John Owan Eno — A silent operator

The ‘new’ Minister of Sports Development, Senator John Owan Eno, is an enigmatic, silent operator. You hardly see him, yet, quietly, he is impacting Nigerian sports in a big way.

It may be too early for a scorecard of his performance, but observing him these past few months as I have done, requires some appraisal and commendation.

This week, the National Men’s basketball team, D’Tigers, were to be withdrawn from participation in the AfroBasket Championship taking place in Tunisia from this weekend. The Basketball Federation of Nigeria did not have the funds to send the team to the championship. Meanwhile, the results from the event will determine the African countries that shall represent the continent this summer at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Such a withdrawal would have been a humiliation, the worst kind of publicity for Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, the ‘leader’ of the Black race on earth, one of the richest countries on earth with its natural resources, a country blessed with some of the most talented basketballers out of Africa in the home of the sport – the USA, African champions to the last Olympic Games. It would have been a diplomatic faux pas!

Only a week earlier, the whole world was witness to a great demonstration of the true essence of sports when Nigeria opened its vault to celebrate, honour and reward the country’s footballers, not for winning a trophy, but for getting to the finals of AFCON 2023, and in the process uniting the country and evoking the spirit of patriotism in all Nigerians.

The two scenarios above, happening in the space of one week, do not add up.

The matter of withdrawing the basketball team was resolved a few days ago by the Nigerian Sports Minister. Without raising any dust on old, lingering, fundamental issues on complex relationship between the federations and government, he simply intervened in the matter, undertook to get the federal government to provide the needed funds, and saved the country unwanted embarrassment.

I have just returned from AFCON 2023 in Cote d’Ivoire. Without being an official member of the Nigerian contingent, I was privy to many things that went on there.

Nigeria participated under the auspices of the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, an independent and private organisation like any other sports federation in the country, made up of football stakeholders without any government representation.

Even as the ‘richest’ sports federation in the country, with substantial financial support by its parent international bodies, CAF and FIFA, the NFF was in such bad financial shape that it could not have funded the expenses of the team to the championship without the Federal Government’s intervention.

Shortly before the AFCON Championship began, quietly and without raising any dust about prevailing issues of roles and responsibilities of the federations and government, Senator John Owan Eno, once again, quietly intervened and successfully secured approval of the federal government for the release of funds budgeted for the championship to the NFF. The funds covered cost of preparation and participation, as well as all outstanding players’ allowances and bonuses, the outstanding salary of the foreign coach, and other expenses even unrelated to AFCON.

In short, funding AFCON was the responsibility of the federal government. That’s why, throughout the AFCON Championship, the NFF had their man ‘planted’ in Abuja pressing buttons to secure the release of the funds.

The gentleman Minister of Sports did not become a ‘poster boy’ for his efforts, despite doing the yeoman’s job of facilitating the entire process. Clearly, the Senator is not an attention-seeker. He is a silent operator, not interested in being involved in the unending brouhaha with the federation over who controls the apparatus of administration and funds.

He hardly even showed up at AFCON, allowing the NFF to run their show and to take the credit.

He was more interested in seeing that everything works!

That’s my interest in the man. He is different and special in his own ways. AFCON came and went without crisis or scandals, charting a new path towards a better relationship between government and the federations.

The development with the basketball federation provides ample opportunity to further examine his new template.

Of course, he is aware of the facts of a lingering crisis between national associations/federations and the Sports Ministry. It is like a smouldering volcano.
He is fully aware, from his actions, that there is a clear statutory responsibility of government to fund some aspects of every sports federation’s participation in some specific international events, an established practise until disrupted by the vaulting ambition of some administrators to take over sports federations by dangling and proclaiming their ‘independence’ in their statutes and debar government from stopping their ambitions.

That, of course, comes with a price – funding of their programmes without government. They pretend they can raise private sector funding. All of them now know that Nigeria’s sports are not attractive enough, and the private sector not ‘sophisticated’ enough to carry the burden of the sports development in its present form.

In short, the federations are saddled with responsibilities they cannot fund, creating blurred areas of conflict in the roles and responsibilities between them and government, crashing the entire architecture of grassroots sports development in the country in the process.

There is a need to re-set the buttons as all the federations, including the Nigeria Football Federation that gets substantial funding support from its international bodies, FIFA and CAF, still depend on government to fund most of their international competitions, and several developmental programmes. They all go back to government for substantial funding, as AFCON 2023 clearly demonstrated.

The massive rewards at the end of AFCON 2023 are a testimony of government’s umbilical relationship with sports administration and the federations for the foreseeable future. This must become a realistic platform to study and conduct research on how to marry or separate the roles and responsibilities of government and all federations.

I am happy the new Minister of Sports is quietly, slowly but steadily going about his work, clearing all the cobwebs of conflicts and confusion within sports administration.

It is heartening that Basketball Federation President, must now realise the futility of asking for blanket independence from government. His federation’s withdrawal from the Afrobasket Championship, would have created incalculable damage for Nigeria’s image. Federations must be ready to accommodate government as an integral part of sports development in Nigeria for now, and make government a partner, rather than continue in the crisis and confusion created during the tussle for who runs the federations during every election period.

Senator John Eno, is perfectly poised now, to clear up the cobwebs in the administrative structure of sports in Nigeria. But rather than let the stakeholders to do their own audit and prescribe solutions, the Minister should look outside the federations, at institutions with capacity, training and ability to interrogate the subject matter independent of entrenched interests and biases, and come up with practical recommendations for the Federal, and State Governments and Sports Federations/Associations to develop a healthy domesticated relationship-system for the country.

Meanwhile, I salute Senator John Owan Eno for successfully navigating the Nigerian sports sector these past six months.

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