I was close to tears. I arrived Abuja, last Tuesday, shortly after the Super Eagles returned from South Africa where they had just played their way into the hearts of millions of football fans to become the champions of Africa. Why was I so touched? As Nigerians lined the streets to welcome the heroes, I saw unspeakable joy on their faces. Genuine joy. I saw soldiers at the airport brigade dancing and waving the green-white-green flag. I saw children jumping joyfully. I saw ecstatic women and men. This was no rented crowd. This was no choreographed jubilation. This was no political rally where hungry people go to show “solidarity” after pocketing a few wads of naira. No. This was real. The excitement was authentic. The ululation was heart-felt. The flag-waving was neither coerced nor induced.
As the Super Eagles flew their way to glory in South Africa, some thoughts about our politics welled up in my heart. We have said these things several times in the past, but they become more real to me day by day. Each time the players took to the field, they represented every nook and cranny of Nigeria. There were only 11 players on the pitch, but they were representing the 36 states and FCT, the 774 local government areas, the 250 ethnic groups and 160 million Nigerians. It did not matter that many states or ethnic groups did not have any players on the field. It did not matter that most of the players were from one part of the country. Each time we entered the pitch, we saw them first and foremost as Nigerians who were working their socks off to bring glory to the country. Each time they scored, we all celebrated irrespective of the player’s state of origin or religion.
Those who play up ethnic and religious sentiments for political purposes in Nigeria may wish to look at football, or sport, more closely. They need to renew their minds. When we assemble a team of ministers and other public officers to govern us, it is in our interest for them to succeed. We must see them as “playing” for Nigeria, not their ethnic groups or states. Their success is success for all Nigerians; their failure is failure for all Nigerians. If the minister of works is an Itsekiri or Idoma and all our federal highways are put in excellent shape, who benefits? All Nigerians! After all, Sunday Mba or Ahmed Musa scores for all Nigerians, not for the South or the North! Critically, though, the question must be asked: can we sincerely say we field our “Best 11” in government? Even if the constitution says there must be one minister from every state, do the states really nominate their best materials? What we see, mostly, are bootlickers making their way to the cabinet. And we keep asking why Nigeria is like this!
Meanwhile, while support for Super Eagles was national, irrespective of “tribe and tongue”, ethnic and religious manipulations dominate our polity. I hate to listen to some politicians and opinion leaders who see everything from a sectional point of view. Everything starts and ends with ethno-religious sentiments. They cannot even hide it. Before some people speak or write on any issue, you can predict precisely what their position would be. It must always be to defend or project sectional interest. Yet, for all intents and purposes, no ethnic group can claim innocence in the brigandage going on in Nigeria and the mismanagement of the country. To think one ethnic group is “clean” and the others are “evil” is to ignore fact and glamorise fiction. It is human beings, not ethnic groups, that are bad.
I cringe anytime I remember the day Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi was nominated as the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. A colleague, who knew nothing about Sanusi, screamed: “So they are going to bring this illiterate Malam to come and destroy everything Soludo has built?” The colleague in question does not have half of Sanusi’s education or a quarter of his competence, but such were the prejudices we inherited from the foundation of Nigeria. We never bother to question these prejudices and face the facts. We mostly fail to judge everyone by his or her character. We simply pass the prejudices on to the next generation. This nonsensical stereotyping feeds our mind-sets. Yorubas are traitors and cowards; Hausas are illiterates and dumb; Igbos are fraudsters and money worshipers. Isn’t it refreshing that in football, we judge every player by his ability and performance, rather than by his ethnic origin?
I am aware that, for instance, much of the opposition to President Goodluck Jonathan in some parts of the country has nothing to do with his performance in office. Of course, there are many people who are genuinely disappointed with Jonathan’s performance so far, but there are also those whose only grouse is the part of the country Jonathan comes from. Because of this, they wish him nothing but failure (some were wishing that Super Eagles would not win the Nations Cup so that Jonathan would have nothing to celebrate, forgetting completely that it is Nigeria, not Jonathan, that would be honoured by the victory). This sort of mind-set is tragic. If Jonathan fails as Nigeria’s president, all Nigerians will suffer the consequences. If he succeeds, Nigeria will be a better place for us. Isn’t that simple logic?
If the Eagles had failed to win the Africa Cup of Nations, the heartache would have been Nigerians’, not Jonathan’s alone. Because they won, Nigerians all over the world are over the moon, popping champagne and backslapping. It has nothing to do with whether or not they like Jonathan. As the president himself said, the celebration in Ibadan was as loud as the celebration in Kano! If Nigeria works, no matter who the president is, the pride is ours! The peace is ours! The prosperity is ours! Until we develop what I call a “Naija-centric” mentality, we will continue to fall prey to the agents of hate and discord among us. “Nigeria first” should be our mentality at all times.
Nevertheless, I recognise that football is not exactly politics. There is more at stake in politics than in football. In politics, our politicians are constantly bickering over who gets what, mostly for selfish gain. They care little about the ordinary Nigerians. Mediocrity and greed are the order of the day. In sport, the ingredients of success are merit, hard work and teamwork. I wish we could say that about our politics. Nigeria would certainly have become a paradise by now!
– Simon Kolawole (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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