After four years, Nigerian sports needs fresh elixir

Buhari

When Nigeria failed to win a single medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the country’s sports officials came to the conclusion that something drastic must be done to arrest the steep slide in the nation’s sports fortunes. Heeding calls by stakeholders, the then Sports Minister, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi convinced President Goodluck Jonathan to convene a summit that would address the country’s problems in sports.

The London 2012 Olympic Games was the first competition since the 1988 Games in Seoul that Nigeria would participate in without winning a single medal.

At the summit, all the experts pointed at poor preparation and low morale as the reasons for the country’s shameful performance in London. The general consensus was that for Nigeria to get it right again, the country must drop the fire brigade approach to preparations for major competitions.

However, shortly after the summit, Mallam Abdullahi was removed from office and his successor, Tammy Danagogo, rather than building on the programmes of his predecessor, went about dismantling the paths to success laid by the ‘experts’ at the summit.

First to go was the Nigerian Academicals Sports Committee (NASCOM), which was supposed to champion the youth developmental programme expected to lead the country to the podium in subsequent international competitions.

Following that was the total blackout of the majority of the federations from international competitions, which were supposed to help the athletes gauge their standard, as well as ease the upcoming stars on to the world stage.

The reason for the neglect of the federations was lack of funds, but surprisingly, the resources always managed to be available whenever football had any programme.

With the exit of the Jonathan administration, most of the sports federations heaved a sigh of relief, believing that the new regime would treat all the federations equally. However, such expectations have been tempered by the continued apathy to the needs of the Nigerian sports.

During the former President Goodluck Jonathan administration, there were plans for a dedicated account, where sports and other sectors could go to source funds without waiting for the passage of the yearly budget.

The idea, initiated by the then Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, would have given the sports sector the leeway to plan its programmes without waiting for the federal budget. But that idea seems to have been discarded by the current regime.

However, stakeholders were alarmed when the current Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung scrapped the National Sports Commission (NSC), which they saw as the engine driving Nigerian sports. Sport is now like every other ministry, with a permanent secretary from the Civil Service Commission as its chief executive officer.

In effect, the two principal officers piloting Nigerian sports are ‘outsiders’ not schooled in the ways of the sector. This has reduced the technocrats in the ministry to ‘yes men’, who do only those things assigned to them by the minister or the permanent secretary.

The result is that the country has returned to the pre-London 2012 era, where winning major international competitions have become a mirage.

Many stakeholders in the sector were flabbergasted recently when Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung claimed during a reception for wrestlers that the country was going through a revolution which had put the athletes at par with their peers in developed countries.

He said, “the ongoing revolution in sports in the country, both administratively and in the output of athletes, will in no distant time, make Nigeria a force to reckon with, not only in Africa but globally.”

He admitted, however, that funding was a great challenge to sports, adding, “We appeal to the National Assembly to make adequate budgetary allocations to sport. Sport is no longer a pursuit of leisure but a benchmark for social change and for industrial innovation.” 

Faulting the minister’s claims, Sabinus Ikewuaku, who is a lawyer and sports marketer, said the minister must be talking about another country and not Nigeria.

He said, “Nothing has changed to suggest that Nigeria can now compete with Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco and South Africa, not to talk of the United States, Britain, Australia, Germany and the other developed countries.

“What has thrived in this country for four years are crisis and scandals of humungous proportion. We cannot boast a good sprinter fit for the podium at the 2020 Olympic Games.

“We don’t have quality amateur boxers or weightlifters, who can hold their own in the world. These were some of the events in which Nigeria thrived in our recent past.

“It is less than a year to the next Olympics and we cannot point at any athlete ready to win any medal in Tokyo; and it is even too late in the day to begin to think of planning for the games now.”

Ikewuaku called for the return of the NSC, saying, “Nigerian sports will be better served by those trained in its ways. There are so many experienced technocrats, who can drive the sector successfully.

“They don’t have to be retired athletes only. In so many countries of the developed world, they get people who can market sports to drive the sector and plan with those with the technical skills to get to wherever they want. We should adopt that model here.”

Sports consultant, Prof. Patrick Omo-Osagie believes the country has not learnt much from the failures of the past, adding that nothing has changed.

The Texas-based academic said the current administration has continued the trend of failure in sports because there is no money to drive the sector.

He said, “Let us use the Olympics as the barometer. In the 2008 Olympics in China, Nigeria won bronze medal and in London 2012, we did not win any medal. These were the two Olympics before Buhari came in.

“We were nowhere before Buhari came in just using the Olympics as the measuring stick. The last time we had a national sports festival was in 2012 in Lagos. Before Lagos, it was postponed many times. There has been many shortcomings in Nigerian sports in the last 15 years.

“In football, we missed three AFCON out of five between 2012 and 2019.”

He said the trend of poor funding of sports existed before Buhari, adding that it created big problems in developing and managing the sector.

“I wrote to Dalung when he came to power that to succeed, he should solve the problem of the two national stadia in Abuja and Lagos and also categorise the sports federations such that one can move from cadre to the cadre. That way government will be responsible to only things that matter.

“The problems of our sports just manifested for everybody to see. It hasn’t become any better during Buhari.”

He posited that sports is the least of problems for many countries, adding, “there is no country in the world that sport is an economic driver.

“It is a very minute addition to their GDP even in America that has the largest sports economy. Sports does not contribute close to a trillion dollars in U.S. and America has about 70 per cent of the world sports economy.”

Prof. Omo-Osagie believes the solution to the problems bedeviling the sports sector lies in getting a minister that has the ability to work around the bureaucratic system.

“Attending Olympics and the World Cup successfully means that we need a minister that understands that these are not in the budget and therefore is able to talk to the government to release adequate money to navigate through the hardships.

“Going forward, I will advise the government to scrap the ministry of sports and rely on the National Sports Commission with a director general and put it under the office of the president. They tried to do that some time ago, but it did not succeed.

“In this system, there will be no minister of sports. The director general will be directly accountable to the Presidency.

“So, he can talk to the right people and plan adequately for events. That is the kind of thing we need.

“The reason everybody thinks American government is not involved in sports is because they don’t have a minister of sports. But they have a law governing sports and the government is involved through private participation in funding.

“If I give money to sports I can get a 40 per cent discount on my taxes. Government is willingly allowing you to sponsor sports and benefit from that sponsorship through a tax rebate.”

He pointed at the recently passed Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) Bill as a law meant to shackle the country’s football rather than address the problems.

Prof. Omo-Osagie said that rather than change the name from NFA to NFF to make the body an independent legal body, articles were added to it to make it impossible for so many things to happen independent of government.

“It is meant to fail… it will not solve whatever problems we have. All these things they have added into the bill will complicate the existing problems.

“Trying to Nigerianise FIFA rules by calling football an asset will not work because it is not an asset that gives many people money.”

To make the sports sector effective, Prof. Omo-Osagie advocates the pruning of sports federations, saying, “you don’t need 40 federations when we don’t have money to fund them.

“Since Igali won an Olympic wrestling gold medal for Canada, they have only won one other medal. That is why Igali was actually so much celebrated. The summer Olympics is not a big deal for Canada, but they have paid more premium to the Winter Olympics.

“The federations must be graded, with the lowest monetary allocation going to the most popular events.

“In Canada, cricket receives the lowest budgetary allocation because it is played by only Indians and Pakistani immigrants.

“The English FA collects about £30 million yearly from the British government to help develop football in rural areas, black neighbourhoods and certain disadvantaged communities.”

He advised the Federal Government to decide what it wants to achieve with sports and plan how to go about it, positing that carrying every available sport in one basketball would not give the country the room to grow anyone successfully.

“The University of Texas has about $200 million budget, but only four sports can award a full scholarship to athletes. These are American football, men and women basketball and women volleyball. They have added women tennis to the full scholarship pot because American women are no longer doing well in tennis. So, they have started offering full rights to girls who want to play tennis.

“But even with all that money, everybody doesn’t get anything for free.

“Here in Nigeria, we organise marathons when we have no chance of winning an Olympic medal in the event.

“The Lagos Marathon is paying the same prize money as the London Marathon, which is among the best five in the world. Why are we paying the same money with some of the best marathons?

“The number one marathon is the Boston Marathon and people pay to participate in it. But we don’t charge registration fees here.

“We lie to ourselves and claim so many things. We claim we have about 100,000 runners in the Lagos marathon. But that is a lie. Hundred thousand people in the marathon will fill the area from the stadium to Ojuelegba and beyond.”

To former president of the Nigeria Taekwondo Federation (NTF), Jonathan Nnaji, Nigeria could achieve the next level in sports if it enacts a Sports Endowment Fund law.

He absolves the sports ministry of blame for the poor funding that has bedeviled the sector, saying, “they make money available to sports federation for competitions based on when the funds are available to them.

“The problem we have in this country is that funds for Olympics and other competitions come in the year of the Games, while other countries receive theirs years ahead.

“This is not too good for our preparation and participation at the major competitions and unless it is restructured, we will keep having challenges with our preparations.”

Nnaji called on the “National Assembly to pass a law that would ensure a certain amount of money be made available every year for sports programmes.

“The law will aid intensive sports development through the provision of facilities and training of sportsmen and women if enacted.”

He believes that Nigerian sportsmen will start dominating their events when they begin their training at the same time with their peers from other parts of the world.

Prof. Ken Anugweje of the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT) sees no substantial difference from previous administrations in the state of sports in the country.

According to the UNIPORT Director of Sports, “Football is still the only sport of interest and we still manage to qualify for regional and global competitions.”

He said the other sports still struggle to exist with no sponsors, no resources, no definitive programmes and therefore make no impact, adding that many cannot even hold board meetings.

“A notable difference is that only one minister was in office all through the tenure. However, whether the performance of the incumbent justifies this departure from the past is debatable,” he added.

On the way forward, Prof. Anugweje said: “The debates haven’t changed. Should government relinquish its administration of sports and let the private sector take over? Should the new minister be a technocrat or a politician?

“In my opinion, it shouldn’t really matter if the minister is not an Olympian, provided a fundamental blueprint for sports is implemented. Right now, our sports development model is neither bottom-up nor top-down.

“For the government or private sector debate, let us first determine whether our sports are professional or amateur. Right now, it is neither of the two.

“In countries with huge private sector involvement, sports is largely professional. We also don’t have committed sports administrators. Most of them are there for personal benefits and prestige.”

To former national tennis champion, Professor Sadiq Abdullahi, nothing really has changed except a new clamour for change in the administrative architecture.

He said, “In the past two decades and in the last three Olympics cycles (Beijing 2008; London 2012; Rio 2016), a number of sports stakeholders have discussed sports reform initiatives put forth by the government in power. No substantive achievements were recorded by previous administrations headed by Presidents Obasanjo and Jonathan.

“Obasanjo failed to create an enabling environment for sports to thrive before he handed over to President Yar’Adua, who died in office and President Jonathan took over with a lot of promises. But the London Olympics in 2012 was disaster.

“Jonathan quickly organised a Presidential Sports Sector Retreat with the aim to address the root cause of our poor performances in continental and international competitions. Some of the objectives of the retreat were to identify prioritise sports, develop concrete action plan and address grassroots sports.”

Prof. Abdullahi said President Muhammadu Buhari inherited a concrete plan for sports development, including a National Sports Policy framework, adding, however that the pre-Buhari era was an abysmal failure. “Then came the Rio Olympics 2016, which was also a disaster. With the blueprint for sports development in place, stakeholders became optimistic that President Buhari would build on the existing structure.

“Instead, Barrister Dalung, the sports minister quickly set up a ministerial committee headed by Godwin Kienka to review the state of sports and offer recommendations which the committee did. Nothing has come out of the recommendations.

“The current situation is pathetic and shameful. Dalung attempted to restructure the national sport federations to respond to global sports exigencies and be autonomous and independent. In 2017, elections were held and new people got the opportunity to serve but almost two years in their service, it has become business as usual.”

He said many sports federations have failed to carry out their mandate, adding that some national sport federations such as Basketball, Wrestling and Football have made marginal progress.

“This is encouraging but efforts to transform grassroots sports is lacking. In this sense, President Buhari’s administration has not done much for sports development going into his second term. Sports are not considered critical or a priority areas. This is a big mistake.”

He called on the sports sector to reinvent itself, saying that the Federal and State Governments have limited but important roles to play.

To get back among the leaders in international sports, Prof. Abdullahi said: “We have to return to the school sports. We have to regain private sector trust. We have to shun corruption in sports federations and finally, we have to return the National Sports Commission.”

Former National Table Tennis Coach, Babatunde Obisanya does not see any difference in Nigerian sports under President Buhari and former president Jonathan administrations.

“There wouldn’t be any difference until we return back to the era of National Sports Commission (NSC). Sports cannot be run the way we are witnessing now because there must be a proper body set up that will assign the running of sports to the professionals in the country.

“We had it before and we had good results to show for it. Some of us came into sports management through the NSC and we are glad we did. Back then we had the leadership, who knew what they were doing as far as sports administration was concerned.

“The leadership made sure they recruited the right personnel and also created the enabling environment to have experts running sports.”

He said it was unfortunate that people with no knowledge of sports are running the sector, adding that politicians now use it to feather their nests.

“This is exactly what has happened in the last four years of President Buhari’s regime because sports is not run as it should.”

He said a return to the National Sports Commission would help in addressing some of the funding issues, which would in turn lead to better performances by Nigerian athletes.

Former Green Eagles star, Adegoke Adelabu also blames politicians for the woes of the sports sector, saying it is now used to settle loyal party members.

“At the inauguration of the current government, before the ministers were appointed, I advised the incoming sports minister on what he needed to do to develop sports. I contacted some people to find out if the minister saw the publication. I then got a copy of the publication, mailed it to him by DHL to be sure that he got a copy of my view on the way forward for sports in the country, but I never got any acknowledgment.

“That alone did not speak well of someone, who wants to achieve something for his fatherland. As a sports scientist, who also played for this country, I was not accorded any regard and my offer to contribute meaningfully to sports development was ignored. I do not know why we see public office as a source of power.

“The moment you allow politicians to run sports, you can never evaluate their performance because they don’t even understand what is going on.”

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