This is the story of Nkechi Akashili.
I am writing this at the cost of hurting certain ‘friends’ and offending certain sensibilities. Unfortunately, to be silent is to be complicit, to hang a moral Albatross around my own neck because. As a former athlete and a national Sports Ambassador, it is my responsibility to defend the cause of sports, of athletes and of the Olympics at all times.
So, I apologise to all those who may feel that I am offending them by expressing my opinion here.
Abraham Lincoln, it was who famously said that ‘nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power’.
The evidence of the abuse, misuse and arrogance of power is all around us in Nigeria. The common opinion is that once a Nigerian ascends to a position of power or authority, the spirit of pride, arrogance and corruption immediately takes over their being and transforms them into physical monsters and moral demons.
As it applies in politics so is it in the office space, even in sports. The transformation from man to demi-god is often automatic. Officials abandon their humanity, morals, compassion and fair play, and adorn a new cloak of ambition driven by avarice, materialism and ego. They become ‘beasts’, eager, willing and quick to throw anybody, even the people they are meant to serve, like the athletes under them, under a running bus in their vaulting ambition.
In sports, they start to compete with the athletes for space in the limelight, and in the climb up the ladder of fame and fortune. They start to flaunt their power as well as the pecks of their office. They start to bask under the kleighlight of media attention. Officials that are appointed to service and supervise athletes become gods who must be feared, obeyed and revered. That’s why, generally, athletes and administrators hardly ever enjoy a good and transparent relationship.
There are too many of such stories across Nigerian sports where officials use athletes as springboards for their own elevation, dumping them like rags at a point, never protecting them, never giving them a fair hearing, never giving them the benefit of doubt whenever they get into trouble in Nigeria’s climate of poor systems, poor infrastructure, poor institutions and poor practices.
Nkechi Akashili was a national basketball hero just over two years ago. She played for the Elephant Girls, the First Bank Basketball Club, and was a key member of Nigeria’s national basketball team, D ‘Tigress.
For 10 years she diligently and faithfully served Nigeria with her talent lifting aloft the banner of the country at junior and senior national team levels.
She was even the captain of one of the national teams and of the biggest and best women’s basketball club in Nigeria.
Two years ago, officials of WADA, the anti-doping agency in Nigeria, destroyed her dreams, her reputation, her career, and even her life without even batting an eye-lid.
They successfully ‘killed’ her dreams over allegations that cannot stand any serious judicial or moral scrutiny. In doing so, they did not even lose a day’s sleep. Another athlete bites the dust as they unleashed their draconian judgement in a matter over which they were the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge, all rolled into one.
I cannot understand the motivation for persecuting athletes that are already sitting ducks in an environment like Nigeria where transparency, proper processes and infrastructure are in serious deficit. No one deserves to end up a victim under the prevailing conditions.
The administrative system that is meant to inform, enlighten and educate all athletes about the seriousness of performance enhancing substances has failed woefully to deliver. Supplements that all high-performance athletes use as of necessity are all over the place, sold in all pharmacies without prescription. Some common medications contain some of these banned substances. Without proper, regular and serious enlightenment and information, Nigerian athletes are vulnerable, accidents waiting to happen at any time because of a failed system that does not provide the needed education for them.
In 10 years of Nkechi’s relationship with Nigerian sports she had never been tutored on the subject, and never been tested for drugs.
The country’s sports administrators failed in their responsibility to her.
The matter of athletes and banned substances, with dire consequences for the guilty, should never be treated with levity the way it has been for so long in the country.
It is very serious business. WADA officials are aware of the prevailing situation in Nigeria. They have a responsibility to put the system into consideration in carrying out fair and responsible judgements over athletes. They must not just rush to ‘catch’ and ‘kill’ poorly informed Nigerian athletes that can’t fight back. Sports federations must take full responsibility for failure to prepare the athletes by providing all the necessary information, education and enlightenment that would help them prevent abuse of substances known to be banned, and to justify appropriate punishment if they are caught.
Their work must be meticulous, and must be done with integrity, honesty and transparency, leaving no room for accusation of flippancy, carelessness, bias, and inhumanity, particularly because the consequences to the athletes are dire and drastic.
Without going into details on this page, I can state categorically that the Nigerian officials knew that Nkechi Àkadili’s case was handled very poorly. It will not withstand any integrity test anywhere in the world.
They knew they were ‘killing’ an ant with a hammer. One of them admitted to me that the onus was placed on her to prove her innocence and not on WADA to prove her guilt. That is preposterous. For what she was accused of, even if she was guilty (and she was not), as a first offender the most that should have been handed down were 2 years suspension, not the maximum of 4 years. It was a callous and wicked suspension.
The officials used their supposedly unchallengeable power maximally, destroying an innocent girl’s life without convincing proof or evidence.
Justice A.O. Faji of the Federal High Court in Lagos, in a landmark judgement delivered on December 20, 2020, buttresses my point.
The judgment, acclaimed by several legal authorities as very sound, reveals the underbelly of the anti-drugs agency in Nigeria. In overturning the unmerited 4-year ban of Lee Evans, a world renowned athlete and coach, a global sports ambassador who had served Nigeria variously since 1975, and a consultant to the Lagos State Government who was accused of giving a female athlete a supplement when he was not even coaching her, and no laboratory report to show the supplement contained any banned substance, Justice Faji exposed WADA as a body that is not smelling of roses in the thoroughness of its work as some of us had always suspected.
These are the same WADA officials, using the same procedure as in the case of Lee to deal with Nkechi. The difference is that Lee had the guts, the means and the audacity to take the officials to Hon. Justice A.O. Faji’s Court. The Judge described the entire episode thus:
“The panel did not observe the rules of fair hearing either as regards its composition or its deliberations. DWI who supervised the taking of the samples, was also a member of the panel, therefore being a judge in his own case ie. Judge and witness in breach of the rule of natural justice to wit nemo judex ni causa sue”.
He added: “The panels conclusions were also speculative”.
The entire judgement, which is now a public document, is a great exposition of the injustices that may have ruled the activities of WADA in Nigeria. It has serious implications for sports administration going forward in Nigeria. The season for ‘Sport and the Law’ may have just begun.
By the way, Nkechi Akashili, has lost her scholarship to attend an American University. Nigeria has also lost Nkechi’s services to basketball.
Meanwhile, the WADA officials are living their own lives unmoved and untouched by whatever physical and mental damage their decisions may have done a poor Nigerian basketball hero now languishing in pain, anger and depression instead of being on her way to the moon.
Nkechi is now a trainee hairdresser somewhere in Lagos, her loftier dreams shattered forever by a bad sports system and narrow-minded officials.