“The world will not respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence.” – Nelson Mandela
They came in their hundreds with high expectations. They thought all the glitter that Nollywood offered was gold. They were expecting world-class transportation. They expected the red carpets to be rolled out for them. They were left frustrated at the realisation that all the talk about Nigeria being the giant of Africa was after all, all talk. They thought we were going to offer them a tournament like the showpiece that the Russians offered the world. Alas, Africa was guilty of expecting too much from its errant brother.
Asaba, a town bordering the Niger River at the crossroads between East and West, has not had this much press since the massacre of hundreds of its male population by the Nigerian forces during the country’s infamous civil war. It came under focus, this time for good, last week as it prepared to host the 21st African Senior Athletics Championships. Hundreds of athletes from across the continent had come in search of medals and qualification spots for the 2018 IAAF Continental Cup. But many were left stranded at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos due to an inability to find connecting flights to Asaba.
Much of the problem, it has emerged, was due to poor communication between visiting teams and the local organising committee (LOC).
There is just one flight to Asaba daily, an Overland Airways ATR 42 plane that carries 48 passengers. It was going to be impossible to manage the sudden increase in human traffic for the event without hiring charter planes for the athletes and officials. How the Confederation of African Athletics awarded such a tournament to a city with obviously very limited flight connections needs to be interrogated considering it must have presented a bid document with full details of transport and logistics infrastructure on offer. The other options were for delegations to fly into neighbouring cities like Benin, Owerri and Port Harcourt and then travel by road to Asaba. We were greeted with scenes of athletes sleeping on the airport floor as well as complaints on social media leading to a public relations nightmare that threatened to derail the other good work done by the organisers.
After the tournament eventually got underway following the postponement of the activities of the morning session of the first day, things moved on smoothly. Much of the 22,000 seats inside the Stephen Keshi Stadium were snapped up by fee-paying spectators who poured in to watch some of Africa’s most famous athletes. It was easily the biggest event to be hosted in that city since it became capital of the oil-rich Delta State in 1991. The beautiful Stephen Keshi Stadium, named after one of Nigeria’s greatest and most enigmatic football figures, was lit up by the event. Following years of abandonment, the stadium finally welcomed Africa for its first major event.
Despite the smooth flow of proceedings after the difficulties suffered by several delegations, the tournament will unfortunately always be remembered by the flight problems faced by the visiting delegations. It is normal, bad news travels fast. Nigeria’s reputation as a country that is capable of hosting international events was, unfortunately, terribly dented. But who is to blame? Can one really host a perfect tournament in our country as it is? There is hardly any existing infrastructure to support any sector of endeavour, not the least sport. One of the main conversations among many Nigerian journalists during the 2018 World Cup was the idea of Nigeria hosting the tournament one day. We came to the conclusion that it can only be a distant dream.
Where is the transportation system to power the movement of hundreds of thousands of people that would visit to support their teams? Where are the hotel rooms to lodge guests? Where are the standard restaurants for them to wine and dine? Where is the electricity to power all the technology? A country where our two national stadia are comatose? Asaba is just a tip of the iceberg. We know our problems, unfortunately many people looking from outside do not see it.
For a country of our size and so-called potential, it is no wonder that our African brothers and sisters cried out at the poor manner in which they were treated. It is not their fault. They expected better from us and were left disappointed that the “big brother” of the continent struggled to get things right. Many countries with lesser resources have sadly left us behind. Rwanda and Morocco hosted the last two African Nations Championships with glowing reviews from all the journalists that attended. Cameroon put up a brilliant World Cup qualifier against us in Yaounde last year. South Africa hosted a brilliant World Cup. But Nigeria will remain what it is, a place where logic fails and hired pens try to justify it.
Weep not for Nigeria, O Africa, for we should no longer be the yardstick for judging your progress. Unlike Mr Mandela, I think Africa can become a place of progress and respect as long as Nigeria no longer tries to get in the way. It is the sad reality.