By Onochie Anibeze
TOMORROW, Dr. Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan will step on the stage at the Prestigious Oriental Hotel along Lekki Road, Victoria Island, Lagos to receive Vanguard Newspapers’ Personality of the year award.
International business mogul, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, will be crowned Africa’s Personality of the year and Chief Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma will also be on the podium for the Most Innovative Industrialist of the Year award.
My colleagues have done a lot on these award winners and tomorrow’s Vanguard is a package you can’t afford to miss. Book your copies in time. I want to concentrate on sports, my brief. And how do I begin the Uduaghan story?
Two months ago, when The Sun Newspapers and The Leadership among others announced Uduaghan as Governor of the year, Adekunle Salami, formerly of the Punch Newspapers and now with the Telegraph, called and said the following in a telephone chat: “Don’t you think it would be nice for us to meet Dr. Uduaghan to tell him, Sir, you lived up to your words. You did not disappoint us and we are proud of you?”
Salami was referring to the group of journalists Uduaghan first disclosed his interest in running for the office of governor in Delta State. Yes, the very first time Uduaghan opened up to the media on his governorship ambition was not to political or news editors but sports editors. Yes, Uduaghan made sports his first constituency and today the world of sports has a place for him in the history books.
Salami, Ben Memuletiwon, then of the Sun, Tony Ubani of Vanguard, late Emeka Enechi of Thisday and my humble self gathered to hear the sports epistle according to Emmanuel Uduaghan. He spoke about sports as employer of labour, about sports as an instrument of peace and a great unifier. He spoke on facilities and how to develop sports potentials to elite athletes who could earn foreign exchange and in turn contribute to the well being of their families and that of the country.
He spoke with so much passion that we left the interview with hope that he would win and change the face of our sports at least from Delta. Tony Ubani joked that as a former Mafoluku chemist, he would fit in as Uduaghan’s physician, if he emerged governor.
The laughter was hilarious. This was before the 2007 elections. Uduaghan leaves office next year as governor of Delta State after two terms of office. And how has he fared in sports? Why was Salami insisting that we meet him to tell him how proud of him we are? Take this scene:
Blessing Okagbare had run 10.79 seconds in the London Olympics Anniversary Games to set a new African record on July 27 in London, last year.
It was less than two weeks to the beginning of the World Championships in Russia.
There was a similar setting before the 2012 London Olympics when she was sensational in beating a crowd of top athletes including Shelly Ann Pryce just one week to the Olympics. Nigerians celebrated her feat and hoped for the best at the Olympics.
But all is now history as Blessing placed last in the final, dashing the hopes of the whole country, which depended on her for a medal at the games. For a long time now, Nigeria has been a one- athlete -nation. That disappointment ended Nigeria’s dream for a medal.
And when she was to appear in the World Championships where track and field standard is higher than that of the Olympics, she was again sensational in setting two African records in one event, running 10.86 seconds in the heats and 10.79 in the final.
Minutes after the race, track and field followers were already analysing the feat and many feared that the London incident may recur in Russia.
Less than two hours after the race, Dr. Uduaghan was at the Civic Centre in Lagos to receive the Zik’s Award for good governance, just one of the many awards he has won as governor of Delta State, arguably, the most difficult state to govern in Nigeria. What with the Itsekiris, Urhobos, Ijaws, the Igbos and and other nations in the same state? Which other Nigerian state can boast of developed cities like Asaba, Warri, Sapele, Agbor, Ughelli, Oghara, Ogwashi-Uku, Abraka and Oleh? Citing any project in one senatorial zone will mean replicating it in the other two otherwise you will be courting trouble. Sorry for the digression.
Interestingly, Uduaghan was not discussing the Zik’s awards in that hall. Rather, he was discussing the Blessing Okagbare outing just less than two hours before he arrived the hall. He watched it and was analysing the race with his aides when I walked up to his table to greet him.
I have always known this man as sports-loving and a motivator for sports excellence. But I never expected him to be discussing such an issue in that hall that day. Rabiu Kwakwanso, the governor of Kano State and his Ekiti counterpart, Kayode Fayemi were all in the hall to receive awards too. And so was Aminu Tambuwal, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. As expected, it was all politics. But Uduaghan chose to discuss sports.
Okagbare was to fly down to Nigeria to compete in the Awoturo Eleya Cup in Sapele after the London feat. The Awoturo Eleya Cup is a grassroots programme for athletes in Delta. But stars are also asked to compete with the local and budding ones just for the sake of motivating them and possibly inspiring special interest among the potentials to achieve stardom. A local athlete from one local government on the blocks with a world star like Okagbare may inspire such an athlete tremendously.
It was one way to implement an aspect of a 2012 Sports Summit Uduaghan himself initiated in Asaba after the London Olympics failure. Bertland Cameroun, a former world champion from Jamaica presented a paper and hinted on mentoring the young athletes. And Delta had that in mind with the introduction of Awoturo Eleya Cup.
While analysing Okagbare’s feat that day, Uduaghan immediately felt that the interest of Nigeria was more important and immediately told Amaju Pinnick to call Okagbare to stop her from returning to Nigeria to compete in Sapele, the venue for the Eleya Cup.
Said he: “Blessing ran well today. She started off from the blocks well and finished well. I think the World Championship is important for Nigeria. Nothing should distract her. Call her immediately and tell her to remain in Europe until after the World Championship in Russia. Russia must not be like London. She is in good shape to win a medal and that’s more important for Nigeria now.”
Blessing won silver in the Long Jump and a bronze in the 100m, ending Nigeria’s 13 years of drought in the World Championships. Okagbare dedicated her medals first to Uduaghan who actually sponsored her training and then to Nigerians. Uduaghan has now provided training grants for her to prepare for the Rio Olympics. Regina George, a 400m great potential is also on the card. This is Uduaghan for you in sports. Discussing sports in that hall that day was no achievement but it showed the passion Uduaghan has for sports. That won my heart.
When Nigeria failed at the London Olympics, he initiated a sports summit to help out. Under him, Delta has won two out of the last three sports festivals. The state employs athletes more than any other state. Gold medal winners in festivals earn automatic employment aside cash as huge as N2m. Delta runs competitions more than any other state. The Governor’s Cup, a soccer competition among secondary schools is on.
They plan to develop players from the event. Ex footballers are sent to schools to train footballers. A soccer holiday programme for outstanding players holds this summer. The man is still building sports facilities. Delta has up to six stadia. Delta is the number one state in sports development.
The legacies are there for all to see. And as he steps on stage to receive Vanguard’s Personality Of The Year Award, I on behalf of the sports family, can only say, Take a bow! Congratulations to this man of sports who plays squash, football and tennis. His tennis is good.
But just before you leave office sir, remember your plan to construct tartan tracks in few secondary schools in Delta and like you have done with football, engage few ex athletes to run programmes in those schools. It will be a lasting legacy for which you will always be remembered for stars will surely emerge from such a programme. Congrats again and may God be with you.