Perhaps, it was inevitable that the Second ECOWAS Games in Accra, Ghana, rekindle old rivalry between Nigeria and Ghana.
Although the games generated so much enthusiasm among all the eleven member states which sent in teams, it was clear even before the first race that the battle would be between those two giants.
The Ghanaian minister for sports Clement Kofi Humado said in his opening speech that since Nigeria hosted the maiden edition and won he saw no reason why Ghana couldn’t perform the same feat in Accra. He also remarked that the organisation of these games surpassed the one in Nigeria.
It was immediately apparent that the Accra Games was better organised than the one held in Nigeria. Players, coaches and ECOWAS staff were full of praise for the Local Organising Committee.
The Head of the Nigerian delegation, Gorah Elias, himself said at a breakfast meeting on the morning of the Opening ceremony that he had nothing but praise for the way the Ghanaians have handled the hosting.
“It is one of the best I have ever seen and I have seen many,” he said.
As the days progressed there has been even more praise for the organisers. The Director of Communications at the Ecowas Commission, Mr Sony Ugho, told our reporter that there was no doubt that Ghana Games were better organised. “I am very impressed with the host. They have done such a marvellous job in terms of providing structures that are commensurate with similar structures in the world,” he said.
But he also explained that if the games in Nigeria were not well handled it was probably because it was a “gap -filling” arrangement. “Nigerians agreed to host the games at the last minute when the designated host backed out. No one else was willing. It was a face saving thing for ECOWAS,” he said.
Anyway, while the Ghanaians may have easily beaten Nigeria on that front, it was obviously going to be harder to achieve a similar feat on the medals table. The first gold medal of the Games was won in the 800m by a Nigerian with the improbable name of Shimbmengey Agber.
But shortly afterwards, the Ghanaians took the Gold and silver in the 1500m to thunderous applause. Sampson Azumah and Atta-Gyamfi Bright took a victory lap while the Nigerian, Barnabas David, who came in third, watched.
Since then, the battle had raged between the two countries. By the conclusion of all athletics event Wednesday, Nigeria led with 33 medals made up of 13 gold, 15 silver, and 5 bronze. Ghana had 28 medals: 10 gold 9 silver and 9 bronze. But it was clear that with boxing matches and other team sports yet to be decided, the Ghanaians had more chances of hauling in more medals before the closing ceremony on Saturday than their rivals. Indeed, the way things looked, Nigeria may have ended its medal haul with the close of the athletics event. Nigeria had fielded no one for the team events – handball and volleyball.
Ghana on the other hand had the advantage of being hosts so they had participants in practically all the events, including wrestling for which, realistically, they had no medal hope. “They probably just gathered a wresting team together one week before the commencement of the games,” said an ECOWAS staff. Still, with five boxing finals and other sports waiting, the Ghanaians were sure they would win this one.
The Nigerian boxers who spoke to us were sure too – that the host team will rig the finals, somehow. Okerinde Semiu, the team captain spoke bitterly about underhand tactics, age racketeering and the general desperation of the Ghanaian Boxing team officials.
Flanked by two of his team mates who were getting ready for the finals the next day, Mr. Semiu related the story of a member of his team who was hit below the belt by his Ghanaian opponent and had to be treated by the medical crew who used ice packs on his testicles. “They should have disqualified the Ghanaian but instead they raised his hand as winner,” he said.
The lanky Masebinu Adewale who just moments earlier defeated his semi final opponent in the middleweight category told this reporter on the eve of the finals that his team mates have only one solution: knock the Ghanaians out. “I am after knock out not points,” he said. “Because I know that if I don’t knock them out I would lose.”
But a Ghanaian official, Thunder Ayeh, the deputy national boxing coach of Ghana, and a commonwealth champion in his own right, sneered at the accusations of the Nigerian boxers. “The truth is that my fighters are too much for the Nigerian boys. Listen, Ghana has only two referees in this game and no Ghanaian has ever ref a fight between us and Nigeria so how does this so-called cheating occur?”
He went on to pooh-pooh the rest of the accusations as the rantings of people who knew they would lose. “Yes it is true that we intend to take all the five gold medals available in boxing. But that’s because my boys are good. These are boxers already qualified for the Olympics!” No Nigerian boxer or athlete in Ghana was among those selected for the London Olympics. Mr Adewale confirmed that, “The chap who beat me in the Olympic trials in Nigeria is the one going to London.”
A Nigerian journalist at the event said it doesn’t matter much if the Ghanaians beat Nigeria on the medal table because his country had not come to Accra with its best sports people. “Right now, Nigeria has a track and field screening for the Olympics, the Nigeria athletic championships, going on in its country. That is what we are using to select our Olympics not this crowd.”
Yet the striving to be the overall winner continued unabated. Mr Ugoh, ECOWAS communications director, sees nothing wrong with this rivalry. “It is a healthy competition and had been going on since whenever. Indeed, the Ghana – Nigeria Games of that bygone era may have fuelled this competitive spirit. The rivalry became so hot that it led to violence and the games were eventually cancelled. But what we have now should be nurtured in such a way that it promotes excellence.”
Coach Ayeh also thinks the rivalry is exaggerated. “It is the creation of outsiders,” he said. “You should see our officials when we go to competitions. Planning together, supporting each other. Nigeria and Ghana are one. Brothers.”
By the way, the next day the Ghanaian team did take the boxing Gold medal: the whole lot.