I have written several times about the ‘uselessness’ of the Abuja National Stadium (now known as MKO Abiola Stadium). Such a great facility for all-round sports lies fallow all year round, overgrown with weed and smothered in dust. Many ministers of Sports have come and gone, and most of them prefer to give the stadium a wide berth. In the distant past, a beautifully constructed, Olympic standard stadium, which cost N73 billion (the equivalent of at least N500 billion in today’s money, given that the naira has tumbled at least seven times over since it was built in 2003), was hired out to churches for crusades, and our football pitch suffered a bad case of alopecia, as people stomped the devil on the grass turf. The devil refused to depart from the nation no matter how they tried though. Other ministers preferred to just lock up the place until medium to large trees started growing on the pitch. You can’t make this up. The internet preserves the evidence.
These days, the minister of Sports operates from the stadium – as sports administrators do in many parts of the world. This affords a more hands-on management of the facility. However, I believe churches have returned to the stadium, given some of the banners we see at the gates. Hopefully they are not availed the pitch that Nigerian businessman, Aliko Dangote helped recover at the cost of over N1 billion. The grass in the premises is still get overgrown anyway. It is apparent now that Nigeria – the entire 200 odd millions of us – cannot manage a single standard stadium.
Recently, in the build up to the just concluded Nigeria vs Ghana match, I was driving past the stadium and wondering about these issues. Why can’t there be matches and other activities there weekly or once in two weeks? Why can’t the sports administrators draw up a schedule for the engagement of the stadium? And so on, as I went to a restaurant for lunch. At the door, I saw the security man holding tickets and trying to interest customers, who mostly ignored him. I was excited and bought 20 tickets. I reckoned that why not be a catalyst to the use of this stadium, just as I had been preaching. I posted that I had tickets on Facebook, of which some friends on the platform came forward to collect, while I shared the others with my staff. I thought it was a great idea to bring positive attention to the stadium and support our team at the same time. I would have loved to see our boys in real life too but was certain of not being in Abuja on that day. I later went and bought 10 more tickets. All were given out. That was my contribution.
The Stadium was chock full like never before – from what I later saw on TV. Of course, we have overturned the COVID masking and spacing protocols that were never needed in our clime anyway. Nigerians were happy to be in the stadium that had kept them out for so long. A little bit of the history of that stadium will help. It was built by the Germans and Chinese in time for the COJA (All Africa Games) of 2003, hosted by Nigeria. At that time, there were many stories of contract inflation, mismanagement and embezzlement (not as fantastic as what we hear today though). But Nigerians were happy to see the physical manifestation of an Olympic stadium. When the game started, Nigerians hustled down to go watch them. But that was when the trouble started. There were no clearly spelt out arrangement for crowd management. People did not know where the entrance was. Directions were poor. At the end, security service personnel started beating people who tried to crawl in from any opening on the days Nigeria had crucial meets – usually football. People would crawl under barbed wires, and jump the fence where they could, just to get in. The security services and the management of the game only had arrangements for VIPs (trust Nigeria and VIP. Everybody is a big man here).
So, people lost interest entirely in visiting the stadium. Athletes complained bitterly that the 2003 games were as good as the practice sessions, as there was no crowd to cheer them. As a bank worker then, I could still manage to get in on a few occasions. But there were usually less than 200 people watching in a 60,000 odd capacity stadium. The second phase of the stadium (for swimming and indoor sports) suffered even greater neglect. The swimming pool turned green with spirogyra. The Jonathan government stored thousands of stoves that it wanted to use for political mileage in the velodrome, which has never been used for cycling sports since 2003. One had hoped that the Ghana match will offer it a new lease of life. But no, the stadium is still rather jinxed.
Seeing Nigerians – young street urchins – start to destroy the only standard stadium in Nigeria because we lost to Ghana broke my heart. The class issue comes up again. Can a stadium be successful being built around the well-to-do only? Should our Sports Ministry keep out poor folks? If not – and I think not – what should be done to keep people at bay? This newfound manner of destroying things took root during #EndSARS and I recall warning us then. Our poor people have tasted blood and will now readily get back at society for real and perceived ills done to them. Can our elites – especially the current government – see what they have done to the lives of millions of Nigerians? Can the elite see that the zombies they created are at their doors? Can the youths also see that this problem has caught up with them as it soon gets to their turns to lead and manage the country? As rich folks in government wantonly mismanage resources and turn a blind eye to the most vulnerable amongst us, the poor have also taken on a destructive mode, as if to say we must drag ourselves down into nothingness, disintegration, and even more abject poverty by all means? Are we seeing that the rest of the world is watching us and taking notes? When will we get a good government that understands how to harness the minds of its vast majority, rather than let them drift in every direction where they have become agents to the devil?
I learnt that at some point, the stadium gates were thrown open for all and sundry. I hope people were frisked before the got in. Why sell tickets if you knew that the stadium would later be thrown open? Maybe if people pay a token they will behave better or perhaps that small payment keeps out the more aggrieved and violent sort. Was it that the marketers of the programme did not do a good job? Did they give up? Why did Nigerians not buy their tickets on time? After sharing all 30 tickets that I bought, people were still calling me a day before the match; even on the match day, despite the fact that I shared the phone number of the AIT staff who sold the tickets and I informed all that the tickets were finished. Do Nigerians want everything for free? What about the middle class? Don’t they see that the Abuja MKO Stadium is lying waste and dilapidating due to total neglect? Must they be forced to buy tickets to watch a match. My staff who went informed me that it was street urchins who ended up in VIP section and the stadium was filled beyond capacity (maybe by another 10,000). Hope the Ministry has learnt. It is just so sad that the world football body has banned that stadium indefinitely because it was more than obvious that officials could not secure the pitch. Ghanaian players had to run for their lives after the match, as they were being pursued by aggressive Nigerian fans. Unfortunately, in the confusion one official collapsed and died.
I wish we could roll back the hands of time and replay what happened on March 26 differently, taking better informed decisions. What is the future of the Abuja stadium? When will FIFA ever release the stadium for international matches? Now that young boys in Nigeria have seen that there is an adrenaline rush when they destroy public facilities, how will we ever draw them back? Don’t we have to make some people scape goats? If it was abroad, they would have identified some of those vandals and banned them from getting near stadia for some while. But Nigeria deliberately has no record of her residents. The Ministry needs to tell us what additional security they are putting in place to forestall a reoccurrence. The sight was ugly, and it further devalued Nigerians in the eyes of the world. It’s as if we could never do anything right at all. Our players’ values dropped overnight as a result of the losses on several fronts. To make matters more depressing, many educated Nigerians have justified the wanton acts of destruction, not knowing that as the politicians they hate so much loots the country, and street urchins also destroy what is left, we are all on a race to the bottom. When the proverbial dung hits the fan, none of us will find the experience palatable. Ask any war-torn and hopeless country.
But I believe there are opportunities for employment creation, leadership, and many positives in these challenges. For one, Nigeria needs to become a police state to save herself. The same youths who are destroying public property must be retrained, reorientated and employed to help us arrest transgressors. We have no choice but to press our youths into service. The strategy by which a vast majority of the youths have been pointedly ignored by government is what has led to this horrible scenario. Our public goods and infrastructure must be guaranteed and secured. We cannot destroy what is left of the country’s infrastructure, talents, reputation, values, in fits of blind rage. I hope the stark display of madness and anger is enough to let those managing resources change their ways immediately, while they still have some small opportunity. I am still in ‘sifia’ pain from the horrors I saw on TV and the rubbishing of my emotional and monetary investment in that stadium.
Fasua, an economist, author, blogger, entrepreneur, and recent presidential candidate of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP), can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.