The Ministry of Youth and Sports Development obviously tugged at the tail of a tiger last week when the minister announced the dissolution of 31 National Sports Federation boards. It followed up almost immediately with the inauguration of caretaker committees to take care of the administration of the federations until after the Olympic Games coming up from July 23 to August 8, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
The Minister’s actions took everyone by surprise, particularly the board members across all the sports that must have been preparing for what had become a 4-yearly ‘jamborèe’ to the Olympics. It did not matter that many of them had no athletes in their sport that qualify to participate, or not. The minister’s intervention halted their vacation.
Many affected stakeholders started thinking that the world was going to end and started to prepare for the war of all wars in sports.
They asked: how dare the minister dissolve independent boards two months to the Olympics?
It now appears to be all smoke and no fire.
The minister played a very deft hand with his cards. He pulled the ‘Joker’ in the pack and checkmated all possible opposition. How?
Most of the key Presidents of the dissolved federations (except Athletics that is fighting to the ‘death’ with the sports ministry) were offered places in the Caretaker Committees established to temporarily replace their boards until new elections are held after the Olympics. The presidents, therefore, lose nothing. Indeed, as individuals, they actually gain a great deal – the guaranteed opportunity to go to the Olympics, plus being a part of preparing the grounds for their own possible re-election.
In appointing them into the committees the minister may have provided a soothing balm to quench what could have been a raging fire by those that would have fought against the timing and justification of the dissolution.
Indeed, a handful of those left out of this new arrangement, those that are not recalled to be a part of the caretaker committees, started to put up some fight that never gained any momentum.
Writing under the umbrella of a non-existing Committee of Concerned Stakeholders, they signed and sent a petition to the Minister of Sports threatening fire and brimstone, requesting that the minister rescind his action within 48 hours or be prepared to face their wrath through protests that will disrupt woŕk in the ministry, or necessitate a legal ‘battle’ in the civil courts. They insisted that the boards’ 4-year tenures still had some months to go and that the dissolution by the Minister was a clear case of ‘government interference’ in the internal affairs of their ‘private’ organizations.
Does the government ever go back on its vomit? What kind of unregistered private organization can make government do the unthinkable? The federation’s statutes are not even domesticated and drafted into Nigerian laws, so where would they even start their fight from? Who funds most of the federation’s programs, anyway? Can they actually claim independence and non-interference from their biggest benefactor?
Their fire was quenched even before it started. To even make a mockery of the entire exercise, shortly after their protest communique was released, some of those listed as signatories to the petition publicly disclaimed it and were wearing broad grins of satisfaction on their faces at the inauguration of the caretaker committees.
That step by Mr. Sunday Dare, the Minister of Sports, deflated the already flighted balloon of the frustrated board members and their supporters. It was a masterstroke, a political move that effectively checkmated the main opposition. The wind was cut off their floundering sail.
The Minister has survived the initial threat and danger. He will now go to the Olympics in relative peace.
He, however, leaves behind, a festering sore, a handful of aggrieved persons that would require careful handling. He would need to apply wisdom and diplomacy to successfully wade through the waters that his decisions have surely churned.
He would now have to navigate unclear terrain that lies in his path? What would be his roadmap into the future after Tokyo 2021?
That is the inevitable war that will come and that he will have to fight. He has plenty to chew on his plate, plenty of unfinished business.
There are a few things he should be thinking about: to quickly establish a new structure that will clear the air on the relationships that should exist between his ministry, sports federations, and the Nigeria Olympic Committee; the structure shall define the different roles and responsibilities within those relationships and hopefully put to rest the matter of ‘interference’ that always comes up when roles are in conflict.
Already some aggrieved members have surreptitiously sent a petition to their international federations with that charge.
Fortunately, even though the charge should not be dismissed, off-hand, by the minister, it will not have any effect on Nigeria’s participation at the Olympics this summer. Federations play only supportive roles to the ministry and the NOC en en Enroute the Olympics. They play no official part in the registering of participants, and the responsibility for the training and welfare of the athletes is also entirely that of the government through the sports ministry. So, any claim of interference has no locus and can’t stop anything.
Fundamentally, the Olympic Movement and International Sports Federations are two different bodies that only cooperate during the Olympics to the extent the Olympic Committee chooses to involve the international sports federations.
Their relationship has also been frosty, limited, and guarded, the areas of collaboration being often at the discretion of the IOC. They do not interfere in each other’s businesses but are always exploring areas of subtle cooperation. This is particularly true with the two biggest sports bodies in the world, FIFA and the IOC.
The claim by some stakeholders that Nigerian athletes’ performance will be hurt by the dissolution of boards holds no substance. The athletes are as distant from the goings-on in the boardroom as Mars is from Jupiter. Incidentally, two-thirds of them do not even have any athletes going to the games.
The minister’s next challenge, post the Olympics, would be to ensure he is not caught in the web of ‘illegality’ when he finds that he has to extend the official tenures of the boards that he ‘sacked’ because the caretakers cannot meet the timelines in the statutes used for the last elections. The minister might find himself doing exactly some of what he sacked the board for – indirectly legitimizing elongation of tenure.
Nothing was also said of the role of the caretaker committees in preparing the grounds for conducting the new elections, even with incumbents serving in the committees.
So, how will there not be the accusation of the vexed issues of an extension and of favoritism?
Meanwhile, the ministry cannot conduct the elections itself, cannot also design the statutes for the federations. To do either would be tantamount to glaring and brazen interference.
After the Olympics, some of the international federations will start to react to the claims referred to them by aggrieved members, and the peace that the minister sought in dissolving the boards may become elusive.
In short, I don’t see how tenure elongation will not happen with the present arrangement. I don’t also see how those members that are retained in the committees will not be considered as being favored since the committees may superintend over the process of the new elections. Will this be level ground for fair elections?
All the boards have now seemingly accepted the Minister’s prescription. The athletes are now rightfully in the care of the Ministry with a rather laid-back NOC whose role is to register the athletes presented by the Ministry and to lead the delegation to Tokyo. Otherwise, the NOC are absolutely powerless in the present situation. Their obligations to the Games fulfilled, they become bystanders, waiting for the Sports Ministry to take the lead on all other issues clearly not in the charter of the Olympic Movement to which they belong.
For decades, conducting acceptable elections into sports federations have been the bane of peace and progress in sports. Abuse and manipulation of the process, acting with impunity, and misusing the privileges of incumbency have made every election a theatre of crisis and even litigation.
In some cases, the government has actively participated in precipitating the chaos.
But in a situation where the government is deeply rooted in the activities of federations by providing a secretariat, logistical support in staff and facilities, funds for most of their events and programmes, it is hard to separate the thin lines between power and responsibility. Most federations are unable to secure any level of independence that they are entitled to by their constitutions. It has truly become a matter of the piper dictating the music.
This is a knotty issue that is not peculiar to Nigeria. It is common and recurring in several once-communist countries as well as most Third World countries where nothing works without governments.
For decades, this has afflicted Nigerian sports development – the conflicts in who does what, who funds what, the mechanisms of control and supervision, and the limits of government’s interventions.
The turnover of sports administrators through the decades also created its own problems for the sector that is now full of personnel with limited experiences and understanding of the complexities of the sports environment. This has diluted the quality of end-product (the athletes) and sustained crisis in the sector. Too frequent changes and a cycle of leadership drawn from sectors outside sports have also added their toll by diminishing the richness of a passed-on-knowledge-base that would have sustained consistent policies and growth.
That’s why a country with so much acknowledged potential in human capital and resources, that should be a world superpower in sports by now had it followed its foundational trajectory after Independence in the 1960s up to the early 1990s when the ship started to rock and roll, can no longer find its bearing for almost 3 decades.
Successive ministers, unfamiliar with the terrain, have been forced to grope from one concept to the other, going around in circles, always courting crisis, and never finding an answer until they leave office and things worse off than they met them.
This trend must stop. It can, of course, start with the current minister who has demonstrated a commitment and courage to reset the button of sports development. He has the perfect opportunity to do so now.
He must start to think and plan for sports beyond the Tokyo Olympics. He cannot and must not base the future on what happens in Tokyo. That’s dangerous yet that’s what he appears to have done by setting the achievements of Atlanta ’96 as his Tokyo 2021 benchmark.
I pray he is lucky and his dreams come to pass. My humble take is that Tokyo 2021 is already a settled matter. Nigeria can only do as well as the preparations that the country inputted into the athletes. I do not, therefore, expect a medals haul.
The period after the Olympics matters more now. Genuine and lasting change can start with the presence of the right leadership in the ministry of sports itself, in sports federations, and in the NOC. These can all be influenced by the Sports Minister, carefully and diplomatically deploying the tools he has as the supervisor over all of the sports in the country.
I urge the Minister not to discard or treat with levity the idea of the return of the National Sports Commission. Time was when the technical arm of the National Sports Commission, with all their world-class coaches and other personnel, handled all the preparations of all athletes to the Olympics, funded the entire preparations, participation and logistics, and worked very closely with the NOC.
At that time, Federations borrowed coaches and their other essential personnel from the NSC to use for their national team assignments. That was the structure that did not put the burden of developing sports on the shoulders of independent federations. That basic operating formula did not fail and can be restored as most experts have proposed for decades now.
Once again, the national federations will have their full authority only over their own domestic affiliates, sports programmes, and sports properties – the clubs, the domestic leagues and championships, regional and continental Club competitions, and academicals.
On a final note, I reiterate that the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, and the All African Games are all under a dispensation that the federations cannot control or fund. These are the end product of the sports ministry’s primary purpose – sports development. They are all international competitions and testing ground for athletes across all sports. They are the measure of the sports ministry’s work and success.
The federations must cooperate with the sports ministry, or stay clear and face its own primary objectives. They cannot eat their cake and still have it. They cannot get funding for the programs that belong to the ministry and insist there shall be no accountability or interference. They have hard choices to make. Until they do so they will have no peace and will always be objects for the Sports Ministry’s interference.
Mr. Sunday Dare has a huge challenge on his hands from August. It could also present a perfect opportunity to conceive new dawn for Nigerian sports. As he prepares for the ‘war’ after Tokyo 2021, my prayer is that this period of his greatest challenge becomes the period of his greatest triumph!