By Tunji Ajibade
The torrent of congratulatory messages for the new Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare, is capable of bringing down the roof. Nonetheless, I congratulate him too. Nigerians are saying they expect better times for the nation’s sports under his leadership. I share in the optimism. But I reckon what other well-wishers expect from Dare isn’t what I expect. Some say that from what they’ve seen, he wouldn’t be a football minister, rather he would be a minister for all sports. Considering the known Nigerian mentality, I imagine they have in mind a minister who throws government’s funds at other sports as well, not only football. That’s contrary to what I would consider an achievement by Dare in the sports sector.
It’s been a series of disappointments for sports enthusiasts of late. This is with respect to the underachievement experienced by the nation in the face of abundant talents. That we witness not so encouraging performances at international sports events means something isn’t what it should be. In my estimation, what to do has been obvious for years but we choose to not do it. We use a pattern in sports, the very opposite of global best practice, that can’t consistently earn us positive results unlike what obtains in nations where its potential has been unleashed for the maximum benefits. We run the show the same way under every sports minister while we expect a different result. Here, I focus on two aspects that if we don’t work on, we aren’t ready for a turnaround in the nation’s sports.
The first is sports administration. The athlete, Blessing Okagbare, has often expressed her disgust at how some officials ask her questions that should come from unlettered farmers not sports administrators. I suppose with the embarrassment that the nation suffered at the recent athletics events in Morocco and Qatar, Dare might want to look at the issues involved with regard to the kind of people administering sports. Sport is a professional field and if we want to move ahead, people who know what it means to be athletes need to run the place. The minister could organise a summit where experts make submissions as to how best to reconfigure that stable. He could present the recommendations to the President who would get aspects that require legal backing sent to the lawmakers. The ‘anything goes’ manner we run sports at the moment won’t yield the result we want. Past sports ministers knew this but they chose to not apply the surgical knife for whatever reasons. Frontally confronting this is what would count for me as performance under Dare.
The other issue is independence for sport federations. That these bodies aren’t encouraged to stand on their feet but continue to depend on government for funds baffles. In some other countries, sport is treated as an industry, allowed to be private sector-driven. Here, government struggles with revenue to fund even the annual national budget; it means how to cut expenditure should be our focus. Sport is one area where this can be done with ease. Past sports ministers ought to push this point with the President but they didn’t. President Muhammadu Buhari should give Dare instruction that he should cut the sports federations from the apron strings of the government and encourage private companies to work with them and sponsor them. Private companies in Nigeria have been heard complaining that they give fund to sports federations but such funds aren’t accounted for. That each company now takes a sport and sponsors it on its terms indicates that the private sector is willing, if only the stable would be made transparent and accountable. But the immediate past sports minister had even taken the matter of shackling sports federations to government to a ridiculous height; he instructed sports federations to put the funds they received from the private companies in the ministry’s purse first.
It was another former sports ministers, Bolaji Abdullahi, who planned to cut sports federations loose from the sports ministry as much as was needed to encourage the private sector to come in with sponsorships. The plan was abandoned after Abdullahi left office. I don’t think Dare should gloss over the need to cut sports federations loose from the apron strings of the government but carry on as though the current approach is sustainable. He shouldn’t spend his time as sports minister moving our sports around in a circle as past ministers did. Setting the sports federations free, stopping them from depending on government for the needed funds that government doesn’t have, ensuring knowledgeable people in each sport run it, are core to any progress for the nation’s sports. Dare said lately that his ministry was working on a new policy for sports. I hope he addresses causes of the problems rather than the symptoms in the policy.
Still on the foregoing. Sports stakeholders who should help to ensure that positive changes happen aren’t helping matters. Sports journalists belong here. They haven’t been sending a clear message as to what they want for the nation’s sports, and in what direction it should go. I take Channels TV sports programmes as example. I applaud the station’s efforts in promoting sports. Yet, during sports programmes, there are contradictions in the participants’ comments on how best to run sports. In one breath, anchors and guests call for independence for sport federations. They hail sports federations that get private sector funding for their programmes. But in the same breath, they complain that government should fund the programmes of sports federations.
There was this particular sports programme where the anchor and his guest praised Nigeria’s Basketball Federation for taking our boys to FIBA competitions without taking funds from the government. On the same programme, they criticised the government for not making funds available, with Austin Okon Akpan saying he hoped that with the good performance of the boys at the basketball event, government would now send funds to them. Such conflicting messages shouldn’t be found in sports programmes. Rather, there should be one consistent message that would keep reminding sports administrators of the direction in which they should take our sports. I think the sports desk of any media platform ought to have a position on any important issue that affects sports. This should be the position their anchors push in the public space. The more they canvass the view, the more sports administrators take note and are properly guided. What is the position of Channels TV’s sports desk with regard to whether or not sports should be private sector driven? Should sports federations continue to depend on government whose funds can never be enough to take our sports to the greater heights we want?
Often when people talk about government providing funds for sport federations, they essentially mean funds that the federations need to participate in sports events outside Nigeria. But sports cover more ground than this and the government cannot adequately fund the entire line. What do we then do? These are issues over which the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria too should have a position. For as things stand even sports journalists are missing out on the gains of a private sector driven sports industry, unlike their counterparts in nations where sport is better treated. I note that colleagues on sports beat condemn government for not releasing funds to sport federations, and on some other occasions ask these federations to sit up and raise funds. Mixed messages. With the situation of our sports now, sports journalists should be clear regarding the direction they want administration and funding of sports to take.
The position that SWAN takes is what its members should be pushing at every interface with government officials. They should ensure they give the sports minister no rest until he takes action. In any case, with the kind of entrenched interest we have in sports administration, a sports minister needs support if he must effect positive changes. The collective voice of sports stakeholders would help. More importantly, I call on President Buhari to publicly declare that making sports less dependent on government funding, as well as setting sports up as an industry that attracts full private sector participation is his expectation of performance from Dare. I think this is the ultimate push the minister needs in order to do move the nation’s sports forward.
Tunji Ajibade is a Public Affairs Analyst.