Last Sunday, while observing events as a neighbour celebrated the birth of their new baby, I noticed a rather intriguing spectacle. About eight teenage boys gathered outside the venue uninvited and boisterously danced to the loud music, basically entertaining guests in the hope of getting served some food. Fortune smiled on them as the organisers rewarded their industry with some food and drinks. It was a rowdy session, but these young boys could dance up a storm almost oblivious of the reality of their own challenging circumstances. Watching the scene from a distance, I momentarily forgot the frustration of being forced to endure hours of noise on a day one should be resting, and wondered about how much talent these youngsters had and how easily it could all go to waste
I n a few years, the reality of compulsory bills will hit them and not a few will be heading for careers as motor park touts and other forms of menial labour. Some may become career political thugs, while others take to crime â€“ from the petty to the deadly. Hopes of acquiring genuine work skills to feed themselves and their families are usually dim; this sort simply sees the wealth but not the sweat in how it is made. Many also feel the wealth is ill-gotten and simply are on a queue for their turn to do act.
If society does not step up to engage them in a positive and respectful way, we will all be in danger soon enough. Frighteningly, our exploding population means we donâ€™t have much time on our hands. Credible estimates show that by 2050 we may be faced with about 265m youth, with the majority of them poorly educated, poorly skilled and pretty much like the young men at the party.
Sports can help change things. Those youngsters should be practicing to make their school teams to annual state or national championships in any one of a variety of sports. We have proven to be a nation with sports pedigree, and we are probably denying potentially world-beating talents a chance to make history. For decades now, our leaders have not understood what to do with sports, but then the government can use some help from the private sector. Nigerians who have a few billion naira to spend on corporate social responsibility and philanthropy should take a second look at sports and chime in for the greater good.
The names listed in my headline are known to be wealthy philanthropists who have spent heavily on different schemes to help the less fortunate among us. What one hardly sees, however, is philanthropy that invests in sports, despite its ability to put people of all ages and across all socio-economic groups to productive work. While much of sports philanthropy comes from highly paid athletes giving back to society, many corporations and foundations recognise the powers of sport and invest in initiatives that promote values that sports bring to societies, like fair competition, merit, compassion, leadership, unity, resilience, healthy and disciplined living and so much more.
The great thing about sports though is how it can engage millions of people both in the amateur and professional ranks. Despite only a few people ever getting to the very top of sports, sports still engage large numbers of people from very early in their lives to their twilight years. In 2012 when South Africa was thinking about its football future, then CEO of the South African Football Association (SAFA) Robin Petersen showed how football alone engaged three million people in the country. According to the Brand South Africa website, Petersen said at the time that he was â€œlooking at new ways to fund development, so that the 330 local football associations, the 20000 clubs and the three-million players in South Africa, as well as schools, will become a breeding ground for new talent.â€
Nigerian philanthropists must begin to think more about developing communities around the country through sports. Establishing sports centres like football parks, tennis and basketball courts, swimming centres, can help whole communities embrace sports; and as a result work together for unity, peace and progress. Initiatives like these would reduce crime, increase consciousness for healthy living and good education, as well as enhance collaboration. They would also create jobs for coaches, officials, small businesses and especially players, who the more they play the more they want to reach the top of the sport globally.
While building a hostel or administrative block in a school is great for the students, a sports centre can produce talents that influence millions of people around the world. We must work to stop our increasing army of unengaged youth from being fertile ground for political schemers and criminals. We must also stop those who never want us to forget that we are different tribes, different religions, different cultures, and different worldviews. Ask anyone about who beat Argentina 4:2 in an international football friendly on Tuesday, and the answer, delivered with pride, would be Nigeria â€“ the diverse but inclusive country where although our tribes and tongues differ, in brotherhood we stand. Sport alone makes that possible.