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Tuesday, 01 August 2023 07:45

[OPINION] Allen Onyema, NIIA and The Sports Wall of Fame - Reuben Abati

One of the major sore points in the Nigerian story has been the negative role played by non-state actors in the making and the unmaking of Nigeria – those characters who drag the country back and down, those who seize state assets, those who steal our crude oil, the merchants of death and disgrace who denigrate and devalue the Nigerian green passport and collective humanity but there are also many non-state actors whose actions project the nation positively, reminding us that in the midst of the increasing mass psychosis in our land, the blood of humaneness still runs in some veins.

 

In this category, you would find the philanthropists – the men and women who give back to society and whose actions confront the rest of us with strong intimations of what it means to be human- Femi Otedola, Michael Adenuga, Aliko Dangote, Jim Ovia, Tony Elumelu, Mrs Folorunso Alakija, Otunba Subomi Balogun, now of blessed memory, Florence Otedola (DJ Cuppy), David Adeleke (Davido) and so on. While some of them may be associated with the state either directly or by proxy, a common link is the fact that they have shown a consistent pattern to identify with the downtrodden, the underprivileged, the poor and the down and out in society. I would place into this category the genuine non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are doing quality work as a bridge between state and society, certainly not those camouflage, profit-seeking NGOs that do more harm than good and whose clandestine purpose is to access donor funding for selfish reasons. They know themselves. It would be a most useful academic exercise someday to inquire into the role of non-state actors, in a comprehensive, detailed and objective manner to locate their roles properly within the matrix of nation-building: the diverse personas involved, ideologies and complexities, reach, influence and impact.

 

I have tried to draw attention to this as I reflect on my attendance at two events on Friday, July 28, namely, the Air Peace/NIIA Sports Diplomacy Wall of Fame which took place in two parts: a morning event titled “The 4th Conversation: From Olympic Boycotts to Hosting the World – West Africa’s March to FIFA 2034”, which held at the premises of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) at Kofo Abayomi, Victoria Island, Lagos and in the evening, the Investiture of Air Peace Sports Diplomacy Ambassadors, at the Eko Hotel and Suites, also in Victoria Island Lagos. The key objective was to honour Nigeria’s 1976 Olympics team and the 1980 Green Eagles African Cup of Nations (AFCON) Team. I had more than one reason to be at both events, but the part that is directly relevant to this review is the fact that I am an Associate Fellow of the NIIA, which by the way earned me a reserved seat in the front row. But to return to my earlier point about positively-oriented non-state actors, I begin by drawing attention to the fact that both events were supported and sponsored by Mr. Allen Onyema and his company, the airline known as Air Peace.

 

Onyema and his team, with the support of consultants – Chief Segun Odegbami, Z-Edge Consulting’s Kikelomo Atanda-Owo and others came up with a plan to honour the men and women who could not participate in the 1976 Montreal Olympics in Canada, because of the decision by African countries to boycott the Olympics. The boycott was as a result of the apartheid politics in South Africa and especially New Zealand’s Rugby tour of South Africa at the time. African countries chose to boycott the 1976 Olympics because the organizing body allowed New Zealand to participate in the Olympics. Africa had made it clear that it would not participate in the Olympics if New Zealand, openly supporting the racist, apartheid government in South Africa was allowed to participate. African leaders made good their word. Nigeria went to the Olympics but it was the first country to leave, followed by Kenya. In total, 27 African countries boycotted the Olympics. Their exit almost crashed the 1976 Olympics, and the city of Montreal, the host city alone lost over $2 billion. But the point was made. The protesting countries had made an ideological point: racism was unacceptable especially as the Olympics was being held shortly after the 1976 Soweto massacre which resulted in the death of over 100 persons. It was one special moment in African history when Africans spoke with one voice even if two countries- Senegal and Ivory Coast went ahead to participate. The effect of the boycott was that many of the athletes who had prepared so much to compete and shine at the event had their dreams aborted. They had to make the sacrifice because of the choice made by their countries. Filbert Bayi of Tanzania who had been Commonwealth Games and world record holder in 1500 metres, who was looking forward to the Olympics in 1976 was denied the dream of participation. He was in Nigeria at the Friday events. So was Ron Freeman, US Olympics world record holder in 4 X 400 metres relay.

 

The whole idea was to honour the heroes from Nigeria who did not even get a chance to participate in the 1976 Olympics because Nigeria had taken an ideological position, from a foreign policy end on apartheid in South Africa. The other set of honorees were members of the 1980 Green Eagles squad that won the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) for Nigeria. It was a team that brought glory to Nigeria and unified the nation. On Friday, the joint forces of Allen Onyema’s Air Peace and the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs came together to honour and iconize these forgotten, under-appreciated heroes. It was a beautiful town and gown collaboration, signposting useful lessons in private sector, non-state actor participation in nation building, and the value of soft, sports diplomacy and the expansive scope of an intellectual think tank like the NIIA. Allen Onyema provided the funds and the logistics. NIIA gave it an intellectual cover and allure and provided the grounds for actual and useful historification.

 

As I did before in this same column with the examples of Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Femi Otedola, Tony Elumelu, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and Otunba Mike Adenuga, I recommend Allen Onyema for special commendation. Many would remember him as the entrepreneur who continues to use his wealth to support helpless Nigerians. When Nigerians were stranded in South Africa due to xenophobic attacks in September 2019, he sent his aircraft to South Africa at no cost to bring the distressed Nigerians back home, without collecting a kobo from the Nigerian government. In 2020, at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, many Nigerians were stranded in many parts of the world, Onyema again dispatched his aircraft to rescue persons and deliver relief materials at no cost to the persons or government. Again in 2023, when crisis erupted in Sudan, Allen Onyema sent aircraft to Egypt to evacuate stranded Nigerians. At every point, he keeps showing that legacy creation is more important than the creation of wealth for profit motives. He told the audience at the NIIA on Friday, July 28, that he is motivated by love of nation, not wealth. “I cannot go to the grave with my wealth. It is better to use what we have to help our country and build a legacy”, he said. He got a standing ovation. He also received fulsome praise from Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, former DG of the NIIA (1975-83), and former Minister of External Affairs (1985 -87) who described him as “a noble Nigerian with generosity in his DNA” ” and further from Professor Eghosa Osaghae of NIIA who described Allen Onyema as a man who is “redrawing the contours of non-state actors.”

 

The irony is that this same Onyema who was the star at the NIIA last Friday has not been properly honoured by his country. His love for Nigeria remains unrequited and yet he keeps doing more. His name originally appeared in one of those last-minute National Honours List by the Buhari administration, but it was eventually removed before the event. It must be that some clowns in the corridors of power thought he didn’t deserve to be so honoured and probably smuggled their own unknown, less deserving names onto the list and they now parade themselves as persons worthy of recognition. Nigeria is a country where the thieves get the crown, and the more honest people are turned into spectators. When people are asked to give to their country, it is only fair to expect the country to appreciate them in return. Onyema is probably too modest to demand the recognition that he deserves.

 

His joint operation with the NIIA in the area of sports diplomacy is pointedly the catalyst for this review. He and the NIIA at the risk of sounding repetitive have done so well, and I must now add to the commendation list Professor Eghosa Osaghae, an absolutely brilliant scholar, teacher and author who since his assumption of office as DG NIIA (2021) has transformed that place, and reinvented it as an intellectual power house for Nigeria. NIIA is Nigeria’s equivalent of Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, or Chatham House as it is more commonly known, and America’s Council of Foreign Relations (CFR). These bodies do research, think for government and recommend policies. The NIIA has had an illustrious history under the watch of Dr Lawrence Fabunmi, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Professor Gabriel Olusanya, Professor George Obiozor, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, Professor Joy Ogwu, Professor Osita Eze, Professor Bola Akinterinwa and others, but Professor Eghosa Osaghae has brought a new dynamism to the place. For a while, NIIA became an events venue for book presentations, birthday lectures and all kinds of NGO events, a watering hole for photographers and people selling all kind of things, but Eghosa Osaghae has cleaned up “his father’s place” and restored it to its original glory established by “NIIA ancestors” like Professor Akinyemi who correctly stood in for President Olusegun Obasanjo as Chair of the occasion and did an excellent job of it.

 

Osaghae is a product of the finest tradition of scholarship, the Ibadan School of Political Science and he has in the course of his career distinguished himself as a teacher, prolific scholar, orator and administrator. His outlier qualities were on display on July 28 to the benefit of the institution that he leads. NIIA now has a transformed courtyard where there is a wall of fame, honouring all the heroes who missed the 1976 Olympic because they had to make a sacrifice and respect their country’s resolve to stand against apartheid in South Africa, and the 1980 Green Eagles who won the 1980 African Cup of Nations. The names of these heroes are now forever enshrined in a wall of fame at the NIIA courtyard. It is a long list – names like Modupe Oshikoya, Gloria Ayanlaja, Benjamin Omodhiale, Taiwo Ogunjobi, John Okoro, Chuks Abigide, Bruce Ijirigho, Dele Udoh, Dennis Otono, Emmanuel Okala, Joseph Erico, Mudashiru Lawal, Christian Chukwu, Godwin Odiye, Haruna Ilerika, Sanni Mohammed, Samuel Ojebode, Kunle Awesu, Segun Odegbami, Adokiye Amaesimeka, Sylvanus Okpala, Shefiu Mohammed, Baba Otu Mohammed, Felix Owolabi, David Adiele, Henry Nwosu, Okey Isima, Charles Bassey, Obisia Nwakpa, Davidson Andeh --- a long list of 57 names! Those names are now emblazoned forever on a wall of fame at Nigeria’s Institute of International Affairs, turning that foreign think-tank into a tourist/intellectual centre under Professor Osaghae’s watch.

 

The other high point at the morning event was the keynote address by Professor Idy Uyoe who gave a thrilling, engaging presentation on the theme of the day. He took us through the history of the apartheid, racist regime in South Africa and why Africans had to stand up in support of their long-suffering brothers in South Africa, the 1976 boycott of the Olympics, the heroic 1980 Green Eagles as the Super Eagles were formerly known, and then the question which he posed and answered: Is it possible to bring the FIFA World Cup to West Africa in 2034, and how? Uyoe kept us glued to our seats and the screen, the first event in the NIIA 4th Conversation series. It is most apposite that the organizers have started with such an important theme as the value of sports as a tool of soft diplomacy, but more importantly, the need to recognize the contributions of the nation’s sports heroes. In Nigeria, sports heroes are rarely remembered. Jerry Okorodudu, 1994 USA Olympics star died recently. His corpse was seized for a few days because his family could not pay a certain N600, 000 hospital bill. In 2019, multi-billionaire, Mr. Femi Otedola had to pay the medical bills of former international and coach, Peter Fregene. He also did the same for Christian Chukwu, who by the way was at the events on Friday in Lagos, looking good, now ageing well. Nigeria’s sports heroes deserve better treatment.

 

The more telling import of the day’s event was driven home at the evening investiture event of Air Peace Sports Diplomacy Ambassadors at the Eko Hotel and Suites. Having been duly told that pepper soup and jollof rice would be served aplenty, I showed up and stayed till after midnight. The intellectual part having been dispensed with during the day, Air Peace and Allen Onyema rolled out the drums. It was a night of fun, fest, felicity and feferity to celebrate our heroes past and the living legends that through sports did Nigeria proud. Many of them were in attendance physically, those who had passed were represented by family members. Time has passed. The year 1976 was 47 years ago. It has been 43 years ago since Nigeria won the Cup of Nations. Half of the heroes that were in the hall could not climb the stairs to the stage. Quite a few relied on walking sticks for mobility. It was an emotional moment. These were the same athletes who broke records in the prime of their time. These were the same footballers who once upon a time shut down the city anytime they played at the National Stadium and inspired the flowery, poetic genius of sports commentators like Ernest Okonkwo and Ishola Folorunsho. The best of them looked truly like time has passed. Allen Onyema and Air Peace gave them plaques of honour, decorated them with sashes of honour, gave them a cash gift of N1.5 million each, and free air tickets on Air Peace to their chosen destinations locally and internationally. There were mushy tears of joy! Oh, what a night, made even more memorable with interlude performances by Timi Dakolo, the Extreme Dancers, Chief Ebenezer Obey Fabiyi, KCee and Ludareh Music. There was a lot to eat and drink.

 

Nigeria has an obligation to become a country that looks out for its best in all disciplines and provides for them even when they are past their prime, and this can be best done, through collaborations with the private sector. There are many more to honour. Well done, NIIA. Thank you, Air Peace.

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