The first impression you get from meeting Bolaji Abdullahi, Nigeria’s Minister of Sports, is that this is a man who is confident and ready to discharge his duties with great élan. Cerebral, friendly and passionate about positive change, Abdullahi is a complete antithesis to many government officials. He has that elusive alchemy that makes a government official not just a good one but also a dedicated public servant. In this exclusive interview in London, with Sam Umukoro, Abdullahi talks about the ongoing reforms in sports, his vision, how Stephen Keshi, NFF, didn’t handle AFCON 2013 aftermath properly and how he once became a bus conductor to pay his school fees. Enjoy.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What will you say are your notable achievements in the last few years as Nigeria’s Minister of Sports/Chairman, National Sports Commission?
Bolaji Abdullahi: In the last one year, we have realized that the foundation for sports development in our country have virtually disappeared and the need for us to do something urgent in that direction. The London Olympics was a major starting point for us. I became minister shortly before the London Olympics and with the way it went, we came back with no medals at all. Like i always say, it’s probably easier to manage failure than to manage success most of the time. So the failure of London made it easier for us to see the direction we should be heading. If we are going to talk about any concrete achievement, it is in terms of those things we have started to put in place to ensure that Nigeria has strong representation in mega sports events in the future. This includes grassroots and elite sports development. We are building an entire framework and structure for federation reforms, putting in place the basic infrastructure at the national level for elite performance and the countrywide initiative for grassroots sports mobilization for young people. It is within this framework that we like to look at what we have achieved. Some will, of course, want to point at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2013 victory. Yes, that was very important, but for me, I consider the framework we are putting in place very important in the work we are doing.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Team Nigeria failed to win a single medal at London 2012 Olympics, despite the billions allocated for the preparation. Isn’t this an indictment of the state of the country’s sports sector today? Why do you think Team Nigeria failed?
Bolaji Abdullahi: Like I said previously, I became sports ministers only few months, three months or so, before the Olympics, so by then, i never had any business with sports in terms of this level of management. But from what i know now or what i have learnt since then, i will say that it would have been a surprise if we won medals in London because I like to look at the previous outings we have had; Atlanta ‘96, where we had two gold medals, was our best outing so far. Nigeria has been participating in the Olympic Games since 1952. If there was a system in place that delivered performances at that level, then there must be a relative level of consistency, especially at that highest level of sporting competition.
Countries like USA, UK, Korea, China or even Canada and others who won medals have a deliberate system that consistently prepared their athletes throughout the season. We don’t even have one high performance center in Nigeria. We must give credit to those athletes in Nigeria’s history who, in spite of these absences, have excelled at that level of competition. It’s not about the billions or lack of it that we failed. It’s about what we did or didn’t do over the years, not in the few weeks or few months to the Olympics.
Secondly, you could see that the education and health system are so intricately connected to the sports sector in these countries that did very well, in such a way that it is mutually re-enforcing. The education system itself provides the framework for sport development. This doesn’t exist in our country. There is a yearning gap that must be filled. The basic building blocks for excellence at the highest level of sports don’t exist and this is what advises all the work we have been doing since the London Olympics ended.
Sam Umukoro Interview: After the London Olympics, some reports claimed that the sports ministry did not properly utilize money meant for the Games…?
Bolaji Abdullahi: In all fairness to everyone involved, I will want to be contradicted on this; London 2012 was probably the only Olympics that we have attended in many years where athletes didn’t complain that they were short changed. Have you read anywhere that any athlete complained that he or she was not been given the allowance that they were entitled to, or that they were not fed properly or the accommodation was bad?
The build up to London 2012 Olympics was about the best we have had in many years… Before the Games, we sent athletes to different countries for months. That didn’t happen in the past. Some of our athletes posted impressive times in the London Olympics, although that didn’t win them any medal, like Blessing Okagbare. She clocked 10.92 seconds in the 100 metres. That was the best ever but she was a silver medalist from Beijing Olympics.
The performance of our athletes in London Olympics was actually the best we have posted in many years. But what happened was that the rest of the world has moved on and left us behind. We broke the Commonwealth records in weight lifting, boxing, and for the first time, we had a female boxer who beat the world number two. For the first time in London, our male basketball team competed in the Olympics. These were the positives.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Coach Stephen Keshi put forward his resignation after leading the Super Eagles to AFCON 2013 success, until you waded in and solved the issues between him and the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF). Why do you think Nigerian football teams should stick to local coaches rather than foreign technical advisers?
Bolaji Abdullahi: The issue should not be whether the coach is foreign or local. The issue should be: do we have someone competent enough to do the job? To the best of my knowledge, the federation never approached me to say that they wanted to hire a foreign coach, whether during the AFCON, before it and after. I know that the NFF was strongly in support of coach Keshi. I think what happened was just a case of mismanagement of information and the situation. The coach and the federation itself could have better managed it.
No Nigerian was proud of the team’s early performance at AFCON 2013. And as the National Sports Commission, we called the federation people to ask what was going on and who will they transfer the pressure on? The coach. We all have our own style of doing things, maybe some people asked him in a way that could have been done differently. So the coach had to say they are putting pressure on him and I told him several times that this was a wrong attitude. You may quarrel with the way and manner they go about it, but your employers have the right to ask you questions and that does not necessarily translate to interference.
Don’t forget, I was the one who stopped the hiring of Tom Saintfiet because I felt there were Nigerians who could do it. So when the federation said that Keshi wanted to resign, I called him to verify; it was an embarrassing moment for all of us, because it was the best moment for our football in 19 years and a time for us to celebrate. It was also a moment when some people exaggerated issues. But I’m glad that we were able to put it behind us and after the AFCON, we have recorded some successes as well, so we are looking forward to improving on that.
Sam Umukoro Interview: So far, what are some of the measures your ministry has taken to tackle age cheating by players representing the country at various age-grade international football competitions and how successful has it been?
Bolaji Abdullahi: I think the place to start is to reduce the pressure on national teams at age grade level. When the commission begins to tell the federation that you must win the Under-17 trophy and the federation tell the coach that same; of course the coach will want to keep his job, so he will do whatever it takes to win, even if it meant using 25-year-olds. It is the same thing for the Under-21. So what we did was to begin to manage expectations. Age grade competitions are just preparatory competitions for young people to show their potentials and know that they can actually excel at the highest level. Obviously national pride is involved, but in the real sense, we have placed the wrong emphasis on this.
We began to lose it when we came back from China in 85 and began to award plots of land and give houses to 17-year-old kids. We created incentive for cheating in a way that has become systematized over the years. That is why the rate of cheating is so high.
Look at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Holland, John Mikel Obi was the second best player, Messi was the best player. But if you look at so many other countries, whether Spain or England, so many of those players who were discovered in that 2005 World Cup are still playing at the highest possible level. Apart from Mikel, which other player in the Flying Eagles team is still competing at the top level? It’s good to win these competitions but winning it is not the end. My hope is that one day majority of the kids who play Under-17 will graduate into the Under-21 and then Super Eagles teams. We have to build teams for the future.
Age cheating will continue to happen as long as people can see benefits for themselves in enrolling over age players. Also there are no immediate punitive measures that will deter that kind of behaviour. But I’m hoping for a day when we will no longer have over-aged persons competing at age-grade levels. We know that a 17-year-old kid should still be in secondary school, and we will look at the records, including the continuous assessment records. By then, we should be able to systematize this. The limited success we have recorded is just to reduce expectation and let managers know we don’t have to catch everybody, we just need to catch one person and you will pay for it. So even if it is still happening, it is no longer institutionalized. That’s the point I seek to make.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Some analysts have criticized the ministry for not giving enough support to other sports, like it does football. What is your reaction to this?
Bolaji Abdullahi: I understand that football is a terribly jealous wife (general laughter). Yes, football takes priority over all other sports, but I have made conscious effort since I became minister not to be labeled as ‘Football minister’ but as sports minister. It is a conscious effort to encourage sports. In fact during the last national sports festival in Lagos, the only sports I didn’t attend, was football events. I attended weight lifting, boxing, table tennis… I have travelled more on the account of other sports than football. We are making conscious efforts to develop these other sports. After all, if we do well in football in mega games, it will only give us one medal; but sports like taekwondo, weightlifting, and athletics can give us so many medals. We will focus on sports we are confident we hold competitive advantage in; boxing, wrestling, weight lifting, taekwondo, athletes and shooting, and of course football.
For the first time in our commission, we are going to have a high performance center soon. We are also going to have a national Olympics performance director and performance directors for each of these sports that I have mentioned, we never had that. We will conduct a globally competitive recruitment process. We’re also redefining the recruitment process for athletes and introducing national Under-17 games. This would lead to the national sports festival, which is equivalent to our own Olympics.
A few weeks ago, His Excellency President Jonathan launched Rhythm N’ Play, our flagship grassroots programme. The objective is to use this programme to bring two million additional kids into sports over the next two years. This would be in football, volleyball, basketball, netball, judo, karate, and athletics. We want to bring sports back to the schools and bring schools system, using Rhythm N’ Play. It’s an all-embracing process. The private sector is doing a lot of things with academics and football, so the idea is that for me we will put in place this basic building blocks. We cannot finish the work but the core of Mr. President’s transformational agenda is to move us forward in whatever sector. That’s what we try to do in sports; hoping succeeding generation of managers who will come after us will build on that. It cannot be done in three years but we must put in place deliberate framework that can improve the level of performance.