On and off the tracks, Nigerian athletics is shamefully going backwards. Not only has the stock of the athletes plummeted, the administrators of the sport are currently enmeshed in a disgraceful monetary transaction with the governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations. Essentially, the Athletics Federation of Nigeria board has adamantly resisted entreaties from the IAAF to refund an overpayment made to it a couple of years ago. Unsurprisingly, this has pitted the AFN against the IAAF and the onus is on Nigeria to save its face.
At the root of the drama is the IAAF’s goal of developing the sport in every nook and cranny of the world. Accordingly, the Monaco-based body magnanimously disburses an annual grant to its affiliates. In 2017, instead of the AFN receiving $15,000, the IAAF officials transferred $150,000 to its account. When it realised that it had mistakenly overpaid Nigeria by $135,000, it demanded a refund, which was legal.
Instead of the AFN board, led by Ibrahim Gusau, to follow the path of rectitude, it has been playing a deceitful game for the past two years. Although it (the AFN) acknowledged that it was overpaid, it variously claimed the money could not be traced again. At other times, it claimed the money was used to buy kits for Nigerian athletes. This is nonsense because the money never belonged to Nigeria.
Indeed, the show of shame, in which Nigeria’s image in the global community has been badly battered, is unwarranted. This kind of transaction is easy to trace by the Nigerian authorities since the AFN has a bank account that the money was paid into. After tracing the transaction, the next stage is to identify the officials that withdrew it.
It is disgraceful that instead of following due process, AFN officials were busy cooking up different stories for their stubborn refusal to refund the excess. It speaks volumes about the lack of accountability and corruption that dog public agencies in Nigeria. Matters climaxed in April when the IAAF issued “a final” warning, threatening to impose sanctions against Nigeria if it was not reimbursed. Specifically, it said the money should be repaid because the immediate past Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, was about to leave office, urging that the money should be paid before his exit.
The IAAF letter instigated a new window in the controversy, prompting the minister to become confrontational. Dalung thundered, “I think it is not about money erroneously credited to Nigeria, but there is a calculated attempt just to diminish and destroy Nigerian athletics; otherwise, I don’t see why they call it a mistake. We did not apply for a grant. They transferred money to us, they confirmed the transaction to us, then, after two months, they woke up from slumber.” This is a needless war of words with the IAAF. Dalung exhibited a plain lack of understanding in handling this debacle.
Apparently realising the futility of its ways, Nigeria however returned half of the money, as the deadline neared its expiration. This was a few days before Dalung quit as minister, fuelling suspicions that the ministry, all along, was being economical with the truth. This is deplorable. Nigeria is abusing the generosity of the IAAF.
That is not the only problem with athletics, a sport that once put Nigeria in the global spotlight. Then, Nigerian athletes, particularly in the sprints, jumps and the quarter-mile, gained fame for their redoubtable performances. This was where the likes of Chidi Imoh, Mary Onyali, Innocent Egbunike, Modupe Oshikoya and Yusuf Ali excelled. This happened because there was a programme to develop talents, sponsor and expose them to the international arena. The scholarship system to American colleges aided the process, which was well-utilised by the aspiring talents.
All these laudable programmes have since broken down irreparably. The evidence is in Nigeria’s poor showing in recent global meets. These days, Nigerian sprinters are found wanting in the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and IAAF World Championships. Nigeria, which used to provide tough competition for the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom in the sprints, has retrogressed. On the home front, budding talents are hard to come by, with the production mills having run dry. In the meantime, rival African countries like Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and South Africa are filling the gap.
Nigerian athletics urgently needs a new beginning, a holistic reform, and the country should stop embarrassing itself by returning whatever is left of the money that was overpaid to it. The incoming Minister of Sports should get to the root of the matter. The anti-graft agencies should investigate and trace the transactions, swiftly bringing all those culpable to justice.
To regain its lustre, the AFN has to rebuild the structure that produced world-class athletes, especially by maximising the grants and sponsorships it is getting domestically and globally. These funds and materials should be utilised to revive local meets and school sports. Special academies and institutes where talents can train and receive education at the same time should be established, and accountability elevated within the AFN to attract more sponsorship. Government should adopt policies that will promote athletics and other sports.
To create a virile AFN, the Ministry of Sports should re-examine the criteria for being elected as an AFN board member. Henceforth, only those who have a sound modern knowledge of sport administration should make their way there, not political surrogates.