By Onochie Anibeze
Shortly after his appointment as sports minister last year Bolaji Abdullahi was on his way to Zurich, the FIFA headquarters.
His mission was to broker peace among the warring factions in Nigerian football. He succeeded.
This gulped some reasonable time that should have been spent preparing for the London Olympics. Our football teams did not even qualify to be in London. And for the sports that qualified, it was already late for any result to be achieved in London. It was not Bolaji’s fault for he was appointed few months before the Olympics and had not mastered the terrain. And he was not well advised on the little time he had. His predecessors did nothing to reshape our sports and we went to London and failed.
Then came the Nations Cup in South Africa early this year. We won but the bickering between the football federation and head coach Stephen Keshi almost attracted more media coverage than the events in South Africa. The minister was again called to duty in brokering peace between Keshi and his employers. It was another time for him to shine. He did.
From all indications, Bolaji has shown that he means well for Nigerian sports. But he has made more news settling disputes than developing sports.
We appreciate the fact that it will be difficult to make progress without peace. But we also appreciate the fact that progress can be made while treading on the path of peace.
Last week, I pleaded with Nigerians not to rely on the sports ministry and in deed the government to change the face of sports. I had suggested a few things that we could do on our own to build a good foundation for sports. Seigha Porbeni’s experience at the secondary school games in Rivers had inspired the piece. Porbeni lamented over the poor standard of the games. Student athletes were running barefooted. Porbeni recalled that, as a student, more than 40 years ago, he wore Puma spike shoes to compete.
He could not imagine the rot now. My observation was that standards have fallen in all aspects of our life and that those whose responsibility it is to grow and manage sports have failed and that there was no sign that they would change.
I therefore pleaded with Nigerians to forget the sports ministry and indeed the federal government and begin to do some little things that may help our sports. I suggested that parents and schools could help by organising sports in their local communities, reminding them that sports stakes billions of money every year to be carted away by winners and that our children must not be denied a share of this.
I wanted Inter House Sports to be held every term and I pleaded with Principals to launch sports programmes in their schools. With a little sports levy every school can engage coaches and begin programmes that may lay a solid foundation for athlete development. I told parents to discuss sports in their PTA meetings and begin to lead the way since government has failed us and appears gutted in it.
A colleague called after reading the piece and said that from the tone he sensed I had given up on government to revive our sports. I said yes. He disagreed with me on that point but totally agrees with the points that parents and communities could begin to organise sports and set such standards that student athletes may no longer be running barefooted like Porbeni observed in a national championship.
I asked my colleague if he knew of any programme the sports ministry has started to implement some of the recommendations from the retreat the Federal Government held shortly after the failure at the 2012 London Olympics. He said no. I asked if he knew of any other plan matched with action on real sports development or even a work plan for the Rio games.
He said no. I told my friend that Rio may be like London and that it was the inaction of the federal government that influenced my plea to parents, schools and local communities to change things not particularly for Rio Games but for our common good. In Europe, USA and other places with good sports history, parents play a big role in the development of their children.
In fact, the moment a schools spots a talent in any child the parents are immediately engaged in the training of the child. That is what I want for Nigeria. And I know that when we get it right, when some kind of sports revolution begins in schools and local communities the sports ministry and in deed the federal government will key in.
After agreeing that the sports ministry has failed my colleague still insisted that I should not give up on them, his reason being that federal government has bestowed on them the responsibility to grow sports.
’’It is their job and they are allocated money to do this job,’’ he argued. I asked, ‘’And if there’s no sign that they will change, should I still rely on them?’’ My colleague said ‘’yes, just continue reminding them of their failure and if everybody in the industry does so they will rise to their responsibility.
They are given money to develop sports. If we all keep quiet they will continue to misappropriate sports allocation. It is our money. We must not give up on government because it is their duty to govern well.’’
In a way I agreed with my colleague – that we should not give up on government – but I maintain that we must begin to do some little things that inspire huge changes in our sports.
The states are even worse. They are not developing sports. Only Delta, Cross River and now Lagos under Fashola are developing sports. But they can do more. Let communities insist on having play grounds instead raising building everywhere. Let ministry of Education insist on schools having play grounds before they can be registered. Let Local Governments organise sports in their localities.
Let the private sectors begin to establish sports clubs and develop teams that will compete locally and internationally. We have seen this in other countries. Let school Principals begin to set standards in the organisation of sports in their schools.
Let our universities begin sports programmes and begin to award sports scholarships to deserving student athletes. Let’s develop a sports culture that could transform sports into a huge industry that could help our economy and earn for our children part of the billions of money sports stakes every year.
If I were the sports minister, I will begin the campaigns that could lead to a befitting sports culture for Nigeria, a campaign that could ignite action in schools and local communities.
And to prove that I mean business I will engage coaches and sports instructors and send them to the six zones in Nigeria. Their job will be to start sports programmes in schools in their zones. I can do this with the budget for sports development which they are not putting into appropriate use now.
While I maintain that parents, schools and the local communities can help tremendously, I plead with the sports minister to wake up to his duties and match his words with action. Abdullahi means well. He should do well. He has done well in settling disputes and emerging the star at the end of every crisis. It will delight us to see him emerge a star in sports development. He can do it. Let’s support him in this regard.