These are precarious times in Nigeria and now more than ever we must pool resources to fight our way out of the gigantic hole we have dug ourselves into. There is a clear desire today to diversify our economy and create jobs and wealth for as many as we can locally. As I have always advocated on this page, sports offers a great platform to especially engage and continuously develop our large youth population and the government must view this as a great opportunity at this time. Recently I saw on the Facebook page of the chairman of the League Management Company, Shehu Dikko, that he and other football leaders visited the minister of state for petroleum and group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Dr. Ibe Kachukwu to solicit support for the local game in line with international best practices, and it just made sense. The NNPC is the leading national corporation in Nigeria and it must have a corporate social responsibility budget in multibillions of naira, so why shouldn’t they adopt sports as a platform to help society grow enterprise and a more competitive generation of leaders? Why shouldn’t they adopt sports as a means to inspire the young and raise aspirations country-wide? Why shouldn’t they put a few billions into the country’s most popular sport and become a catalyst for a story of success that would lead to hundreds of thousands of new direct and ancillary jobs?
Iam especially concerned about the Nigerian Professional Football League which we all know is far from the heights it can attain, but which in recent years has seen increasing success from a committed and dynamic leadership. The LMC, which Dikko currently heads alongside Honourable Nduka Irabor, has taken great pains to tackle a variety of the challenges that have dogged the sport, and seem at last to be winning. Only last month Dikko and his crew pulled off a sensational deal to partner the Spanish La Liga leadership. It was a deal that brought the leaders of the La Liga, including its president Javier Tebas, and involved the Spanish ambassador to Nigeria Alfonso Barnuevo as well as the Nigerian minister of sport Solomon Dalung to the table. Those who follow the local game will agree that the actions of the LMC have led to a steady rise in the popularity of the NPFL. In fact, it does appear that all that may be required at this time for the league to hit on a steep upward trajectory is a little nudge, and that is where the likes of the NNPC and other rich government parastatals could play a role.
You may want to ask why the NNPC should be interested in the local league given the myriad of problems facing our country, but I see several that I will outline in this piece. Given what the organization spends on CSR every year, a few billions to football will not leave an obvious dent, but on the flip side it can help establish a mammoth industry that would create wealth locally and keep our restive youths positively engaged pan Nigeria.
Football affects all corners of Nigeria and it is the one sport that unites us all. Regardless of our usual politically-motivated tribal, religious and sectional differences that threaten the peaceful coexistence of all Nigerians, football has continuously shown us that among ordinary Nigerians we remain one people. Teams from the north have several players from the south in their squads and vice versa. Weekly these teams crisscross this country to entertain fans, and it is a rare day that you hear anything about our differences. Our national teams also capture this even more so. There are those – and I am one of them – who believe that if we Nigerians saw our country the way we see the Super Eagles, we will no longer have any problems living happily together. When the Eagles play hardly anyone cares about the tribal, religious or sectional composition of the team. All we want to see, and celebrate, is our victory together as one people.
The NNPC should know a thing or two about the problems we face, that they spend billions of naira yearly trying to suppress. These problems will not go away easily unless we encourage and support initiatives that bring us together like football. A successful domestic football industry would engender the kinds of investments that would offer many of our restive youths the option of decent and respectful living without having to resort to violence and other atrocities, many of which affect NNPC’s operations.
Over 1000 league, cup and international matches are played annually and many are beamed live to the world. Showcasing the NNPC as a good corporate citizen through this platform would connect it to ordinary Nigerians who basically just see the organisation as one that only enriches the wealthy among us. With the NNPC on pitch panels and on TV beamed to an increasing legion of viewers, this would send a powerful message about strengthening our ecosystem such that we support each other to boost Nigerian enterprise.
It is indeed a shame that the pillar of support that the league currently enjoys comes in form of a South African company. We need to ask ourselves why a company like Supersport can believe in the NPFL enough to spend billions of its own money to develop it while Nigerian organisations watch with disinterest from far away. It is time for the likes of the NNPC – like Eskom does in South Africa – to support our game. If they chip in, then our clubs can earn a lot more money and players and officials can be paid much more. The more they earn the more they can positively affect those around them. However, even more important is that the NNPC does not have to be in this for the long term, but just long enough for the league to take off. By that time there will be enough foreign investments coming into the country to ensure sustainable success.
Success in football would open up massive business opportunities across different sectors. When fans celebrate they boost business for beverage companies, agriculture, local transportation, the hospitality industry, small food businesses and merchandising. Football would also boost medical services, architecture and building, the media, security, etc. Helping domestic football translates to the NNPC helping itself and society in the end. It is something, not just the NNPC, but all big Nigerian businesses, should keep in mind.