Nigerian sports officials value photo-ops with successful sportsmen and women more than a steady progression of their careers
By Osayande Ero
The ongoing disagreement between the Nigerian Women Basketball team (DTigress) and the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development is getting more complicated as the basketballers continue to voice their dissatisfaction on a host of issues. The team has been super dominant in the continent having won the last three editions of the FIBA Women Afro Basket Tournament. Top on the list of the team’s complaints is the non-disbursement of the $100.000 (one hundred thousand dollars) that was donated by Zenith, Access, and Guaranty Trust banks respectively, as mobilisation for the female basketball team ahead of their participation at the 2021 Olympic Games.
The team has gone on record to state that its members have submitted their account details to the Ministry of Sports and that the money should be paid directly to the account of players and staff and not to any caretaker or federation account. In a video released on the team’s social media handles, several players are seen voicing their disappointment with the agencies in question and have laid out a series of demands both negotiable and non-negotiable and have stated that if conditions do not improve none of the players or staff would be reporting to camp to prepare for the FIBA world cup tournament in February 2022.
The three demands that the team wants to be sorted immediately are: payment of total amount owed to players, staff, and vendors; improved travel conditions and the hiring of a general manager to look after the team. TAhe team has categorically stated that if these three demands are not met there would be no team showing up to represent Nigeria until a resolution is achieved.
This type of situation has plagued sports in general in Nigeria for as long as it can be remembered. It is in no way a one-off incident and is not a hand dealt the female basketball team alone. Different sports in this country are in dire straits as those officials charged with managing them have always come up short but are always ready to associate with sportsmen and women who excel.
To get a better understanding of what women in sports go through in Nigeria, Newswatch Plus spoke with Ms. Ibeh Chinenye Nancy, a karate and Taekwondo specialist. Ibeh who recently won a gold medal at the Zainab Saleh International Female Open Karate Championship in Lagos, spoke on her personal experience and the obstacles female athletes have to scale to become successful.
She said: “The major struggle is being taken seriously, because when society thinks what you are doing is not important even the sports agencies tend not to lose any sleep over our affairs.” Aside not been taken seriously, she also noted the lack of effort being put into educating young girls on the gains of been professional athletes. She added that because of this, “there is a very small pool of young girls who are interested in sports. And those who are interested struggle for funding as there isn’t enough spotlight on female sports and investors aren’t willing to invest.”
She also talked about the physical, sexual, and psychological harassment of female athletes. Although she has not experienced it personally, two of her teammates in Taekwondo have allegedly been physically harassed, leading to one of them leaving the sport entirely, while the other had to switch to another sport. And recently another teammate confided in her that she was sexually assaulted but chose to remain anonymous. According to Ibeh, stories like this are a common occurrence and because there are hardly any measures put in place to protect the athletes, they have become the norm.
When asked for her suggestions on ways to improve the plight of female athletes in the country, she said the most important thing was “making sure we have all the support we need in order for us not to be distracted .” She explained that because of the lack of support most female athletes tend to not put all their efforts into making a career out of their chosen fields and they always tend to have other jobs.
“It is a widespread practice for female athletes to see sports as a part time job because there is little to no financial incentive to get involved and they always have to find other ways to make money which they use to sponsor their sporting careers.”
She pleaded with both the government and private organisations to invest more in female sports, citing the exploits of sportswomen like Serena Williams and Simone Biles of the United States of America, and Nigeria’s own Chioma Ajunwa, as inspiration and a pointer to the heights a female athlete can reach with the right support system.
While trying to get a better understanding of a male athlete’s perspective, Santos Akhilele, a professional Taekwondo athlete who has represented Nigeria in competitions both locally and on the global stage, shed some light on the challenges he has faced representing the country. He stated that the obvious challenges include “financing and lack of global standard equipment. And when I say global, I am not even talking about Europe or America but places like Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, South Africa.” He stressed that there was little to no interest in the athletes and “more often than not the government interest in you is performative in the sense that they want to take pictures with you when you win”
On ways to improve the sports sector in the country, Santos said that “we need to make sports attractive to people by imbibing the culture of dignity in labour and that might not come if athletes don’t get proper remuneration.” Santos also harped on the need for sports and education to go hand in hand. Attracting the interest of kids at an early age and encouraging their parents to be more accommodating by allowing their kids to explore the opportunities in sports are also important. He gave an instance of how impressed he was when he visited the Olympic Centre in Alexandria in Egypt and saw kids from different schools practising different sports they were interested in for an hour or two every evening. The facility had training facilities for every available sport and kids were allowed to pick whatever sports they were good at and there was the assurance that they will get adequate training and guidance. He stated that Nigeria has a lot of athletes in different sports who could rival the best in the world if only they were given the right environment to hone their skills.
Brown Ebewele, a former commissioner for sports in Edo state and current board member of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria told Newswatch Plus that the ongoing standoff between the female basketball team and the ministry of youth and sports plus the Basketball Federation is unseemly. “The situation is a fraudulent one because we live in a society where people don’t do the right thing.” He talked about the conflict within the leadership of the Basketball Federation saying: “it’s a matter of settlement, it is who can settle best and asides who can settle best it is also about who can be controlled that is allowed to win by the ministry and if they find out you cannot be controlled they will do everything within their power to make sure you don’t win.”
According to him, when he contested to be elected a Caretaker Representative for the Athletics Federation in an election billed for Abuja he was shocked to discover that when he arrived the venue with his delegates in tow, he learnt, without warning, that the election had been moved to Ilorin.
“I had to transport my delegates to Ilorin for the election and again after days of little to no communication we were told the election had been moved to Lagos. I had no choice but to show up in Lagos and on getting there I was told I had been disqualified from the election without any letter to state the reason for this disqualification or even an invitation to defend myself against whatever crime I may have committed to warrant this disqualification. That is my own case but that is also the situation everywhere.”
The former sports commissioner said it is imperative to “bring in professionals to administer sports in Nigeria. The sports sector is full of politicians who see these positions as a way to loot money and further their political ambitions and the only way we can see meaningful reforms in the sports sector of Nigeria is to hire competent professionals with the right reputation for the job.” On Wednesday October 13, the ministry of youth and sports development issued a press statement denying claims that it had diverted the funds that was donated to the male and female basketball teams totalling $230,000 to other use. The statement said the money donated by the banks under the Adopt-a-Team programme of the ministry was intact and in the NBBF’s domiciliary account domiciled with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). The statement added that the delay with the disbursement of the funds was because only the DTigress team members had submitted their foreign account numbers and that the ministry was still waiting for the account details of the male team members so the funds could be disbursed as requested by the CBN. However, the statement added that the ministry had directed the CBN to commence the disbursement of the funds to the female basketball team
members immediately and that the male team would be paid as soon as the account details of the players are provided.
On the issue of unpaid allowances to athletes that competed at the Olympics and Paralympics, the ministry stated that it was been processed and was only slowed down by funds availability but stressed that the ministry of finance had been fully furnished with the details of the outstanding allowances and payments due to the NBBF and the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) and that efforts were been made to secure the release.
An aide to the minister of youth and sports development, Kola Daniel, was not forth coming about the progress that has been made so far concerning the disbursement. “Why are you asking questions about a stale issue the honourable minister already addressed weeks ago? I do not have anything to say,” he added.
Hopefully in the coming days there would be more clarity on how the situation is being addressed.