Ahead of this weekend’s 2015 African Cup of Nations qualifier between Nigeria and Congo at the U.J Esuene Stadium, Calabar, Honourable Patrick Ugbe, Cross River State Commissioner for Sports and Youth Development, spoke on how the foremost tourism capital of the country has transformed to the nation’s sport-particularly football- capital.
How did Cross River State, precisely Calabar, become the home of the national teams and Mecca of sports?
It has to do with the environment and ambience that we offer to all the teams in order to excel. Of course, that comes from a lot of reasons. The people of Cross River State are hospitable; the environment is peaceful and the state as a matter of deliberate policy is doing everything to develop the state’s tourism potentiality which invariably has attracted a lot of people to Cross River State. Apart from that, our national teams, be it in football, swimming, athletics and a whole lot of others that wanted to come find here very conducive to prepare and succeed in their engagements.
You just mentioned tourism. What is the synergy between sports and tourism. Why has government made it a deliberate policy to use the twin-approach in developing Cross River State?
We’ve always had tourism vision in Cross River State because we have the potential for it; and we have built on that. Again, one aspect that was missing was sport-tourism and what the administration did by giving me the mandate to come to the ministry of sports and youth development was to vigorously pursue sport-tourism as an added value to the overall sport vision of the state. One thing you must also understand is that tourism and sport go hand-in-hand.
Sport is the biggest driver of tourism in the whole world and there is no major sporting event that would happen without it impacting on the tourism potential of that host country or city. This is why countries and cities struggle to host major sporting events be it the Olympic Games: World Cup at different levels ; Commonwealth Games.
How much have the people of the state as well as government benefited from this vision?
You can’t really quantify the benefits to the people and that is why they have been encouraging us to go all the way. There were times that we felt that it was becoming a huge burden and for me, the encouraging words I get from people who are not in government is really a good motivation. They used to tell us that we should not stop developing the sport andtourism sector because we don t know what we are doing to their economic well-being.
That says a lot about how far we have gone because this encouragement is not coming alone from government people but the ordinary man on the street, the business people as well as corporate icons in the society.They see the benefits more than the people in government because when these teams come, they lodge in hotels; eat food during the period they are here ; use local transportation and buy things here . As such, they are spending money in our economy. Of course, the money goes directly to the people and indirectly to government because these are tax payers. So it’s a win-win situation for the people and government.
We know that there are other sectors of the economy competing for attention. What has been the overall contribution of sports to the development of the state?
Sports have greatly improved the image of Cross River and have taken the state to a highpedestal in the country. You can mention sports in Nigeria of today without mentioning Cross River State. Apart from that, sports have impacted on the lives of the youths of the state; that is why His Excellency, Senator Liyel Imoke (CON) has invested heavily in sports development.
And we have begun to see the results in terms of the performance of our athletes. Cross River was not where we are today when he came into office in 2007; we are number one at the school sports level in this country today. For three consecutive times, Cross River has won the National School Sports Festival. At the elite level, we are equally making giant strides. For instance, at the last National Sports Festival (NSF), we finished in the seventh position which was unheard of in the past.
Cross River would be hosting the NSF in November. What would differentiate this event from the previous ones; what are the new things we are going to see in Cross River 2014?
We have always said that this year’s National Sports Festival was going to be different and we are keeping faith with that promise for obvious reasons. One, it is the centenary edition and it is going to be held in a centenary state because Calabar was the country’s first capital city 100 years ago. It is coming to the entertainment and tourism capital of Nigeria where we take delight in celebrating lives and we really excited about this opportunity;surely we are going to express our delight with the opening and closing ceremony of the NSF in November like it has never been done in the history of the games.
In the organisation of the NSF itself, we are going to do things differently while working hand-in-hand with the Main Organising Committee and the National Sports Commission (NSC) that owns the games. We have said it was our desire to win as the host of the games but we are not going to win at all costs which means that we are going to allow for fair play. We must not win if we cannot win and that is the message we are sending to all the participants. We believe in the spirit of fair play and sportsmanship, you must not win if you can’t win. This is one major thing that we hope would make the game different.
There is no way we are going to talk about sports in Cross River State without mentioning your name too; you came from the private sector and was at one time or the other the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Imoke and also a Commissioner for Information. How have all of these helped you to achieve so much in the Sports and Youth Development Ministry?
As CPS and Commissioner for Information, I was doing a professional job but as Commissioner for Youth and Sports, I’m doing a work I’m passionate about. Somewhere, along my career in the profession(broadcast journalism), I decided to specialize in sports and that has to do with my love and passion for sports having been an athlete too in my school days even though I didn’t take it further than that.
I was quite good in athletics and I remember I won a lot of laurels for my primary school in those days. If we’d have the kind of developmental programmes we have now, maybe I would have progressed to become a national star athlete. But be that as it may, I’m in sport now and actually doing what I’m passionate about and driving it with all the strength I can muster so that the fortune of Cross River State in sport is changed for the better. So that we achieve one major aim of making Cross River State, the most preferred destination for sport in the country.