THE Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare, and the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), are messing around with sports. They are intrusive, coercive and meddlesome in sports administration. After dabbling unsuccessfully in basketball, the duo has turned to football. Imprudently, the minister has directed the Nigeria Football Federation to amend its statutes and hold elections to appoint a new executive committee unfailingly by September. This is unwarranted.
Their open interference epitomises the meddling of the regime in sports. The President should stop demeaning his high office and embarrassing the country. Long before he assumed power, football administrators had been holding elections without coercion by the government.
Hiding under the imprimatur of the Presidency, Dare, in a June 17 letter laced with subtle threats, compelled the NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, to tear up the organisation’s laws ahead of the elections. That is just over two months away. This is a knee-jerk directive, whether from the President or not. It is short-sighted to amend a law that had been in place for years overnight because of some hidden interests. At the end of the day, Dare will probably create more bitter divisions after such an election.
Among other instructions, the minister ordered Pinnick to carry out four “immediate” directives, including “immediate compliance with these Presidential directives.” The letter mandated the “inclusion of concerned stakeholders hitherto disenfranchised or denied equal representation, in the NFF Congress and their representatives at the Elective Congress are made eligible to vote and be voted for, henceforth.” This is meddlesomeness taken too far. Buhari is introducing divisive politics into football administration. Stakeholders should tell Buhari and Dare that the NFF is not a federal department!
Before Buhari’s “directive,” each state and the Federal Capital Territory were statutorily represented at the NFF congress by a delegate. Other statutory delegates are representatives of the Nigeria Professional Football League; Nigeria National League; Nationwide League One; Nigeria Women Professional League; referees; players and coaches. Therefore, an expanded congress could be a jamboree, rendering Buhari’s intention open to debate. Nigerian football, which has yet to recover from the disastrous elimination of the Super Eagles by Ghana from the 2022 World Cup Finals, does not need such now.
To achieve his meddlesome aim, Dare said Buhari had ordered that the “amended statutes reflect the national yearnings, aspirations and peculiarities of Nigeria as a sovereign nation while aligning with the principles and objectives of football as set by the world soccer governing body, FIFA.” This contradicts the essence of football. Plainly, FIFA abhors political interference in the affairs of member federations. Indeed, it is a golden FIFA rule that member associations conduct their affairs “independently and with no influence from third parties.”
The expansion of the statutory delegates is not the main problem powering Nigerian football’s descent into irrelevance. That the Super Eagles have not played in the World Cup quarter-finals and did not qualify for the Qatar 2022 World Cup are proofs of a deep-seated malaise.
And it is evident that Dare and Buhari have not learnt anything from recent history – from Nigeria and others. Shortly after the 2014 World Cup fiasco when the Eagles were shamefully eliminated in the second round, the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, rashly suspended the NFF. He handed over its affairs to a civil servant after a court ruling. Swiftly, FIFA’s emergency committee banned Nigerian football teams from all regional, continental, and international matches.
In October 2018, Sierra Leone was similarly hammered by FIFA after its government unilaterally removed the president and secretary-general of the football association. It was a bad moment because Sierra Leone had an African Nations Cup qualifier against Ghana the same week that the hammer fell. Just last February, FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, said the memberships of Zimbabwe and Kenya had been suspended due to government interference in the associations. In April 2021, FIFA had also descended on Pakistan for “third-party interference” and on Chad for government interference.
A pattern has emerged; most of the countries where government interferes in football are also politically vulnerable or are failing. They are tenuous democracies, mimic dictatorships or are outright dictatorships. Their economies are likely to be undergoing stress. Instead of facing these existential challenges, high government officials attempt to exercise primordial control over sports. In developed economies, government cedes control of sports administration to the private sector. This formula has brought rich dividends to these countries. Rather than destroy the little that remains of football in Nigeria, Dare and Buhari should adopt the global best practices, and let an independent NFF manage its own affairs, and empower football legally by promoting private sector participation.
Treating sports with levity, Buhari and his predecessors have fostered retrogression in Nigerian football. Majority of their appointees as sports ministers have been unmitigated disasters. Save for the late Ishaya Aku, who brought élan to the job, the rest were misfits. Buhari should break from this tradition.
In Dare’s case, his understanding of sports has been choleric and uninformed, his handling of it toxic. This cost D’Tigress (the national female basketball team), their spot in the FIBA World Cup 2022 in Australia in September. The girls had won Africa’s sole ticket to the finals by virtue of being continental champions, but FIBA replaced them with Mali after the minister engineered a needless two-year suspension of Nigeria from international basketball. All the sterling efforts of the Nigerians have gone up in smoke. Worse, the bickering has resumed after the Buhari regime lifted the suspension on basketball. Blame Dare and Buhari if D’Tigers (the men’s team) for the team’s initial loss to Cape Verde when qualification for the 2023 World Cup resumed last week. These decisions at the highest levels of government confound. Instead of prudence, arrogance combines with ignorance.
Dare has proven his incapability to run the ministry. Buhari should fire him immediately and appoint a knowledgeable and competent hand to save face in the little time left of his inept regime.