‘Nigeria’s sports need honest leadership, not system, to grow’
‘We need to go back to sports commission model’
Sport is one aspect of human existence that has continuously evolved. All over the world, the sports sector has emerged from a recreational activity to a way of life that provides riches beyond the dreams of talented youngsters, mostly from poor backgrounds, and creates jobs for many others working in its support services.
From the analogue system of the Greek Olympic days, sport has grown to an industry that employs the most sophisticated technology to build modern day athletes and create state of the art theatres for talented youngsters to display their skills.
Sport has also become a big tool for international diplomacy, with countries flaunting their citizens talents at major international competitions to boost their images.
Such countries as the United States, Russia, Jamaica, China, Kenya, Ethiopia, Germany, South Africa, Brazil, Great Britain, Australia and Italy pride themselves as world leaders not only because of their advancement in technology and their huge per capita income, but also because of their dominance in major international sporting events.
Over the years, the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, Canada, Kenya, Jamaica and Ethiopia, among others, have dominated the Olympic Games and major athletics championships, just as Brazil, Italy, France, Germany, Argentina, England, Spain, and Holland are the world leaders in football’s World Cup.
Nigeria was once among the top 10 athletics countries of the world, with the country almost always in the final of every major competition from independence and up until the early 2000s.
When the country celebrated its 60th independence anniversary, most sport historians who went through the country’s performance over this period lamented the great slide in the nation’s sports development, with many concluding that the period from 1998 to the present has been the worst in its sports development. the general consensus has remained that Nigerian sports has failed to live up to its full potentials as the country’s sportsmen and women have been blowing hot and cold at international competitions since Independence.
At the attainment of independence in 1960, Nigeria took its first major step towards sports development in 1971 when it set up the National Sports Commission with some of the brightest sports administrators as its custodians. The National Sports Commission gave birth in 1976 to the Nations Sports Festival, which from the first 20 years served as the big stage where sportsmen and women from all corners of the country came to display their talents. It became a big avenue for the discovery of young talents who later blossomed to the international stage.
Unfortunately, the National Sports Festival has been so watered down that it has now become a jamboree where states recruit mercenaries to win and justify the moneys their governments spend on sports annually. The National Sports Festival, formerly meant to hold every two years, has also suffered scheduling problems due to the inability of some hosts to stage the event within the stated period.
As it is in many other aspects of the Nigeria’s life, sport has suffered its unfair share of maladministration and neglect exacerbated by the government’s penchant to appoint politicians who know little or nothing about the sector to administer it. Analysts believe that one of the biggest blows to the country’s sports development was dealt by the immediate sports minister, Solomon Dalung, who scrapped the National Sports Commission and allowed all manner of civil servants to populate the decision-making rank of the sector.
The result is that both human and material resources have been mismanaged such that in recent times, Nigeria has failed to attend major developmental competitions, which would have given the country’s young talents the opportunity to hone their skills and test their strengths against their peers from all over the world.
However, there seems to be a gradual but steady reversal in the country’s lost fortunes at the international scene due mainly to efforts of a few individuals and federations. Chief among these federations are basketball, wrestling, taekwondo and boxing, which have been trying to make up for lost grounds through the efforts of their leadership and the current administration at the sports ministry.
For the first time in Nigeria’s participation at the Olympics, the country’s men and women basketball teams will feature at the Games next year in Tokyo, all other things being equal. Apart from basketball, wrestling, boxing and taekwondo show promise of sports that will break the medals jinx that has dogged Nigeria since the London 2012 Games.
According to former Nigerian football captain, Segun Odegbami, there are signs of new lease of life in the country’s sports, which has been floundering since 1990.
Odegbami, who has managed some of the country’s brightest stars to global success, said, however, that it would take a whole lot of things to change for the country to regain its place among the biggest sporting nations of the world.
He said, “The truth is that in the 1990s sports lost their innocence, independence and direction, and became a weapon of destruction and exploitation in the hands of a few administrators who had agenda different from those of developing the youth of the country, encouraging mass participation at all levels, combining sports with education in the schools, encouraging sports and education through provision of scholarships in tertiary institutions, exposing the best talents to the best coaching, training and competition at home and abroad, training the trainers for capacity building, and rewarding all those that excelled.”
According to Odegbami, Nigeria has to return to grassroots to discover talents and then employ well trained coaches to nurture them and bring out the champions in them. He added: “There is one thing most Nigerians are in agreement with – things are not very well with the state of the country. Given Nigeria’s huge resources and capacity, the country should be in a much better place and condition than it has been since ‘freed’ from the shackles of British rule in 1960. But the country is not. Instead, in 2020, she is bleeding, groaning and wailing under the weight and siege of insecurity and under-development in virtually all sectors.
“In my humble experience, one of the very few human activities that has defied the divides in society, and have actually now developed immunity against the vagaries of human prejudices – race, religion, economy and social status – is Sport. Through most of modern history, sport has sustained and prospered in relative peace and friendship.
“Understanding why this is so does not require a degree in the social sciences. Sport is a very powerful tool for human relations. In Nigeria, no other activity drives the unity of Nigerians as does sport.
“Why governments still do not appreciate the power of sport to impact society, and do not enlist it as a priority area to solve some hitherto intractable social challenges really perplexes me. The evidence of its efficacy is all around us. It is manifested when Nigeria goes for international sports events, particularly football. It is manifested in the passionate, almost fanatical following by Nigerians of footballers and clubs in European football. It is manifested in the patronage of betting shops and viewing centres in every nook and cranny of the country. It is manifested in the largest migration of African athletes abroad in search of greener pastures.
“In Nigeria, the passion for sport, particularly football, has transcended all differences and divides. So, why is it not deployed as a weapon for mass mobilization, for youth engagement and empowerment, for job creation, to douse societal tensions, to forge genuine friendships, to enforce peace, and to unite the people beyond when they watch or play games together? Why can sport not become a candle to light up the political space, to show people how they can come around a common cause and mission, fight as a team, win or lose together, and live in mutual peace thereafter? Why?”
He believes that through sport Nigeria can become one of the greatest countries on earth. “The formula is simple and inexpensive. The country only needs to THINK outside of the conventional box, glean and utilize the opportunities that exist around her but are wasting away in ignorance and lack of understanding.”
Former Director General of the defunct National Sports Commission, Dr. Patrick Ekeji, also believes the country needs the return of the NSC to move the sector forward.
He suggested that the only way the country’s sports could return to its days of glory was for the Sports Commission to be reintroduced into the Sports Ministry with experts constituting the board.
“The history of sports in the country is still hanging, and my own opinion is that the correct structure for sports administration and management should be put in place. The strongest structure for the management of sports in the country is the return of the National Sports Commission.
“In the light of today’s knowledge and in the light of what sports could do for a people, if the commission is returned with terms of reference, the people that will constitute the board will partly be the best within the profession. And these people can operate under a political minister because the board knows where it is going as the chairman of the board and the minister will always sort themselves for the betterment of sports in the country,” he said.
Ekeji, a former International continues: “Just as you have the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), National Institute of Sports Commission (NIS), the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), that are under the Ministry of Sports and Development to function, so also the ministry needs the NSC to carry out its duty.
“You need an NSC under the ministry when certain decisions are to be taken, especially approvals that can only be done at the Federal Executive Council.
“So, if we have an NSC that is in charge of the management of sports, the job of the minister is to take such issues to the executive council because it is only the minister that can do so. And if there are grey areas that require inputs, the chairman of the board of NSC will help him out. This is how it is done, because currently, we have a sports industry that does not have a legal backing,” he said.
Former Nigerian tennis champion, Dr. Sadiq Abdullahi, who is also a firm believer in development through the grassroots, wants all stakeholders to join hands in reversing the downward spiral of the country’s sports. He believes getting back to the top would not be so difficult because the country has the human resources needed for greateness.
Going down memory lane, Abdullahi said, “Nigeria inherited organizational structures and leadership styles from the British at independence in 1960. There were high political, economic and social expectations. Sport was recreational and an entertainment. The First Republic politicians were not interested in sports. They wanted self-government and the unity of distinct but diverse peoples and cultures. Their vision was interrupted by the events of the early 1966. The Nigerian civil war from 1967 – 1970 altered the social fabric of the nation in a negative way.
“The success of the late 1970s to the mid- 1990s was in part because of the colonial structures, the relative political peace and economic growth. Nigeria was relatively wealthy due to the abundance of oil. There was a lot oversight of critical social development. The decline and decay started to creep in. We will continue to be behind other nations if we do not address the fundamental problems of leadership and the mismanagement of funds at all levels of society. Nations that have responded well to the global business exigencies will continue to be successful.”
Unlike other stakeholders, Abdullahi does not believe the solution to the country’s problems would be solved by a return to the National Sports Commission. He said the dynamics of sports administration has changed and for the country to make meaningful progress it has to change with the times.
“The defunct National Sports Commission was misconceived, and its priorities and mandates misplaced. When it was upgraded from status of a National Sports Council in the early 1970s, the design was appropriate at the time, and it served the purpose. Today, the approach to sports development, improvement and sustainability has taken a new form. Advanced and industrialized nations do not need a sports authority or commission.
“Sports are in the domain of the private sector. Government provides the facilities and the legislation. The National Council of Sports should be restructured and could take the function of a sports commission. Once we allow politics to be in the administration of sports, we have lost the essence of its creation. I would strongly recommend a robust national debate across the six geo-political zones before I will support the return,” he said.
Moving forward, Abdullahi believes that the 2020 National Sports Industry Policy, when approved by government, would guide the country to sustainable sports development.
According to the U.S.-based professor, “Some aspects of the policy could become law. The policy when approved by President Muhammadu Buhari will become a Guideline or Framework for organising our sports as a business. As you know, the first step, the recategorization of sports, has been achieved. This is where I give the Honorable Minister Mr. Sunday Dare a lot of credit. His vision and commitment to the sports sector is apparent and clear.
“The nation has learned how to do things right. Sports can contribute to cultural, economic, social development through public and private engagement. There is the need for the Nigerian Olympic Committee (NOC) to be strengthened to empower all the national sports federations to function effectively.”