I pass by this beautiful and titanic edifice daily. In 2003 when it was completed in time for the All Africa Games tagged Comite d’Organisation des jeux Africaine (COJA), I went into it to watch a number of events.
COJA 2003 was very much attended by the public and some of the athletes from some of the more serious nations complained that they could have done better if there was a regular crowd to cheer. What they did not know was that they were rehearsing for a day like this, when the COVID-19 pandemic will necessitate empty stadiums around the world. Thankfully, the world has fought back and many stadiums are now getting filled up every weekend.
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I love going to stadiums for several reasons, and I believe there are millions of people like me, even in Nigeria. It is not about the hooliganism that comes with watching live football matches and other sports. Visiting stadiums also encourages one to try and be fit. And in many parts of the developed world, they are a huge tourist attraction. There are hotels in some stadiums where fans stay for convenience.
The Abuja National Stadium, now renamed MKO Abiola Stadium, was perhaps destined for its current fate. In 2003 when COJA opened, enthusiasts like me sometimes had to fight to enter the stadium. There was no clearly laid down protocol about how to access the stadium decently. The organisers of the event “thought” it was all about ensuring VIP access. The masses sometimes had to scale the fence to get in. There was a spot where people went in under the fence. For a long time, that initial snobbery shown to ordinary folks made them totally boycott the stadium.
Now, a handful of Abuja residents utilise the indoor wing, which itself has become quite dilapidated despite intermittent renovations.
I came across a comprehensive report on stadiums in Nigeria in Daily Trust of Saturday October 10, 2021, that made me shed for our country. Anyhow, there was also a scandal around the cost of the project as at then. Initial contract cost was $350m (N38bn; today it is N144bn officially), but eventually more than 150 per cent of the contract sum was spent. The edifice, built by Bouygues and Julius Berger, with the Chinese company, CCECC, playing a minor role, had so many other controversies that trailed it. The best materials in the world were used though, and it was a solid project located at the entrance of the city – a decision that may prove problematic in time even if what I am suggesting here gets done – but the neglect it is suffering leaves much to be desired.
The Abuja stadium – that is what I shall call it until something happens that merits the change of name to honour Chief MKO Abiola – has seen its fair share of scandals, notably from the usual neglect. After years of not knowing what to do with the facility, especially the main bowl, upon completion, the Ministry of Sports – or whoever was in charge – decided that it would be a fantastic idea to rent it out to churches for crusades. After a few weekends of much pounding as church goers stamped out the devil on the pitch, the place started to look like a the scalp of a patient with a bad case of alopecia. Nigerians complained when they saw what crusades had done to their number one stadium. So, the ministry stopped. The stadium was then abandoned altogether for a couple of years. Reptiles took over, and the weed and grass in the grounds of the facility became overgrown. Trees even grew on the pitch; yes. real trees!
The pictures came out, and since then every sports minister has tried to ensure things do not get that bad anymore.
Of recent, we heard that Aliko Dangote is helping with total renovation at another great cost. The velodrome – I wonder who thought that that was a great idea for our clime – used to house the 90,000 cooking stoves that President Goodluck Jonathan purchased for poverty alleviation and environmental management, but which he could not deploy as he would have wanted because he lost the 2015 election. I used to see the stoves when I braved it and took my exercise routine to the wonderful stadium some years back. I got a great buzz from going there and even running on the tartan tracks. It is a great place for an enthusiastic family over the weekend.
Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare, is an energetic man and has also stamped his authority. I believe the President of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Gianni Infantino, was in town recently and must have been shown the renovations that Dare’s team had performed there. Apart from our unpardonable and world’s worst security crisis, most tournaments avoid Nigeria because of the parlous state of our facilities.
In fact, there was a fiasco at an African athletics meet in Asaba some years ago concerning facilities, including accomodation, where many athletes swore that they would never come to Nigeria again.
Therefore, I suggest that the Ministry of Sports or whoever is in charge, should struggle and fill up the stadium with sporting activities all year round. It will not be easy. They would probably need a marketing company, but must be careful that the usual Nigerian bribery problem which leads to over inflation and thus failure of contracts does not take over.
Ultimately, the entire facility will have to be handed over to a facility management company, even though Nigeria has given a bad name to Public Private Partnership (PPP) as private companies always max out while demands for huge bribes (which I understand sometimes goes as high as 70 per cent of project cost) ruin the best ideas right from the beginning.
The model of Wembley Stadium, Britain’s prime stadium, is worth emulating, and it is a good development that the minister has now moved his office to the stadium. Still, the large premises, when last I drove past, is overgrown. Is it that we cannot manage such a facility to the world’s delight, or are we really undeserving of such infrastructure?
The challenge for the Abuja stadium, therefore, is to find what will occupy activities there. Given that such facilities are better maintained when used than when locked up, the minister could consider hosting some local teams in the main bowl maybe twice a month. When I mooted this idea somewhere, someone said the stadium is not successful because Abuja is a civil service town. That is now far from the truth. Kidnappings and terrorism have pushed millions of people into Abuja permanently in the last 10 years. Therefore, many residents of Abuja today are not even aware of the facilities inside the two wings of the stadium. If Sunday Dare wants to score a point, he should strive for this. We know that the moment a new minister appears, every old idea is jettisoned. Abuja stadium has been one of the worst victims of policy discontinuity, bad planning, and the usual elite snobbery of the masses. But that can change.