BRUCE TAJINERE IJIRIGHO was the captain of the Midwest team to the 1971 Hussey Shield and Lady Manuwa Cup competition in Port Harcourt. He recalls here how Brigadier-General Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia (rtd) who died last month turned the state to the envy of others in the country through the many innovations he introduced into the running of sports

Brigadier Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia (rtd) is the indisputable father of modern sports in Nigeria. He recognised early in his career as governor of Midwest State that sports can be used to uplift the good image of a state while at the same time educating the athletes for the future manpower needs of the state. He used that knowledge masterfully to the benefit of the then Midwest. He is an irreplaceable icon in the development and maintenance of athletes and charting a future for them beyond sports participation. He was a master in the art of inspiring athletes to achieve the seemingly impossible. The late Ogbemudia was not just our governor but a father, mentor, motivator and the one who enabled us to achieve the Golden Fleece in the world of sports. He knew how to celebrate the achievement of his athletes and make them want to conquer the world at the next available opportunity.

I was a recipient of his unselfish largess as a member of the Olympic teams that represented Nigeria in 1972 and 1976. He continued to support me until I obtained my Ph.D. degree in Petroleum Geology from the University of Arizona in 1981. The iconic 1976 Olympic team comprised mostly of Ogbemudia products, was one of the most talented group of athletes Nigeria ever assembled with the hope of bringing home medals. Once the team was named in 1976, Gov. Ogbemudia took notice and he followed our progress everywhere we were and provided resources to cushion our hard times. He joined us at the 1972 Olympic Games and was in the boxing arena when Isaac Ikhuoria of Midwest won the only medal (bronze) for Nigeria in Munich, West Germany.

At the KADA Games 2009, it was he who convinced me to come back home and work with Governor Liyel Imoke of Cross River State, to produce young athletes for the nation. Because we used the Ogbemudia formula with modern technical modifications, the result was the same great level of success, second only to his legacy, in the modern era of Nigerian sports. He was a great mind with infinite love for youths and nation. The history of Nigerian sports cannot be complete without the visionary role he played in establishing facilities such as Afuze, and producing some of Nigeria’s best athletes. Some of the ways he inspired us to greatness through his words and action are evident in the story below.

On the eve of our departure for Port Harcourt to participate in the Hussey Shield and Lady Manuwa Cup competition in 1971, our Papa, Governor, and then Colonel Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia invited us, our coaches and officials, to the state executive council chambers at the Government House in GRA, Benin city for a pep talk and psychological preparation. We were elated at the invitation because we knew there would be special food and enjoyment. Most importantly, we were excited at the prospect of meeting him at such close range and to be able to interact with him freely. The encounter would be added to our repertoire of stories to share with our friends and parents when we return to school and our various homes.

He walked briskly into the room, waved at us and went straight to his special seat. Thereafter, he spoke passionately and encouraged us to go out there and make the Midwest State proud by bringing all the trophies back to him in Benin City. He convinced us that we can do it and that the Hussey Shield has been our possession for five consecutive years and we should not be the group to lose it.

He admonished us to be disciplined and of good behavior at all times while in Port Harcourt. We were happy and grateful for the gesture and we left the chambers pumped up to do battle at the competition. We were particularly intrigued and excited that he took time off his busy schedule to show such a high level of interest in our participation and that he considered us important enough to be invited and feted to boost our morale before the departure. We had a wonderful time and as he left the room, he promised he would be there in Port Harcourt to watch us compete. We were all in cloud nine when we left the State House after the meeting. When a man goes out of his way to treat you this good and make you feel important why would you not “run belle tear” and give above 100 percent in competition? That was the fire we took with us to Port Harcourt.

Yes, as promised, our beloved Gov, Ogbemudia honored that promise and was in the Liberation Stadium, Port Harcourt with the then Governors of Rivers State, Commodore Alfred Diete Spiff, Brigadier U.J. Esuene, of South Eastern State, Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson of Lagos State, and Administrator of East Central State, Dr. Ukpabi Asika, to watch all the events of the final day of competition. Ogbemudia’s presence in the stadium that day was like an injection of adrenaline, into our body and spirit. We ran, jumped, threw, and did everything to win all the events in the programme that afternoon, so as to make our governor happy and proud of us. Our girls fell short of winning all of their events because Modupe Oshikoya of Lagos State single handedly dominated three events, to the delight of Governor Mobolaji Johnson. At the end of the day, Midwest won majority of the girl’s events and the Lady Manuwa Cup. On the boys’ side, we finished first and second place in every event except two. The exceptions were the boys 100 yards that was won by Ruks Bazunu of Midwest State, who represented Western State because he was at the time a student of Loyola College, Ibadan. Rito Igunbor (Alias PJ rito) of Midwest was second in that 100 yards sprint. Also, we were second in the 4 X 440 yards to Western State despite running the race of my life as the last leg, in a race where the gap was totally insurmountable before I received the baton. At the end of the competition, Governor Ogbemudia’s boys decimated the competition from all twelve states of Nigeria and won the Hussey Shield for the sixth consecutive time.

After Vivian Emenahor, the Midwest girls Captain received the Lady Manuwa Cup, I as captain of the team was invited to the podium to receive the Hussey Shield from Governor Diete Spiff on behalf of the all-conquering Midwest team. I was overwhelmed with joy upon receipt of the shield, knowing that Gov. Ogbemudia was right there watching us collect all the trophies. My joy was even fuller because I was convinced in my heart that we did not disappoint him for preparing, trusting and sending us into battle.

Like a father whose children have accomplished the impossible, he was beaming with smiles and proud of our achievement. Na only him be governor there wen we just win and carry everything comot? He was happy. After receiving the trophy, Mr. Okwechime, then Director of the Midwest Sports Council prompted me to start chanting and singing our favorite song praising Ogbemudia and the Midwest, which goes like this: “Midwest No Rival; Midwest No Rival; Ogbemudia No Rival, Ogbemudia No Rival”. As soon as I raised the song, our entire team picked it up and the whole stadium went into pandemonium. We ran and danced for joy all around the stadium. By the time we returned from our victory run, the Governors had left the stadium.

However, Gov. Ogbemudia left us a special message“. My children, thank you for doing as you promised and making me and the Midwest State proud. Rather than return to Benin-City tomorrow, you are to stay in Port Harcourt for three extra days while I return to Benin-City ahead of you, to prepare the state to receive you on arrival”. He sent us money to enjoy ourselves for the extra days of stay. Who are we to say no? We knew that something big was in the offing. But how big, we had no inkling until we eventually arrived on Midwest soil.

The following day which was a Sunday, Governor Diete Spiff sent a naval ship to take us and the Rivers State team on a tour to Brass and some of the creeks in Rivers State. That was a lot of fun for us because we ate and drank as we cruised on the water, and saw things and places we had never seen before.

We rested on Monday and on Tuesday we took off from Port Harcourt very early in the morning, heading back to Benin-City, via Onitsha and the Niger Bridge. Upon arrival at the Asaba end of the Niger Bridge, we were surprised to see most of the traditional rulers in the Ibo speaking hinterlands waiting to receive and greet us. We disembarked and shook hands with them while traditional dancers entertained us for about fifteen minutes. Our bus was specially decorated with Midwest colours and banners before we drove off towards Ogwashi-uku, Isele-Uku, Umunede and to Agbor where special emissaries from Benin were already waiting for us. All along the towns and villages in our route, school children and other citizens lined both sides of the road singing and waiving at our bus. It was incredible. That day was declared a public holiday throughout the state to honour us. Waiting for us at the Government Guest House in Agbor was the then Obi of Agbor and his chiefs.

They received us warmly and we enjoyed more traditional dances while we had lunch. Then, we changed into our competition uniforms, boarded the bus and rushed off to Benin-City. Our stop in Benin-City was along the road, near Western Boys High School at Ikpoba Hill. We were shocked and totally unprepared for what was waiting for us. We saw a convoy of about twenty open top military vehicles, well decorated and waiting for our triumphant ride into the Oba’s Square at the centre of Benin-City. One eighteen wheel, low loader, trailer was at the front of the convoy. The trailer was well decorated and fitted with four seats to accommodate the male and female team captains and the two male assistant captains (Edwin Tuoyo and William Emofurieta) who also carried trophies. On the trailer and behind the seats was a police band blaring good music for the parade. Once the athletes and officials took their positions in the vehicles, the convoy started winding its way slowly through the streets with people cheering and waving enthusiastically all the way to Oba’s square.

The Oba’s Square was filled to capacity and agog with celebration when we arrived. The who is who in Midwest were there from every nook and corner of the state. The dignitaries in attendance included the Governor and all his commissioners, top government officials, the then Benin monarch, Oba Akenzua II and many traditional rulers from other parts of the state. As our convoy drove into the reception arena, the whole place exploded with cheers, songs and applause until we all alighted from the vehicles. We were immediately arranged in a line facing the dignitaries. They had been there waiting for more than three hours before we arrived. The protocols proceeded quickly and a specially drafted “Citation and Certificate of Honour” from the Governor and people of Midwest was read to the applause and approval of all present. Thereafter, each athlete was individually presented to the governor to receive his/her copy of the citation with a handshake.

That same night, after the reception, the governor hosted a banquet at the Government House in our honour, where he thanked us again and announced full scholarships for any one of us who is admitted into a university anywhere in the world. That day, 19th April 1971, will forever remain fresh in my memory and stand as a the day when we surrendered ourselves to the service of state and country because of the guidance, care and inspiration from the greatest contributor to the development of youth and sports glory in the history of Nigeria, Brigadier (Dr.) Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia.

Papa, May Your Gentle Soul Rest In Peace In The Bossom Of The Lord. Adieu to a great leader, statesman and patriot. Without you, I and many others would not be who we are today. You will be fondly remembered, relevant and forever missed.
• Dr Ijirigho who was captain of the Midwest State team in the early 1970s and later represented Nigeria in several global competitions contributed this tribute from his United States of America base.