My Dear President Muhammadu Buhari,
I apologise earnestly for this intrusion.
I am writing this, Sir, in my capacity as an official Sports Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, an honour bestowed on me almost 2 decades ago by the federal government.
Maybe I should also add that the federal government inducted me into the Nigerian Sports Hall of Fame at about the same period.
Unfortunately, since honoured with that exalted title I have never been given any national assignment or invited to any national event on the strength of the responsibility of that office.
Unfortunately, also, the centre and museum established at the time at the entrance into the federal capital city, Abuja, to house the pictures, books, historical relics, memorabilia and souvenirs collected throughout the country from heroes that constituted Nigeria’s history in sports, and archiving their greatest achievements forever, no longer exists. It has vanished from the face of the earth without a trace. It is painful to think and realise that all the most valued collection of our historic past, irreplaceable items in sports, may now be lost forever without anyone held accountable. That’s a clear demonstration of how successive governments have treated sports matters – with shocking levity and indifference.
A specific new issue has come up again that bothers me so much I am compelled by my responsibility to sport and to my country, that I wish to bring it to your attention using this medium only because it is of manifest public interest. I appreciate, like most Nigerians do, that the country is going through very difficult and tumultuous times. The challenges in all sectors are almost unprecedented in our history. Yet, the responsibility as the captain of this ship, to steer the country safely through the raging storms of seemingly intractable national problems, rests squarely on your slender shoulders. I feel for you. I know how difficult it must be for you. I know also that you have the character of one who can deal with it if the issues are clear to you.
In your first coming as our captain, the issue of indiscipline in public life was clear to you and you dealt with it very decisively to the admiration of all Nigerians then. That’s why I voted for you 4 years ago and repeated it again two months ago. Such was my frustration with the impossibility of the state of affairs in my country, even in my field of sports, that I took the weighted step that many people considered ‘reckless’ at the time, and ventured into the murky waters of Nigerian politics less than one year ago. That was just a demonstration of my frustration at the failed system. I wanted governments (State and Federal) to see what is possible using sport, to pay a little more attention to it, to convert the energy in sports as well as the army of its followers to make a big difference in the growth and development of the country and its exploding youth population. It was a lofty dream. Yet I believed it could become a reality, just as late Nelson Mandela believed and used in South Africa, just as late Obafemi Awolowo did and used in the old Western Nigeria, just as the Qataris are using to take their Country into the First World, and just as several leaders in developed cultures are using to drive their countries’ human, environmental, infrastructural and industrial development.
Unfortunately, that effort of mine is now ‘failed’ history.
Following all of that experience, a friend asked me exasperatingly after listening to my tales of woe: where do we start from in fixing the country? It has been several weeks since Tunde Kelani asked me that loaded question. I am still thinking about it, groping in my mind for an answer. I have had to also ask a few other friends if they had an answer. Their responses have not been far from mine – a blank stare in furlong hopelessness.
How did Nigeria get to this sorry state?
On returning from his annual spiritual retreat in 1982 Papa Awolowo was asked by journalists at the airport about his thoughts on how Nigeria could return to the path of growth. His reply was shocking and emphatic: Nigeria was beyond redemption. There was no more hope.
My President, I hate to say it, but the words of Chief Obafemi Awolowo hang over our country like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. I am hoping that Sport may provide some hope even though it cannot be immune from the vagaries and shenanigans of partisan politics and the raging affliction in the polity. Its future is inexorably tied to the future of the country itself, either as a victim or as a vehicle. So far, Sport has been a victim, whereas some of us believe it can be a useful vehicle of change. The power of Sport is so underestimated and unappreciated that Sport was not listed as one of the priority activities and interest of your government in the past 4 years. So, the sector has been a microcosm of the country reflecting all the political, economic, social, religious and cultural upheavals, minefields and rapids at every turn.
In the past few weeks, the state of sport reared its head for the world to see in an embarrassing scandal that went viral. That is actually the reason for this my public appeal to you now, Sir. I am referring to the scandal of the missing $135,000US in the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, an agency under the Federal Ministry of Sports. Nigeria’s poor image is further battered, and every Nigerian is being smeared with the tar of that single, simple and avoidable act of shame by a few officials in Nigerian sports.
It has happened only because Sport has always been treated with levity. It is in the third tier of Nigeria’s public institutions. It is the agency that has been led through several successive governments by good persons that, unfortunately, do not have much knowledge of its intricacies, not to talk of its influence and power to contribute massively to the development of the country beyond winning medals land trophies.
Your excellency, Sport, as an important part of a larger entertainment industry, can drive youth engagement and empowerment, national integration and unity, health and wellbeing, education and school enrolment, jobs creation, new industries, new technology, urban planning, renewal and development, tourism, media, culture, infrastructural development, international diplomacy, and more. Those who say that sport is life know what they are talking about. But what it requires is a special eye to see it, special knowledge and experience to appreciate it, and a solid grounding in it to drive it as a special developmental vehicle.
That’s why going forward into your new administration starting next week, I am appealing to you to give a little extra time to look at the issue of Sport in your government. Use it as a vehicle to help you in your difficult mission ahead.
You can do two things to start with.
Take Sports away from the Ministry and restore its status and operations to that of a National Sports Commission with a powerful board of members drawn from amongst critical stakeholders grounded in the industry. I want to assure you that you can still satisfy all political righteousness with a careful selection.
The second thing is to give the Commission a Chairman, devoid of political, religious, and ethnic biases, but one with a solid grounding in sports in terms of qualifications, experience, integrity and a clear vision, to head it.
Do those simple things for Nigerians and you can go to sleep. I assure you that Sports will rise up to the challenge of fulfilling its potential as a weapon with the power to make very significant contributions to change Nigeria.
I thank you, Sir, for your patience reading this long and boring admonition.
Your humble Ambassador,
Segun Odegbami, MON, FNIM, OLY (more to come)