Samuel Eto’o steps up to help forgotten victims of Boko Haram

The Cameroonian football icon is raising money and awareness amid the escalating crisis in west Africa which, he says, ‘isn’t being talked about enough but is causing huge pain and damage’

Ibrahim is a 10-year-old Nigerian boy. He watched Boko Haram terrorists storm his village and murder his father. Then they turned their machetes on him, striking him in the head and leaving him for dead in a ditch.

Miraculously, Ibrahim survived. His sister, Larama, says that she “unburied” him and carried him away from the carnage. “I didn’t have the strength but somehow, I found it,” Larama says. They are now in a refugee camp in Cameroon, scarred and shaken but able to tell the tale.

Samuel Eto’o
Samuel Eto’o, here playing in a charity match in Kenya in 2010, says Boko Haram has created ‘a humanitarian crisis of unbearable gravity’. Photograph: Noor Khamis/Reuters

The footage stops and the room falls silent. It is one of those moments when the horror hits home with force of a wrecking ball. It is a little like the photograph of the tiny Syrian boy, who drowned in September, having attempted to reach Greece.

Samuel Eto’o, the African football icon, takes a deep breath. He has to compose himself on several occasions. “This is a humanitarian crisis of unbearable gravity,” Eto’o says. “And, as Martin Luther King said: ‘The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.’”

Eto’o feels that the escalating crisis in west Africa, which has gripped north-east Nigeria and spilled into north-west Cameroon – Eto’o’s Cameroon – Niger and Chad is in danger of being ignored; of somehow being brushed off the agenda as the global media focus on the situation in Syria.

It cannot be allowed to happen, Eto’o says on more than one occasion, and he has resolved to make sure it does not. Through the Fundación Privada Samuel Eto’o, which was established in 2006 with the purpose of raising awareness of the issues faced by Africa, he has launched the Yellow Whistle Blower FC initiative.

The idea behind the yellow whistle was to create a symbol of the victims of Boko Haram. The yellow has been taken from the star in the middle of the Cameroonian flag while the whistle is a metaphor for the population in the affected areas, many of whom are cattle farmers or nomads; the whistle is a part of their everyday life.

Eto’o, who plays for Antalyaspor in Turkey, has won everything during a glittering 18-year professional career, most notably four Champions Leagues and two Africa Cup of Nations titles. But the football achievements of the former Barcelona, Internazionale, Chelsea and Everton player appear as nothing more than a platform to make his voice heard during times as desperate as these.

“What we want is for people to become more sensitive and aware of the problem that we have in west Africa,” Eto’o says. “It’s a fact that, unfortunately, it is not spoken about a great deal. What we are trying to do, by whatever means possible, is to make sure that it is talked about and noticed.

“This is a crisis that doesn’t only affect my country, Cameroon. It’s something that is affecting the whole region and many other countries around the world. The fact is that it is a big problem, which isn’t being talked about enough but is causing huge pain and damage.”

Eto’o’s Foundation, in conjunction with Oxfam and the UNHCR – The United Nations’ Refugee Agency – hosted the first Yellow Whistle Ball at Claridge’s hotel in London on Tuesday night. Some of Eto’o’s footballing friends were there, such as Deco, Louis Saha, Habib Beye and Benoît Assou-Ekotto, and tens of thousands of pounds were raised via the auction of various lots. One of them was a training session with Eto’o.

A Nigerian army photograph supplied this week of some of the 338 people rescued after being held by Boko Haram.
A Nigerian army photograph supplied this week of some of the 338 people rescued after being held by Boko Haram. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The money will be given to refugee camps in Nigeria and Cameroon; to non-governmental organisations that are working in the field to help those who have been displaced. According to Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, the head of the UNHCR in the United Kingdom, two million Nigerians have been internally displaced from their homes, with 170,000 of them having crossed into neighbouring countries. The global forced migration figure has reached 60 million – the highest since the second world war.

“Forced displacement is somehow monopolised by Syria but there are other places that are just as tragic and among them is the crisis in Nigeria, which has affected Cameroon, Niger and Chad,” Vargas Llosa says. “The scale and brutality of the crisis in Nigeria is shocking. Our desire is to make sure it does not become forgotten.”

Jane Cocking, the Oxfam humanitarian director, said that her organisation had reached 92,000 people with water treatment tablets, hygiene kits and agricultural support. But many, many more, who have fled the Boko Haram bloodshed and destruction, have found themselves in unfamiliar places that lack basic necessities such as food, water and medicine. Refugee numbers are rising faster than they can be accommodated.

“This initiative is born of indignation, of the indifference towards the issue,” Eto’o says. “My Cameroon is in danger, Niger is impacted, Chad threatened. There are people like you and me who have lost everything overnight. Our goal is to ring the alarm for these people and to raise funds for practical help on the ground.

“Education is vital. As Nelson Mandela said, it is the most powerful weapon to change the world. As with the Cameroon president, Mr Paul Biya, I am convinced that we have to invest in education [for the refugees]. But I refuse to despair, because to despair is to refuse life.”


David Hytner

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
What next for the millions uprooted by Boko Haram? – photo essay
Four photographers document the impact of an uprising that has fractured lives across the Lake Chad region, leaving 8 million people in dire need

Ruth Maclean and Eric Hilaire

05, Apr, 2018 @10:10 AM

Article image
Boko Haram - the Guardian briefing
Fears are growing that increasingly ruthless Islamist group is expanding operations into neighbouring countries

Mark Tran

19, Jan, 2015 @5:20 PM

Article image
Foreign troops retake Nigerian towns from Boko Haram
300 militants reported killed in joint ground offensive – featuring soldiers from Chad and Niger – raising hopes tide is turning against extremists

David Smith in Johannesburg

10, Mar, 2015 @10:26 AM

Article image
Buhari's crackdown in Nigeria fails to stamp out Boko Haram
A year ago at his inauguration the president promised to eliminate the terror group, still classed as one of the world’s most deadly

Simon Tisdall

31, May, 2016 @12:56 PM

Article image
Boko Haram: soaring numbers of children used in suicide attacks, says Unicef
Across north-east Nigeria and neighbouring countries, 44 children were used in suicide attacks in 2015, three-quarters of them girls

Sam Jones

12, Apr, 2016 @9:55 AM

Article image
How Nigerians took Boko Haram’s victims to their hearts
People have opened their homes and land to refugees

Emma Graham-Harrison

26, Feb, 2017 @12:05 AM

Article image
Boko Haram: African leaders agree joint action in rare show of unity
Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin pledge to cooperate against militant group that has kidnapped 200 schoolgirls

Kim Willsher in Paris

17, May, 2014 @4:46 PM

Article image
Boko Haram is losing ground – but will not be defeated by weapons alone | Vincent Foucher
Leaders meeting at the Lake Chad basin summit must battle the region’s humanitarian and development needs to combat the insurgency

Vincent Foucher

13, May, 2016 @11:52 AM

Article image
How to fight Boko Haram? Open a school
Religious leaders fearful of Islamist threat believe giving girls free weekend lessons will counter spread of militancy

Maeve Shearlaw in Yaoundé

16, Dec, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
French family seized in Cameroon by suspected Boko Haram Islamists freed
Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, his brother, wife and four children released as President Hollande insists no ransom has been paid

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris and agencies

19, Apr, 2013 @5:17 PM