Thursday, 21st September 2023

National Stadium of shame, filth, 31 months after $1m facelift

By Tobi Awodipe
07 April 2023   |   5:00 am
When the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, was commissioned by General Yakubu Gowon’s regime in 1972, sports journalists and administrators across the globe called it ‘the new Mecca of sports’.

When the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, was commissioned by General Yakubu Gowon’s regime in 1972, sports journalists and administrators across the globe called it ‘the new Mecca of sports’.

And true to type, the colourful arena hosted the 1973 African Games, where Nigeria emerged the champion for the first time. It hosted the 1980 African Cup of Nations, with the then Green Eagles ruling the continent for the first time ever as well.

The National Stadium was also one of the venues for the 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and then the 2000 edition of the African Cup of Nations co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria. The last time a major sporting event took place at the arena was in 2004, almost two decades ago.

Afterwards, the once adorned National Stadium became a crusade ground for religious bodies, the place for social gatherings, and shelter for street urchins, squatters, hawkers, bar operators and commercial sex workers. It has remained a shadow of its former self, abandoned, decayed and left to rot away.

Over the years, different administrations and sports ministers have made promises to fix the edifice and get it running. They claimed that ‘work had started’, but as of April 2023, the mainbowl of the stadium in particular, is still ‘undergoing renovation.’ That was almost three years after work started, and almost two years after the present Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare, promised it would be ready for use. While the mainbowl is still in a sorry state, its external add-on facilities are even in worse shape, completely run down and rotting away.

When Dare took over three years ago, he, like his predecessors, promised to renovate the stadium, using the Adopt-A-Stadium initiative. It was announced that Sir Adebutu Kessington, popularly known as Baba Ijebu, was taking over the renovation of the mainbowl, tartan track and scoreboard of the stadium late 2019; many sports lovers rejoiced, hoping that the initiative would restore the complex to its former glory.

About a year later, and shortly after the COVID-19 lockdown, bulldozers rolled into the stadium premises on September 1, 2020, with all the illegal shops demolished, and the owners sent packing. It seemed to many that this time around, the renovations were finally going to happen. In fact, Dare, while on an inspection tour of the stadium, assured that the turnaround would be completed in May 2021, and the stadium would be back in use.

He said: “It’s high time we had a familiar ground for our national teams. The Moshood Abiola National Stadium, Abuja, and the National Stadium, Lagos, will be ready to host matches next year (2021) and it will be a major plus to our teams when they have a familiar ground. We discussed with a philanthropist and lover of sports, Sir Adebutu Kessington, who was convinced about the proposal.

“He is somebody that has the youth of this country at heart, and has done so much to support youth and sports development. As a form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), he is committed to providing funds at 100 per cent, and we have no doubt that it will be completed in May. The engineer working on the site has assured that the stadium will be ready for use by May next year.”

A national monument abandoned
The assurance and promises by the Sports Minister, about the National Stadium were made in 2020. In February 2022, Dare, again, on an inspection of the complex, promised that the mainbowl would soon be completed.

He said: “the grass is being properly maintained and the tartan track will soon be laid. By April, we hope the facility can host a football match, and an athletics meeting that would bring the fans back to the stands.”

An official of the Sports Ministry told The Guardian, yesterday, that the complete turnaround of the stadium was hindered by some unforeseen challenges, but claimed that Sir Adebutu Kessington had completed his part.

“I can tell you that Kessington has completed his part,” the official said. “His assignments were the football pitch, tartan track and the score board, and to the best of my knowledge, he has done so. So far, he has spent over $1million on those facilities. What is left is for the Federal Government to fix the terraces (seat to watch matches) and the dressing rooms,” the official stated.

However, visits by The Guardian to the mainbowl on three different days of the week, showed that the grass was being maintained, and sprinklers working with some workers on a daily routine for maintenance. Only one of the scoreboards has been put in place, though it was not switched on.

On the other hand, the tartan track has not been completed. About 20 drums of chemicals to aid in laying the track are outside the gates, beside the contractor’s container-office.

According to the date stamp, the drums of chemicals were brought into the arena in January 2021. They are now covered in dust and cobwebs.
The roof over the VIP section is completely off, leaving just the iron frame. According to a staff member, the roof had to be pulled down because it was bad. A number of the plastic seats around the stadium are weather beaten or broken down. There were cracks on the walls and terraces, and the fence is falling apart in a section, either due to age or water damage.

Efforts to speak with the contractor handling the project were difficult. After three days of visits, The Guardian was repeatedly told: “He was around, but just left shortly before you came.”

The outside of the mainbowl was in its worst shape. The executive players’ lounge had some abandoned, dusty leather seats and exercise equipment that has not been in use. The ceiling has caved in, and to access other parts of the arena, one has to stoop and almost crawl. The toilets and bathrooms were in decay, and filthy from caked-up dirt. The bathrooms had clearly not seen a drop of water or soap in years. Well-fed rodents were having a filled day. Other toilets around the premises are not any different.

None of the offices within the stadium complex has electricity or water supply, though the Lagos State Water Corporation is just next door to the stadium. The section lights, which are supposed to guide visitors to their seats, have long broken down.

The floodlights, according to a stadium official, are obsolete, and have not been in use for years. No electricity had been supplied to them. The walls outside are weather-beaten, flaking, and damaged in many places.

However, the place comes alive in the evening with the different bars and commercial sex workers plying their trade. The bar and joint owners that were sent out in 2020, have gradually started making a comeback, hosting fun lovers into the early hours of the morning.

We need more sponsors, official begs
A top official of the stadium, who spoke with The Guardian on condition of anonymity, said they are not sure of what is causing the delay in completion of the ongoing work.

He admitted that they were in the dark as “everything comes from Abuja. “We just do what we are told.” He continued: “Everything is shrouded in secrecy, even to journalists. If you don’t have anything to do inside there, you will not be allowed. We don’t allow the press to come here or to take pictures.”

Speaking on why there was no roof in sight, he said; “The roof was bad and had to be taken down for total overhauling. A new roof is not part of Baba Ijebu’s scope of work, but we are hoping another sponsor adopts it. The stadium is very big, Baba Ijebu has taken up three components because he alone cannot do it; someone else should step in and help us.”

“The scoreboard is done and the field is finished, but we still need another sponsor to help us with the seats and other things. There is power supply now, but there is no electricity within the complex yet. The sprinkler and scoreboard are working. If it is connected to electricity, they would work.”

Dare and Baba Kessington were expected at the stadium, last week, to assess the level of work done, but they did not show up. “We are hoping that when Baba Ijebu comes here and sees the situation, he may add roof rehabilitation to the work he is doing. Even the seats you are ‘complaining’ about, he can still ask for the estimate and fix them, because we know that this place (mainbowl) cannot be used if all these other things (seats, roof, conveniences, electricity and so on) are not put in place.

“The work was supposed to be finished in 18 months, but it is still ongoing due to some unforeseen circumstances. You know most of the materials being used are sourced from outside the country. So, challenges of shipping, clearing, and the Nigerian factor have contributed to the delay,” he added.

When asked about the timeline the stadium will be ready for use, the official said: “I cannot deceive you, this place cannot be opened for use soon. We are not aware of any sponsors for these other things for now, but we are hopeful they will come. Just last week, a company came on board to renovate the practice pitch under the Adopt-A-Pitch policy that was formed a few years ago.

“This is a government institution, and we depend on budgetary provision. There is nothing we can do regarding renovation or maintenance at our end without provisions in the budget. What do you expect us to do? The monies allocated are not enough. Because we know the government alone cannot do it, that is why those policies Adopt-A-Pitch and Adopt-An-Athlete policies were initiated then. It is gaining little ground.

“We are aware that the whole stadium needs a total overhaul – the indoor hall is falling apart, the wooden floor is very dangerous for athletes, and no facility works there. The place does not have electricity or conveniences, but again, it is not our fault. It all boils down to years of abandonment. For almost thirty years, no renovation has been done to these facilities.

“The present sports minister promised to overhaul and renovate this place, but we still cannot expect them to do it singlehandedly. The funds are just not there, and that is why these policies are needed. Baba Ijebu has no commercial interest in the place after it is renovated. The best he would get is probably his signage being used around the stadium, because in the MoU signed, there is no mention of him getting any commercial gains,” the official said.

On if the option of a sponsor taking over a section, renovating it and commercialising it for a number of years was possible, he said: “Look at the pool, it was taken over by a management consultant, who rehabilitated the place, and the place is functioning now. Look at the squash hall and tennis courts, the latter is being maintained by Mainland Tennis Club, not the government.

“We hope that other sponsors will come and help us adopt different sections of the stadium to turn them around. The place is better than it was last year, and work is ongoing. But I cannot categorically say when it will be ready for use.

“If the other components are not ready, we cannot host people here. There is no water presently, but when we are ready to host people, I assure you that water will flow from the taps because the mainbowl has a dedicated borehole. The place was not totally useless as people say, because before Baba Ijebu offered to fix the tartan track and field, the place was being used for training.

“Of course, elite and foreign athletes were not allowed to use it because we know it can cause injury to them, but for grassroots and local league training, it was being used. We couldn’t host matches but athletes were using it till it was finally closed for renovation.

“I cannot say there is no budgetary allocation to maintain this place but what I know is that money has not been provided to us for maintenance. We are not the only ones suffering this, go round other stadiums all over the country and other government owned properties; they are all being badly run and not maintained. Look at the federal secretariat, national theater and government owned hospitals and schools, we are all suffering neglect, it is a general issue.

“When this place is fully renovated, we pray we can maintain it because it wouldn’t be fair to Baba Ijebu that after all the money he sunk here; we will allow the place to run down again. We hope the government can get the other things done if we don’t get a sponsor to help fix the necessary things. The structure of the mainbowl is still solid, it passed the integrity test and just needs proper renovation. We need to do some external work because of water and time damage to it, but it is not something so huge that should take months to achieve.”

He continued: “The indoor sports hall, bad as it may look, still hosts basketball games, table tennis, badminton, handball and other indoor games. Light problem is universal, but our own is more peculiar because we have been cut off from PHCN due to debts, but when any game is to be hosted, we can run on generator for the duration of the programme. We cannot go beyond our scope. It is what we have that we will give. Even for the offices, the light here is poor, and most times, we run on generator. If you say what we are doing is not good enough, come in and sponsor it yourself.”