In a surprise move that has shocked the sports fraternity in Somalia, the chairman of the country’s Football Federation (SFF), Abdiqani Said Arab, has extended an invitation to the Al-Shabaab militant group to join the country’s top soccer league, “should they desire to do so”.
“We are not against them and they are not against us,” Arab told the BBC in an interview. Arab is a respected sports figure on the continent. Early this month he was appointed vice chairman of the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa). And last Friday (Jan. 7) he was named African football leader of the year at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) awards that took place in Abuja, Nigeria, for his efforts to revive the game in Somalia.
The call to Al-Shabaab may be his way to communicate to the group that it can be a part of Somali society rather than “an enemy within”: “Not only Al-Shabaab, but also those fighting for the warlords, the moderate Islamists or anyone else involved in Somalia conflict is welcome to our football,” Shafi’i Mohyaddin Abokar, a spokesman for SFF, explained to Quartz.:“If they show interest in playing football it means they accept peace and football is all about peace and integration. So we are welcoming anyone who embraces peace and wants to play football.”
War-torn Somalia and its UN-backed government has been battling the al-Qaeda-affiliated group for almost a decade, with the help of African Union (AU) forces. While the Al-Shabaab group has been driven out of most of areas of the country it once controlled, the group still remains a threat by periodically staging deadly attacks in the capital Mogadishu and neighboring countries.
But the AU force has helped the Somali government establish some semblance of stability. This increasing sense of security has created the space for cultural life to return—the re-establishment of the country’s football league being one example. The eight-team league saw one of its matches broadcast live on TV for the first time ever last month. And according to Arab, due to better security, foreign players are also flocking to Somalia to ply their trade in the country’s domestic league. “More than 20 foreign players are now playing in our Premier League in about six clubs,” Arab told the BBC.