Playing Fair: Using Sports to Avoid Conflict in Nigeria

Michael Olufemi Sodipo is the founder and project coordinator of Peace Initiative Network (PIN), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on peacebuilding and good governance based in Kano, Nigeria. 2

In May 2004, I survived a violent riot in Kano, a city in northern Nigeria. Young men swarmed through the streets of my neighborhood, burning and destroying randomly in retaliation to the ethnic violence in Yelwa and Shendam in central Nigeria. I was attacked simply because I am not an indigene of Kano. I have lived in Kano for twenty-eight years, but because I hail from southwest Nigeria teenagers turned terrorists burned down my home and car.

I know how deep the wounds are on all sides in Nigeria, how deeply rooted prejudices are in people, yet I can still hardly believe the attacks occurred. Instead of seeking revenge, however, I sought peace. I asked why young people harbored so much hatred and had so little hope for their own futures, and I vowed to do something that would make a positive difference. The Peace Initiative Network, an organization that focuses on peacebuilding, is my contribution toward a peaceful world. It arose from my intense desire to do my part in finding solutions to the crises and developmental challenges confronting Africa and Nigeria in particular.

Sodipo-8Brutal ethno-religious violence has been common in Nigeria since the country returned to civil rule on May 29, 1999. Given Nigeria’s heterogeneous society, with people of diverse ethnic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds, competition for socioeconomic resources is acute. This competition heightens ethnic identities so much that community loyalty takes precedence over national loyalty. Democracy has offered Nigerians a channel to vent their frustrations with unfulfilled expectations and question whether Nigeria should remain a unified country. But ethnic politics still threaten Nigeria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, due largely to the self-aggrandizement of a few politicians. The sociopolitical situation for minorities and settlers (i.e., nonindigenes) continues to worsen.

On May 27, 2006—Children’s Day in Nigeria—the Peace Initiative Network, in partnership with the British Council, inaugurated the Peace Club project for young people in northern Nigeria to promote dialogue and understanding through peace education and sports. The project brings young Muslims and Christians, indigenes and settlers, together using sports to bridge the divides among them. The club started with 50 members—30 boys and 20 girls—from 7 high schools in Kano. Currently the club has over 8,000 members from 60 schools in 4 Nigerian states. In 2009 it received support from Generations For Peace (GFP), an organization in Jordan.

The project team chose Kano as the location for Peace Club’s pilot project, training young people from both religions and diverse ethnic groups as peer educators and coaches—not for athletics but for a new system of thinking. Young people are taught to think and act as global citizens—to question ethnic stereotypes and prejudices. Since schools, especially in Kano, are separated by gender and ethnicity, the Peace Club also promotes a constructive approach to religious, ethnic, gender, and linguistic diversity.

Peace Club members meet once a week. Sessions usually begin with a game of soccer, basketball, or volleyball. When the game turns unfair—for example, if the ball is not passed to younger children or to girls—the facilitator pauses the game. The children then come together and think about how to change the rules of the game to make it more inclusive and fairer. They may include more girls and decide, for example, that a goal scored by a girl earns double the points.

As the children learn to be creative together and to think inclusively, they often assume the role of the facilitator themselves.

In the project’s early stages, physical fights would break out at times among students from different backgrounds. But these conflicts brought important issues to the table for dialogue, such as how to deal with intercultural prejudices and different values. Every dispute and activity ended in a discussion in which participants contributed to its resolution. In other words, the learning process would not have existed without the conflicts. As 17-year-old club member Yusuf Ibrahim responded during a project assessment, “Before attending this program I used to hate Christians. But now, I have learnt through Peace Club to love and appreciate them.”

Most conflicts in Nigeria are in fact not religious or ethnic; they are given ethnic or religious expressions for political reasons. But such expressions were very visible in our project, due in part to the influence of certain sociocultural and religious teachings that reinforced stereotypes and prejudice among the students. For example, a child who loses the ball during a game might begin insulting another ethnic group. Addressing the problem immediately prevented the conflict from escalating.

Sodipo-9In addition, the Peace Club offers skills for breaking down prejudices and mistrust of the parents—many of whom initially did not want their children to participate in the project. Peace Club facilitators do a great deal to build trust among members. The youth also independently plan intercultural activities within communities such as field trips and “town hall meetings”—interfaith dialogues in which parents, community leaders, and religious groups participate. The program’s influence on parents has been one of its most exciting successes, though the change is not as great as it is among the children, who have developed close friendships. Peace Club programs have revived old acquaintances among parents that the crisis had destroyed,, and adults from different ethnic groups now invite each other to christening ceremonies, weddings, and funerals, which was not common before.

The Peace Club project for young people in Nigeria shows how sports can be used to promote peace. But sports can clearly cause conflict as well, so a sports project’s success depends greatly on how it is designed. Well-designed sports activities that incorporate the best values of sports and peacebuilding principles—such as acceptance, cooperation, inclusion, responsibility, respect, and trust—help build the values and communication skills people need to prevent and resolve conflicts in their own lives. When integrated properly with other community programs and services, sports initiatives can also connect participants to resources that help them in this process, such as health services, education, and employment opportunities or assistance in starting a small business. To enable a sports program to unleash its full positive potential, coaches must monitor and guide its activities effectively.

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