The Abuja National Stadium, renamed MKO Abiola National Stadium, had hitherto been left to rot due to lack of maintenance by the federal government. Interestingly, in 2019, renewed efforts orchestrated by Africa’s richest man and business mogul, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, to revive the main bowl of the once glittering edifice commenced but after several months, deadlines have come and gone but the renovation work continues at snail pace.
In 2003, the Federal Government under the then President Olusegun Obasanjo made a very bold statement when it spent $360m (N53bn) to build a world class sporting facility in preparations to host the largest ever All Africa Games.
- Bello lauds Buhari for making HYPADEC functional after 11 years
- Presidency: Mbaka distressed because Buhari denied him contracts
Sitting on 72 acres of land, the stadium houses several facilities such as 60,491 capacity covered main bowl, 3,000 capacity indoor sports hall, 2000 capacity gymnasium, 2000 capacity swimming pool amongst others.
However, over the years, the national stadium had morphed from a monument of national pride to a site of national embarrassment. The sprawling edifice became home for the destitute, den for criminals as well as a fertile ground for grazing by herdsmen.
The facilities were not spared as the main bowl was overgrown with weeds, electrical wirings and cables for cameras disconnected and stolen, just as roofs of some of the buildings literally caved in.
However, the decision of the present Minister of Youth and Sports, Mr. Sunday Dare, in September 2019 to make use of part of the stadium as his office, raised hopes of revival for the nearly abandoned edifice.
The relocation of his office to a large extent ‘opened his eyes’ to the varying degrees of dilapidation in the stadium and thus necessitating the process of revival to reclaim the lost glory of the once magnificent national edifice. And he began with efforts at restoring the football pitch.
In September 2019, he revealed that Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, had accepted to renovate the main bowl and work was going to begin in the following two weeks.
“Yes, Abuja is coming back up. Already, we have gotten Dangote. I can say that he has agreed to bring back the Abuja football pitch, the light and scoreboard. Work will start in another one week or two weeks,” he had disclosed.
But to the disappointment of expectant Nigerians who had waited to see the stadium return to its glory days, the renovation never took place as he promised.
Few months after, precisely in June 2020, Dare said he could not stampede the renovation as funds for the project would be coming from a private individual.
“We were on the verge of completing the documentation process before the novel COVID-19 struck and we had to shut down the whole country, a global shutdown as the case may be.
“Remember, it’s a private investment, private support from Alhaji Dangote’s company and they have to go through a lot of processes. They have to invite up to eight different contractors. They have to visit the stadium, turn in their bill of quantity and they have to sit on a review board.
“The company also has to decide on which contractor is the most suitable to give us the best job, being the National stadium, all of these take time, they are normal standard operating processes,” he said.
However, with grey areas sorted out, on August 27, 2020, the federal government officially flagged off and handed over the pitch of the Moshood Abiola National Stadium Abuja to the Dangote Group, for the commencement of the facility’s rehabilitation to be carried out by Aron Nigeria Limited, a Lagos-based Construction Company.
According to a statement issued from the media office of the Minister of sports, the rehabilitation was to be completed in 24 weeks with February 2021 as the deadline.
Speaking at the handing over ceremony, Dare asserted that the promise made on the assumption of office that the pitch and indeed other facilities will be revived, is in line with the ministry’s policy of Adopt a facility campaign.
“I promised that this pitch and indeed other facilities will be revived and put to best use by athletes. In line with that mandate, we sought the support of many philanthropists and sold them our vision of bringing back the glory days when our national stadia were filled to capacity on football game
days which were the melting pot of various cultures and people of all ages,” said Dare.
The pitch, which is located at the Package A section of the stadium, can host 60,491 fans. Unfortunately, in recent years, that has not been the case as the stadium was abandoned and facilities allowed to waste away as earlier stated.
Instead of hosting football matches, the main bowl hosted many cultural and religious events, as well as the tragic recruitment into the Nigeria Immigration Service in 2014 where at least 19 people were killed and dozens injured.
Consequently, when the deal with Dangote was signed and sealed, stakeholders who desperately wanted the stadium to be put to proper use heaved a sigh of relief.
Thus, expectations were high when it was announced that apart from regrassing of the main bowl, the arena would be fitted with modern facilities. For instance, the scoreboards are to be completely changed to modern ones that will be Video Assistant Referee, VAR, complaint.
Interestingly, while Nigerians waited with bated breaths for the rebirth of the stadium, a top official of the construction company told Trust Sports in an exclusive chat in March 2020 that his organisation was on course to meet up with the February 2021 deadline as agreed with the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development.
The official who spoke off record revealed how they were planning to re-grass the playing pitch and also install the two scoreboards in September.
However, the federal government and contractor could not meet up with the February 2021 deadline as widely reported. It was indeed the first disappointment and bad signal that Nigerians would have to wait longer than necessary for the renovation work to be completed.
The Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare, then met again with the press in March 2021 to announce that the renovation deadline had been shifted to June.
He said “The ongoing rehabilitation work at the Moshood Abiola National Stadium undertaken by Alhaji Aliko Dangote and the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, courtesy of Chief Adebutu Kensington will soon be completed.
“We started by ejecting illegal occupants, cleared illegal structures to bring out the beauty of the edifice which is comparable to any top stadium in the world. By the schedule of the contractors, the rehabilitation will be completed by June,” he said.
And in April, the Executive Director of the company, Adeniji Adesoji, told journalists in Abuja that the delay in delivering the project within the 24 weeks of the award of the contract as promised, was due to COVID-19.
“We should have completed the project and handed it over by now, but we had issues with COVID-19, because the main pitch itself required us bringing hybrid seeds from America and that affected us.
“The scoreboards, with all the components, were to be imported from Europe; that also affected us,” he said.
He also acknowledged the Minister of Sports’ announcement of June deadline for his company to hand over the MKO Abiola stadium.
However, checks by Trust Sports have revealed that contrary to the claims by both the ministry and the contractors, neither the pitch nor the score boards have been fixed, leaving many to wonder if the June deadline would be met.
Our reporter observed during his visit to the site that the old grasses have been completely removed off the pitch just as efforts were on to plant new one. It was also noticed that the old scoreboards were completely dismantled.
However, there was no sign of new scoreboard equipment either being assembled or parked somewhere just as there were no construction workers on the site when our reporter visited.
The above scenario has no doubt raised concerns that even the new deadline of June may not be feasible, thereby dashing any hopes of Abuja residents watching international football matches at the stadium in the near future.
When contacted on phone, Adesoji said the pitch has been laid with the imported grass and within the next two weeks, they will go back and do some weeding.
He also said the ultra modern scoreboards to be installed were at the port and will arrive Abuja from next week for immediate installation.
Adesoji, therefore, assured that the June deadline will not be missed.
“We have fitted the pitch with pure dynasty paspalum. There is no one on ground because the grass is still growing but we have installed automatic sprinklers. We wet the grass in the morning and at night.
“We have to wait for the grass to grow before we start weeding. You know there is no way there won’t be weed. In the next two weeks, we should start weeding.
“The scoreboards should be cleared by next week. They are already at the ports,” he said.
These were words of assurance from the contractors but going by what is on ground, it would take incurable optimism to believe that the MKO Abiola stadium Abuja will be ready for use in June.
This is because there is still so much to be done to meet up with the June deadline as given by both the sports minister and the contractors.
Meanwhile, it will be recalled that the last competitive football match played at the Abuja national stadium was on April 12, 2016 which was the 2nd leg of the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations qualifier between the Super Falcons and Senegal.
And the last major sporting event held at the stadium was the National Sports Festival in 2019. After that, no significant event that is sports related has taken place at the once breath-taking sports edifice.