Boko Haram Islamists attacked a number of churches near Chibok on Sunday
Map of Nigeria locating the northeast state of Borno, where suspected Boko Haram Islamists attacked a number of churches near Chibok on Sunday.

"We don't have (electricity) in my house and that's why I decided to take the risk. I believe nothing will happen to me here," said fan Mba John.

Like many public places across the country, the bar had beefed up security for Monday's game, banning drinkers from taking bags in with them.

"If they kill me, as long as Nigeria wins, that won't be a big deal," said supporter Awa Ezie.

‎The match against France came a day after militants tossed explosives at several churches, torched buildings and fired on worshippers as they tried to flee, according to witnesses.

"So far we have 54 dead," said a Borno state official, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to discuss casualties with the media.

Federal government spokesman Mike Omeri confirmed on Monday that "a number of people were killed" but said he had not received an official casualty report and could not discuss details.

Locals have accused the military of ignoring distress calls made after the attack began, leaving worshippers defenceless, something Omeri denied.

People look at the wreckage of a car  at the scene of bomb blast at the crowded Emab Plaza in Abuja on June 26, 2014
Security look at the wreckage of a car at the scene of bomb blast at the crowded Emab Plaza in Abuja on June 26, 2014

"I was... reliably informed that the military and the airforce were there. Maybe a little late, but they made it there," he said.

A Chibok leader, who also requested anonymity, challenged the government's version of events, saying the military "did not attempt go" to the scene of the attack.

"Anybody who tells you the military went there is lying," he said.

In the aftermath of the April abductions, Chibok residents accused security forces of doing little to secure the girls' release, despite military claims that a massive manhunt had been launched.

- 'Worried about our brothers' -

The United States, Britain, France and Israel are supporting Nigeria's search-and-rescue operation so far without success, with 219 girls still missing.

The villages targeted on Sunday -- Kwada, Ngurojina, Karagau and Kautikari -- are all within 10 kilometres (six miles) of Chibok.

Church attacks have been a prominent feature of the insurgency, which Boko Haram claims is aimed at creating an Islamic state in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north.

Nigeria supporters cheer during the World Cup football match Nigeria vs Argentina, in Lagos, on June 25, 2014
Nigeria supporters cheer during the World Cup football match Nigeria vs Argentina, in Lagos, on June 25, 2014

Relentless Boko Haram violence has muted festivities for the World Cup, even in Lagos, the commercial capital, nearly 2,000 kilometres (1200 miles) from the scene of Sunday's violence.

"This is the southwest... We are free (of Boko Haram violence) here," said Binuyo Lewis, 35, who manages a bookmakers in an upmarket Lagos neighbourhood.

But, he said, "we are worried about our brothers in the northeast".

Boko Haram are blamed for killing thousands since 2009, but the first half of this year has been the bloodiest stretch of the insurgency, with more than 2,000 people killed.

A year-old military offensive in the northeast has done little to stem the unrest.

Expatriates in Lagos and Abuja were warned to stay away from bars and viewing centres showing Monday's match.

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