Okowa and the rebirth of sports
For those who don’t know, Delta State is a microcosm of Nigeria. Multiple languages, diverse people in cultures and values and multiple cities each eminently qualified to be the state capital. Delta is also peopled by highly gifted men and women. People of high intellectual wavelengths; matchless sporting prowess and raw, unvarnished audacity to dare and conquer.
A couple of years back when the Asagba (traditional ruler) of Asaba, Professor Chike Joseph Edozien, himself an accomplished academic and medical professional, turned 90, a few of my colleagues and I, members of the Anioma Media Professionals, paid a visit to the Asagba in his palace. He was sprightly as ever. He regaled us with stories. One of those stories was his encounter with Dr. Goodluck Jonathan who was then the president of Nigeria.
The President had told the Asagba how much he admired Delta people especially the Anioma people of the state. According to the monarch, Jonathan cited examples of Anioma people in Nigeria particularly in his cabinet whom he described as the best hands to have, the people that have added the best value to his government. The president ended up, in awe, describing the Anioma people as ‘hybrid’. In science, hybrid means product of cross-fertilization of two species: a special breed which combines the best attributes present in a particular species or sub-species of creation. Hybrids are usually better than the original breeds.
Such is the awe that Delta people strike around the world. If they are not excelling in academics, research, technology, banking and finance, art, they are cresting the summit of excellence in entertainment and sports. This article is not about politics. Enough of that! It is about the ongoing efforts of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa to bring back sporting glory in the state. Truly, Deltans have been worried. They are worried about the fading glory of sports in the state that was in those days the nursery and major supplier of distinguished sports men and women in the country, the continent and the world.
Delta was the dominant factor in school sports, from football to athletics. It is the birthplace of Blessing Okagbare, Jay-Jay Okocha, and the departed legend Stephen Keshi, among others. Delta State as part of the old Bendel State (Mid-Western region) dominated school sports from where emerged the very best sportsmen and women in the country and Africa. The reason was simple. Aside the preponderance of talents, the authorities of those days were bullish in the provision of sports infrastructure. Schools as a matter of routine had open fields for recreation and practice. I recall those days in my Alma Mater, St. Anthony’s College, Ubulu-Uku. Academic and sporting excellence were a given.
The school excelled in sports as it did in academics because it had facilities just like most secondary and primary schools of those days. St. Anthony’s College, for instance, had over 500m by 500m field of well-manicured green grass with a football field tucked inside it just behind the school gate. Then it had another standard field behind the dormitories. It had two standard Lawn Tennis courts, six Table Tennis halls (one dedicated to each of the five hostels) and a central hall with three standard tables. It had pitches for Basket Ball, Volley Ball etc. Facilities were available and functional in those days.
Suddenly, all of these facilities were gone. They disappeared as soon as government took over the school from the Catholic Church. That transfer of ownership and administration meant that every Jack and Jill was admitted into the school especially in 1979 when the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) government of Ambrose Alli made education free. And once it became free, it got worse. Academic excellence suffered diminution; sporting activities faded into the horizon of time. And as years rolled by, the sports facilities became disused. Decay set in and like a lit candle exposed to the vagaries of the wind, the flame and passion were blown away.
That was a school that emerged Adeola Table-Tennis champions in 1970. Students like Patrick Ugoji (now a medical doctor) as captain; the late Chris Okasia, Vincent Onyemem (Demso Baby) and Enujoko, also a medical doctor and others were unbeaten until the competition finally wound up in the 1980s. A certain Obiora Edward won a silver medal in the 1973 National Sports Festival in lawn tennis while Otto Edward and Aninye Jonathan won silver in table-tennis. Because of his exploits, Aninye was sent to Shanghai, China in 1973 by then Mid-West Governor Sam Ogbemudia for training. And it was not only St. Anthony’s; most schools in the old Bendel State were renowned for both academic and sporting excellence in those days.
The good news is that Governor Okowa is working to bring back the glory of those days. He is revamping sports by ensuring the provision of sporting facilities across the state. Delta has the talent, what they need is the facility and support from government and the private sector.
I visited the construction site of Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba last week. It was a reassuring moment that Delta, the undisputed treasure trove of sporting talents in Nigeria, will claw back to its unassailable position as the model for others. Okowa should not renege on his passion to revive sports. All over the world, sports has gone beyond the rubric of entertainment. Player transfer in soccer alone is now a $5 billion a year market. Brazil is the chief exporter of players to Europe and Asia and the South American nation is the better for it in terms of yearly remittances from these players back home which stands at billions of dollars every year.
In the emergent global market, every nation strives to showcase its product and service. India exports software and ICT skill, Brazil exports soccer players and automobiles; Malaysia feeds the global appetite for palm oil; Nigeria must strive to add to crude oil the abundance of sports talents in the country. It can join Brazil and Argentina as one of the nations with highest remittances by footballers. It is possible. Nigeria’s foreign remittances was $21billion in 2012 – topping the chart in estimated remittance flow to Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), according to data from World Bank. Nigeria can improve on this by making and baking young pool of sporting talents for export. It’s no modern day slavery. Brazil is making more money exporting football talents than it is making exporting steak.
We have comparative advantage in sports especially football. We can add good money from sports to the billions of dollars we make from crude oil. Brazil (with 1,202 players playing in Europe) has shown that football export pays. Nigeria can follow suit. Okowa is charting a path. He’s developing sports by providing facilities. This is a worthy cause, a template worthy of replication in other states. The result of this may not speak now but in years to come, it will tell in the conquest of Deltans in global sports. It will speak in the volume of remittances and in the respect and honour the state and the nation would have earned, all things considered.
First published in Sunday Sun..