Everyday, hundreds of young Nigerians who have given up hope of ever making sense of their lives in this country, take the dangerous journey through the Sahara Desert, into Libya and towards the Mediterranean Sea, with hopes of finding boats to reach Europe. Many die in the heat of the desert, their corpses left for vultures to devour. Those who make it to Libya fall into the hands of racist law enforcement and other gangs, who throw them into dungeons and use them for slave labour.
A fraction that find their way to the seaports, wait for months, before climbing into dinghy boats to make the treacherous journey to the Italian coast. Several of them end up in capsized boats and become food for the fishes, unmourned with aborted dreams. An even tinier fraction makes it to Italy and become the inspiration for thousands back home who prepare to make their own trip as the cycle continues.
There are other young Nigerians that have discovered their potential for athletics and have been found by national team coaches as potential world beaters. These young people passed through the fire to make it into the national Under-18 athletics team, where they camped for months preparing for the International Association of Athletics Federations U-18 World Championships in Nairobi, Kenya this past week. They worked morning and evening, for days, to perfect their strides so that they could bring glory to their country while making a pathway to a brighter future for themselves and their families. But when the day of reckoning came, the Athletics Federation of Nigeria said there was no money to send them to Kenya to compete. Like the young Nigerians who perish in the Sahara and on the Mediterranean, their dreams are at the mercy of forces greater than themselves.
South Africa, a country investing a lot in the potential of its youth, topped the championship table in Nairobi ahead of China, Kenya and Jamaica.
The IAAF U-18 Worlds (the last of the games), like all major cadet competitions, is meant to give international exposure to young. While winning is good, participating is even better, because it sets youngsters up for a steady future, motivating them to do better as they grow older. Nigeria has missed an opportunity to help this set of budding athletes find their feet in a $300billion sports industry. Instead, we (and I do not use the collective lightly) have failed them once again, just as we failed the set of two years ago who could not find funding to go to Colombia.
In failing them, we tell them that their dreams do not matter just as we continue to send our young people to die in the desert and sea crossings because we tell them that their potentials cannot be fulfilled here. We tell them, like Femi Kuti sang, there’s no place for your dream in this land. Instead of helping them achieve their potential, we push them into drugs and gangs and they become addicts and killers and Boko Haram and Badoo. And then they come back to haunt us.
Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics conceived sport as an opportunity to build the minds of young men and women. The Olympics is an opportunity to celebrate the springtime of youth, the future of any country. Yet, the politics of the AFN and by extension the Ministry of Sport has overshadowed and denied the potential of many of our young.
Last year the athletics startup, Making of Champions, profiled seven Nigerians who now run for Bahrain. These are athletes that were left disenchanted by the nepotism in the AFN. After being overlooked, they took their fate in their hands and left for greener pastures in the Gulf and many have been doing very well by winning international tournaments. No one is punished for this shame that continues to happen to our country’s sport.
Athletics reporter, Yemi Olus, told me that one way forward for many of these young athletes who have been denied this opportunity to compete, is to decamp to other countries. It is easy to do, once they have never officially run for Nigeria. We might be seeing them on the tracks soon, in other colours – Bahrain, Qatar, Spain, etc. Then we are quick to claim the glory of countries that have invested in the human potential of their citizens. Just like we want to lay down a red-carpet welcome for Anthony Joshua, who was nurtured by the British, just because his roots are here. Yet, the ones under our nostrils we have failed to encourage: the wrestlers, Taekwondo players, sprinters, para-powerlifters, boxers and Judokas, whom we recently denied opportunities to compete internationally, due to ‘no funds.’
My 15-year-old niece is the best runner in her school. I have been encouraging her to pursue an athletics career despite misgivings from her parents. I have told her that she could become Nigeria’s fastest woman someday if she practices consistently and continues to develop her talent. Last week, I found running shoes for her. But now, I do not know how to tell her that, like these ones, her dream might be left shattered someday, because, in Nigeria, nothing seems to work for the youth.