New NSC Director General, Hon Gbenga Elegbeleye
By Tunde Sulaiman
Earlier in the week, Nigeria’s 2008 Beijing Olympics bronze medallist, Chika Chukwumerije, went public with an appeal to the German embassy to grant visas to some of the nation’s taekwondists, who are billed to go to the European country on a training tour.
By doing so Chukwumerije, who was unable to get back on the podium at the last Olympics Games in London due to injury, has inadvertently raised a major issue concerning the issuance of visas to Nigerian sportsmen, women, officials and even we journalists amongst others.
Although the issue as we all know is a very contentious one, especially as it concerns the generality of Nigerians; but for the issue of this piece I will limit it to sports.
Many Nigerians who have tried to secure visas have tales of woe to recount with their experiences at the various embassies in the country, but this is even more harrowing for sports people who by virtue of their abilities have been chosen to represent the country or their clubs for trips abroad, but have often been denied the opportunity to enjoy their God given talents abroad because of denied visas.
On paper they usually all have genuine reasons to be given visas, but the reality is that every embassy has its own yardsticks for determining who gets and who does not – no matter how the applicant sees his/her case.
Yes it is true some embassies can be very fickle (and may even ask for your blood in an effort to ensure that you qualify for their visas!) when it comes to issuing the all-important document but like I said earlier the prerogative to give or nor to give lies with the embassies.
Here I will cite the cases of my experiences at two embassies, whose countries recently hosted the World Cup finals – Germany (in 2006) and Japan (which co-hosted in 2002 with South Korea) to buttress how difficult and frustrating some of them can be.
Of course, in theory once you have been accredited to cover the World Cup as a journalist by world football governing body, FIFA, the embassy procedure should be a done deal. But again that is not the reality on both occasions despite the FIFA accreditation letters; we journalists went through “hell” in trying to secure our visas.
However, in the same breath, Chukwumerije also pointed out the reason why despite securing tune up matches with a number of Germany club sides, a number of the athletes were still denied visas – unscrupulous Nigerians that have used sports for visa-racketeering purposes over the years.
And herein lies the issue at the heart of the problem.
For years this has been a big money-making business for many unscrupulous Nigerians, who were quick to see the “potential” in the “business” before others.
Sadly, like many things in the country, visa-racketeering started on a small scale but over the years snowballed into a “big business” as more and more people jumped on the gravy train.
Just like cults on school campuses that has assumed a life of its own (with authorities seemingly unable to tame it – I heard it has now spread into secondary schools!), from being the privy of just a few unscrupulous members in the protocol department of the National Sports Commission (NSC) (a probe was set up to root out the trend with some officials sanctioned), it has now spread to associations, clubs and even journalists!
Of course, the effect of this is now clear for everyone to see – the same bad eggs have now infected many other good eggs. Thus, even those with genuine reasons to travel abroad are now finding it increasingly more difficult to do so.
And so as the Hon Gbenga Elegbeleye settles down as the new NSC Director General, one of the areas he has to look into is how to bring sanity to this vital area.
Of course, with entrenched interests and so much money involved I know it will not be easy, but if the new DG is unable to successfully tackle the scourge then the nation will continue to see more and more Nigerian athletes being denied visas, which will only further harm our ability to successfully compete at the very top of world sports.
Those of us old enough will recall the glorious days of the late Isaac Akioye when Nigerian sports men and women could hold their own with the very best in the world of sports and this was because our top stars were able to secure visas to travel abroad to prepare without any hassles.
One can only pray and hope that one day we will return to such a time!