By Chief Segun Odegbami
With gratitude to the Creator of the Universe, I have been very blessed.
I am not a religious person in the classic sense of a person indoctrinated into certain strict beliefs and practices. On August 26, 2021, several things in my life, scattered in small occurrences through the decades, came together in one moment of realization, a line connecting all the dots, like a jig saw puzzle, on a day Professor Eghosa Osaghae surprised me with an announcement.
If I already make you feel uncomfortable, please stop reading this now, because I intend to tell some interesting stories that fanatics of religion may find uncomfortable.
Otherwise, the following can be seen by all as simple incidences that fit into my simple interpretation of my journey on this earth through sports.
Let me start from the beginning.
Every time I sleep I dream. When I wake up, I never remember the dream. As a result, I never take my dreams as anything requiring further interrogation or intervention.
So, that’s it, really, another life in another realm that has nothing to do with my life when I wake up from my slumber. In short, because I never remember them, my dreams never come to pass.
Many decades ago, I had a particular dream.
It is the only one that I have never quite forgotten even though it, too, remains only as an interesting addition to my constant inquiry into ‘existence’ as a whole, for which I believe there is no ‘knowing-for-sure’, no ’absolute truth’, and only an acceptance of ‘what works’.
In that dream, I saw a passage in a book. I struggled to read the blurring words as they started to vaporize. The strain of my struggle jolted me up, but not before I had managed to grasp the scripted words before they disappeared into the sunlight of re-awakening. They were obviously a passage from the bible.
They read: ‘Jeremiah 1- 4’.
I was not sure if the figures meant Chapters 1 to 4, or Chapter 1 verse 4. Either way, however, immediately I woke up, I decided to check. I found the book of Jeremiah. I had never read that part of the bible before. My readings before then were limited to the passages we studied in our religious classes whilst in St. Murumba College, Jos, as well as other scriptures from our Catechism handbook used in my student days. I was a member of the Catholic Church and attended Catholic schools. In neither place were we encouraged to read the bible independently. So, I admit my serious limitation in the deep understanding of the bible books when I was young. In particular, I had never read the book of Jeremiah, until after my dream.
I checked the chapter and verses from the Bible beside my bed. The words have remained in the recesses of my mind since then, an academic archival material for my personal knowledge only, without specific purpose or interpretation. Yet, I have never forgotten.
The passage read in part: ‘…I chose you before I gave you life, and before you were born, I selected you to be a prophet to the nations’.
Intrigued, with my little mind’s eye, I gave it my own harmless interpretation, ‘the Creator knows the end of every life even before the beginning’.
That passage has been locked away in the innermost part of my mind for decades since then, seeking neither interpretation nor fulfilment, idling away, only to resurrect and resurface some two weeks ago, when I visited Professor Eghosa Osaghae, the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, NIIA, in his office on Victoria Island, Lagos, to congratulate him on his recent appointment to that highly respected position.
We first met as Speakers on Pastor Poju Oyemade’s very popular, annual, widely publicized and well-covered public lectures called ‘The Platform’. It is a platform for cerebral persons with something to add to the pool of knowledge and experiences. They deliver papers to a huge live as well as national television audiences.
I was invited to speak on a sports-related topic, of course, whilst Professor Osaghae, who spoke before I did, delivered a political ‘homily’ on the State of the Nigerian nation.
He ‘blew’ the roof off the Covenant Centre venue of the lecture with his delivery. He spoke for about 40 minutes in a carefully measured tone of voice, in carefully constructed words. It was an effortless delivery. He neither stuttered nor stammered.
He clearly articulated his views and seamlessly connected them like a jigsaw puzzle, extempore, without referring to any notes. It was an oratory of the highest order. The audience was mesmerised. The long, standing ovation at the end said it all. By the time he was done with us on that fateful day we were all salivating for more of him. It was a masterclass in public speaking.
I was fascinated with the depth of his mind and his eloquence.
After I made my own humble presentation, I was surprised to find him sincerely complimenting me for my effort. We exchanged telephone numbers and since then have become acquainted. He was, at the time, the Vice-Chancellor of Igbinedion University, Okada. He invited me to the University’s Convocation and actually got me to say a few words at the occasion. When his term ended at the university and he returned to his teaching job as a lecturer in the University of Ibadan, we still kept in touch. One thing I have been aware of throughout the period since knowing him is that he reads everything I write in the newspapers and on social media platforms. His occasional comments have reassured me that i was not trashing my subjects.
So, when I decided to pay him a visit it was not completely unexpected. I actually looked forward to it. After some weeks of procrastinating, we finally settled for the August 26, 2021, visit.
It was meant to be a small private courtesy visit, but it was everything but that.
It has been 14 days since the visit, but I am still trying to make sense of the torrential downpour of his pleasantries and blessings. I am still struggling to digest the full import and implication of the surprise ‘gift’ he presented on a platter for me that day, one that dug out from the deep recesses of my mind that dream (remember?), the only one in my life that I clearly remember till now, several decades after.
At this point, permit me to digress a little.
Let me go back a few decades.
It is the summer of 1976. One day away from achieving my ultimate dream in sports, of becoming an Olympian, the world ‘ends’. That dream is aborted because my country leads 26 other African countries to boycott the Olympic games in protest for a noble cause – for equality for the Blacks in South Africa. It is noble, but at the cost of big dreams ‘killed’ of athletes who become the sacrificial lambs on the altar of international politics and diplomacy, pawns as in a game of chess.
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The interesting thing is that I really did not earn my place in that Nigeria’s Olympic team. I did not participate in the process of how the Green Eagles qualified. An invisible hand had scripted my journey there. Straight from the National Youth Service camp I was whisked to Europe to join the team in the final-lap preparation for the Montreal Olympics. That’s how, from the blues, I was to become an Olympian, until the world stopped to let me alight from the train heading to the top of Mount Olympus.
The African boycott of the Games ended the dreams of the almost one hundred innocent members of the Nigerian contingent of athletes. It was emotionally traumatic. It was my baptism into the world of international sports politics and diplomacy.
In 1977, I got another dose.
At the zenith of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, between capitalism and communism, China was slowly, silently, steadily and strategically planting the seeds of the economic success that the country manifests today. I look back now and understand what was termed the ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ that joined Africa, Asia and South America to China’s interests in the early 1970s, China’s romance with Third-World countries, particularly African, through building ‘free’ roads and stadiums in the various countries and offering carrots in cultural and sports exchanges to cultivate friendships and relationships, have now fostered and become full-blown relations today.
We, as athletes, were the lubricating oil in those diplomatic games in 1977. China invited the Nigerian national football team, the Green Eagles (all expenses paid) for a visit to an environment that was closed to most of the rest of the world. It was sports diplomacy at its best. Chinese coaches trained several generations of Nigerian table tennis players and coaches, and to date that relationship continues to provide the foundation to which Nigeria’s place in the world in table tennis is anchored.
The Green Eagles’ visit to China was the first such visit by a Black/African team to that country. It was a bold statement to the world that Africa’s most powerful and most populated country was the first Black/African country to establish an embassy in communist China. That was eons ago.
Once again, athletes were both the pawns and the prizes in the diplomatic games.
As prize for the China romance, for two weeks, we toured the hinterland of China, from Peking to Shanghai to Canton and, finally, to Hong Kong, Black African players seen for the first time in that part of the world playing football against their regional teams. For me, it was a priceless education.
Three years after that adventure to China, without participating in any qualifying competition (the elements at work again), and on the eve of the 1980 Olympics, Nigeria’s national football team was invited and given a free ticket to participate at the Olympics in Moscow. The same politics that thwarted the dream of 1976 was revived, and this time served as reward for some of us. The victims of 1976 got the opportunity to rejoin the ‘train ride’ to Mount Olympus to become Olympians, in 1980. I was one of them.
On March 12, 1999, in Abuja, along with 9 other Nigerians, I was admitted by the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the Ministry of Youth and Sports, headed at the time by Air Commodore Emeka Omeruah, into the exclusive club of non-career diplomats. We were appointed ‘Sports Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria’.
From that day, officially, all 10 of us were at liberty to be addressed as ‘Ambassadors’, and could prefix our names with the title. A few of the recipients actually did.
My problem with the appointment, and taking it any further than beyond the ceremony of that day, was that as ‘Sports Ambassador’ we had neither a portfolio nor a definitive responsibility. The best that was to happen as a result of the appointment were a few local protocol privileges that some of us already enjoyed by being recipients of national honours. Mine is ‘Member of the Order of the Niger’, MON.
As far as I was concerned being a sports ambassador under the conditions in the letters given to us was largely ceremonial and cosmetic. It carried no responsibilities and no special privileges beyond the free-sitting in the government protocol lounges at the airports.
So, two Thursdays ago, I visited the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs headquarters on Kofo Abayomi St, Victoria Island, Lagos, the foremost think-tank for the Nigerian government on diplomacy and international affairs.
Professor Osaghae had a surprise package for me.
He was waiting for me in his conference room. Rather than meet with me alone, there was a whole army of persons that later turned out to be his management team with him.
He introduced me as we all sat around the large conference table. He delivered another one of his great welcome speeches. And then, he made a pronouncement that, 14 days after, I am yet to fully recover from its pleasantness.
Thinking about it later, I concluded that the elements were at work again, their conspiracy in full bloom. Professor Osaghae’s words spring at me even now, extracted images from the archives of my spiritual inclinations. That moment in his office was known long before I was even born. That’s why it came together on August 26, after a complex series of baptismal events into the world of sports diplomacy through the decades of my life.
Professor Eghosa Osaghae announced the decision of his team at the NIIA to confer on me the status of Associate Fellow of the NIIA, a new and special unit in the institute that will delve into Sports as a powerful tool for Diplomacy, not just in Nigeria, but also, throughout Africa. I am to lead the adventure into that new world.
Unlike, my other former honours and awards this one comes with a list of responsibilities that tally with my vision for Sports in Africa, and how African countries and Blacks around the world must unite in their purpose and objectives and use the power in sports to change their world for better.
The NIIA is the foremost institution for research and scholarship in international affairs for the federal government of Nigeria. Since the days of professor Bolaji Akinyemi, it had maintained the reputation of a great institution offering the platforms for scientific interrogation of national and international issues with Africa as centre-piece.
Now here I was, sitting at a round table with learned professors, admitted without any solicitation or even ambition, into this exalted class of diplomacy. It was a very humbling experience thinking about the long journey from 1976 to now.
Of course, I am on familiar territory.
When I was first conferred with the honour of Sports Ambassador, it was without an official portfolio and without any responsibilities. As an Associate Fellow of the NIIA, the Creator of the Universe has added the missing portfolio and clear responsibilities.
I can now clearly see how the dots of fortune have been connected. The pawn and the prize have become One. So, from August 26, I have chosen to breathe life into the ‘empty’ decoration of March 12, 1999.
Very proudly, I am taking my rightful place and role, as an Associate Fellow of the NIIA, and as Sports Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So, when next you see me remember to call me by my new name and title.
And whenever you choose to address me, also remember to add the prefix, Mr Ambassador.
So, help me, God!