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The Super Eagles’ shocking home defeat against the Congolese Red Devils on September 6, 2014, which ended the country’s 46-match unbeaten home record in Afcon qualifiers, may have raised fresh questions concerning Nigeria’s dominance of African football, but the salient fallout of the match could be the suitability of stadium facility where the game was played.
While the below-the-average performance of the reigning African champions against the lowly ranked Congolese team has drawn widespread criticisms, eye-brows were equally raised over the choice of a less than 15,000 capacity U.J. Esuene Stadium, Calabar as the venue of such a crucial match.
To many observers, that Nigeria, a country with two iconic stadia of 61,000 and 55,000 capacities each in its two major cities — Lagos and Abuja — had made the less than 15,000 capacity U.J. Esuene Stadium in a sparsely populated city of Calabar, the preferred venue for hosting the country’s high-profile international matches remains a puzzling and embarrassing development. “It is rather shocking that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous, richest and largest economy now hosts its international matches in a stadium that is easily adjudged the smallest, in terms of capacity and poorest, in terms of standard of facilities,” declared Mr. Akinwunmi Kings, a sports analyst.
Benedictus Osakwe, who watched the game in Calabar added a clincher: “I don’t believe the U.J. Esuene Stadium should be the best stadium in Nigeria. If that is the case, then it is a shame on Nigeria’s sport administrators. With the level of civilisation and global recognition, I think Nigeria should boast five good stadia that are properly maintained to host any kind of international match.”
Coincidentally, when Nigeria faced South Africa inside the magnificent Cape Town Stadium with about 32,400 crowds four days later, the difference in quality of the facility and organization between the two continental giants was wide apart. “Anybody who watched Nigeria’s match against South Africa as well as other Afcon qualifying matches so far could easily see the remarkable difference between our stadium and others. Of all the match venues, Nigeria’s U.J. Esuene Stadium Calabar had the smallest and one of the poorest turfs. On the other hand, South Africa’s was world-class, and that simply is a shame on Nigeria which claims to be Africa’s giant,” Mr. Samsudeen Balogun, a Lagos-based public servant said.
The question many analysts and observers are grappling with remains: why has U.J. Esuene Stadium become Nigeria’s choice venue for hosting high-profile international matches while the country has two grand stadia in Abuja and Lagos as well as in other cities? The answer is not far-fetched. Clearly, it is due to poor maintenance of all the national stadia facilities across the country. So, the Calabar stadium has the best facility to play host to the senior national team’s home matches at the moment.
The U.J. Esuene Stadium, Calabar has been designated a safe-haven for the Super Eagles since the Abuja National Stadium playing surface damaged beyond internationally accepted standard in 2012. The Calabar Stadium has become the preferred choice because of its better natural grass surface and the massive support of the Cross River State government. The Super Eagles played its home matches for both the 2013 Nations Cup qualifiers and the World Cup 2014 qualifiers in Calabar while the female national team honours its home games in places such as Ijebu- Ode and Abeokuta both in Ogun State.
Abuja Stadium renovation scam
When the then Minister of Sports and Chairman, National Sports Commission (NSC) Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi raised alarm over the poor state of infrastructure at the Abuja National Stadium in September 2012 at the Federal Executive Council meeting, the news was received with shock in many quarters. The multi-purpose sporting complex built at a staggering cost of $360 million (N38 billion) in 2003 to host the 8th edition of the All African Games in Abuja had suffered unprecedented decay in less than 10 years. “The disclosure that the multi-billion naira edifice has been allowed to degenerate into such state of disrepair in less than 10 years of completion was the height of poor maintenance culture and official negligence”, lamented Mr. Ismaila Sani, an Abuja-based sports commentator. According to him, it speaks volume of the level of corruption and impunity in Nigeria as well as government’s disdain for maintaining public facilities.
Shortly after Abdullahi’s alarm, the federal government quickly set up an ad-hoc committee made up of the Minister of Sports; the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the F.C.T Minister, Senator Bala Mohammed and then Minister of National Planning, Dr. Shamsudeen Usman, with a mandate to come up with strategies on the renovation and management of the Abuja stadium.
Although, not much was heard about the outcome of the committee’s task afterwards, many people were relieved when the Presidency disclosed in January 2013 that it had awarded a N96.6 million contract of refurbishing the main bowl of the stadium to the construction giant, Julius Berger Nigeria Plc.
The contract details specified that Julius Berger would undertake the removal and replacement of the top soil of the pitch, planting of the approved species of grass, watering and nourishing of the grass until roots are established and maintenance of the pitch, including the putting in place of watering and trimming system in the national stadium.
Signs that the stadium renovation project was destined for a major scandal began to emerge following speculations that the actual amount government voted for the repair of the facility was N36 billion and not the N96.6 million that was officially quoted. And despite the eye-brows raised over the actual amount spent on the project, it was the failure to complete the project on schedule that first drew public attention to the renovation scam.
In spite of the promise made by the then Sports Minister (Bolaji Abdullahi) that the stadium would be completed by the end of May 2013 so that it would be used for the Super Eagles’ 2014 World Cup qualifying matches as from June, it was not until September 17, 2013 that it was declared ready. And the bubble burst during the grand ceremony staged by the government for the official ‘hand-over’ of the refurbished stadium.
Thousands of spectators who thronged the magnificent stadium for the showpiece could not believe the ill-omened twist as what began as a thrilling afternoon turned sour when it started raining midway. As a result of the rain, the shoddy job purportedly done on the dilapidated main bowl of the national stadium began to unravel. “The pitch became flooded, showing that the drainage was worse off after the job,” said Mr. Nicholas Uwerunonye, a sports analyst who monitored the event.
He explained that it was an unpleasant experience for the Golden Eaglets and Amakson Soccer Academy who played a friendly match as part of events marking the handover of the sporting arena as both teams had to wade through pools of water on the pitch to kick the ball.
Apart from the disappointment of the water-logged pitch, the evening’s entertainment was ruined by the poor state of the floodlights and disruption of power supply. “It was obvious that the quality of work done was very poor and possibly not up to the amount of money government quoted. Most disappointing was the failure to address the problem of frequent power outage at the stadium during the renovation period,” declared Miss Uju Obiora, one of the spectators that witnessed the ceremony.
While the authorities were trying to douse the hoopla raised over the ill-fated refurbished Abuja stadium hand-over ceremony, the House of Representatives Committee on Sports went for a surprise oversight visit to the facility, and subsequently declared the renovation work done at the pitch ‘unsatisfactory’. The House committee led by Godfrey Gaiya also declared the N96.6 million purportedly used for the re-grassing of the pitch as “doubtful”.
According to Gaiya, the committee found it strange that after carrying out renovation work with such a staggering amount of public fund, the pitch was still waterlogged. He said that the dilapidated state of the Abuja National Stadium cannot be compared with the U.J. Esuene Stadium in Calabar. “I was in Calabar and it rained for three days non-stop before the match and you cannot compare Calabar that is in tropical environment to Abuja that is in the Savannah where rain is lighter. So, if it rained in Calabar for three days when Nigeria played Malawi and I never saw anything like waterlogged spot, why should ordinary drizzling cause water ponds on the renovated Abuja pitch,” Gaiya queried.
Barely a month after the lawmakers passed a vote of ‘no confidence’ on the refurbished stadium, Super Eagles Coach, Stephen Keshi also criticized the pitch, declaring it unsuitable to host the crucial World Cup final round qualifier against Ethiopia.“From what I saw, it is a sandy pitch and it is hard; it will be very difficult for the players to play on it, especially the goalkeepers because it is sharp sand. And if it rains, I think the pitch will be water-logged,’’ Keshi had said.
Dilapidation of Lagos National Stadium
As startling as the gradual degradation of the Abuja National Stadium facility due to lack of maintenance may seem, the current derelict state of the National Stadium Surulere, Lagos remains an example of Nigeria’s poor maintenance culture and official negligence of sports development. Until the Abuja National Stadium was constructed in 2003, the multi-sports complex with 55,000 seating capacity remained the only state-of-the-art sporting facility in the country and the venue for high-profile sporting events, especially football matches.
However, soon after Abuja stadium became the official national stadium, the Lagos stadium was abandoned. Built in 1972 at the cost of N12 million to host the 1973 All African Games; and renovated in 1999 to host the FIFA Under 17 World Cup, the National Stadium, Lagos was sealed off in 2004 after hosting the LG Cup tournament, due to its state of disrepair.
Since then, the facility has become an occasional venue for religious or socio-cultural events as well as serving as a sanctuary for street urchins (Area Boys) and squatters. Mr. Martins Osaile, a boxing promoter, said that the stadium has also turned to prostitutes’ rendezvous, with government officials taking home the proceeds. “The National Stadium, Lagos has been turned to a brothel. Someone there built rooms all around the place and it is prostitutes patronising the place. They (officials) know about what is going on but they don’t care because they hire the place to people, he disclosed.”
With the facilities in shambles, athletes and teams who throng the venue for training daily have been abandoned to their fate. Lolade Adewuyi, a sports writer, is of the view that the National Stadium Surulere is not a place where one might find medal prospects among athletes due to the shambolic state of the facility. “But the athletes try their best, they train without adequate equipment. They keep throwing the javelins without measuring equipment to gauge their progress. They keep running on bad tracks in hopes that they would break world records someday. They keep pushing their bodies to the limits in hope of future sporting glory”, she wrote.
Return to status quo
Perhaps, nobody could have predicted correctly that less than a year after the Abuja National Stadium, refurbished with about N97 million was officially unveiled with great fanfare, the multi-sports facility would be adjudged unsuitable to host international matches.
But the decision of the government to host the country’s 2015 Afcon qualifiers home match against Congo in Calabar instead of Abuja seemed to have confirmed the long-held suspicion in many quarters over the scandalous stadium renovation project. Although, the choice of U.J. Esuene Stadium with about 12,000 seating capacity as Super Eagles’ preferred home-venue in recent times has been largely greeted with media silence, critics view it as a tacit admission that federal government can no longer maintain any of its sports facilities.
“It is a shame that Nigeria which has two massive stadia in Abuja and Lagos, two most important cities now hosts its important national and international matches in smaller stadiums like U.J. Esuene owned by state government simply because the facilities are not properly maintained,” Mr. John Edoki, a sports fan said.
Despite federal government spending up to N180 million annually to maintain the six stadia (Abuja and Lagos national stadia; Ahmadu Bello stadium Kaduna, Obafemi Awolowo Stadium Ibadan, Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium Enugu and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Stadium, Bauchi) built and owned on 100 percent equity, the facilities have remained in poor standard. Having struggled to maintain the facilities, even at exorbitant maintenance budget, the Presidency early in 2013 had declared its intention to concession the two mega national stadia in the country, Lagos and Abuja.
According to Abdullahi, government had to take the option of concessioning its two mega stadia as well as begging state governments to take over the remaining four because it could no longer maintain the facilities.
More than 16 months after government kick-started the move to concession the stadia to the private sector, not much progress has been recorded so far, a development many blame on the high-level corruption in the system.
Federal government has directed that the remaining Super Eagles’ Afcon 2015 qualifying matches, against Sudan and South Africa be played at the National Stadium Abuja following complaints over the poor standard of the U.J. Esuene Stadium, Calabar.