Most countries in the developed world have a Hall of Fame. This is a structure housing memorials to heroes and famous individuals in a particular sector. The best known is in Sports. It is the highest honour for an athlete to be inducted into his country’s Hall of Fame. Nigeria did not have any such institution until 1998, when the Federal Government established the first ever Sports Hall of Fame for Nigerian Athletes in the city of Abuja.
At the time, General Abdulsalami Abubakar was Head of State, Late Air Commodore Emeka Omeruah was the Minister of Sports, Late Alhaji Babayo Shehu was the Director-General/Permanent Secretary, and Dr. Amos Adamu was not just a director in the Ministry of sports, but the most influential man in Nigerian sports, an unofficial ranking he had held since joining the Sports Ministry in 1991 and that subsisted up till 2008 when he was redeployed to another ministry. I went to Abuja a few months ago and fulfilled a promise I had made to a young man, Nicholas Maigani, who had been pestering me about visiting his project in Abuja. I was curious because he called the project the Sports Hall of Fame and told me it was located inside the premises of the M.K.O Abiola International Stadium, next door to the office of the Sports Minister. That could mean only one thing – the project had the backing of the Sports Ministry.
My visit was, therefore, apart from satisfying my curiosity, was also to find out what had happened to the first Sports Hall of Fame of which I was a part and a beneficiary that was established in 1998. What became of it? Mr. Maigani turned out to be a very fine young, hardworking gentleman, firmly committed to building a home to store, document and exhibit the history of Nigerian sports. He had written a book on sports heroes. That, plus several pictures of more recent sports personalities, represent the content of the new Hall of Fame when I went in there to see things for myself. I remember the first one that was established some 22 years ago, in 1998, by Emeka Omeruah’s administration. There were two elaborate ceremonies organized for the event coordinated by the Senior Special Assistant to the minister then, veteran journalist Mr. Fan Ndubuoke. At a massive well-attended and televised event in Abuja, the Ministry honoured 10 Nigerians as Official Sports Ambassadors of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. These were new titles at the time without portfolios or specifically defined responsibilities beyond the liberty and authority to add the official appellation of ‘Sports Ambassador’ to their names.
The honoured Nigerians were – Alhaji Buba Ahmed (late), Alhaji Ibrahim Galadima, Alhaji (Dr). Dan Kabo (late), Deacon Ayo Ositelu (late), Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, Innocent Egbunike, Fanny Amun, John Fashanu, Christian Chukwu, and yours truly (Segun Odegbami). A day after their installation there was another elaborate outdoor drink-dance-and-dine ceremony laced with citations, to mark the official opening of the Nigerian Sports Hall of Fame. It was done with much fan fair and the gathering of who’s who in Nigerian sports from all over the country. All were treated to superb entertainment by Daddy Shokey and delectable Ms. Yinka Davis.
Shockingly, the national Hall of Fame was located in a rented flat inside an office building complex at the Abuja Central District Area, on the outskirts of Abuja. No one could explain why such a project was sited in a rented property when the National Stadia in Abuja and Lagos had more than ample room, and were more appropriate, to house such a national heritage project. But there it was, in a small rented office space, in a building far from Abuja township, jam packed with priceless artifacts, souvenirs, films, pictures, books and videos of Nigeria’s famous and legendary sports heroes through several generations across all sports from even before Independence. I recall the work done by Fan Ndubuoke and Ikeddy Isiguzo in going around the country and persuading former ageing sports men and women, or their families, to part with their precious memorabilia – belts, boxing gloves, rackets, bats, running or playing shoes and boots, medals, trophies, jerseys, track suits, pictures, videos and so on. The ministry also commissioned some wood works and sculptures of some sports heroes that were dead and had no artifacts of any kind.
It was a vast collection, the largest and most comprehensive in Nigeria’s history. Although tightly displayed in the small space, they were a fascinating collection. There was a television set on which was running different and endless footage of some of Nigeria’s greatest moments in sports collated, collected and edited for viewing as one went around the hall. There was a booklet that listed the names of some inductees into the Hall of Fame on the occasion even though the institution that selected them, and the criteria used in the selection were not known. In short, the conventional process of selecting inductees was not in place. It was done at the pleasure of the Sports Minister because it must have his approval for it to be made public. Normally a standing permanent committee made up of persons of integrity, experience and knowledge should be in place to meticulously scrutinise deserving athletes that fulfill the requirements to be honoured on an annual basis. It was apparent that it was not entirely well with the project. You could almost see it hovering around the event on that day that some persons in the sports ministry did not fully ‘buy’ into the project. But the Minister, Emeka Omeruah, was a man driven by great ideas and a clear vision. Once he bought an idea would bulldoze his way and vigorously pursue it. He went ahead with it and did what he could. Those that did not buy into it just waited for his exit which came soon enough when the new Civilian administration Chief Olusegun Obasanjo took over government and the guards at the Sports Ministry were changed in 1999.
I can wager that there is not an official register of those that were ‘inducted’ into Nigeria’s Sports Hall of Fame anywhere today. Some of those listed in the handbook of the event on that day were Chioma Ajunwa and the Under-23 Olympic Eagles with their freshly minted Gold medals from Atlanta 1996. There were Boxers and Athletes and a few footballers. I can’t confirm the full list. Bottom line is that the rent of the apartment soon expired and needed to be renewed. The place was so remote from civilization that the public did not visit the place. It never became the sport tourism destination that was promised. The new Minister was either not even aware of the existence of the place, or chose to distance himself from it. Any way which way, though, the lease was not renewed, and nobody took charge or was responsible. For many years I had been asking questions around the sports ministry about what happened to the project, and the hall and the artifacts. I tried to get any of those that was around the Sports Ministry at the time for answers. The only thing every knew was that the place was abandoned.
After several fruitless years, this past week, I resumed my inquiries. I called up Dr. Ademola Are, Dr. Simon Ebhojaye, Alhaji Abba Yola, Dr. Pat Ekeji, Mr. Fan Ndubuoke, all past and present personnel of the Sports Ministry. They all directly or indirectly joined me in the ‘search’ after an initial blank response from every one of them. Finally, there is some faint light been shone on the project. A retired staff admitted to discovering some of the artifacts packed in one of the Executive suites ringing the main terrace of the National Stadium in Abuja. When the stadium was to be prepared for the last National Sports Festival held in Abuja some three years ago or so, he found them there. He also confirmed they were moved out of the suite to another location, likely within the same stadium complex, because the Executive Suite was needed for another purpose during the festival.