Olympics and the Mirror of Nigeria By Okey Ndibe
As I sat down to write this piece, the Nigerian contingent had won not a single medal at the 2012 London Olympics. In fact, the country of 166 million people – aka giant of Africa; the proud host of Africa’s largest political party; and whose public office holders are some of the world’s most highly paid officials – had not seriously threatened to pick up any of the hardware (gold, silver, bronze) that’s the reward for the world’s best athletes. And as the seconds ticked away, Nigeria’s hopes, by every realistic measure, seemed to evaporate faster than the dewfall in the country’s tropical sun.
You’d think that a country like Nigeria would parlay its huge, varied and enterprising population into a medal or two. Perish the thought!
One can predict a rather predictable retort: that there’s no correlation between population and performance at the Olympics. A critic might point to India’s notorious under-performance (a mere three medals so far, despite a population that tops 1.2 billion). Or Indonesia’s far from inspiring performance (two medals, for a country with a population of 237 million). There’s also the forgettable showing by Pakistan (180 million people) and Bangladesh (152 million); as at this writing, both countries had combined for zero medals.
Yet, it may be said for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh that these are countries that are culturally indifferent to most of the events at the Olympics. If the game of cricket were an Olympic event, then they’d wake up for it.
Perhaps, a different species of cultural indifference accounts for Nigeria’s wretched outing in London. We’ve become a people allergic to planning, averse to preparation, and deeply hostile to excellence. Serious contenders at international meets have figured out that it takes serious and consistent planning, the hiring of top coaches as well as long-term investment in equipment and athletes to produce world-class talent.
By contrast, between Olympics, Nigerian sports officials seem to slip into slumber mode. Their calendars are scrubbed free of any preparations for the next Olympics. Then, sometimes with only months to go, they startle awake, scramble for funds, and assemble another ill-equipped, poorly trained contingent.
Nobody should wonder that, every four years, Nigerian athletes march at the Olympics but woefully fail to measure up against the world’s best athletes. Nigeria’s ungolden showing is a mirror of a broader malaise, a parable of a nation that’s wedded to failure.
Victims of official nonchalance, pathetic funding and overall scrappy preparation, Nigerian athletes arrived in London with – literally – only prayers going for them. Yes, Nigeria’s flag bearers are sorry specimens of third-rate equipment and training. Whether it’s the Olympics or the World Cup, we stubbornly neglect to prepare for the games. Then, come time for the contest, our pastors and imams shriek prayers to heaven. Vociferously, our prelates behave as if God owed it to us to be a permanent member of the Nigerian team, if not our standby factotum. They importune God to score goals for us that our hastily assembled soccer teams can’t manage. They ask God to make our athletes faster and stronger than their training warrants. They ask heaven, in short, to nullify other teams’ or athletes’ hard work, their superior training and fastidious preparation, and – deserving or not – to hand us the gold!
Last week, Nigeria’s men’s basketball team at the Olympics seemed to take only prayers to the court in a match against the star-studded US team. At the end of regulation, the outcome was the equivalent of a bloodless massacre. The US team scored 156 points to Nigeria’s 73. The margin of victory – 83 points – was the largest in Olympic basketball history. It was a manhandling; it was as devastating, as thoroughly humiliating an outing as any country has ever had at the Olympics.
Nobody who knows anything about basketball expected the game to be close, much less that Nigeria would eke out a win. But it was altogether within the realm of possibility for the Nigerian team to lose by no more than forty points. To concede a whopping 83 points bespoke an attitude of surrender. As a friend of mine quipped, the Nigerian players should simply have refused to play, instead indicating that they showed up merely to collect autographs from such US star players as Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony.
The US basketball players got the credit for making heroic history; their Nigerian opponents picked up the discredit for dubious history. One Nigerian player – acknowledging the historic scale of their loss – spoke as if it was an achievement to witness that history.
Yet, it’s unjust to put all blame on the players. Their coach said they were ravaged by injuries and had had little training. That’s not the players’ fault; that’s the fault of a country that permits its public officials to steal every naira, dollar and pound sterling in sight and out of sight.
Two days after raining on Nigeria, the US team came within six minutes of losing to Lithuania. The Lithuanian side demonstrated what’s possible when overmatched (but well-trained) players decide to play with grit, with tenacity, determination and pride.
My hunch is that the main difference between Lithuania’s basketball players and Nigeria’s can be found in the quality of leaders in their respective countries. Nigerian leaders – as President Goodluck Jonathan made bold to tell us recently – don’t give a damn. What Mr. Jonathan knows, but didn’t say in so many words, is that Nigerian leaders give a damn for one sport and one sport only: the corner-cutting rat race to accumulate riches. If greed, indolence and false piety were Olympic events, Nigerians would contend for many, many gold medals.
As at this writing, Kazakhstan, a nation of only 15 million people, had won five medals – all gold, four in weightlifting alone. Anybody who looks at Kazakhstan’s medal haul can deduce that here’s a country that takes weightlifting seriously.
By contrast, Nigeria takes no department of sports seriously. Forget sports, Nigeria takes no sector of development seriously. The luckless populace of Nigerians is not even treated as if they were human.
Nigeria’s president, governors, legislators and local government councilors are some of the most obscenely paid in the world. And this doesn’t count the illicit haul they embezzle day after day. Each month, each of Nigeria’s thirty six governors collects enough cash (in salaries, allowances and the scam called security vote) to pay President Barack Obama’s annual salary seven or more times over. Each month! And yet, the Nigerian president, most of the country’s governors, and virtually all its legislators are certified mediocrities. If they entered a contest for stellar leadership, they’d all be laughed out of the competition, treated as the contemptible jokers they are.
Nigerian officials don’t understand the first thing about leadership. They speak about delivering the dividends of democracy, but the only dividends ever delivered are to their fraudulent bank accounts. They wax about moving their states (or local government area or nation) forward, but fail to specify they mean forward into the deep, jagged precipice. They have no clue how to solve the most basic of problems – and so, with predictable folly, they invoke God.
Let’s take Plateau State. Thousands of residents there have either perished or being displaced by incessant acts of sectarian violence. Yet, the state governor, Jonah Jang, has no ideas how to stem the bloodbath. So what does he do? Last week, he told besieged residents that God had revealed to him that the state’s deadly crisis was ‘‘because of their sins.’’ One newspaper reported that Governor Jang disclosed that he had received “a revelation from God that what has befallen the state was ‘the wrath of God over their sins.’”
And the governor, a former military officer, had a “God-given” solution handy. “I want to call on the youths to stop engaging in drinking alcohol. You should form vigilante groups to climb the rocks and hills to protect women and children in the area from being attacked.” Mr. Jang forgot to add that God summoned him, as He did Moses, atop Mount Horeb to hand him a tablet with the divine decree.
Going by Governor Jang’s bizarre theology, God never gets angry with those who mindlessly loot public funds. But let some young men drink a beer or two, and God flies into a deadly rage. In any annals of true leaders, Mr. Jang’s stipulations would invite nothing but derision. The scandal is that Governor Jang’s nonsensical treatise is the rule, not the exception. Is it any wonder that we fail at tasks that demand mental or physical rigor and preparation?
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