Memories of successes in sports by Nigerians between 1980-2000 are still alive for most citizens, as those years were particularly marked by a global showcase of talents and will. For practical emphasis, in 1989, at the African Championships Athletics competition, our athletes dominated the table with 14 gold, 12 silver and 9 bronze medals. It was hinted that at the time, Nigeria was a force to reckon with, locally in Africa and even in international sports competitions. In 1996, at the Summer Olympics held in Atlanta, the Nigerian football team, i.e. The Super Eagles, rode on a path to gold after defeating Brazil, the best national football team at the time — a feat recognized not just as a win for Nigeria but for Africa. Two years later, the country would become the first African country to complete the group stages as the top team in the world cup. Nigeria’s successes were not limited to football alone. At the same Olympics in Atlanta, Chioma Ajunwa became the first Nigerian to win Olympic gold in a field event. Even locally, our national football league was quite a moving success.
But in recent times, we have witnessed a decline in athletics as a country. Nigeria has only finished as a top once, in all athletic competitions in the last two decades, in 2002 and 2012. The football sector, which is often regarded as the number one sport in Nigeria, has constantly failed to attain that expected dominance in global competitions. In 2021, our young and promising Super Eagles squad failed to put up a good challenge at the African Cup of Nations and failed to qualify for the 2022 world cup in Qatar, and the list could go on. All these are not to in any way downplay the efforts and successes of Nigerians who still go against all odds to make fitting the country’s name through their various individual brilliance in various sports competitions locally and internationally.
Moreover, it is a fact that the sports sector has continued to lag, just like other sectors in Nigeria, over the years. As far as sports is concerned, Nigeria is now regarded as a sleeping giant. Consequently, most athletes and sports persons have left Nigeria for other countries in search of greener pastures and a better career in sports. In the 2009 National Sports Policy of Nigeria, it is clearly outlined as its mission, “the development of the sports sector to a world-class level where it would provide continuous improvement of quality of life for the entire citizenry to the extent that Nigeria would be recognised as one of the leading sporting countries in the world.” But this mission is yet to be realized. Thus, some questions abound. What happened to Nigeria? Why the persistent decline in sports? What is the way out?
No doubt, corruption is the bane of the decline in the sports sector of Nigeria. It is not uncommon to hear some Nigerians speak of how the Nigerian government always find a way to corrupt whatever they lay their hands on. Such an idea is quite saddening but also insightful. Worthy of mention is that the issues that arise from the decline in sports are not external but internal.
Reporting their interview with Mr Godwin Kienka, the chairman of the sports reforms committee set up in 2016 by the Minister of Sports and Youth Development, the Sun Magazine highlighted Kienka’s comment when asked about the nature of the problem with Nigeria’s sports. According to Kienka, from state sports councils to the sports ministry, everyone admitted that “the truth about the problem of our sports is that they are self-inflicted.” This arises from the fact that the sports industry in Nigeria is tied to its politics. The decadent and perverse nature of Nigeria’s politics now seems to have grown into virtually all sectors of the Nigerian State, not excluding her sports sector. There is no gainsaying the fact that if a proper probe is done into the dealings of government officials and other directors in Nigeria sports, one could huddle up a whole bunch of foul plays committed over the years in our sports and how in various ways, the ministry of sports, and the various commissions and committees responsible, have failed as a body to be honest and resourceful over this sector of the country’s human resources.
Moreover, this evil persists because of the inordinate desires of some individuals for self-enrichment. These inordinate desires have put the growth of every other thing in the country at risk of degeneration. I, therefore, propose that the basic problem affecting sports in Nigeria is a mental process problem arising from the idea of leadership. The outstanding quality of human resources and talents in Nigeria does not need overemphasizing, so it is not an issue of incompetence on the part of our athletes and sports persons. Rather it is an issue of negligence, bureaucracy and corruption in Nigeria. Failure to provide proper facilities, proper remuneration to athletes, and inability to harness available resources. It is pertinent to state further that this problem goes beyond leadership in the political sphere. It traces down to the lowest level of leadership among those responsible for Nigerian sports; a long line of ineptitude has cut through from the grassroots to the highest bodies and left holes in every sector.
Given the above ugly situations, it is necessary to begin to speak on the practical issues and solutions in the sports sector. It is important to note that this has been done countless times. As a matter of fact, over ten reform committees have been set up at both state and national levels over the past decade in an attempt to resolve the issues surrounding this discourse. Not to mention the many articles and even books written to analyse and proffer solutions to this problem. Yet, it gets worse by the day.
Therefore, our attempt to rejuvenate sports must focus on this basic problem. The government and the sports ministry must be sincere in their dealings. If most sports leaders and directors are competent, sports in Nigeria may become better once more. Another attempt to solve this problem, as suggested by some public sports analysts, could be the expansion of the role of the private sports sector in the country. In most European countries where there is a high level of recorded success in the field of sports, alongside the public sector, the private sector, with certain regulations, also has a great role in providing financial support for sports infrastructure, providing sports activities and services for citizens, usually in the forms of sports clubs and produce and sell sport products and services.
Beyond its social outlook, the sports sector is highly commercial. The government should play its part and allow other various companies who may be interested and capable to contribute their quotas.
Okwuasaba can be reached via email@example.com