Nigeria: Politics of the National Sports Festival

12 April 2021

Duro Ikhazuagbe writes on the multifarious intricate issues which often attend big sporting events, for instance, the 20th National Sports Festival, codenamed Edo 2020, closing in about 48 hours, in Benin City

In 1936, Germany's maximum leader, Adolf Hitler, attempted to use the Olympic Games hosted in his country to showcase his Nazi regime and the ideologies it stands for: The supremacy of the Aryan race to the rest of the world. He was greatly humbled by an African-American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens. Without saying a word, Owens won four gold medals to best all the 'superior' athletes Hitler was flaunting at the time on his home soil. Because of the political climate surrounding the games, Owens' performance was a very loud political statement that reverberated around the world.

Fast forward to 1968. At the Mexico City Olympic Games, U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their black-gloved fists during the playing of the US national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" while on the podium, receiving their 200m gold and silver medals respectively, in solidarity with the Black Power movement.

Four years later at the Munich Games, 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and killed by a Palestinian terrorist group despite the International Olympic Committee's insistence that the competition was a 'non-political' one.

Both the 1980 Olympic Games and the 1984 editions had the trappings of politics. While the Americans boycotted Moscow '80, the Soviets similarly turned their backs on Los Angeles '84 in retaliation. It was the era of the 'Cold War'.

In 1976, 29 countries mostly from Africa and Asia led by Nigeria also boycotted the Montreal Games (in Canada) in protests over the IOC's refusal to ban New Zealand from that edition. New Zealand's All Blacks national rugby union team had toured South Africa that year in defiance of the United Nations' calls for a sporting embargo against the apartheid regime in that enclave.

That year, the most eagerly anticipated events at the Montreal Olympics was the 1500m showdown between John Walker of New Zealand and Filbert Bayi of Tanzania. But Bayi would not compete as Tanzania was the first African nation to announce that it would boycott the games.

Nigeria's Charlton Ehizuelen also missed the chance of going down in the country's history as the first Olympic gold medalist as he had a world lead jump leading to the games.

There are other countless examples of how politics has crept into sports. Others include American boxer Cassius Clay's refusal to enlist in the army to fight in the Vietnam War. Clay in protest changed his religion from Christianity to Islam and took the name Muhammad Ali. Of course, Ali was banned from boxing by U.S. authorities because of his stance, he soon became a figure of black power and the civil rights movement.

Even the current 'Take a Knee' in the English Premier League is political. It is a subtle fight against racism in the football arenas. It is a clear reminder of the brutal killing of African-American George Floyd in May last year by some police officers in the USA. It led to the "Black Live Matters" protests around the globe.

Going down memory lane to recall some of the issues that have shaped the world's understanding of sports and politics globally is to give insight into the beginning of the National Sports Festival in Nigeria.

After Nigeria's civil war between 1967 and 1970, the National Sports Festival was originally conceived as a "unifying tool" with the main purpose of promoting peace and cross-cultural affiliation in Nigeria. It was also meant to serve as a development and training event to aid athletes prepare for continental and international meets like the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and the then All Africa Games (now African Games). It had the following as its core objectives:

*To build a robust talent pool of athletes

*To enhance and elevate sports at grassroots level

*To establish a standard programme for athletes' succession

*To curb age cheating in Sports

*To encourage early participation in Sports

*To engage young athletes in the Olympic Movement, skill development and social responsibility

*To enhance cultural and educational development

*To promote National unity.

And of course, it was natural to have Lagos with the glittering, newly-built National Stadium by the Yakubu Gowon military administration as host of qthe very first edition of this 'Unity Games' essentially meant to welcome the Easterners back into the Nigerian state after the needless fracas that lasted three years. The festival, a biennial multi-sport event has been organised since inception in 1973 by the Federal Government of Nigeria through the National Sports Commission or the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, whichever applies, for athletes from all the states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

Between Lagos '73 and this 20th edition taking place in Benin City for the third time, has the festival met its advertised objectives of being an avenue for discovering talents for the country? Is it playing the role of uniting the country as envisaged by the founding fathers? A former Captain of the national football team, the Green Eagles, Chief Olusegun Odegbami who was discovered and nurtured to stardom during the first edition recalled those beautiful moments of the sports fiesta.

"I was an athlete at the first two festivals in 1973 and 1975, representing Western State, comprising present day Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Osun and Ekiti states. Those festivals set me up firmly for a full-time career in football. Before the Festival, I was just a player for a few clubs in Ibadan, even though as a student at The Polytechnic, Ibadan," Odegbami reminisced on how he came to limelight through the festival in one of his weekly columns for Complete Sports.

Just like Odegbami, countless numbers of Nigeria's former and present athletes were discovered during the festival and went ahead to attain global status in their respective sports. The likes of David Imonitie, Nduka Odizor, Sadiq Abdullahi, Veronica Oyibokia (tennis), Modupe Oshikoya, Joe Orewa, Peter Konyegwachie, Jeremiah Okorodudu (boxing), Charlton Ehizuelen (long jump), Felix Imadiyi, Brown Ebewele (decathlon), Yusuf Alli, Henry Amike, Ajayi Agbebaku, Chidi Imoh, Falilat Ogunkoya, Mary Onyali (track &field), Babatunde Obisanya, Atanda Musa, Segun Toriola, Funke Oshonaike, Bose Kaffo (table tennis), the Ezinwa brothers (Davidson and Osmond) and several others too numerous to name here all made marks in the 'Nigerian Olympics' before earning global recognitions.

Those were the good old days of the National Sports Festival. In Odegbami's words: " The festival held every two years in those days - 1975 in Lagos, 1977 in Kaduna, 1979 in Ibadan, and so on. Somewhere down the line, the sequence was broken!"

First was the elimination of the junior and the intermediate categories. Most budding talents that always look forward to competing with their contemporaries from other states of the federation got shut out of the fiesta.

Youths with abundant talents were thrown into the midsts of 'hyenas and jackals' to find their feet. Only the strong survived this 'getting matured by force'. Several other youths got lost in the labyrinth.

Next was the coming of the word 'poaching'. Instead of the nursery in the states throwing up athletes through the school system, several states with the 'cash to spare' went for ready-made stars rather than funding the grassroots programmes 'catching them young' from primary and secondary school competitions to represent the states. The result of this poaching system was the creation of 'mercenary athletes' who were on the lookout for the highest bidder states. It was no longer unusual to see athlete 'A' compete for Rivers at this edition but wearing the yellow and green colours of Kano State at the next edition. And so, the system put in place in most of the states to ensure steady flow of athletes from the grassroots began to wither and ultimately crashed.

As if enough damage has not been done to erode the gains of nurturing from the grassroots, some of the states with programmed athletes they are funding in foreign universities began to recall these 'professionals' to come home to help them win the festival.

The bottom line of these 'cutting corners to winning' was killing the very essence for which the festival was instituted under the watch of legendary sports administrator, Dr Isaac Akioye.

A former director of sports in one of the South-south states (name withheld), told THISDAY that "winning was all that matters now because governors now see emerging overall champions as some sort of prestige. This is why budgets for 'participation to win' in the festival year is usually four times more than what they usually vote for sports in other years." Nearly all the states are guilty of this practice as winning the festival or finishing in the top bracket has become political.

However, what Edo State has done with the provision of world-class infrastructure to host this edition, is a pointer to the desire of the Godwin Obaseki/Philip Shaibu administration to return to the old era when Midwest/Bendel State ruled the country's sports like a birthright. It is a return to the Samuel Ogbemudia days as Military Administrator when sports was given same treatment as any other important sector of the economy. Ogbemudia set the tone for sports develoment in the region as he toured the various local governments of the state to scout for talents from the grassroots. He built the then famous Afuze Sports Centre where talents were trained and retrained. He created a template of competition in the zones with only the best showing up at the Ogbe Stadium built during his tenure for the region's mini-Olympiad. It was a general saying those days that any medalist in the Midwest finals was a sure-bet to return to Benin City with either the gold or silver hanging on his or her neck from the National Sports Festival. So it was little surprise that because of the ingenuity of Ogbemudia, Midwest region won the first three National Sports Festival held in Lagos in 1973 and 1975 and in Kaduna in 1977. The region had the infrastructure and the template in place. Ogbemudia was literally staying with the athletes in camp in Afuze. There is even a report that revealed that Ogbemudia once held his cabinet meeting in that Afuze camp!

Speaking on the determination to return as the 'home of sports in the country', Deputy Governor of Edo State and Chairman of the Local Organising Committee (LOC) of the 20th edition in Benin City, Rt. Hon. Philip Shaibu said on Wednesday that the state was lucky to have a technocrat with private sector background as the governor of Edo. "For us in Edo, we are lucky to have a governor that actually believes in sports and I am also lucky that I am a sports man. I just don't have the interest alone, I played right from my school days up till this moment. This is why my governor saddled me with the sports sector.

"I look beyond that passion but as a privilege to serve sports. In the past, our parents were obstacles, stopping great talents from reaching top level because they believed that only those that go to school that can make it in life. But now we have decided to combine what the parents want and the desires of their children. We want the children to go to school and also live their dreams of being a sportsman (or woman) either as a footballer or badminton player or any other sport. This is the reason we decided to go with the option of doing what they do in the advanced countries and that's: the private sector drives not only the economy but also sports. Government's duty is to provide the enabling environment like facilities; creating actors to buy in, so when the facilities and actors are involved it will attract the private sector to drive it. So, as a government, we need to provide the facilities and not just turning the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium to sports complex far beyond the dream of that village boy in a far away village with no access to travel to Benin. The Ogbemudia Stadium is a sort of headquarters while we replicate smaller versions in our schools in each of our 18 local government areas. We want to create athletes that will combine education with sports. We want to use one stone to kill two birds by making the dreams of parents come true to see their children as medical doctors, engineers, lawyers etc who are also great sportsmen and women. We want to achieve that by having our own Socrates of our time who are medical doctors and footballers. Socrates played for Brazil to the World Cup level and still retired to his medical profession. We want to achieve that in Edo.

"Instead of of creating these facilities in open government land, we are replicating them in 20 mini stadia in our various schools that have space. We have done some in Benin City and will identify similar schools that have big space and we will build the facilities there. Some of these schools will have mini stadia with tracks side-by-side with a tennis court, markings for handball, volleyball, basketball etc," revealed Shaibu who is a registered player with the state owned Bendel Insurance FC.

After providing these infrastructure, the Edo State Government is moving in the direction of using them rather than locking them up for only big occasions.

"We are now moving to secondary schools so that at the end of the day, we can reintroduce the former Principals' Cup, Governor's Cup and the Inter- school games and the inter house sports."

The deputy governor hinted that the state government is going to fund these competitions for the first one year of reintroduction. "After that, we are going to ensure there is something to attract the corporate Nigeria to these brands that we have created so that they can become self sustaining. For instance, First Bank may want to identify with our basketball competition. The Inter-House Cups and the Governor's Cup should attract brands like Cowbell, Peak Milk because they can easily identify their products with youths.

"Unlike other states that spent hundreds of millions of Naira to refurbish their facilities but failed to put in place structures on how to maintain them, Shaibu revealed: "We are going to have an independent maintenance agency which is already on ground and understudying the contractor that built the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium. "It is part of our agreement that the contractors will teach our agency how best to handle the things we have on ground here," observed Shaibu.

On the threat by the Edo State Government to shut down the games if the Federal Government's counterpart funding of the festival was not released by last Friday, Shaibu said the intervention of the Presidency in the matter has helped cool frayed nerves.

" We were actually going to shut down the games by Friday afternoon if there was no commitment from the Presidency. The cost of hosting soared with the COVID-19 pandemic. When we were going to host March last year, we were ready but this COVID-19 wiped away all our projections. This was why we approached the Presidency and explained our predicament if Edo State is still to host the festival. We received assurances but as the festival progressed, our contractors and vendors became restless as they wanted their payments. Because we didn't know how much was coming and when it would be paid, it was difficult for us to approach any bank for a facility to continue to host the Festival. Our food vendors threatened to shut down the kitchen providing food for the athletes and you sure know the implications of that happening," Shaibu explained.

Asked if the reluctance to release funds to Edo State was as a result of belonging to an opposition party, Shaibu dismissed such insinuations coming from any quarter.

"This has nothing to do with politics. We were worried because there was no commitment from any quarter. The Sports Minister, Chief Sunday Dare, kept promising us that there was an approval but only waiting for funds to be released. That was not enough. It certainly has nothing to do with politics," explained the Deputy Governor who ordered the lock up of the MOC secretariat of the festival but only reopened it after the Presidency intervened on Thursday morning.

Initially, President Muhammadu Buhari was scheduled to inaugurate the newly refurbished Ogbemudia Stadium on Tuesday April 6, but following his trip abroad for medical check up, the duty fell on the laps of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.

But in a twist of fate, the nation's Number Two Citizen could not land in Benin City for the cutting of the tape. While officially the inability of the Vice President to land in Benin Airport was adduced to the storm that accompanied the late afternoon rainfall, rumour mill was awash with all manners of postulations that Professor Osinbajo dumped the inauguration because Edo State was an opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) state.

Shaibu merely shook his head in disbelief, insisting that those inventing such unfounded idle talks must have been responsible for the rainstorm that made it difficult for any airplane to land at the Benin Airport that fateful Tuesday afternoon.

As curtain is going to be drawn on the games in the next 48 hours, it will be suicidal to hazard any guess where the pendulum of victory is going to swing even as defending champions Team Delta has continued to maintain a lead since the first day of competition.

QUOTE 1

Initially, President Muhammadu Buhari was scheduled to inaugurate the newly refurbished Ogbemudia Stadium on Tuesday April 6, but following his trip abroad for medical check up, the duty fell on the laps of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. But in a twist of fate, the nation's Number Two Citizen could not land in Benin City for the cutting of the tape. While officially the inability of the Vice President to land in Benin Airport was adduced to the storm that accompanied the late afternoon rainfall, rumour mill was awash with all manners of postulations that Professor Osinbajo dumped the inauguration because Edo State was an opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) state.

Shaibu merely shook his head in disbelief, insisting that those inventing such unfounded idle talks must have been responsible for the rainstorm that made it difficult for any airplane to land at the Benin Airport that fateful Tuesday afternoon

QUOTE 2

It was natural to have Lagos with the glittering, newly-built National Stadium by the Yakubu Gowon military administration to host the very first edition of this 'Unity Games' essentially meant to welcome the Easterners back into the Nigerian state after the needless fracas that lasted three years. The festival, a biennial multi-sport event has been organised since inception in 1973 by the Federal Government of Nigeria through the National Sports Commission or the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, whichever applies, for athletes from all the states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Between Lagos '73 and this 20th edition taking place in Benin City for the third time, has the festival met its advertised objectives of being an avenue for discovering talents for the country? Is it playing the role of uniting the country as envisaged by the founding fathers?

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