Nigeria united – Sport as a national priority and model in turbulent times

Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu
Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu

As 2013 came to a close, with great aplomb and draped in Nigeria’s national colors of white and green, the ‘Super Eagles’ took to the pitch against longstanding African rival Ethiopia. Ninety minutes later and under the stewardship of Victor Moses and Nwankwo Kanu, our country emerged victorious and with an earned ticket to Rio de Janeiro to participate in the 2014 World Cup.

I watched the action amongst friends and family in my home in Abuja, celebrating with millions of our citizens who, despite emerging from all walks of life and a diverse plethora of tribes, ethnicities and religions, together put off predispositions and reveled across the country. We bonded over sport, as doing such is our pastime and national pride; it intertwines us along with our socio-economic fabric, fostering a shared belief in the virtues of competition.

Albeit while acknowledging Nigeria’s continued fragmentation, this rooted tradition of sport has held its heritage over spectators and over citizens alike.

Pele
Pele

And sport has not only served as a gluing force for our young nation but indeed for many of the nations that comprise the continent of budding Africa. To export an ideology of advocating renewed political will and public and private investment in the tenets of sport and its national infrastructure, to better promote individual and team accomplishments in-country through media fora and merchandise and indeed to emphasize athletic education at a young and influential age is a model capable to cultivate a sense of belonging, pride and patriotism; a practice akin to an investment in sustainable development, applicable to emerging markets wholesale,

Does sport have the ability to bring about peace in our time? Likely not; however, as we have seen in the famous football match held during Christmas between the United Kingdom and Germany on the frontlines during World War One and even in Nigeria, it can delay greater conflict. One has to reflect and remember instances such as the ceasefire of the Biafran War, which resulted from the wish of our then-divided nation to observe Pele’s tremendous performance in Lagos in 1967.

In my travels to Zimbabwe, serving as an African Union-appointed monitor during the Presidential elections of August 2013, I took time to meet with my good friend and 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist, Kirsty Coventry.

Kirsty Coventry
Kirsty, a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)

Kirsty, a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), serving in her role as part of the accredited Athletes’ Commission, is no stranger to geopolitics. She earned her medal in Beijing at a time when the eyes of the world pigeonholed Zimbabwe as a failed state. In the years that followed, we witnessed great achievements from the former ‘breadbasket of Africa’ and Kirsty and her Foundation (with the great assistance of former Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture, David Coltart), have spearheaded the reinvigoration of sport in-country, understanding its role in building bipartisanship and growth amidst tempestuous periods.

“Sport has the ability to unite diverse cultures, ethnicities, political parties and religions, educating under a collective banner the influencers and those of tomorrow alike that grievances large and small can be put aside for the pride and perhaps sake of the nation,” Kirsty eloquently noted. She shares the belief that not only can sport bring together citizens disillusioned by their present conditions and harboring doubt in their own ambitions as the country around them is projected to ascend to the echelon of the ‘emerging market’, but it can inspire both the athletes and pupils of tomorrow to strive for excellence in all areas and walks of life. The continued success of sport to bring nations together can further encourage the politicians of today to place greater emphasis on its foundation, to nurture nationalism in a proven yet innovative manner, instead of furthering such disillusionment and disdain.

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And those in the international entertainment industry have taken notice to the effect of sport to create tangible change in emerging states in Africa and beyond. As documented in the film ‘Invictus’ and while continuing to celebrate today the life and legacy of the late, great Nelson Mandela, much attention and fanfare was given to the unique role taken in his first term as South African President, initiating a venture to unite the apartheid-torn land under the Rainbow Coalition and enlisting the national rugby team in doing so, who were then undertaking their mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Yet despite this dynamic proponent for unification, little neither attention nor monetary investment has been given to those states desperate to cheer on their brightest and best within Africa. Indeed, while glimpsing over the global impact of sport, notably, one can hardly pass a shop in London or city block in Manhattan without viewing an Arsenal jersey or New York Yankee baseball cap, respectively. Yet here in Abuja as but an example, where sport enthusiasm is at a consistent fervent pitch, one cannot find a Super Eagles uniform nor t-shirt representative of our bipartisan support and perhaps newfound ‘Nigeria first’ mentality. In Zimbabwe, the highly popular ‘Cheetahs’ rugby club would seemingly have little following, were one to walk the streets of Harare.

CairoWe look to Cairo, where discontent (from football ‘Ultras’ and beyond) has been spread and resounded internationally as, whether right or wrong in intent, the actions of Tahir Square from the Arab Spring have been costly to the nation and moreover, one of its major driver of business, its tourism industry. The Egyptian Football Union has been often panned for corruption, with a near half-billion dollars USD controversially relegated away from its priorities.  Sport merchandising, athletic education and competitive negotiations in broadcasting can be effectively and somewhat easily reemphasized and reinstituted, as the promotion of opportunity and reinstalling an ideology of national pride has never been more sacrosanct.

Nigerians, much like Egyptians, South Africans and Zimbabweans, have understood and can relate to discontent often ravaging their independent hopes and dreams. Extreme poverty can often equate to families not being able to afford equipment for their sons and daughters to effectively compete. Schools rightly place what little funds they are given toward the salaries of their teachers, to plumbing, steady electricity and toward textbooks critically needed to maintain an academic institution. One cannot criticize their skepticism that better promotion of sport in schools could be the important stepping-stone in bettering the conditions around them.

Yet despite this dynamic proponent for unification, little neither attention nor monetary investment has been given to those states desperate to cheer on their brightest and best within Africa. Indeed, while glimpsing over the global impact of sport, notably, one can hardly pass a shop in London or city block in Manhattan without viewing an Arsenal jersey or New York Yankee baseball cap, respectively. Yet here in Abuja as but an example, where sport enthusiasm is at a consistent fervent pitch, one cannot find a Super Eagles uniform nor t-shirt representative of our bipartisan support and perhaps newfound ‘Nigeria first’ mentality. In Zimbabwe, the highly popular ‘Cheetahs’ rugby club would seemingly have little following, were one to walk the streets of Harare.

We look to Cairo, where discontent (from football ‘Ultras’ and beyond) has been spread and resounded internationally as, whether right or wrong in intent, the actions of Tahir Square from the Arab Spring have been costly to the nation and moreover, one of its major driver of business, its tourism industry. The Egyptian Football Union has been often panned for corruption, with a near half-billion dollars USD controversially relegated away from its priorities.  Sport merchandising, athletic education and competitive negotiations in broadcasting can be effectively and somewhat easily reemphasized and reinstituted, as the promotion of opportunity and reinstalling an ideology of national pride has never been more sacrosanct.

Nigerians, much like Egyptians, South Africans and Zimbabweans, have understood and can relate to discontent often ravaging their independent hopes and dreams. Extreme poverty can often equate to families not being able to afford equipment for their sons and daughters to effectively compete. Schools rightly place what little funds they are given toward the salaries of their teachers, to plumbing, steady electricity and toward textbooks critically needed to maintain an academic institution. One cannot criticize their skepticism that better promotion of sport in schools could be the important stepping-stone in bettering the conditions around them.

Yet despite this dynamic proponent for unification, little neither attention nor monetary investment has been given to those states desperate to cheer on their brightest and best within Africa. Indeed, while glimpsing over the global impact of sport, notably, one can hardly pass a shop in London or city block in Manhattan without viewing an Arsenal jersey or New York Yankee baseball cap, respectively. Yet here in Abuja as but an example, where sport enthusiasm is at a consistent fervent pitch, one cannot find a Super Eagles uniform nor t-shirt representative of our bipartisan support and perhaps newfound ‘Nigeria first’ mentality. In Zimbabwe, the highly popular ‘Cheetahs’ rugby club would seemingly have little following, were one to walk the streets of Harare.

We look to Cairo, where discontent (from football ‘Ultras’ and beyond) has been spread and resounded internationally as, whether right or wrong in intent, the actions of Tahir Square from the Arab Spring have been costly to the nation and moreover, one of its major driver of business, its tourism industry. The Egyptian Football Union has been often panned for corruption, with a near half-billion dollars USD controversially relegated away from its priorities.  Sport merchandising, athletic education and competitive negotiations in broadcasting can be effectively and somewhat easily reemphasized and reinstituted, as the promotion of opportunity and reinstalling an ideology of national pride has never been more sacrosanct.

Nigerians, much like Egyptians, South Africans and Zimbabweans, have understood and can relate to discontent often ravaging their independent hopes and dreams. Extreme poverty can often equate to families not being able to afford equipment for their sons and daughters to effectively compete. Schools rightly place what little funds they are given toward the salaries of their teachers, to plumbing, steady electricity and toward textbooks critically needed to maintain an academic institution. One cannot criticize their skepticism that better promotion of sport in schools could be the important stepping-stone in bettering the conditions around them.

 However, Munya Maraire, former Penn State track and field star and Founder of World Wide Scholarships (WWS), believes that would greater emphasis and capital be delegated to sport, we would not only see an immediate turnabout in test scores but indeed in the belief of civic duty. We would also find that such emphasis could equate to greater global competition in the ‘World’s Game’ of football, as but one example.

Through World Wide Scholarships and our partners such as NIKE, we have linked talent otherwise lost due to issues of connectivity, poverty and conflict to the opportunities and providers therein of today and tomorrow, clubs such as AC Milan and Real Madrid.  We believe that Africa’s athletic potential and present ability, in football, track and field and beyond, have yet to be reached. Were our actions backed by greater public and private sector support, we would not only witness an African renaissance of athleticism, but give hope to a segment of the continent’s population that, country-to-country feels disconnected to those that govern them”.

And indeed such revitalization is not difficult to foresee. Since the introduction of the Nigerian Football Federation, our nation has become a top contender that has been dreaded in many football contests. Our women represented the continent proudly in the 2007 Women’s World Cup and again together with Equatorial Guinea in 2011. Our ‘Flying Eagles’ have been African champions six times whereas our young ‘Flying Eaglets’ have swept the globe, taking home a world title in U-17 category earlier this very year. While the list of our achievements in sport is exhaustive, a quick glimpse at our track record obscures any doubt that the Super Eagles are serious contenders in the 2014 World Cup.

 Having proudly contributed to the successes of Enyimba FC and Abia Warriors FC, and having familiarized myself wholly with the workings of the football world, I can confidently predict a bright future for our Nigerian Super Eagles in the World Cup 2014 and beyond. We have a strong team and from them a stronger nation, one that from such sources of inspiration, can ascend to heights beyond the ambitious projections of western economists and globally minded politicians, businessmen and women, should we truly find the will to unite our spirits and efforts.

 I consider sport to have a tremendous impact on national unity and exist as a model in doing so country to country. I believe, much like the tenets of market liberalization, that placing greater emphasis and delegating greater monetary investment in the sports infrastructure will breed competition and achievement. Further, I vehemently support the belief that such friendly contests will generate a lasting collective emphasis on ‘country first’ and change hearts and minds for the better of the given nation.

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Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu is an international entrepreneur and a former governor of Abia State. A presidential candidate in 2007, Dr. Kalu is also the chairperson of SLOK Holding, a major oil and gas shipper between Nigeria and China, and the Sun, Nigeria's largest newspaper. An adamant believer in the need to facilitate greater unity in Nigeria, Dr. Kalu also heads the Njiko Igbo movement, a non-partisan and apolitical initiative that seeks to secure the presidential seat for a Nigerian citizen of Igbo origin. Dr. Kalu asserts that the plight of the Igbo people, who to this day remain ostracized due to their perceived role in the Biafran conflict, is indicative of the plight of all Nigerian people to ensure their basic human rights.