AU returns the Middle East and Africa’s most abused stadium to soccer

In a sign of improved secu­ri­ty in Soma­lia, African Union (AU) troops will return Mogadishu Sta­di­um, the most abused sports facil­i­ty in a region with a his­to­ry of bat­tered sta­di­ums, to the Soma­li Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion (SFF).

The AU deci­sion high­lights the recent, sig­nif­i­cant set­backs suf­fered by Al Shabab, the Al Qae­da-linked Islamist mili­tia that banned soc­cer along­side bras, music, movies, mous­tach­es and gold fill­ings dur­ing the years that it con­trolled large chunks of foot­ball-crazy Soma­lia, includ­ing the sta­di­um.

It also cel­e­brates the SFF’s lead­ing role in resist­ing Al Shabab’s aus­tere lifestyle based on an inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam­ic law that is con­test­ed even in jihadist cir­cles and suc­cess­ful cam­paign to win back child sol­diers by offer­ing them a future in soc­cer.

The return fol­lows a meet­ing in the sta­di­um ear­li­er this week between com­man­ders of the African Union peace­keep­ers in Soma­lia (AMISOM) and SFF offi­cials led by sec­re­tary gen­er­al Abdi Qani Said Arab.

“In Decem­ber 2010 we held the first edi­tion of region­al foot­ball tour­na­ment in more than 20 years and that tour­na­ment had yield­ed pos­i­tive results in terms of dis­arm­ing child sol­diers, cre­at­ing friend­ship among peo­ple and spread­ing foot­ball through­out the coun­try,” Mr. Arab said after the meet­ing.

Mr. Arab was refer­ring to an SFF cam­paign backed by world soc­cer body FIFA and local busi­ness­men under the slo­gan ‘Put down the gun, pick up the ball” that threw down a gaunt­let for the jihadists by lur­ing child sol­diers away from them.

“How­ev­er dif­fi­cult our sit­u­a­tion is, we believe foot­ball can play a major role in help­ing peace and sta­bil­i­ty pre­vail in our coun­try, and that is what our fed­er­a­tion has long been striv­ing to attain. Foot­ball is here to stay, not only as game to be played but as a cat­a­lyst for peace and har­mo­ny in soci­ety,” said Shafi’i Moy­haddin, one of the dri­ving forces behind the cam­paign, in an inter­view last year.

Mahad Mohammed was one of hun­dreds of chil­dren the asso­ci­a­tion assist­ed in swap­ping jihad for soc­cer, the only insti­tu­tion that com­pet­ed with rad­i­cal Islam in offer­ing young pop­u­la­tions a prospect of a bet­ter life.

“Peo­ple were afraid of me when I had an AK-47; now they love and con­grat­u­late me. I thank the foot­ball fed­er­a­tion, they helped me. I just drift­ed into being a sol­dier; it is hard to say how it hap­pened. Some friends of mine end­ed up being fight­ers and they used to tell me that it was a good and excit­ing life and much bet­ter than doing noth­ing or being on the streets. After I spent some time doing that, I under­stood that it wasn’t like that at all and I was hap­py to get out.” Mahad said.

The SFF hopes to host in Decem­ber a soc­cer tour­na­ment for the first time in more than two decades in the 70,000-seat sta­di­um that was built with Chi­nese aid in the 1970s and once was the region’s largest sport facil­i­ty.

The tour­na­ment would sym­bol­ize Somalia’s frag­ile retreat from the brink fol­low­ing a string of mil­i­tary defeats by Al Shabab at the hands of the African peace­keep­ers and Soma­li mil­i­tary. Al Shabab last month lost con­trol of its last urban out­post but still has a foothold in south­ern and cen­tral parts of the coun­try. Has­san Sheikh Mohamud became in Sep­tem­ber the first Soma­li pres­i­dent to be elect­ed by par­lia­ment and inau­gu­rat­ed since the coun­try slipped into civ­il war in 1991.

Mogadishu sta­di­um, occu­py­ing strate­gic ground in the north­ern part of the city, has since been con­trolled by a host of mili­tias, includ­ing Al Shabab which used it for train­ing and pub­lic exe­cu­tions until last year when the AU estab­lished its com­mand head­quar­ters in the facil­i­ty.

As a result, the facil­i­ty topped the list of abuse of sta­di­ums that bear the scars of the bat­tles fought on their ter­rain in a swath of land stretch­ing from the Gulf to the Atlantic coast of Africa in which mil­i­tants and auto­crats use sta­di­ums for their own pur­pos­es.

In Iraq, deposed dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hussein’s sadis­tic son Uday humil­i­at­ed nation­al soc­cer team play­ers in Baghdad’s Sta­di­um for the Peo­ple when they failed to per­form. US and Iraqi forces dis­cov­ered mass graves in sev­er­al Iraqi sta­di­ums since the over­throw of Sad­dam.

Syr­i­an secu­ri­ty forces have in the last 20 months herd­ed anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers into sta­di­ums in Latakia, Dera’a and Baniyas. The use of the sta­di­ums evoked mem­o­ries of the government’s 1982 assault on the Syr­i­an city of Hama to crush an ear­li­er upris­ing by the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood in which at least 10,000 peo­ple were killed. A 1983 Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al report charged that the city’s sta­di­um was used at the time to detain large num­bers of res­i­dents who were left for days in the open with­out food or shel­ter.

Chris­t­ian mili­tia men respon­si­ble for the 1982 mas­sacres in the Beirut Pales­tin­ian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatil­la to which Israeli inva­sion forces turned a blind eye con­vert­ed a local soc­cer pitch into their stag­ing ground.

Egypt­ian sta­di­ums were for years the venue of pitched bat­tles between secu­ri­ty forces and mil­i­tant soc­cer fans who refused to con­cede con­trol of a space they con­sid­ered their own to a regime they increas­ing­ly saw as bru­tal and cor­rupt.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.