A combination of government’s overbearing influence, corruption, nepotism and ethnicity is sounding the death knell for the growth of sports in Nigeria
By AYODEJI ADEYEMI and ARUKAINO UMUKORO
Hours before the Nigerian Olympic contingent was scheduled to depart for London, the host city of the 2012 edition of the games, a ceremony took place quietly in one of the chilly rooms of Sheraton Hotel and Towers, Ikeja, Lagos. Bolaji Abdullahi, sports minister and chairman of the National Sports Commission, NSC, nestling among the athletes, regaled the audience with their exploits at the just concluded 2012 African championships, which took place in Port Novo, Republic of Benin, from June 27 to July 1.
The Nigerian contingent had topped the medals table with 10 gold medals. Abdullahi described the feat as commendable and the result of hard work on the part of his ministry. But what he did not say, which many in the sports industry knew, was that most of the gold medals won by the Nigerian athletes were either made in the United States, US, or the United Kingdom, UK. For instance, Amaechi Morton, who won two gold medals, both in the 400 metres, m, hurdle and 4x400 metres relay at the championship, was not just born in the US but had honed his skills there through an athletic scholarship at the Stanford University, California, US. Nigeria later claimed him when they saw his potential.
Tosin Oke, who won gold in the triple jump at the African championship, on the other hand, had fine-tuned his skills in Britain. In fact, Oke represented Britain in international championships at the junior level before he was claimed by Nigeria. In the same vein, Blessing Okagbare, who provided a flicker of hope by winning the 100m in the London Diamond League on July 14 by beating Shelly-Ann Fraiser-Pryle, Jamaican-born Olympic champion, and Carmelita Jeter of the US who is the reigning world champion, also had extensive training in the US.
This notwithstanding, Abdullahi proudly handed over the athletes to Sani Ndanusa, president of Nigerian Olympic Committee, NOC. The next evening, the athletes and their large entourage of officials departed for London for the 2012 Olympics, carrying with them the hopes and expectations of the world’s biggest black nation for a good outing at this year’s Olympics.
But the train of the Nigerian Olympic contingent had barely settled in London when some of the parts started flying off. Three of the athletes in the contingent were said to have failed a drug test and were subsequently uprooted from the team. The magazine learnt that two of the affected athletes were scheduled to feature in the women’s 4x100m and 4x400m, while the third, also a female, is the country’s sole entrant in the shot put event. This will indeed affect the number of events in which the country will be participating at the games. Even before the doping scandal, the Nigerian contingent was already viewed as one of the worst the country ever sent to the games since it started participating in 1952. Besides the fact that the team is devoid of world-class athletes, and that it failed to qualify for both the male and female football competitions, Nigeria, a nation of 167 million people, will just be participating in a measly eight games at the Olympics.
These include athletics, boxing, canoeing, table tennis, taekwondo, weightlifting, basketball and wrestling. In contrast, Germany, with a population of 81 million people, will be participating in about 35 games at the sporting event.
But the fact that Nigeria will be participating in just eight events is not even the bad news. What many sports analysts insist is the bad news is the level of preparation that went into grooming the athletes for the games, which has been described as “not suitable for a sporting event of this magnitude.”
Indeed the magazine learnt that Nigeria started preparing athletes for the Olympics, in earnest, from April this year. But if you think that this is not bad, the grim reality is that the country’s athletes will be competing with other world-class athletes, some of whom had been preparing for almost four years. For instance, the US has three campuses created by its Olympic committee to groom its athletes. These campuses are equipped with all the necessary sporting facilities, including an Olympic-size swimming pool, a velodrome, two sports centres, numerous gymnasiums, weight rooms, a sport science laboratory and a track field, among others.
As the Olympics take off this week, many of the athletes who will be representing the US had been using the facilities to train for over two years. Besides this, the US Olympic Committee, USOC, also enlisted the help of the US Navy SEALs, its special elite-fighting group, to train some of the athletes that will be representing it at the global sporting fiesta. For instance, the US hockey team, its sailing team and swimmers received extensive training from the US Navy SEALs.
These are the types of athletes that the Nigerian contingent, many of whom had been left to fend for themselves, will be competing with. Add to that, the fact that the government only released N1.9 billion for the country’s preparation for the games in April, then it will be clear why many Nigerians are not expecting much from the nation’s contingent to the London Olympics. It will also explain why since the country began participating at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland – barring the 1976 Olympics event which was boycotted by many countries – it has only won two gold medals, courtesy of long jumper, Chioma Ajunwa and the Kanu Nwankwo-led Olympic Dream Team in Atlanta 1996.
“How can a country the size of Nigeria have only produced two gold medals in over 60 years? It is a complete disgrace and total indictment on the community of sports and the (country’s) government, whom I have the feeling that it looks at sports as a thing you do as a pastime rather than understanding that sport is a tool for social change and a big business,” said Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer, former BBC World Service journalist and now the associate editor of the London-based NewAfrican magazine and premier league match analyst for SuperSport, a sports channel on Dstv.
“Usually, athletes have three to four years to prepare for Olympics while they typically get grants from the sporting federation. But in Nigeria, the reverse is the case. Funds are only released for our athletes about two months to the Olympics. How do you expect them to perform well?” queries Bode Oguntuyi, another sports analyst.
Philip Gidado, former coordinator, NSC, South-east, also echoes the fears of Oguntuyi. He is however categorical that the nation should not expect much from its contingent to the London Olympics. And he puts the blame squarely at the doorsteps of the nation’s sports administrators whom he accuses of failing to prepare the athletes adequately for the Mondial. One however cannot say that the Nigerian sporting federations and the Olympic committee do not know the importance of preparing athletes adequately for such important games. So the question arises: why do our sporting federations and our Olympics committees perennially toy with the preparation of athletes? Many believe overwhelmingly that the problem lies with the overbearing influence of government in sports. This, they insist, breeds nepotism, corruption and other ills that have grounded the nation’s sporting sector that was once revered by the rest of the world.
Considering these factors, Obayiuwana said government needs to review and rethink its involvement in the sports sector. “I don’t want to say the problem is that the government manages sports. There is nowhere in the world that you have sports without government’s involvement, either in terms of provision of facilities or funds. It is the refusal of the government to be professional in the way it approaches its interaction with sports,” Obayiuwana said. He is of the view that although the government could continue to fund the construction of facilities, participation of the country’s athletes in international sporting events, as well as ensure that those monies are well spent and accounted for by those who receive them, it should relinquish its total control in appointing people to manage the country’s sports or sports federations.
Fabio Lanipekun, a veteran sports journalist, agreed with this view. “Since the government took over the funding of sports in Nigeria and the running of the NSC, which was created in 1961 as a vehicle to ensure the development of sports in Nigeria, it was made an extension of government patronage, as it began to bring people who had no knowledge of sports to run sports and that was the beginning of Nigerian sports losing focus and departing from what the British people had bequeathed to us. We have not recovered from that up till today,” he explained. Lanipekun said shortly after the country’s independence in 1960, the funding of sports was essentially through voluntary donation from the citizenry and by corporate bodies or the private sector, while the government largely provided infrastructure, such as the now abandoned National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, built in 1972 to host the 1973 All Africa Games. But at the same time, government did not do enough to develop sports at the grassroots level, while some of the infrastructure built were left to deteriorate.
Alongside government’s overbearing influence on sports came issues such as tribalism and regional sentiments, which combined to suck out competence from sports in Nigeria, as most of the key positions were given to people from a particular ethnic zone or political affiliations. “Since 1999 till now, the ministers of sports have always been chosen from the North-central zone, which is not among the first three in sports in Nigeria. The areas producing sportsmen and women in this country are the southern parts, like Delta, Edo, Lagos, Ogun and Ondo, yet those who are in leadership positions in sports administration are those who have contributed (almost) nothing to Nigerian sports,” added Lanipekun.
While Lanipekun’s assertion may sound a bit harsh to some people, it may however not be far from the truth. Over the years, the need to ensure balance and compliance with the federal character principle in appointing people to positions of authority, not only in sports but also in other sectors, has seen the country sacrifice competence on the altar of sentiments. Since 1999, the average tenure of a sports minister in Nigeria has been 12 months, added Obayiuwana, a development which he noted has not helped the development of sports in the country, while it has also made it impossible for there to be a long term execution of plans in the sector. “What makes it even more tragic is that the majority of those who are appointed to the positions don’t know much about sports. So they lack the capacity to actually deal with some of the problems in the sector, because those who are offering them advice on what to do in the sector are actually doing so in bad faith and to protect their own interests,” he said.
Along with government’s overbearing influence is the issue of corruption, which has eaten deep into the fabric of not only the sports sector but also virtually every sector of national life. Ibrahim Galadima, former chairman, Nigeria Football Association, NFA, said government’s involvement in sports is a necessity the country cannot avoid. But he agreed that there was indeed a disadvantage as those who have been running sports have instead used the opportunity to enrich themselves and also misuse the power, rather than using it to truly develop the sector simply because it is government that is funding sports. “I’ve seen people who have gone into civil service without anything and have come out to be the wealthiest among civil servants and nothing has happened to them. That is why the country would continue having this kind of situation and the athletes have also lost confidence in very obvious cases of corruption and indiscipline. That is why they are not so committed,” he stated.
On whether the corporate world could be encouraged to fund sports in Nigeria, Galadima said there must be accountability for the private sector to be confident about putting its money into sports development in the country. And it could not have been otherwise for as long as government continues to run sports affairs solely. Take for instance the NOC, which is more or less a government organisation. Its grand patron is the President of Nigeria while the board officials are either handpicked or influenced by the government. Needless to say, its sources of revenue are almost 100 per cent from the government. Perhaps that is why it does not give account of how it spends its funds. This also explains why there is so much infighting among top officials of the NOC due to the possibility of lining their pocket with public funds.
The USOC, for instance, has the status of a private, non-profit organisation. Founded in 1894, the body is responsible for training and funding athletes for the Olympic Games. Consequently, it owns three world-class training facilities and organises several sporting programmes to keep its athletes in top shape. It also supports its athletes through health insurance, tuition grants, media and marketing opportunities, career services and performance-based monetary rewards.
Every year, the body prepares its annual report, which stipulates its sources of fund and expenditure. For instance, in 2011 the committee’s total revenue was $141 million, while its expenses were $181 million, meaning that it made a loss. Earlier on in 2010, its total revenue was $251 million, while its expenditure was $191 million, a surplus of $60 million.
Unlike in Nigeria, the body does not depend on government for funds, even though the government also gives it grants. Its revenue largely comes from sponsorship, investment incomes, grants, programme service, broadcasting rights, and corporate grants. In fact, in its 2011 account, government grant was just $10.3 million out of its total revenue of $141 million. Still, US law requires that the governing councils of the USOC and its national governing bodies should retain at least 20 per cent membership and voting power by “recent and active” athletes. It is therefore not surprising that American athletes have so far won 2,298 medals of which 930 are gold in the Olympics.
Nigeria, on the other hand, can only boast of two gold medals so far. Sadly, this situation will continue for as long as the federations continue to depend on government funding. Even the Nigerian Football Federation, NFF, the most visible of the sporting federations, still largely depends on government fund. For instance, during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, held in South Africa, the federal government had to approve the release of N1.25 billion for the Super Eagles to save the NFF from embarrassing the country. This was in spite of the fact that the NFF received $10 million from FIFA, $1 million for participating in the tournament and $3 million for each match played.
But if the NFF had dutifully overseen the growth of football, and the Nigerian Football League, NFL, in particular, it would not in any way need government funds. Instead, the body seems to be more engrossed with infighting between its top officials than promoting the growth of the game. At a point, the NFF president was said to have been bogged down with over 30 lawsuits from the various warring factions within the body. The sports minister revealed this while speaking to the media. “When I came to sport, the president of the NFF told me that he [was] facing 30 litigations in court challenging his legitimacy. But I am happy to inform you that we have resolved all the lingering crises in football and both parties have agreed to work together,” Abdullahi revealed.
As a result of this systemic malaise, the country is not only paying hugely in the sporting arena, but also in its general development. According to Osita Ndukuba, a sports analyst, “There is still the case of the $236,000 missing from the coffers of NFF which has not been resolved till today, despite the involvement of the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) and the matter being taken to court. There is also the case of a former minister who while he was in power moved the generator at the National Stadium, Surulere, to his village. I mean, was he trying to power the whole village? We have had cases of people who have been in (sports) committees for competitions hosted by Nigeria whereby cars are allotted to sectors and you find out that their children were using the cars for personal runs and not for the purposes they were purchased. At the end of the day, they say we spent X amount of money when they didn’t actually spend such amount for what is done.”
A stark contrast however is the situation in England, where football administration is well organised and it is unmistakably evident in the quality of the league. The Football Association, FA, like the NFF, is the governing body of association in England and the Crown Dependencies of Jersey. Formed in 1863 and affiliated to FIFA, it is the oldest national football association in the world. Based at the famous world-class Wembley Stadium, London, the body is responsible for all competitive football matches in England, either directly at the national level or indirectly at a local level through County Football Associations. It is also saddled with the task of appointing the management of the men’s, women’s and youth national football teams.
Unlike the NFF that goes to the government begging for funds, the English FA has a robust financing system devoid of government funding. Its main commercial asset is its ownership of the rights to England internationals and the FA Cup. It also makes huge money from sponsorship and licensing. In its 2010 financial year, the FA Group, which includes the governing body and the operating company for Wembley Stadium, produced a turnover exceeding £300 million. A breakdown of the revenue reveals that it earned £119 million from broadcasting rights, £50 million pounds from sponsorship and licensing, £25 million from FA events, £6 million from England matches from 2018/2022, while it also earned £80 million from events related to its Wembley Stadium. It only received £10 million as grants, while it also earned another £10 million from its other activities. Still, the English FA invested £101 million in the development of the game at all levels in 2010.
But in Nigeria, it has been scandals upon scandals. The country is yet to resolve the scandal that erupted from the All Africa Games which it hosted in 2003. Till today, no one can account for the N24 billion budgeted for the games. While the NFF can still boast of stewarding a weak NPL which does not interest the majority of Nigerian football lovers, other federations aside from basketball cannot even point to any domestic championship they have promoted or helped foster.
However, this has not always been the fate of Nigerian sports industry. In the past, boxing for instance was a thriving sport because there were many domestic championships, which helped to groom boxers such as Hogan Jimoh, nicknamed “Atomic bomb,” and others. Today, all that is gone with the ill wind that blew in the nation’s sporting sector, as government became the dominant player. In table tennis, things have also fallen apart. Athletics however provides a more lucid case study of how Nigeria fell from grace to grass. In the past, the country was formidable both in the sprint and relay races. Then, the nation’s sprinters were revered in the athletics community. Nigeria paraded world-class sprinters like Chidi Imoh, Davidson Ezinwa, Olapade Adenekan and Kayode Oluyemi who won the silver medal in the 4x100 relay race in grand style at the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona, Spain. Similarly, Nigerian female athletes such as Mary Onyali, Christy Opara-Thompson, Beatrice Utondu and Faith Idehen also ruled the athletics world with African and Olympic medals to show for their racing prowess.
Still, Nigeria could also borrow a leaf from Jamaica. The impoverished island, with a population that is less than three million, has in the past 10 years dominated the sprint events in the world. Currently, the fastest men and women in the world come from Jamaica. But how did this country achieve this enviable feat in spite of its small size and paucity of funds? Interestingly, the method it used is not novel. Nigeria once used it in the past to devastating effect. Jamaica invested a lot in school competitions, discovering and nurturing its athletes from an early age. It was this system of intense rivalry at the high school sporting competitions that forged Usain Bolt into the world-class athlete he is today.
In the past, secondary school competitions thrived in Nigeria as a fertile ground for harvesting and nurturing future stars. It was this production line that produced the likes of the late Yomi Bankole and Atanda Musa, who dominated table tennis in Africa and beyond. Sadly, the conveyor belt that churned out such world-class athletes has been disrupted. Little wonder that many of the athletes representing Nigeria in the London Olympics were groomed in other countries.
In this regard, many observers say the various sporting federations have a herculean task before them. Bringing back the old glorious era when the nation was a sporting giant would entail the various federations severing their overdependence on government funding and looking in the direction of the private sector. In this respect, Galadima said the government may have started in the right direction by providing incentives to the private sector like tax rebate which he believed the corporate world would benefit from if they put their money into sports sponsorships. “The sporting authorities should also be transparent and honest in the way they handle such funds so that the private sector would be comfortable to release their funds to run sports in the country. The only way we can get it right is to get people who are dedicated and God-fearing, committed, not coming to run sports because of what they get out of it but because of the love they have for sports and interest of country. Unless we get it right, we would continue having this problem,” Galadima recommended.
Only by following Galadima’s advice would the sporting federation avert the fate that befell the Nigerian Premier League, NPL, which lost its title sponsors, Globacom. Consequently, the NPL is in its second season without a sponsor. The magazine learnt that Globacom pulled out because it was not pleased with the manner in which the administrators of the league utilised the sponsorship money. As Oguntuyi revealed, “There was the situation in which those who won the league were paid just N5 million. What will N5 million do for a club in a whole year? Can it pay players’ wages in a week? And yet the same NPL was spending N50 million to decorate its office, while some top officials even got about 10 per cent of the total sponsorship money. In fact, it got so bad that a sponsor organised a competition and the money was paid directly to the team instead of through the NPL.”
This is however a stark contrast to the English Premier League, EPL, which paid Manchester City £60.6 million for winning the 2012 league. In fact, the EPL paid a total of £968 million to the top 20 clubs in the league. When payments made to clubs that dropped out of the league are added, the total money paid by EPL to clubs last season would shoot up to £1.1 billion. For instance, Arsenal which finished in the third position last season got £56.2 million from the EPL, while Queens Park Rangers, which marginally escaped relegation was paid £43.2 million.
In view of the circumstance, Oguntuyi insists that the only way that the nation’s sports could come out of the woods is through the reformation of the various sporting federations, by making them more accountable and transparent. This he says would entail their severance from government umbilical cord. “If the private sector sees that our sporting federations are using the funds well, they will invest in our sports. Do you know that Zenith Bank is one of the sponsors of the Black Stars of Ghana?” he asks. The government should also realise that its contribution to developing sports begins and ends with the provision of facilities, infrastructure and policy guidelines, says Lanipekun. “Choosing or imposing people to run the various (sports) associations is not their business. Let us return to the days of the volunteers who had knowledge and expertise to run sports, while the government provides the facilities, infrastructure and policy guidelines,” he suggested.
Segun Odegbami, former Nigerian football international star, on his part insists that the nation is not yet ripe for the private sector to take over its sports. Even then, he rails against the overbearing influence of government in the sports sector, which he says has brought it to its knees. “In this part of the world, government participation in sport is inevitable because we are not that developed. Who in the private sector will want to own a team? However, the government must reduce its overbearing influence in the sector,” he advises.
Kayode Thomas, a sports journalist, allies with Odegbami in insisting that the government must not completely remove its hands from sports. “What the government should do is to create the environment and come out with good polices that will develop sports. It could use tax incentives or legislate that a certain percentage of corporate profit should go into sports,” he says.
This might just be the miracle that Nigeria would need to save its dying sports sector. While awaiting the miracle, Obayiuwana is not happy that “after every Olympic Games or any other major sports competition, the familiar refrain in Nigeria sports circle is ‘we will learn our lessons and go back to the drawing board’.” And barring any spectacular individual performances from Nigeria’s athletes, it may just be the same old cliché that will be repeated after the London Olympic Games.