Dare: We must return to proper funding for sports development
•What New National Sports Industry Policy Portends
Sunday Dare, the Minister for Youths and Sports Development, cut short an important executive function to have this conversation with LEO SOBECHI in Abuja on the takeaways from the recent Commonwealth Games, where Nigeria excelled in many sporting events. The Minister talked about what his Ministry is doing to sustain the spirit of excellence. He noted that catching them young through Talent Hunt Programme, developing sports as business through the National Sports Investment Policy and ensuring the welfare of the country’s sports people are pathways to Nigeria conquering the world.
Extolling the inspiration from a Sports-supportive President Muhammadu Buhari, Dare said the Nigerian Youth Investment Fund is benefitting a lot of indigent youth with sporting talent.
Although he sees funding as major challenge, the Sports Minister declared: “We live in a smart world and we must think smart. There is smart thinking around sports that we are trying to apply. I am a minimalist, I am a realist, I believe in quality above quantity.”
How do you feel about Nigeria’s performance at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham?
Well, I think that it’s a collective achievement, because I keep saying that several factors, several individuals, several situations worked together to bring us to this position we are in, I mean podium performance of our athletes. When you look at the average athlete who aspires to podium performance, that’s to win any of the three medals, there’s requisite number of hours of training and competition that you must log; often times, it’s between 150 to 300 hours over time. That’s why you see that something like Olympics takes place once every four years; Commonwealth Games, African Games… just to give these athletes opportunities for training and competition.
So, the atheletes must be celebrated, because of their discipline, focus, commitment and consistency. They went from running in the Diamond League, to running for their schools, working with their Federations for the all comers, the classic, the national trials… there were qualifier series. You have to travel around the world to compete with others; it’s a loaded programme and these athletes put themselves to it. They sacrificed, so, a lot of credit goes to them.
But also, credit goes to the Federation that manages them; it goes to the Ministry that kept them on Team Nigeria; you have to be the best to get on Team Nigeria. Also, the Federal Government that ensured they didn’t miss any of these critical levels, because you are entered as somebody contesting for Nigeria. Some people said, ‘oh, government didn’t play a role,’ excuse me. If government didn’t put you on Team Nigeria, if you are not on the first eleven of the Super Eagles, will you ever play for Nigeria? But we were faithful; we kept them on Team Nigeria consistently. We paid for their visas, we paid for their tickets to meet their obligations to compete and they racked up points that qualified them; it’s a global thing and Nigeria was never missing.
So, it’s a chain; the support we got from Mr President in terms of resources, the support we got from the corporate bodies and governors who bought into our ‘Adopt An Athlete’ that we ended up adopting 48 of our athletes. We paid $10,000 for home based, $20,000 for foreign based athletes, it never happened before; monies that went directly to these athletes to help them take care of so many things. You know they don’t really earn anything, except bonuses.
Could this be part of what we did right this time around, having to reach the athletes directly?
Absolutely, we needed to build a bit of confidence; we needed to push the welfare of the athletes on the agenda. So, beyond just mouthing it, we came up with a model that saw the ministry going out to make a pitch on behalf of each athlete. We developed a profile document for each athlete to say, ‘this is athlete A, this are the competitions she had attended, this is her rating in Africa.’ So, when we make the pitch to a corporate organisation or a government, they have an appreciation to say, ‘this is the Nigerian athlete that we want to support.’
When we made the pitch, a governor adopted almost 10 of them; four to five banks adopted the basketball teams; a deputy Governor adopted; I adopted… several organisations adopted. Some even just called us to say, ‘give us one athlete, we are going to adopt.’ We had a list of 98, but COVID-19 came in and some of the organisations that planed to adopt, their revenue suffered. So, it still connects to the fact that so many things were done in concert. We were not just sending them to training, we were not just sending them the little allowances, we decide to do something different; give them the opportunity to get a huge chunk of money to support themselves.
Don’t forget that most of them, because they need revenue and income, instead of spending 10 hours a week training, they spend two hours; the other eight hours, they go to work. Now, with this money, I believe most of them reduced the hours of working and increased the hours of training ahead of the competition.
You spoke to why we dwell on the negatives in Nigeria. First, the government is always a weeping boy; I think there’s just a mindset that government can never do right. If the government can never do right, why do we still wake up and we are able to get things done? Because there are just two positions; either there’s a government doing something and keeping the country together or there’s a situation of chaos. But also people suffer from selective auditioning; you are selective in the kind of news you want to hear. If it’s negative news, yes! If it’s against government, yes! If it’s positive, you say ‘oh, ok…’
Five years as a public servant, 29 years as a journalist, editor, reporter, writer, I’ve seen the best of both worlds. I understand also why as a journalist, there’s that set button that anything government is involved in, you must see it as negative; you must see it that there’s no sincerity in it. And it just takes the person who is in charge of that office or portfolio to help you change that mindset. Being on this side too, I realised that you must keep at what you are doing. If you are waiting for applause, you will make a mistake; you will not get applause consistently. But if you have your facts, if you set up your model and you are sure this is the right path, you keep on it and then find a way to explain it. That has been my experience.
Don’t forget also that in journalism, if it bleeds, it leads. You give the people what they want, the negatives news… So, they are getting constantly what they want, not necessarily what they need. But we come to defining moments that are compelling, situations that report themselves whether the people or media likes it or not. They say, success has many relatives, failure is an orphan; we’ve seen it in this performance. This performance didn’t just come in two weeks; it’s because of the level of consistency in the last three years, for some athletes, maybe in the last five years, working with their federations, running their programmes. So, what you saw at the Commonwealth and the World Championship are efforts.
Just take Tobi Amusan alone as a case study. At a point, she got frustrated that she was always coming fourth, but the coach told her, ‘you have to keep at it, because you will come first someday.’ And then, she moved from being fourth to being first and being the world champion. So, that output you saw wasn’t something done in two, three months; she said so too. And we are happy in the country that athletics especially and all these sports are getting the limelight they deserve. But it also shows clearly that this country is a country with huge sporting potential. We know that we had an epoch, in which we were dominating Africa when it comes to athletics globally, 25- 27 years ago. I think the return of that epoch is here.
We have a lot of Nigerians featuring and winning medals for other countries at global competitions. How did you manage to get those ones that represented Nigeria at the Commonwealth Games?
Well, we place merit as number and above every other consideration. I saw a couple of things on WhatsApp after we came back from Commonwealth; people said this is why Common Wealth happened. They listed the names of all our athletes and showed the geopolitical zones the come from, and said if the selection of Team Nigeria was based on other considerations, we won’t be here. Just to show that those that won the medals were from different areas of the country, but it doesn’t matter, because they were representing Nigeria.
The Federations understood that merit was above all; they understood that team Nigeria would only register the best. Most of them started from here, and then went overseas; we kept in constant touch with them. Also, as a Ministry, we tried to understand why our athletes really run for other countries. At the Olympics, I spoke to one or two of them. I asked one of them what it would it take for him to run for Nigeria. He said, ‘maybe if you give me three out of these five things.’ He said, ‘first, I need some kind of scholarship, because I want to continue to study and run. I need support to have some kind of apartment, even if it’s one room. I need health insurance. I need a monthly stipend to keep me going, since I have to be on the track training while my colleagues are working and earning salaries.’ He added, ‘but I also need facilities to train and a coach that is competent.’ He said if I could assure him three of these things, because this is what he’s getting there now. He spoke very clearly and what he said resonated.
As Minister of Youth and Sports, we see that challenge of infrastructure; we see the challenges of equipment. Beyond the brick and mortar, it is the equipment that you need, some of them digital sporting tools. There’s so much precision now and smart technology around our sports that even before you get to a competition, a coach can tell if you are going to make a gold, bronze or silver. They can look at it and say you need to adjust this or that. The level of technicality in wrestling, in weight lifting, the way they count the points, we don’t really have the equipment.
Again, what’s the level of our coaches? In Commonwealth, I saw a bit of deficiency in terms of the technical depth of our coaches. That’s why this ministry is planning to bring some top experts to come and do coaching clinics for our coaches; it’s not their fault, they can’t afford it. We will work with the federations to raise money; we will have a general coaching clinic and then we have federation specifics. We’ve come to a point where we now have nine or ten sports in which we have competitive advantage. Globally, if you mention wrestling, Nigeria is way up there. Hurdles, Nigeria is way up there. Relay, Nigeria is way up their, even weightlifting. So, we can bring experts in each of these sports to give certification to out coaches. Even with the level of caching that we have, and equipment that is not up to par, Nigerian athletes still go out there and put up a ruthless execution of their skills and talent and they still come tops.
That’s why in our budget this year, we are able to secure funding to build a High Performance Centre. The closest we have to it is the one in Port Harcourt, and most of these young athletes went through that High Performance Centre at the University of Port Harcourt. There’s a miniature one at the Moshood Abiola Stadium, but the big one we are building will make a difference. We have the money in the budget; the work will start any time soon. That will help a lot of our athletes.
You’ve also seen our efforts at bringing back the Moshood Abiola Stadium; it’s up to 65 per cent functionality as we speak. A stadium is beyond the football pitch; when you go to the stadium on an average day, there are about 150 to 250 people. We have about four or five different football academies and sports academies that were allowed to use the stadium.
But is has been a challenge for members of the public to have access to our stadia for training?
People are not just using it. The stadium in Abuja, people don’t pay to use it; you go there, people run in the morning. We’ve built two extra football pitches; four or five academies train there. We have tennis courts there, basketball courts… you just go in, and it’s free. We have a Multi Purpose Hall where basketball is going on; there’s a section for gymnastics; you can even go there in the evening.
Look at Surulere Stadium, 19 years abandoned; we are trying to bring it back. We are leveraging on private funding, CSR. So, we don’t determine how the person releases the money. The person has done 65 per cent and then there was a delay. The pitch is ready; the digital scoreboard has been installed already. The track, we didn’t know it’s bad. So, we’ve excavated it, we are doing a brand new track; I can share the pictures that came to me on Monday and Tuesday. We hope to leverage some extra funding from the government to complement with what we are doing. The stands, that’s critical; we need about N1.4 billion to do it because it’s no longer FIFA compliant, it’s been abandoned for so long. Once we are able to do that, at least the main bowl is ready. The lighting system, all the cables stolen completely, so we have to find a way to do the new lighting system. Then, we open it up and start to generate revenue; that revenue is ploughed back into its maintenance. You see, it might look like small progress, but it is progress, because for 19 years there was zero progress and then we see this ongoing.
We hope that under the National Development Plan, the 2021 – 2025 National Development Plan approved last year, for the first time, the President reclassified sports as business. For the first time, they gave us a seat at the table of the ARPG, where they allocate resources and we have N88billion for sports, N60billion for youths in the next four years. It has never happened before. We also want to change that orientation; we need to move our sports from recreation to sports as business.
Our memo to council is ready. We are submitting a new draft, National Sports Industry Policy that has a built-in model, a business model built into our sports with three triggers. What are the triggers? One is infrastructure. Without infrastructure, you can’t talk of sports as business and you can’t get the best athletes coming in. If you have the right infrastructures, athletes from other countries will come and train. They will train with our athletes; we don’t have to go out all the time. Why should we go to Kenya if we have a private firm that can develop our High Performance Centres in Jos, Mambilla? We have them. All we need is just to maintain them and upgrade them. So, infrastructure is the first of the three ‘Is’.
The second ‘I’ is investment. Government needs to make a onetime investment, like a marshal plan, for sports. We did an audit and found out that we have 126 sporting facilities across the country, but less than 20 of them are functional. Afuze training camp for instance, our boxers and athletes that rule the world came out from Afuze, Edo State. Afuze is a shadow of its former self. We’ve made a case to Mr President and Afuze is going to be back very soon. Mambilla also will be back very soon. All of that is built into the sports policy, if we get that marshal onetime injection.
We’ve classified our sporting assets into three: Some of them are dead; we need to sell them off. Some need renovation, as such we need to renovate, equip and make them functional. The last part is the ones we need to rebuild into new ones to keep up with the pace of development.
The third ‘I’ is incentive: Infrastructure, Investment and Incentive. Every private sector person is looking for ROI, Return on Investment. I have met people and asked why don’t you invest in sports, why don’t you invest in this football club? They said, show me the ROI (Return on Investment). So, because if you don’t have a code of governance, if you don’t have a business model, if you don’t have a governance structure, if you don’t have a regime of enforcement, a legal regime that works such that when you invest, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Nigerian or not.
The clubs in the UK (United Kingdom), the EPL (European Premier League), most of those that invest, are they Britons? No! It is the money that you invest there. We want to change all of that and it is embedded in the policy itself. But, even before the policy is approved, you’ve seen the efforts we’ve been trying to make to ensure that we are compliant in those areas.
So, with the investment from government, investment from the private sector, you will have those three triggers working. For incentives, there must be tax holiday in single digits. So, even as an athlete, you must be able to get scholarship. That is if you are an athlete and are schooling, you should be able to approach the bank, show proof that you are an athlete and be able to get soft loans. It is part of what is built in there.
Thus, we developed the value chain of sports in that sport policy and you will be shocked what is on the value chain. The sports science is where those medical doctors and the rest will benefit. Then, there is merchandising: The jerseys, the shorts, the stockings, the boots, the sneakers and the rest come in. We will also have a lot of manufacturing going on. We need to employ a lot of youths to work there.
When the products come out, you get distributors, wholesalers, retailers and they open up shops. You get the schools, about 6,000 schools and you just need 3,000 of them to start playing inter-schools sports. They will all need to buy jerseys, one set, two sets… This is what has been tested elsewhere. But, it needs government to inject the funds, to give the requisite incentives needed. It needs the ministry to develop a code of governance and a business model that ensures that it is better to put my $1million in sports than to put it in cement production.
However, if I feel that if I put $1million into sports it would go down the drain and if I put it in cement, I could get 35 per cent returns on my investment, I will stay with cement. So, we must make sports attractive, we must build in a governance structure that is firm and build in a legal regime so that your investment is protected. That is the point we are now.
In the whole gamut of what you have enumerated, problem of policy implementation always revolve around timelines and deliverables, have you set down on these?
Yes; you know this National Sports Industry Policy, I inherited the process. What I did was to accelerate and deepen it. The conversation around it predated my appointment. When you talk to NESG (Nigeria Economic Summit Group), they started talking about it almost eight to nine years ago. The heat, a success path went for the very first time at the NESG a special section was now created for sports as business and that was just about the time I came in. Then, we took it from there, brought in all the stakeholders, had technical sessions, brought in ministries and parastatals and then went round.
Stakeholders’ matrix in sports is very broad and it is going through fine-tuning. When the first draft came out, we put it out in the open and people criticised it. We said just give us feedback. We took that feedback and put it together, and at the point when I was satisfied, I made a presentation in council (Federal Executive Council). After that presentation 18 months ago, the council decided to say sports is now reclassified as business. All it needed was therefore, the policy.
So in that parlance, we talk about the three ‘I’s and one P-infrastructure, incentive and investment- the P is the policy that will drive it. Now, the expectation is that, once you put a policy in place, it will be implemented. We are also deliberate about the short term, medium and the long terms. But you look at our story and our approach cannot be different. If Nigeria really wants to be a leader when it comes to sports, I am not even saying football, we must do the thing other nations do, we might not do everything, but we must be in sync.
The UK, through sports as business, develops value-chain supported by government, brings in about $35billion revenue every year. In the US $42billion, in Canada $27billion, sports is business, because they calculate it and it is audited as business. Manufacturing lines, production, athletes also get grants, agents are there. You can just copy and paste, but you need the political will and the policy, then you need the incentives.
I think that if nothing at all, what happened at the World’s Championship and the Commonwealth Games has given us a new feeling to pursue this. The government also sees that if we invest in our athletes, invest in our facilities, invest in our sports deliberately, we can get results. How much more the one that you cannot really place a price on; the moment we achieve national unity and cohesion, those moments of sporting glory.
Investors always express concern about the influence of politics in policy implementation in Nigeria. How much interference will partisan politics bring to this broad-based policy?
The issue of interference comes in when the lines are not clearly defined. I was, in my former life, in the telecommunication industry. I was a federal executive commissioner in charge of stakeholder’s management, so I was basically the administrator of MTN (Mobile Telecommunications of Nigeria), Airtel, all the big telecom companies, but also all the others that are just into data sales.
The NCC (Nigeria Communications Commission) is a regulator; they regulate the telecommunication industry. So, you can stretch it to say the Ministry of Youths and Sports, because we set policies and directions of sports, we also have some level of regulatory power. They have their own laws; they have a set of regulations. But then, for that industry, they develop the code of governance and got everybody subscribe to it; that sets the rule of engagement. If the rules are clear, what is interference?
You know that where you rights stops, my own begins. You know I have responsibilities, but when people try to cloud it, you take money from government, you wear our national colours, you sing our national anthem, and our flag and you say the President and the Minister and the Federal Government cannot tell you what to do in the interest of Nigeria, you say it‘s interference?
Also, when it is business, you know it is about the money and if you don’t do it right, you will lose money. If you violate the laws and you get away with it, somebody else will violate it and it will impact on your revenue. It is when you don’t have a governance structure, a legal regime. But when you know that you can sue and be sued, you will be careful. Government inoculate some of our agencies and the rest, the moment you take them up, that they can sue you and you can be sued, you are going to sit up, because your board can just be sacked by the court and that’s it. So, we have tried to put together a tight procedure, benchmarked against what we have seen in other parts of the world.
The question of interference, we’ve seen the telecom sector, it has survived so far. When there is a disagreement, you see the parties come together; nobody shouts interference. The government gives you the licence and then government says the licence we gave you, we need to do this in national interest, you say interference, government will withdraw. You choose whether to obey the adjustment or you return the licence. You have to return the licence or you go and create your own country.
Let me bring it home, the bane of our sports development is this issue of interference, intervention and politics. The politics around it affects the athletes and also affects our fortune as a country. That is why we developed a code of governance for all the federations. The moment there is a departure, when you see crisis, it is because federations have departed from certain provisions of that code of governance.
In this case, this is an economic decision. Sports as business, it has a legal regime; government will not interfere in the real sense of interference, because it is business. We show our books, you want us to operate here, you must allow us to work according to the rules that are set in the book.
What are the major positive takeaways from the recent Commonwealth Games?
For me, it shows that beyond football, this country is great in other sports. It shows that Nigeria is on a return journey to those epochal days of sporting glory in athletics, in boxing, in weightlifting and in several other sports. We have seen the ascendency of para-sports dominating our sports. Whatever gold we get there is the same thing. For me, it is a new generation of young people- the average age of the athletes we took to the games this time, which was what it was before. At age 21, 22, you still have five, six years of optimum podium performance for your country. Almost 80 per cent of our athletes this time fall within that rank. Some are just coming up. In fact, some of them are still in the intermediate level; some just went to Commonwealth, the big stage, for the first time.
So, a new generation of athletes that can take this country up for the next six years. That really excites me, because competitions like the Commonwealth is a discovery ground. We have seen some of them; some, may be didn’t get medals, but we know that by the time they go to All African Games and we do what is right for them, they will do it. By the time they go to France 2024, they are ready. So, the brighter future of our sports is for me the greatest outcome of the Commonwealth Games.
What do you see as a major challenge to actualising this plan, because while planning you also look at the realities?
First is funding. We need a reset. When you only fund sports in an episodic manner- there is Commonwealth, you release money; there is All African Games, you release money; there is Olympics, you release money… that is not sports development. Sports development is from grassroots; it has various aspects.
Grassroots sports development is deliberate. It is an ecology: school sports is taking place, national principal cup is taking place, inter-collegial sports is taking place, NUGA (National University Games) is taking place, because you have a constellation of talents just coming up. And, the federations, their national coaches are scouting and picking the best from the inter-school sports, collegial sports and NUGA. They are picking the best, that is what used to happen in the past and then you have graduation.
I use football as an example. The Under-17, looking at those talents, you don’t let them go. You graduate them to Under-20, to the Super Eagles. That is what we had before. That is the pipeline we must return to, but then, it is also funding. We must return to proper funding for sports development. You always get money to go to Commonwealth. That money comes two months before the games. What happens in the intervening years of two years, when you need to prepare these athletes?
So, we’ve tried to reorient our development in sports to say, we must fund sports development. When it is seen that nobody is noticing, the hard work of development is taking place. So, funding- consistent funding- a return to sports development, and not just funding competitions alone.
Two, athletes’ welfare is critical. If you want an athlete to devote 20hours every week to training, you must provide him/her a source of revenue. You must provide grants and support. That is why the IOC (International Olympic Committee) charter, there is this scholarship scheme for athletes that are in the elite class.
As we speak, 14 Nigerians athletes have benefited from the IOC and NOC (National Olympic Committee). And, you know, NOC is under government. Working with the NOC, the federation and the ministry, there are 14 of our athletes who have scholarships, because they are Nigerian athletes and they are on Team Nigeria.
Let me surprise you, Ese Brume and Tobi Amusan have been on this NOC, IOC scholarship going into the third year. As we speak, they will continue to receive $1,000 every month until France 2024. As we speak in the last two years, there is a volume of money that has been credited to them along with 12 others. We intend to get IOC to expand on that.
But, this country must also develop such a grand system, because IOC can’t take all of them for us. We have developed it; it is built into the National Sports Industry Policy when it comes to athlete welfare and training. Independent Athlete Welfare Fund; that is what we call it in the sports industry policy.
In the Independent Athlete Welfare Fund, we argued for onetime seed money by government to get the fund started. We will be independent, those that will run it will be carefully selected. They will develop the criteria and they will benchmark it with what IOC is doing. Most of our athletes are student athletes. You get the best products out of student athletes. Look at the NCAA circuit, the performance from Mary Onyali and the rest. They came from the college NCAA circuit, but they need some scholarship. They need some educational grant to stay in school, keep running and develop their skills.
So, if that fund is created and we get the seed funding, develop the criteria, you can imagine how many people will be lining up to say, ‘I need the grant, I have this talent, I can go to school and also run.’
All these things seem to be in a closet, does the ministry make efforts to ensure that athletes or emergent champions do not second-guess government incentives?
First, awareness is important. And, beyond the interviews I have granted and what we have done, if you look at the sheer audacity of some of our initiatives in the last three years, you will know what we are about. Some of them will not give us the final results; they are not expected to. I will give you two clear examples.
Part of our core mandate is to develop grassroots sports. We saw that that was not serving us as well as possible. So, we coined what we called THP- the Talent Hunt Programme. We said from age eight, any young talented person that we find, we will put them on our talent hunt programme. The money is not much, but once you are in it, we give you one time N250,000- subsidy for your education, but the Ministry is available to support you to attend competitions as the need arises.
We have almost a dozen young people in different sports. Just recently, a young girl that won medal in gymnastics, the 11year old girl who won gold, was here with the mother. Shekinat, the 10year old boxer, who is getting better by the day; Idin, they call him the fish, a swimmer. So, imagine if we are able to swell the ranks of those talents. That is what great countries do.
I keep saying we must catch them young. We also say that here, but we must give effect to it. We tried to give effect to it through the Talent Hunt Programme. I maintain that the gold is in the child. It is from childhood you train them. The William sisters, when did they start? That is when the gold started. Late Kobe Bryant of blessed memory; there are so many of them. It cannot be different for our country. You don’t pluck them at age 19 and then you think they will rule the world. So, the talent hunt programme is going on; it is a bold initiative.
The adopt initiative that we brought, it came out of research to say, the only way is to take away any middleman, get help directly to those that need help. Then, we said government couldn’t give that kind of money. We’ve found out that our athletes had compelling credentials, they were marketable, they were sellable; they were pitch able. Nigerians will say, you mean this athlete is number five in the entire world and he is Nigerian? Yes. They will offer to support the person and we say give the person the money.
If you give us your wife’s name or your husband’s name, you will not get the money. If you give us your mother’s name, you will not get the money. Not even your grandfather’s name, the money must come to you directly. If you don’t have an account, you will go and open one and then sign the MoU (Memorandum of Understanding). We’ve seen the impact of that.
We’ve also been deliberate in the sense that this Ministry has been responsive to picking up the medical bills, unless you don’t tell us. The first person we took care of cost us $35,000; a female national basketball player. She got injured playing and then she was left at the Moshood Abiola Stadium; they couldn’t raise money and she was just there vegetating away. I saw her and asked what she was doing there and she said they are trying to raise money for her, for how long?
I talked to a governor, (Senator Arthur) Okowa, who gave $10,000, the Ministry struggled to raise $20,000, we needed another $5,000. $35,000 sent her to Dubai, three months she came back. Now, she is one of the top scorers in our female basketball team. Some of these stories we tell, but people don’t stay on the stories, they stay on the negative stories.
We went to Olympics, Adegoke Oritse and the rest. I was watching them and saw that they had problems and sent them back to Germany, to see their doctors and asked that they send us the bill. We fixed the three of them. From the Commonwealth Games, we had two or three people going for surgery and we are picking up the bills. It is government’s money; it is not my personal money. So, we are creating a culture of welfare care and that is what great countries do for their athletes.
And then, we talk about the need to set up an independent welfare scheme. I think with all these bold efforts, we are also consciously trying to build a sustainable model and that is where the policy comes in, because it ties in everything. And, once this government shows the political will of approving that policy, we can now use the policy to have a subhead in our budget to ask for money.
The Ministry of Youths and Sports is the least funded ministry. Our funding comes as the fourth lowest. But, in the last three years, we’ve seen a President who understands the power of sports. He is also committed to the youth and I must say this for the record: For the first time, you see a President approving N75billion for youth investment funds. He said, ‘look for young Nigerians who are entrepreneurs, who have ideas and give them some start-up funds between N250,000, N3million to N5million, with a moratorium of two to three years to pay back at five per cent digit.’
Under the COVID, the President approved N5.6billion for digital training in about 15 different areas. So, you’ve seen our youth budget go from less than N1billion to N25billion per year. That is massive. We are in the second year. Of course, we’ve not accessed all the monies, but as I speak, close to 30,000 youths are benefiting from the Nigerian Youth Investment Fund. We have the data; we will share it with you.
We’ve also seen the quick support we get for our funding when it comes to competitions, because it can’t go into our budget. We rely on presidential intervention, which is at the pleasure of Mr President. Never has he turned us down. You know that between approval and cash backing, there is a gap. The fact that you have a presidential approval, (Ministry of) Finance will have to look for the money. Don’t forget that there are many parastatals and ministries. So, sometimes, you stand in line. But then, we’ve also seen a Ministry of Finance that is responsive in seeing the sports territory as different.
We have Federation Presidents, who oftentimes, have to pay using their own resources and then come back three months after, when we have the money to pay them. But, I think we’ve seen a paradigm shift from a responsive government and president, the opening of resources through presidential interventions to support our sports and our athletes. We hope that as we move to the next budget cycle, we will get more funding.
But, I think the most revolutionary is the fact that for the first time in the National Development Plan, sports as business got a seat at the table. And the allocation of N88billion to sport development, N60billion to youth development, never happened before. That is it. What other sustainable model are you looking for? It is about the funding, then about the people that will operate and use the funding for the programmes. So, the programmes have been created, the funding line is coming up.
In your assessment, do you look at quantum or quality?
First, I am a minimalist; I am not a maximalist. And, as a minimalist, I am a realist. I’d rather prefer to run five years and achieve than say I want to run 100years and collapse. If I want to mix some kind of chemicals to see whether it will serve as a cough mixture, I will mix a small volume, test it and see how it works, then I will now do it. So, I am a minimalist and that makes me a realist.
But, within that context, people also see minimalists as non-courageous, timid, no! It comes from training and from dealing with hard facts. In the past, we went with 25 sports to the Olympics, to the Commonwealth. I want to speak to it directly from the point of sports. This time, we went with nine sports. I said ‘wait, let’s be smart about this.’ Let us look for the areas in which we have competitive advantage. What are the sports that brought us glory in the last four rounds of Commonwealth consistently? We found five or six sports; the others brought nothing.
So, we said, let’s also benchmark all of our athletes in Team Nigeria, where do they place in terms of ranking and rating? If you are below 50, your chance of getting a medal is 0.00001, because at those competitions, only three slots matter: First, second and third. I said we have no business taking somebody who is in a particular sport and he is ranked 150 in the world.
Nations go to Commonwealth Games oftentimes to compete and win medals. So, we decided on going with nine sports, where we had good ranking, good athletes, and where the possibility and the potentials of good performance were higher. As such, we didn’t waste resources on those other sports. It is not that those other people don’t matter, because they will eventually climb; but we have enough programmes. If you can’t go to Commonwealth, you will go to All African Games. If you can’t go to All African Games, you come to National Sports Festival. If you can’t make that one, we put you in National Youth Games and all other youths’ competitions.
So, we went with nine sports, believing in quality. If it was quantity, I will go with 21 sports. We saw that for the first time, Nigeria went with the smallest Team Nigerian contingent and had the highest medal haul. When you look at the ratio of the sports and the contingents and the ratio of the medals you won, you will see it.
So, we live in a smart world. There is smart thinking around sports and that is what we are trying to apply. You see, it is not also in the function of the money you have, if you have the money, you must also spend it smartly, that is one.
Two, if you have the money, you must justify the way you spend it. I am saying the same thing, but I am trying to say it differently, because people just think our sports are just about money. If I have the money and I don’t have athletes that are qualified and can bring glory to this country, I will lock down the money. I will move that money to say, ‘okay: Can we train them, can we get a better coach for them, can we get a better facility for them, can we send them to higher performance centres,’ that is another way of plugging the money, because eventually, it is going to come around. So, I am a minimalist, I am a realist, I believe in quality above quantity.
It gladdened my heart when Commonwealth happened. Twice before it was concluded, President Muhammadu Buhari issued statements. You need to read those statements, very inspiring, very personal, coming from a President who was watching what was happening. He said, ‘I am watching you, I am seeing you make this country proud, I expect you will do more and I will see you when you get back.” When that happened, he issued another statement. That is the primacy of sports. We’ve seen sports being pushed up in the scheme of things.