By Dr Segun Odegnami
Sport is presently slave labour in Nigeria.
Without exaggerating, and I am asserting with all sense of responsibility, most athletes in the Nigerian domestic sports landscape are living in poverty. The evidence is all around us in the level of respect they enjoy in society and in the poor treatment they receive in their clubs and their status in public.
Unlike what happens in more advanced climes, local Nigerian athletes may be heroes in their community, but only a handful are celebrated as national role models and accorded the kind of respect they get when they move to Europe, America or somewhere abroad, become globally famous, make their fortune and return home.
Domestically, here in Nigeria, there is no fortune to be made, and local heroes hardly become role models anymore. You do not need to look far to know how badly the present system demeans local athletes across all sports in Nigeria, including footballers. They are used without adequate financial benefits, dumped, neglected and finally left to rot on the plateau of the forgotten, in abject poverty.
Athletes ‘wake’ up at the end of their careers, psychologically traumatized by the reality of their poor state, retire into the cocoon of regret, and live the rest of their lives as slaves within sport. It is a truly pathetic situation.
There are very successful musicians, cultural artists and actors in the domestic entertainment industry that are famous, celebrities and role models. Not so for local athletes. Unless they go abroad to get their ‘ticket’ into that realm, they languish locally.
Sport in Nigeria presently is not fair to the athletes, because there is not a system in place, and a mature industry to drive change and make the local athletes success stories again. That’s why there is an endless stream of young talented boys and girls in sports joining the mass migration to Europe, America and the Middle East, in recent years.
The situation was not always so, and need not be so, particularly now when sports have become a humongous global industry that is throwing up athletes that are rich, famous, and powerful, everywhere except locally in Nigeria.
It was not always so in our history. There was a time when Nigeria was home to local sports heroes who became celebrities and national role models. The system that made that possible was on a upward trajectory before the architects of the destruction of local sports development unleashed their selfish constructions in some parts of the 1990s, sold ignorance in a package to government, and destroyed the fabric of local Nigerian sports development.
As a football player during my time, I met a system on ground that produced heroes but who were not role models. For example, although I wanted to play and be famous like Samuel Garba, his life outside of football was not a model I wanted to aspire to. The same thing could be said of several other famous athletes too in those days who were not celebrities and role models.
Permit me to use my story only as a guide into my postulation.
I joined the national team of Nigeria when daily allowances were 2 Naira a day (that’s the equivalent of 2 Dollars), and bonuses for winning an international match were 60 Naira (the equivalent of 60 Dollars). You don’t become rich on such ridiculously meagre financial ‘incentives’ when you are playing at the highest level of domestic national sport. I realised this early in my career.
Preparatory to the Olympic games of 1976, I met several other athletes even in other sports who also saw what I was seeing as the future of sportsmen in our country. That generation began a slow but steady attempt to alter the situation.
Post the Olympic Games of 1976, there was a massive exodus of athletes abroad chasing education. Many famous footballers in domestic football gave up the opportunity of more fame and went in search of greener pastures in the land where their passion for football could be combined with the need for education that guaranteed them an escape from poverty and future disrespect. An army of footballers and track and field athletes began to flood into America!
Some of us chose not to go. We deliberately chose to stay, fight and change the situation and status of the local athlete.
Permit me to use my story as a humble guide.
We were all amateurs in Nigerian sport. Sport was a pastime. One had to do other work alongside sport to live as an amateur. So, clubs engaged athletes with that clear understanding.
The demands of sport later became more than amateur sport could meet in terms of time and commitment. A semi-professional status emerged in the mid-1970s during my era. As a semi-professional, I was paid regular wages as other staff in the club but all I did was play football. I was given a career path that provided for the future after my football career.
I was not alone in that categorization. Till date, several of my colleagues that played for Shooting Stars as semi-professionals still draw life-pensions from that arrangement. Sam Kofi Ashante, a defender from Ghana still returns to Nigeria till now to collect his monthly pension.
Felix Owolabi still draws a pension from his 30-years of service to IICC Shooting Stars and the Oyo State government that owned the club till this day. That arrangement offers him respect to compliment his locally derived fame. He is a role model to this day, not suffering from the deep pangs of any enslavement to poverty.
There was a turning point in the lives of local and international athletes after the 1976 Olympics. The Green Eagles had a meeting one memorable morning with the Director of Sports, Mr. Akioye, and some of his officials. We were protesting the future that he had painted to us using a famous Nigerian football player that he was rehabilitating at the National Institute for Sports, training him to be a coach of the junior national team, as an example of what the country would do for us. He thought the picture he painted was a rosy one. He was wrong.
I recall vividly how Adokie Amiesimaka, still an undergraduate law student at the University of Lagos, exploded in reaction, using some rather harsh words that hurt and touched a raw nerve in the heart of the best sports administrator in the history of Nigerian sports – Akioye.
Patrick Ekeji and I, quickly but more gently, backed Adokie to the hilt. We protested that football players were being disrespected and were heading for a life of slavery if the ‘model’ being cited by Mr. Akioye represented the future of local athletes!
Our angry protestation made a lot of sense and struck the right cord in the heart of the officials. It marked the beginning of a change in the attitude of Sports officials to local Nigerian sports heroes. It immediately impacted and catalyzed change in the financial fortune of all national athletes, earning them additional respect and a higher status in society.
After that meeting, daily allowances of national athletes were increased. The Naira and the Dollar were at par – One Naira was equivalent to one Dollar. Now do the transformation Math. Daily allowances were increased from 2 Naira to 10 Naira. International daily allowances were increased from 10 Naira to 100 Naira. Match-winning bonuses were moved up from 60 naira per win to 1000 Naira.
It was a giant leap forward in a new world!
At my club in Ibadan, I led a protest that if players would not be flown to distant match venues for domestic matches around the country, I would either not go for those away matches, or would fly myself there privately, provided I could afford it. It made sense even to the officials who realized the punishment we endured travelling long distances across the country (Ibadan to Kano, for example) to honour domestic league matches, in very uncomfortable buses, week after week. I made Shooting Stars FC to fly the team to a few destinations as a result of my one-man protest, seeking respect.
We were the first generation of local players (between Rangers International and IICC Shooting Stars FC) in Nigeria’s history to be given loans to buy cars, or were paid well enough to purchase our own cars, or were gifted cars as reward for good performance (not necessarily winning).
In two short years, by 1978, I had a ‘contract’ with the Western Nigerian Investment and Credit Corporation, owners of IICC Shooting Stars International Football Club, an appointment as Senior Industrial Engineer, with pensionable welfare package whenever I retired from the club.
That year, in enjoying my status as the first Nigerian player to be listed amongst the top ten best players in Africa (I was named Third Best at the time when Nigerians were not even aware of the Best African Player award) I owned 5 cars, all packed in my compound in Ibadan. I was also building my house in the city.
The seed of respect, dignity for sports heroes and being role models was planted in the struggle by us and some Track and Field athletes in the late 1970s. We won that fight and it manifested in several good things that happened to many local athletes.
As I retired from football I became manager of IICC Shooting Stars. My first actions were a testimony to my determination to sustain the struggle of elevating the status of players. I signed what were mouth-watering contracts with some players, including Clement Temile, Samson Ozogula, Rashidi Yekini, Ogbein Fawole and so on.
On the day Temile and Ozogula reported for work, the keys to brand new 505 cars, premium cars at the time that even senior officials of the club did not have, were waiting for them! It was unprecedented in the history of Nigerian football.
When they drove into Benin City that weekend they were not only hailed as heroes, they were celebrities with solid role model status!
(to be concluded next week)