I have written several times about the “uselessness” of the Abuja National Stadium (now known as MKO Abiola Stadium). Such a great facility for all-around sports lies fallow all year round, overgrown with weeds and smothered in dust. Many ministers of sports have come and gone, and most of them prefer to give the stadium a wide berth. In the distant past, a beautifully constructed, Olympic standard stadium, which cost N73 billion (an equivalent of at least N500 billion in today’s money given that the Naira has tumbled at least 7 times since it was built in 2003), would be hired out to churches for crusades, and our football pitch suffered a bad case of alopecia as our people stomped the devil on the grass turf. The devil refused to depart from the nation no matter how hard they tried, though. Other ministers preferred to just lock up the place until medium-to-large trees started growing on the pitch. You can’t make this up. The internet preserves the evidence. These days, the Minister of Sports operates from that stadium – as sports administrators do in many parts of the world. This allows for more hands-on management of the facility. However, I believe churches have returned to the stadium given some of the banners we see at the gates. Hopefully, they will not be availed of the pitch that Nigerian businessman Dangote had to help recover at a cost of over N1 billion. The grass on the premises still gets overgrown anyway. It is now clear that Nigeria – all 200 million of us – cannot manage even a single standard stadium.
Recently, in the build-up to the just concluded Nigeria vs Ghana match, I was driving past the stadium and wondering about these issues. Why can there not be matches and other activities there weekly or every two weeks? Why can the sports administrators not draw up a schedule for the engagement of the stadium? “, and so on, as I went to a restaurant for lunch. At the door, I saw the security man holding tickets and trying to interest customers, but he was mostly ignored. I was excited and bought 20 tickets. I thought, why not be a catalyst for the use of this stadium just as I had been preaching? I posted that I had tickets on Facebook, shared some with my staff, and some of my Facebook friends came forward to collect the tickets. I thought it was a great idea to bring positive attention to the stadium and support our team at the same time. I would have loved to see our boys in real life too but was certain of not being in Abuja on that day. I later went and bought 10 more. all given out. That was my contribution.
From what I later saw on TV, the stadium was chock full of people like never before. Of course, we have overturned the COVID masking and spacing rubbish that was never needed in our clime anyway. Nigerians were happy to be in that stadium that had kept them out for so long. A little bit of the history of that stadium will help. It was built by the Germans and Chinese in time for the COJA (All Africa Games) of 2003, hosted by Nigeria. At that time, there were many stories of contract inflation, mismanagement, and embezzlement (not as fantastic as what we hear today, though). But Nigerians were happy to see the physical manifestation of an Olympic stadium. When the game started, Nigerians hustled down to watch them. But that was where the trouble started. There were no clearly spelt out arrangements for crowd management. People did not know where the entrance was. The direction was poor. Finally, security personnel began beating people who tried to crawl in through any opening on days when Nigeria had a critical meet – usually football. People will crawl under barbed wire, and jump the fence wherever they can, just to get in. The security services and the management of the game only had arrangements for VIPs (trust Nigeria and VIP. Everybody is a big man here.
So, people lost interest entirely in visiting the stadium. Athletes complained bitterly that the 2003 games were as good as practice sessions, as there was no crowd to cheer them. As a banker then, I still managed to get in on a few occasions. But there were usually fewer than 200 people-watching in a 60,000-odd capacity stadium. The second phase of the stadium (for swimming and indoor sports) suffered even greater neglect. The swimming pool turned green with spirogyra. The Jonathan government stored thousands of stoves that they wanted to use for political mileage in the velodrome, which has never been used for cycling sports since 2003. One had hoped that the Ghana match would offer us a new lease of life. But no, the stadium is still rather jinxed.
Seeing Nigerians—young street urchins—start to destroy the only standard stadium in Nigeria because we lost to Ghana broke my heart. The class issue comes up again. Can a stadium be successful if it is built around only the well-to-do? Should our sports ministry keep poor folks out? If not, and I think not, what should be done to keep people at bay? This newfound way of destroying things took root during # EndSARS, and I recall warning about it at the time. Our poor people have tasted blood and will now readily get back at society for real and perceived ills done to them. Can our elites—especially the current government—see what they have done to the lives of millions of Nigerians? Can the elite see that the zombies they created are at their doors? Can the youths also see that this problem has caught up with them as it soon gets to their turn to lead and manage the country? As the rich mismanage resources and turn a blind eye to the most vulnerable among us, the poor have taken on a destructive mode, as if to say we must drag ourselves down into nothingness, disintegration, and even more abject poverty by any means.Are we seeing that the rest of the world is watching us and taking notes? When will we get a good government that understands how to harness the minds of its vast majority rather than let them drift in every direction where they have become agents of the devil?
I learnt that at some point, the stadium gates were thrown open for all and sundry. I hope people were frisked before they got in. Why sell tickets if you know that the stadium will be thrown open? Maybe if people paid a token, they would behave better, or perhaps that small payment would keep out the more aggrieved and violent sorts. Was it that the marketers of the program did not do a good job? Did they give up? Why did Nigerians not buy their tickets on time? Even after sharing all 30 tickets that I bought, people were still calling me a day before the match; even on the match day, despite that, I shared the phone number of the AIT staff who sold the tickets and informed everyone that the tickets were finished. Do Nigerians want everything for free? What about the middle class? Don’t they see that the Abuja MKO Stadium is lying in waste and dilapidating due to total neglect? Must they be forced to buy tickets to watch a match? My staff who went there informed me that it was street urchins who ended up in VIP and that the stadium was filled beyond capacity (maybe by another 10,000). I hope the ministry has learned. It is just so sad that the world football body has banned that stadium indefinitely because it was more than obvious that officials could not secure the pitch. Ghanaian players had to run for their lives after the match as they were being pursued by aggressive Nigerian fans. Unfortunately, in the confusion, one official collapsed and died.
I wish we could roll back the hands of time and replay what happened on the 26th of March 2022 differently, taking better-informed decisions. What is the future of Abuja stadium? When will FIFA ever release the stadium for international matches? How are we going to entice them back? Don’t we have to make some people scapegoats? If it was abroad, they would have identified some of those vandals and banned them from getting near stadia for some time. But Nigeria deliberately has no record of its residents. The ministry needs to tell us what additional security measures they are putting in place to forestall a reoccurrence. The sight was ugly and further devalued Nigerians in the eyes of the world. It’s as if we could never do anything right at all. Our players’ values dropped overnight as a result of the losses on several fronts. To make matters more depressing, many educated Nigerians have justified the wanton acts of destruction, not knowing that as the politicians they hate so much alleged loot the country and street urchins also destroy what is left, we are all on a race to the bottom. When the proverbial dung hits the fan, none of us will find the experience palatable. Ask any war-torn and hopeless country.
But I believe there are opportunities for employment creation, leadership, and many other positives in these challenges. For one, Nigeria needs to become a police state to save itself. The same youths who are destroying public property must be retrained, reoriented, and employed to help us arrest transgressors. We have no choice but to press our youth into service. The government’s strategy of blatantly ignoring the vast majority of youth is what has resulted in this dreadful situation. Our public goods and public infrastructure must be guaranteed and secured. We cannot destroy what is left of the country’s infrastructure, talents, reputation, and values in fits of blind rage. I hope the stark display of madness and anger is enough to make those managing resources change their ways immediately while they still have some small opportunity. I am still in‘sifia’ pain from the horrors I saw on TV and the rubbishing of my emotional and monetary investment in that stadium.