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The Military in Nigerian sports – An unhealthy ‘divorce’

By Segun Odegbami
07 May 2022   |   12:50 am
History is a very important subject. A people that wants to make rapid progress in development must take useful lessons from the pages of their history, using previous experiences as a compass into the labyrinthian complexities ...

Segun Odegbami

History is a very important subject. A people that wants to make rapid progress in development must take useful lessons from the pages of their history, using previous experiences as a compass into the labyrinthian complexities of uncharted territory that the future is.

Nigerian sport is replete with the stories and contributions of individuals and institutions. One of the greatest contributors to sports development is the military (and, by extension, para-military establishments). As a disciplined force, the military provided the cutting edge as well as ready platforms needed for optimum physical and mental development of athletes. They had the institutions in place that became excellent breeding grounds for athletes across most sports in Nigeria, from even before Independence in 1960.

Of course, producing athletes was not part of their primary mandates, but by the coincidence of responsibilities with sports associations, to train and breed physically fit young men and women, a mutually beneficial convergence of intentions between them developed.

The situation was harnessed by eagle-eyed sports associations to compliment their own primary responsibility of organising programmes and competitions for their members. They interested the military institutions to register and participate in regional and national competitions.

That’s how the Military set up sports clubs within their formations around the country that registered with State and national associations to participate in their programmes and competitions – Tigers of Benin, Super Two in Ibadan, The Scorpions in Jos, Dodan Warriors in Lagos, Lagos Garrison Organisation FC, Police Machine, etc. These clubs across various sports became household names and bona fide members of the sports associations, churning out a steady stream of stars and sports heroes: Jaiye Ajiboye, Sam Igun, David Ejoke, Taiwo Ogunjobi, Ifeajuna, Davidson Andeh, Obisa Nwakpa, Nojeem Maiyegun, Joe Lasisi, Kenneth Olayombo, Sunny Oyarekhua, Samuel Ojebode, Kadiri Ikhana, Inua Lawal Rigogo, Joseph Agbogbovia, Rufus Ejele, Sunday Bada, Chioma Ajunwa, Waziri Ibrahim, and many more.

The Military formations had the advantage of their inherent institutionalised discipline and steady funding from the Federal Government of Nigeria to build first-class sports infrastructure and facilities, with highest-level capacity building programmes for all their personnel involved in physical training and sports development.

National sports associations were the biggest beneficiaries. It was a glorious relationship because the military provided what most sports associations could not, for proper training of athletes for national competitions.

When the military took over governance in the country, the relationship became even closer, and roles and responsibilities morphed and became unitary. Military personnel became more directly involved in the administration of associations and started to lead several of them by fiat, and often, also, by the merit of the scale of their contributions to the running of domestic sport.

With the return to democratic civilian dispensation in the late 1990s, the influence of the military started to wane as they retired more and more into their barracks and seclusive military interests, leaving a vacuum in the relationship that blunted the very important roles the military can continue to play in national sports development even in a civilian dispensation.

Without serious involvement any more, the facilities and personnel that once fuelled sports development for over 3 decades gradually disappeared from the prevailing structures and the whole of sport was the worse for it.

Today, the military clubs, the facilities the military put at the disposition of national associations, and their highly trained personnel have left the sports space and their presence as part of various sports associations has reduced to a trickle. Only one military sports official heads a sports association out of the over 30 in the country.

The result is a big hole in sports development. I am a member of a group looking at re-structuring Nigerian sports for better and faster development. It is shocking that conversations about the relevance of the military, as a constituency took place. The Military? They are a master key to sports development in Nigeria. They must have almost permanent representation on the boards of all national associations. How to make that happen is now the challenge, not if.

The reality is that for as long as Military formations continue to register their clubs in various sports to participate in the competitions and programmes of associations, they will remain bone fide members of those associations, and should have all the rights and privileges that other members have, including the right to contest for leadership positions on the boards of the association.

With the reduction in their participation in national competitions, there is confusion whether to admit the military as a special constituency, and accord them special status as has been ‘illegally’ done for State Sports Associations, SWAN, the Players Union (surprised?), League Management Company, etc. Or to recognise them to the extent of their participation in the sports leagues to which their Military clubs are registered and participate.

A special status consideration is an unwanted development that has afflicted the constitutions of sports associations and is the reason for all the unending crisis in Nigerian sports – badly ‘mutilated’ articles on elections into the boards to accommodate non-members into the Elective Congresses.

That is another matter entirely beyond this article. Not finding a happy medium for the relationship with the military has resulted in the diminishing of their participation in sports development. With less public followership of their own programmes, the military has reduced its interest in developing athletes for the country, and limits most of its programmes to lack-lustre military competitions only.

In Nigeria’s sports history, the military and para-military institutions were big contributors. They had the training, capacity, discipline and structures that churned out the best of athletes in most sports.

Somehow, going forward, the country must go back to the past, to find the way to re-integrate military and paramilitary establishments fully into the main stream of national sports development, so that both constituencies benefit from the relationship.

Some of Nigeria’s finest and most successful sports administrators were the product of a carefully cultivated relationship between the military and civil society for over 4 decades. A short list: General Henry Adefope, General Samuel Ogbemudia, Vice-Admiral Jubril Ayinla, General Sani Kontagora, General Joseph Garba, General Shehu Musa Yar Adua, Air Commodore Emeka Omeruah, Colonel Abdulmumuni Aminu, Air Commodore Anthony Ikhazaboh, General Dominic Oneya, General David Jemibewon, and so on.

The military and para-military leadership must wake up and take sports more seriously than they have been doing in the past two decades. They should re-integrate their formations with the programmes of State and national sports bodies. Not having them actively involved is the squandering of a most useful ‘resource’ in Nigerian sports development.

Any sports reforms must include a careful re-absorption of this crucial demography into a new sports development architecture. Nigerian sports must return to forgotten or neglected pages in Nigeria’s sports history, dust them up, learn from them, and chart a new path into a great future in sports, once again.

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