20 years ago this week, Nigeria recorded one of its most remarkable sporting triumphs to win the gold medal in the Olympic football tournament, with improbable victories over first Brazil, then Argentina. It took a football mad nation to the heights of ecstasy, an example of the resilience of the Nigerian spirit.
20 years later, a Sports Ministry led by Solomon Dalung has conspired to give us an anniversary soaked in the incompetence of his leadership, its stench perceived in real time from Atlanta, to Lagos, to Manaus in Brazil.
Despite landing less than 7 hours to kickoff, Oghenekaro Etebo plundered 4 goals as Nigeria beat Japan 5-4, but that victory cannot overshadow the vast incompetence we have witnessed from the Sports Ministry up to now.
To think that this was the Minister of Sport we got, after waiting 7 months. It is doubtful that Solomon Dalung can even be trusted with a barbershop, never mind coordinating the sporting exploits of a country as big as Nigeria.
He is not the only one at fault here. The Athletics Federation of Nigeria, the Nigeria Olympic Committee, and the Nigerian Football Federation share the blame at various levels. These bodies receive significant amounts of money from international organisations to prepare athletes and footballers for competitions, and most of this money is simply stolen.
They also get allocations in the budget as well to supplement those funds, and are unaccountable for those funds as well.
Since becoming Sports Minister in November, Dalung has failed to demand accountability from these bodies, and failed to ensure that our athletes get what they need when they need it, and as such the buck stops at his table.
Not even our younger athletes are spared. Our juniors went to compete at the under-20 world championship in Poland last month, and we’re similarly treated poorly. Our relay team arrived mere hours before their race, didn’t qualify from their heat, and thereafter revealed that they had not been paid any allowances and were basically training themselves. When they complained, they were targeted for reprisals instead.
Then there is Stephen Keshi. Nigeria’s most successful indigenous national team coach was disrespected in death as he often was in life. All promises by the federal government to take over the burial arrangements were not fulfilled. His family carried the financial burden alone, as if their emotional burden was not heavy enough.
We are talking about a man for whom a state burial would not have been too much. A man who will be remembered long after incompetent officials like Dalung and Amaju Pinnick are consigned to the dustbin of history where they belong.
Now, Nigerians realise, yet again, that your exertions to bring glory to your country does not mean your country will in turn clothe you with honour. They realise that Nigeria is not worth the trouble. They realise why they will watch so many Nigerians wearing the colours of other nations over the next 16 days.
These events will only deepen the sense of gloom in a country that is already going through tough economic times. In the past, sporting events provided an outlet for Nigerians to get behind their country, fostering a sense of national unity and pride. Now, Nigerians welcome sporting events with dread, fearing the worst as a result of shoddy preparation.
The Buhari administration clearly does not understand the power of sport to lift the national mood, to provide a balm to a nation in pain, to provide something to put a smile on the faces of Nigerians. The military regimes of Babangida and Abacha did indeed understand, and a good number of our most memorable sporting triumphs – 10 of our 23 Olympic medals – were won under both regimes.
It is not a crime to lack talent or skill. It is not a crime to be beaten by others who are simply better, but it borders on criminal that preparation can be so poor, definitely impacting performance.
That is why there is no reason Solomon Dalung should remain a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.