There has always been something different, unique and special about the Nigerian.
Most of us do not know it, or even appreciate it, but it is there in every one of us, in our DNA. That is why, of all Black persons on earth, Nigerians wear their independence of mind like a badge. They are very loud and very proud everywhere in the world, even when we do not have any visible reason to be, or to feel so. The reality is that as the largest Black community on earth we occupy a special place and carry a special responsibility. That’s why the current Coronavirus crisis in Nigeria is attracting special interest and reactions around the world. Why has Nigeria, with 200 million people and the poorest healthcare facilities not been ravaged already?
When we look at what the advanced countries of the West and East are doing to tackle the menace, the extra-ordinary lengths they are going to stop the rampaging virus, and we look at what we are doing, how we live, the level of public information, the poverty level in the country, the distance between government and the governed, and the token effort we are putting up as our fight against the virus, no one will doubt that, potentially, we are sitting on a keg of gunpowder. That is why most of the Western countries are evacuating their citizens and staff from Nigeria, trying to escape what they believe is an impending calamity.
True, the signs are ominous. Our people are in panic, but for the wrong reason. Government has been very slow in dealing with the crisis and getting the people to know and understand the situation clearly. Public life has not been calm and peaceful since the announcement of a lock-down because of a lack of clear explanations, proper information, education, buy-in of the people and their all-encompassing participation. The worst thing is that government’s steps, as necessary and praise worthy as they are, are seen as inhuman, draconian and unproductive by the common people. It is not right to ‘photo-copy’ the actions of Western and the Eastern countries, because we do not have the capacity and the environment to do so and succeed. So, unless we change the narratives and modify our strategy and actions, we are staring at doomsday in the face.
We can change our strategy, because that’s the one surer way to halt this virus, otherwise we would be heading for a major health catastrophe if what the virus is doing to whole advanced communities and countries, is anything to go by. We must domesticate our response to the virus. We surely cannot do what China did to stop the virus in their country. Or do what the UK, the USA, Italy and so on, are still doing with their own situation spiraling almost out of control. This is the moment of our greatest challenge in history. We shall survive or perish depending on what we do now. It is as simple as that.
That’s where the spirit of the Nigerian must come into play.
That’s where sports come into the picture, to bring hope and a compass.
As small as our achievements may be in terms of numbers in the world, the victory of our children in 1985 in China, of our youths in 1993 in Japan, of our daughter and young footballers in Atlanta in 1996, of our boxing Son in Saudi Arabia this year, Nigerians’ global achievements in sports have become a testimony and a pointer to the possibilities of what the people can do and achieve when we set our minds to it, and deploy our best hands and heads. That’s why we are found in every major institution in the world making contributions to the advancement of science, medicine, technology, industry, culture, entertainment, education, and even sports. We have the physicality, the capability and the can-do spirit ingrained in our DNA.
That is a fact that most of our people do not carry in their heads. In the villages and small communities around the country they do not even think it, yet, it is ingrained in them, inert and waiting to be ignited by something, a challenge, a disaster, an example, anything that will bring out their intrinsic cultural values and systems, and their never-give-up spirit, their communal life of doing things together.
This period, dangerous as it looks, should not become a season of fear and panic, but of careful considerations, of endless education and information of the people, of providing humane and simple solutions, of eliminating the spirit of fear and replacing it with determination and energies from divine sources that the people believe in and thrive on. Those of us in sports have experienced that energy and seen it at work. We have been good examples of the conditions for success when confronted by mountainous challenges. I am paid regularly to give talks and tell of my experiences, on how teams have risen above impossible odds, defied the norms, swum against the tide of common expectations, climbed the highest mountains, crossed the farthest seas, and won. In our world, winning is about completing the job using the best of abilities, and coming first, only a bonus.
In this coronavirus crisis, we do not want to outdo the Chinese or the Americans. We want to survive with as little collateral damage as possible to us and to our environment. We can do it by taking responsibility, each and every one of us, in the knowledge that the alternative is to perish. I regularly tell my humble story and what it took to achieve the little I did in sports. I tell them about patriotism, discipline, team work and spirit, never giving up, focus, organization. I tell them about the small things that matter most, the attention to the details, the simple instructions, the small tips of information about the opponent, the hard work and sacrifices that must be made for the big triumphs and rewards to come. I gave up a normal life for one that is regimented, endless physical training every day through pain, pounding the tracks, no this, no that, strict discipline, determination, hard work, team work, collective responsibility with others, trusting your coach and obeying his instructions, no partying, no drinking, no smoking, living like a monk in a community, sharing everything with the team, wearing the same uniforms, eating at the same time, obeying the rules, winning together, losing together. It was hard. We broke the rules many times, but would always come back to pay the price and get back on the straight and narrow course. Without them, you certainly lose.
That’s why, on March 22, 1980, when we walked onto the green turf of the National Stadium, Lagos, before 100,000 cheering Nigerians, with their hearts in their throats, their spirit lifted our spirit and together we were transported to another realm. The Algerians had been the better team all through the championship, but our people lifted us. They removed the spirit of fear and replaced it with determination and a patriotic fervor that made us soar like Eagles and overwhelmed Algeria. The people are very important for a team to win. The people must be involved. They provide the spirit and the tonic for defeating any enemy. It was a lesson that I urge all Nigerians to imbibe at this moment of our greatest challenge. Never in our history, or even human history, have we, as Nigerians, faced the odds of success that stand against us now. The Coronavirus poses a great challenge to our existence. We are witnesses to its devastation around the world. Weighing our chances against what more advanced countries and cultures are going through, we are a sitting duck. We stand absolutely no chance to survive. So, we must come together as a people, understand our situation together, agree to be each other’s keeper, every member of our society getting involved in the process of tackling this enemy, making the necessary sacrifice and adjustments in our lives, domesticating our solutions without compromising the dangers, and walking the journey together with our government.
What we need to do now is calm down and not panic or fear.
Get involved. Be part of working out the practical solutions in our peculiar environment and communities. We must go to the grassroots, every nook and cranny of the country, and engage the people by giving them information and practical solutions within the limits of their peculiar situation. These are not rocket science. We need to make them understand that we must remain immobile for a short period of time so that the virus will not spread and will die off naturally. The people that are already infected, we shall be a part of isolating them humanely and taking care of them in the most practical manner everywhere in the country.
We shall keep a safe distance between each other. We shall maintain a high level of hygiene in our environment and in our lives. We shall organize how we shall trade and make some living during this period. All of these will not be easy, but if we do these things, in one month this virus shall be history in our country. Once the people know these things and believe, the lock-down will become manageable and even fun.