National sports federations and challenges to true democratisation

It is incredible that in 2023, we have not been able to have a truly democratised, independent national sports federations in Nigeria as required by international best practices, even though we pride ourselves as the giant of Africa. The blame of course lies squarely on bureaucratic bottlenecks in the sports ministry.

In 1990, at the full council meeting of the Nigeria Handball Association, as it was then known, I made a presentation laying out how Handball Association of Nigeria as it was then called, could run as an independent association. While many were convinced, some were sceptical that it could be a reality and the possible backlash from the move. I went further by sending a proposal to the then Chairman of the National Sports Commission, the late Alex Akinyele, and emphasised that he would be remembered forever if he could democratise the national associations.

He sent one of his assistant directors, Yahaya, a very seasoned and intelligent guy who is now late, to discuss with me. The plan was simple; handball had associations in all states and the federal capital. The chairmen of the associations will constitute the electorate. We set up our constitution as a first step adopted by our full council. We were probably the only association then with a constitution for a long time.

Our determination to be independent stemmed from the fact that all our national championships were sponsored or locally sourced. We only depended on the NSC which is now the Ministry of Sports Development for international competitions or major games like the All Africa Games that involved foreign exchange.

The board of the national associations changed with the frequency with which the NSC chairman changed. It made the national associations unstable in terms of tenure of office and membership, as they were handpicked.

The late Akinyele was succeeded by the late Babashola Rhodes, a Lagos-born renowned legal practitioner who appeared to be more forward-looking and was interested in changing the status quo. He brought a young dynamic guy who was then Director of Imo States Sports Council to work as his director. His name is Patrick Ekeji, a former national footballer who later became Director General of the Ministry of Sports.

In 1994, they set out to stabilise the national associations by first establishing a four-year tenure for the board of national associations and introducing for the very first time, elections into the national associations. Though the first elections into the national associations were limited to the president, the first vice president and the second vice president and nine other members were added by a formula devised by the NSC including a secretary general.

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The electorate was made up of all state association chairmen, the true stakeholders.

By any standard, it was a victory for democracy, and it was a giant step for the national associations which became national federations from 1994. I had the privilege of being the last appointed and the first elected president of the handball federation.

From 1994 to date, very little movement has been made in ensuring full democratisation of the national federations. Various formulations were used, including concessioning some national federations that have no place in the sports fraternity, which turned out to be a disaster, plunging federations like rugby into crisis.

Going forward, the elections have been based solely on the sports ministry guidelines which in many cases created more questions than answers with attendant unnecessary conflict in many federations.

I am aware that former sports minister Solomon Dalung, while in a meeting with a selected group of presidents and the president of the Nigeria Olympic Committee, Habu Gumel, held at Protea Hotel in Lagos, promised to fully democratise the national federations, and encourage them to produce their constitutions so that they can be registered by the Corporate Affairs Commission. Unfortunately, it was not possible before his departure from the ministry.

I was thrilled to listen to the interview of his successor, Sunday Dare, on a radio programme in May when he supported the independence of national federations. He had also emphasised the need for sports to move from recreational to business model. He even publicly announced granting six national federations authority to conduct their elections according to their statute. This actually gave a ray of hope, signaling light at the end of the tunnel.

While allowing the elections to the five other federations to proceed using their statute, he unfortunately ate his words, and made all efforts to scuttle the basketball federation elections due to external pressures on him. At the end of the day, the truth prevailed and the sports minister and the ministry recognised the basketball federation election which is probably the most democratic sports federation election in the history of Nigeria. It is my hope that the new sports minister John Enoh will build on this.

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All elections, be it national federations, continental or international, are held after the Olympics. That means that federation elections are round the corner, after the Paris Olympics and we must do it right. We must discard the idea of election guidelines by the sports ministry, a process that does not conform to international sports norms, and allow all national federations to conduct their elections using their statute or constitution which is the standard international best practices.

Those elections must be supervised by the Nigeria Olympic Committee and the sports ministry. The last crisis arising from elections into the last national sport federations was saved by the fact that the NOC was a co-signatory to the guidelines during Dalung’s tenure.

While the International Olympic Committee and the international federations recognise the important role that government plays in sports, especially in developing countries, they, however, encourage the independence of national federations and frown at unnecessary government interference.

That explains why the international federations will usually deal with the Olympic committees, and not the government, in the sports federation crisis.

Article 3.6 of the Nigeria Olympic Committee states that, “The NOC shall cooperate with the appointed agencies of the federal, state and local governments and other non-governmental organisations established for the promotion of sports. But the NOC shall preserve its autonomy and resist all pressures of any kind including those of political, religious or economic nature that may prevent the NOC from complying with its constitution and the charter/constitution of the sporting bodies it is affiliated to and those affiliated to it.”

I am aware that many national federations have their constitution and I believe the sticking point is the position of the secretary general. The ministry will like their secretaries to be federation secretary, a position totally out of step with best practices. All executives of national federations must be elected. There is a need for acceptable compromise; while the federations are allowed to elect their officers, the government can nominate a representative on the board to protect their interest who can be the old secretaries of such federations.

The Nigeria Olympic Committee is a partner of the Ministry of Sports Development and both must work harmoniously to promote sports in the country.

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The national federation elections are less than a year and a half away, the NOC must work closely with the national federations and the Ministry of Sports Development to ensure that elections are conducted in line with international best practices by using the constitutions of the federations as enshrined in Article 3.6 of the NOC statute.

Unlike the ministry guidelines, the national federation constitution is not one-size-fits-all. The constitutions vary for different federations. At the end of the day the buck starts and ends on the table of the leadership of the NOC in case of crises related to national federation elections.

It is important to stress that the fact that the federations are independent does not mean they are not accountable to the Minister of Sports Development who is the sole representative of the Federal Government on sports.

In reality, most federations fend for themselves from running the office to raising funds for competitions. The only time is when they are involved in major international engagements. Our style must change, like the Red Cross; the government should give national federations yearly grants and expect an audited account at the end of the year.

Like minds started the triathlon in 2005 and the only time we received fund from the government was during the 2011 All Africa Games in Maputo. We have been in many continental championships and even a world championship in 2008 in Canada, all corporate sponsored. Before triathlon was baseball, they represented Nigeria in All Africa Games in Zimbabwe in 1995, South Africa in 1999 and Abuja in 2003. A baseball park was built for them in Abuja by the government. This is confirmation that this is possible. Currently we have pentathlon and archery.

While the sports ministry advocates corporate sponsorship of federation, their stranglehold on the federation is an impediment to corporate sponsorship. Most corporate organisations will prefer to deal with non-governmental, non-profit sporting organisations.

The NOC has a sacred responsibility to ensure the next sport federation elections, barely a year and a half away, are conducted based on the respective federations’ statute.

Glover, former Vice President of African Handball Confederation, writes via l[email protected]

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