Joachim MacEbong: Nigeria vs. goals

by Joachim MacEbong

Since 2013, I have run over 400 times and covered at least 3,500 kilometres in the process. In the beginning, I never knew that running would turn out to be the all-consuming passion it became. That’s the thing, isn’t it? You only understand events in hindsight.

In that time, on my own journey, I have seen much more people take up regular exercise, friends and strangers alike. Such are its benefits, that to say they are making a great choice is both obvious and an understatement.

Exercise is good for much more than just weight loss, getting into this or that (wedding) dress to look good for the ‘gram or to please one person or the other in your life. It is a head-clearer and a lifter of spirits.

There are many people for whom exercise has helped to get through a bad patch: the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, anything at all. Many bad things in your life seem a bit more manageable after a rush of endorphins from a good workout.

That’s why whenever I see people working out, it makes me quite happy. A session almost always leaves you a bit better than when you started.

Exercise is something that can be done right through to the end of life. I grinned from ear to ear when I watched this 2012 TED talk given by Charles Eugster, then a 93-year-old bodybuilder. He is now 97. I was also inspired by this article about Ed Whitlock, an 85-year-old man who ran a marathon this year in 3 hours and 56 minutes. There is no sign that either of them is close to kicking the bucket. #GrandDaddyGoals indeed.

Elite sport, on the other hand, is a young person’s game, and Nigeria has a lot of young people. Our average age is 19, and 70% of our population is younger than 30. Never has elite sport been so lucrative, but not only has Nigeria refused to reap the benefits, there seems to be an active push to ensure that this does not happen.

The first thing is that sport can be an outlet for the excess energy of youth. If you are engaging in sports after school and on weekends, there is less room to engage in all kinds of other things. It teaches you discipline and perseverance that you can apply in other areas of your life. Properly channelled, it gives you an outlet to vent your frustrations.

But there is no sport without good and well-motivated coaches. Either side of every tournament, our newspapers are filled with stories of Nigerian coaches begging for their salaries to be paid. It has been normalised in our society that people are not paid for work done, that they are supposed to go to the media in order to get contractual obligations fulfilled.

In Rio, Samson Siasia nearly quit in the middle of the games because he was owed salaries. Till he died, Stephen Keshi was owed by the NFF as well. The late Amodu Shuaibu as well. On and on it goes.

The way our athletics coaches are treated is even worse. Legends like Tobias Igwe do not get their due and are humiliated by corrupt bureaucrats on top of that.

Same goes for the footballers and athletes, without whom there is no competition. It is all too familiar to hear talk of quarrels over allowances and bonuses, players not turning up for training, and athletes in camp without stipends. Name it. It has happened here.

We then expect what amounts to miracles when they represent the country. We act surprised when they take up the citizenship of other serious countries. In Rio, over two dozen Nigerians competed for other countries. It will get worse.

Who can forget the scandal of Nigeria’s Olympians taking to social media to solicit support for their GoFundMe accounts? There was the rower, Chierika Ukogu, as well as our sprinters, most notably Divine ‘I never hesperrit’ Oduduru. Divine is now in the US on a scholarship with Texas Tech University.


It is a splendid development because he already has the mentality of a winner. He only needs the tools, and he will get that over there. Here’s hoping he keeps his head down.

What holds us back

There are many others who should get similar opportunities but won’t, because of the incompetence and corruption at every level of our sports. The International Olympic Committee gives subventions to all National Olympic Committees every year, to enable their athletes prepare for the Olympics. There is no accountability regarding these funds, and none regarding the funds that come from the government either. The same thing happens in the NFF as well, who get grants from CAF and FIFA and are included in the budget, but do not account for those resources either.

That is the first step. Accountability for funds that are already available and a full understanding of the true picture.

The next step is to gradually unlock the dormant commercial value of sports in Nigeria.

Waking the sleeping giant

Let’s start with football. There is no reason at all why love for the Nigerian Professional Football League cannot exist side by side with love for European leagues, in much the same way that love for Nigerian music coexists with foreign music.

The major obstacle to this right now is that most of the clubs in Nigerian football are owned by state governments, and we all know how state governments in this country are run.

Players are paid poorly and owed for months. Stadium infrastructure is unattractive and keeps people away from games. The record of the league’s few private owners isn’t too much better, but government ownership is far worse.

We need a lot more private involvement in Nigerian football to unlock revenue streams from gate takings, match day hospitality, merchandising, sponsorships and so on. While the majority of the league’s teams are still funded with public money, there will be no incentive to develop these streams and give Nigerian football the following it could enjoy.

Privately owned clubs like COD United provide a glimpse into what is possible. Their structure is very close to what you would find abroad. They have six youth teams, a female team, and a partnership with Premier League team AFC Bournemouth to develop players and coaches.

Formed six years ago, they started from the bottom tier and have progressed through the leagues. It is surely a matter of when, not if, they get promoted to the NPFL.

I look at the activities of those behind the TPL, Socialiga, and Agon, and I am optimistic. They are demonstrating a capacity for building communities and properly running events. If any of them decide to own a professional football club tomorrow, they can get funding because they have shown ambition, imagination and competence. A country as football mad as this deserves to have properly run football clubs.

Two good examples

Now for athletics. In 1996, Nigeria had two gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics, and six medals in total while Great Britain had one gold and 15 medals in total. In Rio, the Brits won 27 gold and 67 medals in total. Nigeria? 1 bronze and that was it. Our only medal.

How did Britain become a sporting superpower in 20 years?

In 1994, then Prime Minister John Major began heavy investment in elite sport by funding it with a portion of lottery proceeds. Every year, the heads of the various sporting associations had to submit a clear plan and deliverables to justify that funding, and failing to meet those targets led to the funding being cut off.

The results were startling: 11 gold in 2000, 9 gold in 2004, 19 gold in 2008 and 29 gold when hosting in 2012. One commentator said this of Britain’s Olympic success story:

“As a case study of total and intended success, of a top-down project going to plan, there is little to match this in the annals of British technocracy”. Aye!

For a bottom-up perspective on how to build a sporting superpower, Jamaica’s case is probably the most wildly successful one. How else do you explain a country of less than 3 million people, and a GDP per capita that is a tenth of the US, utterly dominating the sprints?

A big part of the answer is their fanatical devotion to high school sports, the living expression of which is the annual Champs tournament. For a few days at the end of March every year, the country simply shuts down and the 35,000-seater National Stadium in Kingston is packed. More than 1% of Jamaica’s population, and some of its most famous sprinters, come to cheer on the stars of the future. This ultra-competitive atmosphere means that by the time you encounter an elite Jamaican sprinter on the world stage, they are unflappable in a way that borders on arrogance.

By marrying both the British and Jamaican approaches, Nigeria can *easily* (conditions apply) get 10-15 gold medals at the Olympics. Like always, what has been lacking is a plan and the will to follow through instead of surrendering to incompetence and corruption.

It’s about packaging

There is no reason why Nigeria cannot have national sports tournaments at secondary school and university level that will command national media attention for the duration. There is, of course, the NUGA games and the National Sports Festival, but a lot is still missing by way of making them a national spectacle that attracts media attention and cash. There should also be a pipeline to ensure that the best of these youngsters are then exposed to more competition through international junior championships.

There is also no reason why Nigeria’s elite athletes cannot get the resources they need to perform at the highest possible level. Union Bank did well to sign up five Olympians to #TeamUnion in the aftermath of their SOS. Surely, they got some positive PR out of that. But the engagement between the private sector and sports in Nigeria can be a lot better.

Right now, the big bucks from the FMCGs and telcos is going to musicians and actors, and that’s partly because there is not enough brand building by Nigerian athletes. Few are active on social media, for example, and in today’s media-saturated world, absence from this space means that leveraging social capital on the commercial side is harder. Rather than have to depend on government all the time, such deals can be leveraged to pay for training and travel for competition. Such opportunities will be lost without careful cultivation of a media presence.

At the institutional level, there are definitely signs of more corporate involvement in sporting activities, but none of these has become long-running. That’s because a proper business case has not been made for the involvement of the private sector in sports in Nigeria, or even on the African continent, for that matter.

The same corruption that has stood in the way of good results up to now, has also stood in the way of private capital coming into sports. How many corporate bodies are going to get involved with people who will simply steal a significant portion of the money provided? Are our sporting authorities prepared to submit themselves to a much stricter scrutiny that currently exists in the public sector?

Sport is competition. Sport is business. But for too long, it has been a plaything for empty headed civil servants whose only aim is to collect ‘estacode’. A fully developed sports sector has a job multiplier of 2.3, that is, for every job created, there are 1.3 jobs created through supply chain effects. Considering all the talk about economic diversification and job creation, this is an obvious way for those jobs to be created. However, instead of having people at the helm who can see the whole board and drive the needed changes, beret and babariga wearing civil servants are the ones calling the shots.

Let’s say you are not an athlete. You can be a coach. A great sporting nation has very good coaches who can work with youngsters and help them reach their potential. These coaches are on the cutting edge of their respective sports and are spread out across the country. They are also paid when due.

You can also be a nutritionist, a physio, a referee or umpire, an agent or a business manager. There is also the entire industry around stadium hospitality: catering, drinks, shops in and around stadiums, groundsmen. Football teams and other sports teams wear jerseys and boots that will be made. New private money coming into football, for instance, can see the construction of new stadiums. These projects will also create jobs and distribute prosperity.

But Nigeria does not want prosperity. Nigeria is not ready for prosperity. When it is, exploiting the opportunities in sport will become a no-brainer.

This article was first featured on TNC

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