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Sports and youth unemployment in Nigeria


Athletes competing for honour at a recent championship in Abuja.

Sports in all its ramifications is said to be the second largest employer of labour in the world, coming only behind Information Computer Technology (ICT). However, this fact appears to be lost to all levels of the Nigerian government, leaders, institutions and other decision makers with the capacity or responsibility to allocate funds or provide the enabling environment for youth engagement and empowerment through sports.

Take a look around the world at any given weekend, especially during the soccer seasons and see how many young men and women are engaged or empowered financially. From the millions of youth who are empowered competing or engaged watching the competitions, to jobs generated by these events – food and refreshment, ticketing, private security, manufacturers of equipment and apparel, sports lotteries, sports media, medical support, technical support and logistics, marketers, promoters, managers – just to mention a few.

Besides being such a huge employment generating industry, sports is a veritable resource for containing crime as the New York case study enunciated by ex-Mayor David Dinkins and espoused in my book, “Youth Engagement and empowerment through Sports” showed. Among other sporting measures, the New York mayor instituted and scheduled basketball games through the night when most of the crimes took place. That move reduced the crime rate very, very, significantly. It is in the public domain that 65 per cent of deviant youth worldwide come from homes with no father figures or responsible single mothers. For such youth who find solace in sports, a good coach or team manager fills that gap.


Many nations are designing competitions to reward talent, skill, endurance and discipline in some unconventional sports events like skate boarding, jumping down cliffs, climbing mountains, motorbike and car stunts through difficult terrains – anything that will engage and challenge jobless men and women, give them some self-worth and turn them into millionaires and superstars.

According to the World Sports Encyclopedia (2003) there are 8000 indigenous sports and sporting games in the world. Think recreational, amateur and professional participants; think equipment and apparel; think officiating officials; think administrators and think promoters and sponsors and you begin to wonder why a nation with such a vibrant but jobless and derailing youth population has not turned to sports as a major platform for engaging and empowering our youth.

There are about 42 sporting federations under the Ministry of Sports. Imagine for a moment that each one of them had junior, intermediate and senior leagues from local government, State to national levels. How many boys and girls, young men and women will be productively engaged?

Instead, we have an unhealthy, contrived hype of football as the No.1 sport and the nation’s ‘unifier’ by most of the administrators and state governments with the overriding motive of using it as conduit pipe for syphoning funds to personal pockets. While we are busy running around football like headless chicks, our smaller neighbours, Cote d’Ivoire   and Senegal are producing world-class footballers from well-structured and well-run soccer academies. The “great footballing nation” Nigeria, does not have one academy worth that name.

In my first book “Sports Administration in Nigeria” launched in 1990 by MKO Abiola of blessed memory, I said Nigeria was only ‘servicing sports not developing it.” Nothing has changed! Most federations sniff out competitions in every imaginable part of the world and spend millions of naira attending them. They come back with nothing enduring to show for most of the trips. Such funds should have been better utilised to establish structures, systems and standards that will establish and grow the sports industry – build world class boxing gyms, indoor sports halls and renovate and upgrade the national stadium in Lagos for example.

Sports is the one field that can transform a ‘street urchin’ to a dollar millionaire – ask Mike Tyson. The combined earnings or worth, if you like, of the top 20 richest sportsmen and women in the world is probably more than Nigeria’s annual budget. You do not have to have a ‘godfather’ or know somebody in government or the national assembly to be in that league. A talented boxer who is ready to put in the hard work and make the necessary sacrifice can become a dollar millionaire in a flash like the Mexican boxer Andy Ruiz Jr., who beat Anthony Joshua and called his mother from the ring to say something to the effect, “Mum, our lives have changed for good, I love you.”

So we put in perspective why we need a deliberate and concerted effort to provide the enabling environment and facilitate the nurturing and motivation of the many sporting talents that abound in Nigeria, the top 20 richest athletes in the world in 2019 are as follows:

Vince Mcmahon, professional wrestler $2.2 billion; Ion Tiriac former professional tennis and Ice hockey player (raised Boris Becker) $2 billion; Michael Jordan (basketball) $1.7 billion; Michael Schumacher (Racing) $800 million; Tiger woods (Golf) $800 million; Magic Johnson (Basketball) $600 million; Roger Staubach (American Football) $600 million; Floyd Mayweather (Boxing) $565 million; Kobe Bryant (Basketball) $500 million; Eddie Jordan (Race Car) $475 million; David Beckham (footballer) $450 million and Roger Federer (Tennis) $450 million.

The other top 20 richest sports men are: Christiano Ronaldo (Footballer) $450 million; Lebron James (Basketball) $400 million; Michael Buffer (MC for boxing & Wrestling etc) $400 million; Shaquille O’neal (Basketball) $400 million; Lionel Messi (Football) $400 million; Bud Selig (Baseball) $400 million; Phil Mickelson (Golf) $400 million; Vinnie Johnson (Basketball) $400 million. Go down the list and you will find athletes such as Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt.

This tells us how diverse and lucrative sports is. Nigeria, as a country, should be exporting sporting talents around the world given our natural abilities, our weather, our foods and our resources. Kenyan athletes, especially the long distance runners, are contributing to their country’s GDP very significantly. Brazil is exporting footballers and tennis is now a huge industry in Russia. Rather than our youth go through the Libyan Desert and Mediterranean Sea slave routes to Europe they would be sent first class tickets by teams and clubs around the world.

If we truly care about our youth and unemployment, we should be investing some of our recovered loot to challenge them to sporting excellence. As chairman of the Sports Reform Committee we had made recommendations as to how that will work. I had also, personally, made submissions as to how to challenge our youth to sporting excellence and to attract private direct investment. This money would go 100 per cent to the sports men and women if they hit certain heights with no dime going to administration or logistics or any such avenues that accommodate misapplication of the funds. It is still hanging!

If you think this is ‘regular talk’, it is in the public domain that the work of the Sports Reform Committee – meetings and workshops in various cities, air tickets, comfort and honorarium for resource persons, printing and publishing of the report etc. – was done by a passionate and selfless team with contributions from private sports loving individuals and organisations with no kobo from government.

Sports is a goldmine for our youth and the private sector is waiting for trusted and selfless hands. All we need is a little stimulus from government and having someone who appreciates the nexus between sports, crime and unemployment and, most importantly, has the knowledge, capacity and passion to drive it, is key.

Kienka is former chairman, Sports Reform Committee.


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