Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, a former editor at THISDAY and one-time Commissioner for Education in Kwara State, is the Minister of Sport and Chairman, National Sport Council. In this interview with Tokunbo Adedoja, Olawale Ajimotokan and Godwin Omoigui, he speaks on the activities of his ministry, the challenges facing the sport sector, the victory of the Eagles at the recently held Africa Cup of Nations tournament in South Africa, the lessons Nigeria could learn as a nation from the victory, and the Coach Steven Keshi resignation saga, among other issues
The Africa Cup of Nations title eluded Nigeria for so long, 19 years to be precise. As the Minister of Sport, how did you feel when the Super Eagles lifted the cup in South Africa?
For me, the previous 24 hours were really, really difficult that I was so emotionally connected to the significance of what was about to happen. Like I told the boys before the game, if we had lost in the first round, we would have gotten over the pain and anguish but nothing could be more painful than getting to the final and losing. So when the final whistle was blown and we won the cup, the significance of what happened did not dawn on me immediately because we were excited and everybody was happy. But later, I began to reflect on it. Nineteen years ago, how many people who were alive in 1994 are still alive today?
When you begin to look at it from this angle, then you will understand the significance of what has been achieved. God forbid, if its takes another 19 years to win again, how many people who are alive, who have seen this one would be alive then? So, what we have achieved is quite significant, and for me, I think it came at a great moment for Nigeria. God has used it to re-energize Nigeria and to reconnect us with the possibilities that this country hold for all us. So, for me, it is a very important moment and I am very proud that God has used me to be a part of the process that delivered this trophy to Nigeria.
Until you came into government, you were a journalist and columnist. You will agree that the bane of Nigeria's development includes variables like ethnicity, religion and even political affiliations. Looking at the composition of the team that went to South Africa, we did not see an interplay of these variables as the players were chosen on merit, they were chosen based on individual competencies. Would you say that there are lessons that Nigeria as a nation could learn from the Eagles?
Certainly there is so much to learn from sports generally. It is only in sports that when you file out you want to ensure that you put up your best. It is only in sports that you know you have to conform to certain specific rules or else you are out. It is in sports alone you have to be the best or you lose. It is either you win or you lose. These are some of the lessons that we can learn from sports. I think from what we have seen, it did not matter where you came from, whether their surname is Okeke or Uchechukwu, nobody cares. Nigerians from Zamfara to Abia to Ondo to Rivers all celebrated equally and whether they all answer Obafemi or Olumide, Nigerians would not care as long as you can deliver. However, the world of sports is different from the world of politics.
Politics is also about inclusion and public governance and public management is also about aggregating the representations of people that make up a country. Therefore, while meritocracy is a very important tool for driving development and achieving efficiency, in a country, inclusion is also very important and different country come out with a formula to ensure inclusion in a way that is very healthy, not in a way that is divisive. The point you are making, which I take very seriously, is that if we are able to put merit first most of the time, we will get to achieve what we want to achieve regardless of what part of the country we come from or how we understand God.
What is the Sports Ministry doing to ensure that we return to the good old days? Secondly, is there any form of inter-ministerial collaboration between your ministry and Ministry of Education to ensure that as a condition, schools will have such facilities before they are registered?
We have had this discussion on how to use schools to drive sports. Sport is really an important aspect of our education where talents are discovered. But a lot of things have changed. Even for education, the priorities are changing. I was commissioner for Education and I will be the first to confess to you that in the four years that I was commissioner for education, I never mentioned sports even for one day. I am not saying it is the right thing to do, but it never occurred to me because I was dealing with the primary challenge of children's inability to read, children's inability to do basic arithmetic, improvement of competencies for teachers. Those were my priorities. So, for me, sport didn't even occur to me. But beyond that, what we try to do at the National Sports Commission is to create an alternative platform that will bring school children opportunity to play, using school clubs. So, what we call the Nigeria Academical Sports Committee (NASCOM), with the newly constituted board, we charged them to come up with programmes that can mobilize children at the grassroots and very soon we are going to launch their flagship programme called "Reading and Playing". The idea of "Reading and Playing" is to get children across the country to just play, by creating opportunities for them to play using clubs instead of getting schools to take sports as part of the programme but getting schools to form clubs around sports.
Let us look at the Keshi saga which almost took the shine off the team's victory. Keshi purportedly resigned and everyone was worried. You were also credited with convincing Keshi to rescind his decision. Can you, for record purpose, tell us his grouse with NFF because he said he changed his mind after you intervened and spoke with him for four hours?
In the first place I would not agree with you that the Keshi saga overshadowed the Nations Cup win. If you check the experience that I had flying with the team from South Africa to Abuja, and returning to the tumultuous reception at the airport, and all the way from the airport to the city centre, and to the grand reception that was hosted by Mr President, I think we had a befitting reception for the team. I agree with you that was going to be a bleep in the whole ceremony.
When the announcement came that Coach Keshi was resigning, everybody, understandably, was worried and that was going to affect the celebration. But thank God it did not. I have had opportunities to discuss it at different times and also on different platforms. What happened, from what Coach Keshi himself told me, I think what I could deduce was that the first three games were not the best we could play and no Nigerian, no honest person would say he was happy with the first two games that we played. Everyone was worried. Maybe Coach Keshi, being the coach of the national team and given his experience, understood exactly what was going on. Maybe he was not so worried, but everyone else was worried, including the people at the NFF. So, Like I told Coach Keshi himself when we had this discussion that if things are perceived not to be doing well, your employers have the right to ask you questions. If you say you are not happy with the way you were approached, that is a different thing, that is a matter of style. But they have the right to ask you questions. And it turned out that most of the issues he was acting on were mere rumours. For example, he said the federation was talking to Herve Renard, the Zambian coach, while the latter has said nobody talked to him.
Keshi himself said he did not have any evidence that anyone was talking to this chap. It was just people carrying rumours. He said some people said I had directed that they should sack him and that it was two members of the National Assembly that even intervened. I asked him to mention the two members of the National Assembly and the place where this happened. Nothing. So, I think on both sides, there were issues of managing information and I think they were also about emotional maturity. You can't choose the people you work with, but I think when information come to you, you have the responsibility to distil the information. I think what happened was unfortunate but I am happy that we were able to nip it in the bud. Keshi himself admitted that he did not handle it probably the best way he could. But I could understand that when you are under pressure, it is not all the time that you could look beyond what people are saying to you to ask yourself what is their motive.
NFF and Keshi had a motive of winning, so there was no contradiction here. Maybe the individuals who were talking to him were under pressure and this added to his own pressure. But the great thing would have been for people to rise beyond what people were saying and to look at the motives and intentions behind what everybody was doing. A tournament is a very complex assignment and people are bound to lose their cool one way or the other. I don't think that we should allow that to affect, fundamentally, the relationships.
Coach Keshi has achieved something that no one has achieved in almost two decades. So, I don't think NFF would want to sack a coach who had just delivered to them what they had not achieved in 19 years. So, Keshi himself has not been able to say he has the evidence they were going to sack him. NFF, itself, has come out to say they never had a plan to sack Keshi. But I think, moving forward, for me, what we should be focusing on is looking at what happened and what kind of structure allowed this kind of thing to happen. I think if you had a strong technical department within the NFF, it is the technical department that will be dealing with Keshi.
The coach or the coaches of the national team will not be directly exposed to the board members and the members too will not be directly exposed to the coaches because you have a structure in between which is the technical department that will be dealing directly with some of these issues. So, I think the issue of Keshi or no Keshi as far as we are concerned, has been laid to rest. And I think that what happened was due to misunderstanding and mismanagement rather than any substantive grievances.
Has the AFCON victory substantially reinforced your belief in the capability of local coaches to take charge of the affairs of our football?
I try not to look at supply of competencies in terms of local and foreign coach. I think what is important for us is that if Nigerians want the country to win then we must also look at available resources wherever they are, whether in Nigeria or elsewhere. When I first came in, I could recall that the NFF was trying to hire a gentleman called Tom Saintfiet as technical director. I felt given the understanding that I had about the role the technical director will play, there was no sufficient opportunities provided for Nigerians to show what they could do. Again, there was no sufficient evidence that all the opportunities within the country had been exhausted and we could not find a competent person to handle the job.
There was also a couple of procedural issues involved. But be that as it may, what I am saying is that let us look inward and ask ourselves about this jobs that we want done, are there Nigerians who can do it? If you find out that if there are Nigerians who can do it then we must not hesitate to look elsewhere for people who can do it. But we must first establish there are no Nigerians who can do it. What Keshi has achieved is a victory for all the Nigerian coaches. They will see Keshi as having made a very strong case for them. But I think that Keshi himself will tell you that he also needs to improve his capability, he also needs to improve his competencies. It will be unfortunate if any of our coaches now say that because of what Keshi has done, that means that we have arrived.
We won the Africa Cup of Nations and everyone is happy. What are your expectations moving forward?
Like I said at the reception organised by Mr. President for the Super Eagles, for us, winning this Nations Cup was just a milestone, it is not the destination. Our target is very clear. For the African continent, Nigeria should be the dominant force in sports competition and we must be up there with the best in the world. So, winning the African Cup of Nations means we are beginning to turn around the system and we are beginning to create possibilities for winning. For us, the challenge is turning winning into a tradition.
Like I said, we don't want to be like Zambia that won the Nations Cup but cannot even qualify out of the group stage. Nigeria waited 19 years to win this tournament, but we will never again wait for that long to win it again. So, for us whatever we need to do we will do it to ensure that we turn this into a tradition. That is why we should be careful how we attribute this success to miracle or to one man because we must do a review and ask ourselves what did we do right? What do we need to improve upon to replicate that and turn that into a formula for winning.
I am also a spiritual person and I believe that there is a hand of God in all things and nothing can be achieved without God. But I think as humans who have work to do, we have to play our part. In playing our part, we have to stop attributing this things to what we cannot control. What we can control is to sit down with the NFF and look at the entire factors that went into the preparations and identify those areas that we need to improve upon. And don't forget that we have the Under 17 tournament, the African Youths Championship in Morocco in March, we have the Under 21 in April, we have the juniors world cup qualifiers in Calabar next month.
So, everyone involved is very focused on these. But for me, this is not just about Nations Cup or football. Don't forget, and this is very significant to us, that the African Cup of Nations that we have won, in South Africa, Nigeria won an equivalent of that in Athletics in Port Novo last year and it went almost unreported. So, it is unfortunate. Yes, football is our national game, what I am saying is that we need to look beyond football. That is why I keep saying that I don't want to be seen as a minister of football. Nigeria is the current African champion for athletics, so we must not forget that. As we talk about all these, we must also remember that we have the All Africa Games coming up, the Commonwealth Games coming up, the Olympics in 2016 coming up.