AFCON 2023: Why Can’t Nigeria Be Like Super Eagles?

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The Insight by Lateef Adewole

Firstly, let me congratulate the Super Eagles and all Nigerians for reaching the final stage of the ongoing AFCON 2023 tournament. It is a place well deserved, with the efforts that our national team players and coaching crew members have put into the tournament, both on and off the pitch, since it started four weeks ago, on January 13, 2024. Some wondered why it is being referred to as AFCON 2023 when it is being played in 2024, the situation can be likened to a ‘carry-over’, as it is referred to in the higher institutions of learning.

Sincerely, this year’s AFCON has been eventful, with so many surprises. Like the Yorubas would say “ni ibi t’igi gbigbe ti n duro, igi tutu n wo da nu” (where trees that are fresh and well-rooted are falling, ones that are dried-up are still standing). Such is the irony of life. No one can predict what life holds in stock for them. There are many big names from powerful footballing nations, with great world football stars, who have long gone out of the tournament. Some did not even survive the preliminary stage. Others were eliminated at other knock-out stages.

“Eni a r’ope ko le p’ago, o se bi ere bi ere, o k’ole alaruru”. Surely, few of the last four might not have been given much chances of getting to the finals, in the face of many intimidating teams. There were dramatic turnarounds too, particularly in the case of the Elephant of Cote D’ivoire, the host country. This was a team who survived the preliminary stage by the thread as one of the best losers. They came third in our group with their fate hung in the balance. They eventually got a second chance with the misfortune of another team. Afterwards, they have gone ahead to win all their subsequent matches and now billed to play the final against our own Super Eagles.

To all Nigerians, this is the main match we have to play in this tournament. Having the misfortune of being grouped with any host of a tournament which the ‘system’ (their country, the organisers, the spectators, sponsors, etc) would not want to be out of the competition so early, for obvious reasons, was enough, but we beat them in our match against them, they survived and now back for a rematch in the final. That’s going to be the battle of the titans.

Ordinarily, Nigeria already had more than enough football ‘enemies’ on the continent, as exhibited in how many countries’ supporters were always against us and looking for our ousting all through the stages. We will be playing against many forces tomorrow; the host country, the institutions, the opponents we previously beat or eliminated and so on. However, we believe our team is up to the task. They are not called ‘Super Eagles’ for nothing. Anyone who knows what type of animal an eagle is, would know that this very team at this tournament exhibits the many traits of an eagle. Victory shall be ours by the grace of God.

While we are upbeat about this, my admonition to all Nigerians and our supporters worldwide is that we must be careful. Football, especially where it concerns our national team, Super Eagles in particular, is ‘spiritual’ to us. Advising that we should not be emotionally invested is a waste of time. We are die-hard fans of our team and country where football is concerned and we lose it when our team is playing. One needed to see the reactions of many Nigerians, including dignitaries like governors, lawmakers, politicians, celebrities and important business men, during and after our last match. It was intense!

It is such depth of our emotional involvement that has led to many unfortunate deaths of some reported cases of Nigerians who died while watching our last semifinal match against the Bafana Bafana of South Africa. A very prominent chieftain of APC in Delta, Dr. Cairo Ojougboh, was said to have slumped immediately a penalty was awarded against Nigeria, after cancelling our goal. He died eventually. This was a man I have watched his numerous interviews on many national televisions and one would see his passion for Nigeria. He was formerly in the House of Representatives too and even aspired to govern Delta state in 2019.

The Deputy Bursar of Kwara State University (KWASU), Malete, Ayuba Abdullahi, also died. A prominent business man, an Anambra-born billionaire, Chief Osondu Nwoye, who lived in Abidjan, was also reported to have died at the stadium while watching the match. Another 43 year old Mikail Osundiji in Abeokuta too. Same as a corps member, identified as Samuel in Adamawa. May the souls of these departed patriots rest in peace.

The moment our high expectation that we have almost won with the game already, around 85th minutes, but our second goal was cancelled and a penalty awarded against us, which dashed that hope of winning at regular time, blood pressure of many rose. One could only imagine what could have happened had we lost that match. Only God knows. Thank God we won. Therefore, people should calm down tomorrow as we play the final match. May God help us.

This brief above showed what Super Eagles means to us as a people and country. If I now asked why can’t Nigeria be like Super Eagles? It sounds confusing. However, we all know what the ‘real’ Nigeria and Nigerians are, as compared to the team that is currently representing us. The traits that our team has exhibited happened to be exactly the opposite of what we actually do as a country, which has been the bane of our progress and development for many decades. I will highlight them subsequently.

Unity. One thing that we could see that has kept the team strong and going in succeeding is unity, not just among the players, but among players and coaching crew and even the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF). No human relationship is without conflict but so far, we have not heard any that could not be managed effectively, unlike in the past where such usually become the talking point in the country, not just at the camp. We have seen great unity among all and this showed on the field of play too. Everyone was working towards single objective- to win! And that has paid off so far. Sadly, this is something we lack so much as a country. Nigeria has never been this divided, with mutual suspicion of one another. It has kept the country down.

Focus. The attention of all, including we at home, has been on succeeding. The team is very focused. I saw a video clip where a friend of Osimhen called him and teased him about ‘arranging girls for the boys’ to celebrate. His response was that they were not interested in that now but are remaining focused on their goal of winning the cup. This is an attitude of successful people or team. Are we like that as a country? Not really. We are a people who get distracted easily. For over six decades of our independence, we cannot really define what our national ethos, ideals, visions, missions and objectives are, which are supposed to be at the core of all we do.

Sadly, every government comes with their own agenda. That’s why we have had Operation Feed the Nation of military Obasanjo, to Austerity Measures of military Buhari, Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of military Babangida, to seven point agenda of civilian late Umaru Musa Yar’adua, to Transformation Agenda of Goodluck Jonathan, to Buhari’s Change Agenda, to now, the Renewed Hope of Tinubu. Each administration keeps formulating their own vision at every turn. How could a nation become great like that?

Tribalism. In that team, no one has raised any highbrow as to the constitution of the whole team and or selection of those to play in each match. Nigerians from different ethnic extractions make up the team but no one is bothered about their tribes as they represent the country. Our only desire was for them to win. On the field, no player is identified as Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Ibibio, Edo, or any. They are all Nigerians. This is the greatest challenge facing Nigeria today, and truly, I can’t see how we can ever overcome it.

The twin of this is religious differences. We have muslims and christians among the players. They all played as one. No one discriminates against another. Nigerians of different faiths all over the country and world, who have been supporting them, were not also doing so based on what religion any player practises. It never crossed many peoples’ minds which player is a muslim or christian. So, like said earlier, these two vaultlines are the most potent and volatile in the ‘real’ Nigeria, outside of the Super Eagles.

In fact, while all of us from different tribes and religions would congregate in unison to watch the team play for Nigeria, whether at the stadium or on the televisions, cheering them for the love and passion we have for the country, reacting the same way, whether in joy or anguish, depending on the team’s performance, immediately after the game is over and we return to our various homes, that sense of unity evaporates and we go back to our divisive corners. It is that bad.

Nepotism. In selection of the players to represent the country, it is evidently clear that nepotism was discarded. What is nepotism. According to Oxford dictionary, “it is the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives, friends, or associates, especially by giving them jobs.” If this were to be the case, it means the political class, the NFF leadership, important personalities in the country, all would have sent their ‘candidates’ to be given ‘slots’ in the team, irrespective of whether they are qualified or not.

This is our past time as a country. And it has been like this before independence and after. Nigeria system is about favouritism. Anyone in power favours his friends and associates, often influenced by tribe and religion in particular. I watched a very old video of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, again few days ago. That video must have been recorded before our independence or just after, while he was the Premier of the Northern Region. He was asked as about Northernisation policy of only recruiting northerners to positions by his government. He didn’t mince word as to how that was a deliberate policy.

He even said the northern regional government would considered expatriates before any Nigerian from other regions. He was emphatic about the Igbos in particular, how he would avoid employing them because they try to dominate others. The video should be on YouTube. That was the foundation on which Nigeria was built and it will amount to self-deception to think that it would suddenly vanish. Successive leaders of governments of military and civilian have carried on and built on that. Can we ever get over it? I doubt. If that is applicable in Super Eagles, they would have failed woefully, just as Nigeria has been failing woefully for over six decades. There were few instances in the past where nepotism was attempted to be introduced to the sports, and the country suffered for it.

Competence. With every player, administrators, government officials and political bigwigs realising that nepotism won’t be allowed in Super Eagles, every player worked very hard in their various clubs where they ply their professional trade. They focused on being in their best form to get opportunity of a call up to the national team. They all knew there is no chance of ‘godfatherism’ that will automatically guarantee a place for any player. They all knew quota system or federal character is not applicable here. But, aren’t these what we build our country on? Yet, we expect the best. It will continue to elude us. Quota system and federal charater kill initiative, competitiveness and organic development of the citizens, as well as the country.

Patriotism. If there is something that has helped the team, made them strong, and kept them going, it is their patriotism. We could see the hunger in their eyes to serve their fatherland and make the country proud. There are few players who had the chance to play for other countries by virtue of their birth overseas but they chose Nigeria.

Ademola Lookman is one of them. He had played for England at under 19, Under 20 and Under 21 from 2016 to 2019, but switched his loyalty to play for Nigeria at the senior level. He has been a star of the tournament, having netted three winning goals for Nigeria at two crucial games at knockout stages. Same as few others like Ekong, Ola Aina, Samuel Ajayi, and Joseph Temitope, who were born abroad. That is love for fatherland and willingness to serve.

What about the rest of us and our political leadership in particular? Are we also patriotic and willing and ready to serve the country selflessly? We all know what the truth is. Although, we all profess these things but they end at our mouths, not deep down our hearts. When it comes to putting them into actions, we were almost always found wanting. Most Nigerians are selfish and greedy.

It is from among these that we chose those to lead us. They simply carry on with the same attitudes in greater proportions. The magnitude of public funds stolen by public officials that are being revealed daily is a testament. Majority of people in positions are there to serve themselves, not the people or the country. It is about self-aggrandizement. How can a country progress with such leaders? Followership does not fare better.

We can go on and on, but let me stop here. Is there no remedy to all that have been mentioned? Are we going to continue like this? Well, there is no problem without solution but the will to administer that solution is the greater problem. Are we ready for it? Are the leaders ready to take the bull by the horn? These are critical questions.

There is consensus, largely, that the country has not been working as it should be. That we are not making the desired progress. That we have not attained our real potential, which is latent. That we can do better only if we choose to do the right thing. It has also not been disputed, objectively, that the golden era of Nigeria was before independence and some years after, before the unfortunate military incursion in 1966. That period saw Nigeria operated regional governments that were more efficient, effective, developmental and beneficial to the people.

The 1963 republican constitution of that time was also adjudged to be most functional. Subsequent ones were bastardised versions that already took life out of it. That is why they never guided the country to move forward. Since the collapse of those regional governments and adoption of a unitary system, the suspension of the 1963 constitution and replacement by decrees by the military dictatorship that took over in 1966 after the failed coup attempt, led by the late head of state, General Aguiyi Ironsi, who was advised by the late reknown constitutional lawyer, Professor Ben Nwabueze, Nigeria has never recovered from that.

Successive military administrations continued to build on it by continously over-centralising the whole government businesses across the country. This led to a behemoth central government which became over-burdened, unwieldy, inefficient, wasteful and non-functional over the years. The civilian governments that took over from the military, intermittently, till we have a stable one since 1999, were modelled after the military government. That is why we have such dysfunctional, overbloated, prodigal, presidential democratic system that we operate today. It is not working.

We must go back to our root. Look for what worked, adopt them and discard what did not work. The country needs to be restructured. I wrote comprehensively about this some years ago. I might revisit it some time in future. Space won’t permit that here.

In all, as we look forward to our final match tomorrow and hopeful that Super Eagles will carry the day, the country as whole should learn one or two lessons from the team, which is made up of Nigerians as well, who are representing us, and they have done that excellently well so far. This was because of the identified factors above, which we should adopt if we ever want progress at all for our country. I wish all of us great success tomorrow. “Awa l’okan” to carry the AFCON 2023 Cup. “We no dey gree for anybody this year.” Up Super Eagles! Up Nigeria!

May God continue to protect us and guide us aright.

God Bless Nigeria.

You can follow me on:
Twitter: @lateef_adewole
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Email: lateefadewole23@gmail.com
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February 10, 2024.

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