NAIROBI // With the UAE taking to the field for the first time today at the Under 17 World Cup in Nigeria, organisers have moved to calm fears that the young players are in danger during the tournament. The UAE embassy in Nigeria has been involved in making arrangements for the squad after backroom staff and administrators expressed concern over safety.
However, despite a rebel group's recent call for further attacks in the country's oil-rich Delta region, they have been told as much precaution as possible has been taken. Nigeria is spending US$5.3million (Dh19.4m) on security for the event, said Sani Ndanusa, the country's minister of sport. Police and anti-terrorism teams will patrol all venues and team hotels, said Emmanuel Ojukwu, the assistant commissioner of the national police force.
"We have made adequate arrangements in the area of security for footballers, officials and spectators in the various cities where this event will take place," he said. "In addition to that, we will send our surveillance men to monitor events before, during and after the games. We have enough men and material on the ground to ensure safety and security of persons involved in the competition." Security in Africa's most populous nation is complicated by two militant groups, one in the southern Delta region and one in the predominantly Muslim north.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) is fighting for a share of the country's oil resources and is opposed to multinational companies operating in the area. The group frequently attacks oil installations and kidnaps foreign workers. Mend issued a warning in June that the tournament could be disrupted by fighting. "We will want to use this opportunity to advise Fifa to have a re-think about Nigeria hosting the U17 World Cup tournament at this time, as the safety of international players and visitors cannot be guaranteed due to the current unrest," the group said in a statement.
Nigeria increased security at oil installations following a Mend announcement on October 16 that it would resume hostilities in the Delta. The president of Nigeria, Umaru Yar'Adua, met with Henry Okah, the rebel leader, for talks aimed at resolving the conflict last week. UAE play Malawi today in Kano, a dusty city in the hot and dry north of Nigeria, about 500 miles from the volatile Delta. They meet Spain on Thursday, again in Kano, and the United States on Sunday in Ijebu-Ode, a suburb of Lagos, Africa's largest city. Security risks include armed robbery and car-jacking.
The tournament sites closest to the Delta region are Calabar and Enugu. UAE, taking part in their first U17 World Cup since 1991, could play in those cities if they make it to the knockout stage. An Islamic group known as Boko Haram is active in Nigeria's northern region that includes Kano. The group was responsible for sectarian violence that killed 700 people in late July. However, analysts say it is unlikely that either militant group will disrupt the tournament.
"Nigeria is very cautious of its image internationally and it knows all eyes will be on it during the football matches," Elizabeth Donnelly, a Nigeria analyst at Chatham House, a London think tank, said. "Nigerian police and military are quite effective. I don't envisage there would be any problems." Expressing concerns over Nigeria's security, UAE officials had petitioned Fifa to move the tournament and threatened to pull out of the event. "Obviously we are concerned for the security of players," coach Ali Ibrahim said last month.
So far the only problem in Nigeria has been the quality of the facilities. The team have only one practice pitch and officials have complained about the condition of the playing field. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org