“I think this is the first and last time I will come to Nigeria to compete. If you are not ready to organise something please don’t…It was three days of travel for some and two days for others; like you are travelling from Africa to Asia or America. I have been to four African Championships and it’s my first time to have that kind of bad organisation. No respect for the people.” – Marie Josee Ta Lou, Ivorian athlete.
Shame on all the local organisers of the just concluded 21st Africa Senior Athletics Championships held in Asaba, Delta state tagged #Asaba2018 for spending N4 billion of the Nigerian taxpayers’ money to procure disgrace, and embarrassment for Nigeria, bring odium unto the country, attract the contempt of other African countries and cause an international relations disaster. Sport is an important tool of diplomacy and global negotiation for power and identity. The branding opportunities involved in sports are vast and immeasurable. In the recently concluded 2018 World Cup in Russia, countries fought hard because they knew their national image was at stake. The host country received plaudits for giving the rest of the world a tournament to remember. We were told that smiling anyhow to strangers is considered strange in Russia, but for the World Cup, Russians were told that it is human and normal to smile in public.
A non-smiling population learnt to smile and even laugh! Russia wanted to make an impression it even relaxed visa application rules. But don’t forget that some of our brothers took advantage of that and “stormed Russia” only to be abandoned by those who took them there. They ended up sleeping on the doorsteps of the Nigerian Embassy in Moscow. If the Russians thought the Nigerians were odd, they didn’t complain openly. They wore our jerseys and embraced us. After Russia 2018, the stories have all been sweet and warm. It was a great moment for Russia and Putin, its President.
The contrast was the outcome when a few weeks later, Nigeria hosted a less grandiose event: the African Senior Athletics Championships in Asaba. We messed up the opportunity thoroughly and shamelessly. The comment above by Marie Josee Ta Lou, track star from Ivory Coast is fairly representative. When the athletes arrived, they met an unprepared country, indeed a country in disarray. Athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Eritrea, Morocco arrived the Murtala Muhammad Airport in Lagos on Sunday, over 200 of them (!). They couldn’t get connecting flights from Lagos to Asaba until three days later, the day the championship was meant to start. We were shown pictures of the visiting athletes sleeping on the floor at the airport. Twitter Kenya and its trolls carried the matter on their heads and abused Nigeria and Nigerians as if they were talking to their mates. Don’t forget that Nigeria is supposed to be “the giant of Africa” and we are also the biggest economy in the entire continent. But the Kenyans dragged us on the floor with negative comments. Kenya! Hmm.
We eventually managed to get the athletes to Asaba, but other problems surfaced. The local organisers could not provide accommodation. They could not manage accreditation. Foreign journalists could not have access to power outlets. Many of them sat on the floor. When they complained, some of them were labelled “hostile” and warned to behave themselves! The opening ceremony could not start as scheduled. Even athletes from Eritrea had to protest. One of them reportedly said: “We’ve not had a good experience since we arrived in Nigeria…” Hen hen… Erit-re-a! The President of the Confederation of African Athletics (CAA) was also quoted as saying: “We didn’t have this kind of problem in previous championships. We have been to Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Marrakesh and Durban. The people there showed commitment and things went on well…” The Tanzanians also got so frustrated, by Thursday they decided to boycott the championship. They packed their things and left. “We are not angry, but we are disappointed”, the Secretary of the Tanzania Athletics Association said. Tanzania!
The other countries that stayed behind even had worse tales to tell. There were reports of the tracks being terrible: with bumps and potholes in a newly completed stadium. It is called the Stephen Keshi Stadium. The late star footballer and coach must have been turning in his grave, furious that some of his compatriots have used his name in vain, and so disrespectfully. Some of the athletes even pointed out that they were afraid of being injured so they had to run carefully. #Asaba2018 does not represent the true potential of African athletes. Kenya came first, South Africa second, Nigeria, third on the final medals table but perhaps the outcomes could have been different if the environment of competition had been enabling. The athletes had no changing rooms, the toilets were dirty, water supply was a problem! On Thursday, last week, the stadium’s overhead water tank collapsed. It crashed. We have heard of collapsed buildings, but now in Asaba, a water tank collapsed and crushed two vehicles at an international event. The Kenyans said their athletes were almost crushed. To be fair, it is not only Kenyans that are protesting, even if they were the ones who carried the thing on their head. Nigerian athletes also lamented. They must have been ashamed of their country.
In typical Nigerian fashion, the local organisers, the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) led by Solomon Ogba has been busy trying to blame others and dodge responsibility. One excuse that I have heard is that nobody should blame the Delta State Government because all it tried to do was to help Nigeria save face. How? We are told that the championship was meant to be hosted originally by Lagos State, but Lagos State changed its mind and rather than allow the championship to be taken to another country, Delta State stepped in. This is a very stupid excuse.
The Ivorian athlete quoted above is therefore right: “If you are not ready to organise something please don’t….” says Marie Josee Ta Lau. Governor Okowa promised everyone that Delta State will host a superlative event. He even visited the Stadium to assess constructions. He failed Nigeria. Sporting events are used to transform communities and build infrastructure, generate jobs and activity and leave footprints behind. In organising Asaba 2018, Nigeria squandered N4 billion and got insults in return. What a country!
But we won’t just echo Kunle Ajibade and say “what a country!”. Solomon Ogba and his team must stop telling us that things went wrong because the visitors paid their participation fees late or that they arrived late or that they did not submit certain documents early enough. Ogba and co must stop giving voice to their own incompetence. It is very silly to do so, if they have any shame, let them stop mouthing nonsense. This is what happened in the final analysis: both the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) and the Delta State Government tried to save face by making arrangements for the departure of the visiting athletes. I guess they are all glad to be out of here, but many of them don’t ever hope to come back to Nigeria for any tournament. And that is N4 billion down the drain! This is what should now happen: the contractors who put Nigeria to shame: the contractor in charge of water supply, the contractor who laid the tracks, whoever created a shameful situation whereby athletes had to be fetching water with buckets in a brand new stadium, and everyone who approved the shoddy management of #Asaba2018 should be made to account for their deeds. We often blame the President and the Presidency, what the Asaba disgrace has shown is that there are some lower level operatives in the system who do great damage to the country.
This Asaba disgrace should be addressed, and in an intelligent manner too, for if care is not taken some of these dim-witted folks with access to the microphone could come forward to say that Nigeria failed with #Asaba2018 because it was hosted by a Governor who belongs to the Peoples Democratic Party! Hmm, please permit me to end this piece with feedback quotes from selected Kenyan twitter trolls. Lord Abraham Mutai (@ItsMutai) says: “I have no business celebrating the Kenyan win at #Asaba2018. We need to call out Nigeria for who they really are. The most corrupt people in Africa. As Africans we need to tell each other the truth. We cant (sic) the West to do that for us. NIGERIA have embarrassed us on these games”(sic). You hear am? Mbiyu (mmbiyu) further observes: “I thought Kenya was broken, Nigeria is on another level. The water tank at the stadium hosting the senior athlectics championships in Asaba collapsed today and the stadium is still under construction.” And this one from a non-Kenyan, Wesley Botton (@wesbotton): “No hotel rooms available and no accreditation for us to get into the stadium, less than an hour before the start of the African Athletics Champs. This mess keeps getting messier. That’s my grumpy face.”
And the guy shows his face, contempt for Nigeria written all over him. That is what our N4 billion brought home to us. Deal with it.
II: Ray Ekpu at 70
Mr. Ray Ekpu turned 70 yesterday, and we all turned up at the Agip Hall of the MUSON Centre in Lagos, to celebrate his arrival at the gate of the proverbial three scores and ten in life’s bumpy journey, what Dan Agbese calls, the “age of wisdom.” Except that wisdom came to Ray Ekpu much earlier. For the past 45 years he has devoted his entire life to a conversation with his country, Nigeria, and with the entire universe, asking questions, interrogating issues and providing much meaning with his pen. His reward has been a life of purposeful leadership in his chosen field. He is without doubt one of the masters of the pen profession in Nigeria.
He is indeed one of the most inspirational figures in modern Nigerian journalism, along with his colleagues at the Newswatch magazine – Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, Soji Akinrinade and the generations of journalists that they helped to groom and others of their own generation, too numerous to mention who gave Nigerian journalism new meaning through innovativeness, entrepreneurship but more importantly through the courage to speak the truth.
Ray Ekpu is ordinarily a soft-looking, soft-spoken gentleman, but beneath that calm exterior is a fiery spirit, so much fire in the belly, stubbornness and irreverence and a capacity to kick against any form of chicanery. In the course of an eventful career, he has been detained more than six times. In January 1983, he wrote an article in which he advised that a major public building should be secured lest the crooks working in the place set it on fire to destroy documents in the accounts department. As it happened, the building in question, the Nigeria External Telecommunications (NET) building in Lagos, went up in flames the following day. Someone died. Ekpu was charged for arson and murder. For writing an opinion, he was accused of using his pen to commit arson and murder! He was again in another matter, charged for contempt of court. He and his colleagues were a pain in the neck of Nigeria’s military desperadoes.
I started reading him as an undergraduate at the University of Calabar. In those days, Nigerian universities had very good newspaper sections and the UNICAL library was excellent. Today, the new heroes of the Nigerian cultural space are rich musicians, rich Nollywood actors, yahoo boys, dumb politicians and crooked baby Mamas riding vehicles the source of which they can’t explain to their poor parents, yes, slay queens too, those coded prostitutes with borrowed wigs and eye lashes. But in our time, when we were growing up, we looked up to the likes of Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Biodun Jeyifo, Edwin Madunagu, Chinweizu, Effiong Essien, Andy Akporugo, Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese Yakubu Mohammed, Ray Ekpu, Soji Akinrinade, Doyin Abiola, Bilkisu Yusuf, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Chidi Amuta, Tola Adeniyi, Odia Ofeimun, Sonala Olumhense, Ashikiwe Adigone-Egom, Niyi Osundare, Amma Ogan – men and women who used their pens to construct an empire of ideas around Nigeria’s troubled ecosystem. Ray Ekpu was a star in that firmament and he has remained one of the most consistent and most durable. He is sharp, lucid, assertive. His prose is well-crafted, his style is unmistakable, his devotion to his trade and art is impressive.
Like all men, he has had his moments of trials and triumphs. He has been to places and occupied positions of leadership that future Nigerian journalists would be glad to reach. But he has taken everything in his stride. In his lifetime, the Department of Mass Communication at the Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic has been named after him, and he is readily cited as a model of journalistic excellence in Africa.
However, Mr Ekpu is not all about writing, editing, publishing and activism. I can attest that the man enjoys the art of being human. He loves to dance, he enjoys cognac and he is fashionable with all the things that go with that, especially those shapely things that light up a room even when NEPA takes light. When a young man follows elders around, he learns many things but because it is not everything you go home and tell Mummy, let us save those proverbs for another day. Congratulations sir. Live long.