• Herdsmen hold sway at national edifice
It is three days to the commencement of the much talked about 19th National Sports Festival scheduled for Abuja. Already, all the states are putting finishing touches to their preparations for the event. The youth across the country are excited because at long last, six years to be precise, the National Sports Festival will hold after being postponed six times after Eko 2012 fiesta.
But while the states and their contingents are getting ready for what they believe will offer them the opportunity to display their talents, the Abuja National Stadium seems not aware of the quantum of responsibility the federal Ministry of Sports have placed on it.
The Federal Ministry of Sports decided to host the festival in Abuja when it became obvious that the Cross River State government, which bided and won the hosting right to stage it in 2014, was no longer willing to do so. And so, enters the Abuja National Stadium, which main bowl has a capacity of 60,491.
It is a multipurpose structure constructed to host the COJA 2003 All Africa Games. The stadium, which has a grass surface, was meant to be home to the Nigerian national football teams.
The stadium, which also had a Games Village, cost the country $360 million, and is regarded as one of the 50 most expensive stadiums ever built in the world.Among the facilities delivered to the Federal Government before the 2003 Africa Games were the 60,491-capacity covered main bowl, Presidential suite and viewing area, 56 corporate suites, post offices, banks, media facilities, two scoreboards and floodlights, shops and kiosks for snacks, a helipad, 3000 capacity indoor sports hall, 2000 capacity gymnasium, 2000 capacity swimming pool, tennis courts, 3000 capacity hockey stadium, baseball and softball complex.
In effect, the Abuja Stadium in its original form could effectively host any big international competition without recourse to external venues for some of the events. It also met the requirements of the international safety standards, as it had emergency service units, closed circuit security cameras, as well as crowd control steel fencing. There were also stand-by firefighting equipment and metal detectors put in place to avoid any misfortunes. But all these facilities are either lying comatose or have been vandalized. “Some have not been put to better use,” a staffer of the Sports Ministry told The Guardian.
It seems the stadium was doomed to collapse after the COJA 2003 All Africa Games as no tangible arrangement was made for the maintenance or sustenance of the facilities. This became evident in the early days with the neglect of the Velodrome, which has not hosted any event since it was constructed to serve as a venue of some of cycling events.
Aside the Velodrome, the main bowl of the stadium has deteriorated such that it cannot host any activity without endangering their limbs of athletes and spectators.
Unlike the equally abandoned National Stadium in Lagos, which manages to host rugby matches and basketball competitions, the only marginally functional arm of the Abuja stadium is the Package B, which has become a multipurpose event centre.
A visitor to Abuja will think that the government is ready for a grand festival with the number of electronic billboards dotting strategic positions in the FCT. But the reality is that apart from the sorry state of the facilities, the organizers will face a big challenge dislodging Fulani herdsman, who have converted the Abuja National Stadium into a fertile land for nurturing their cattle.
At the weekend, officials of the Sports Ministry were seen at the stadium with workers trying to cut the tall grasses, which has taken over almost every part of the complex, including Packages A and B, as well as the much talked about Sunday Dankaro House, the structure meant to house the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). Fresh as well as dried cow dung dot the asphalt within the complex, just as rabbit and other reptiles’ holes is visible within the main bowl pitch.
Of concern to ministry officials is the vandalisation of the close circuit television (CCTV) and other gadgets worth thousands of dollars at the complex.Explaining the rot at the stadium, a top staff in the Sports Ministry, who pleaded anonymity, blamed the neglect of sports infrastructure across the country on the National Assembly.
“This Abuja National Stadium as well as in Lagos and other Federal Government owned stadia across the country have been cut off from electricity supply for over three years now. The budget for the maintenance of the Federal Government owned stadia was ridiculously slashed by the National Assembly, thereby rendering our maintenance plans meaningless.
“You can imagine the National Assembly mutilating the sports ministry’s budget such that what is left cannot maintain one of the Federal Government stadia. That is the situation currently confronting the ministry. The National Assembly is the main problem and cause of infrastructure decay in the sports sector.”
But other stakeholders blame the ministry for failing to carry out routine maintenance, including cleaning the environment and providing adequate security around the complex.According to some security officials at the gates of the stadium, the neglect of the complex gave herdsmen unhindered access to the stadium. They disclosed that some of the officials see the presence of the herdsmen in the stadium as necessary for the weeding of the grasses.
“The herdsmen come into the stadium with their cattle almost every day. They come through the collapsed portion of the fence and we cannot stop them because we are not armed.“The big men at the ministry are aware of the situation, but they have refused to do anything about it, meaning they are comfortable with it.
“We cannot stop the herdsmen with their cattle because we are not armed, and they (the sports ministry) have refused to engage policemen to beef up the security around the stadium.
“Look at weeds everywhere on the premises and they have refused to engage someone to clear the weeds. Maybe the government is trying to save money by allowing the animals to graze on weeds,” one of the security guards said.Another security official said: “If you came here during the rainy season around June, July, we would think you were in a mini zoo with the number of rodents, birds and some reptiles you would see running around everywhere.
“Sometimes it was risky to enter the premises at night because you didn’t know what you would meet. Snakes or scorpions could bite you. It was only recently that some people started coming to clean the place. But instead of doing that, they spend most of their time lamenting the state of the nation.”Apart from the main bowl of the Abuja National Stadium, the Velodrome has been under lock and key since 2015 when thousands of gas stoves bought ahead of the general elections by the Goodluck Jonathan’s regime were stored in it.
An official explained that the velodrome’s deteriorating condition and the gas stoves loaded into the facility have prevented its use even for training.Lamenting the sorry state of the velodrome, Nigeria Cycling Federation President, Engineer Giando Menico Massari said it was unfortunate the facility had been allowed to rot even when the multimillion naira edifice has not been certified by the world cycling governing body, UCI. “This means that even when put in order, it still cannot host any major international event.”
Giando described the Abuja National Stadium Velodrome as the best in Africa, adding, however, that it is sad that it has not contributed in any way to the development of cycling in the country. He explained that UCI had in 2007 sent officials on inspection visit to the Velodrome and directed that internal barrier be installed in it.
“I have a very limited power on the control of the Velodrome. It’s a long story to tell. All I can say is that there is a court injunction that the items should not be moved out. It is an inter-ministerial matter.“Once the materials kept in the Velodrome are cleared, we will start the process of building the internal barrier as directed by UCI so that we go ahead with our plan to stage the African Championship. UCI is ready to come on inspection visit on a very short notice,” he added.
The Guardian learnt that after the Africa Games, some stakeholders advised the Federal Government to privatise the stadium to forestall the vandalisation typical of publicly owned buildings, but some “people close to then government advised against taking that route.”
According to a former director in the Sports Ministry, who pleaded anonymity, one of the issues that have dogged the maintenance of the stadium is the yearly estimate of about $7 million, which was presented to the government after the All African Games.The Guardian learnt that at a time, the sports ministry got N1.2 billion annually to maintain only Package A of the stadium. But, since 2012, N300 million has been appropriated for all the six national stadia across the country, including the stadia in Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Kaduna, Bauchi and Abuja.
A former director general of the scrapped National Sports Commission (NSC), Dr. Patrick Ekeji said part of the challenge facing the Abuja National Stadium and other facilities across the country was the lack of dedicated means of funding their maintenance.
He said: “There should be a commission charged solely with the maintenance of facilities. The number of stadia and facilities is enough to create a department for maintenance. I say this because with the way sports is structured now, there will never be enough money for facilities’ maintenance. No money is budgeted for maintenance of facilities. We created funds for maintenance through the general overheads in the budget, which is very meagre.
Ekeji added: “Part of the challenge running government offices is that even when the budget is passed, all the money may not be released. What they normally release 100 per cent is overhead costs. Money for capital expenditure are hardly released as approved. There is no sub-head for maintenance of stadia. The Ministry of Finance approve the sub-heads based on what they perceive is right. So, sports hardly get what it requires to function effectively.”
Ekeji said it would be impossible for the stadium to be ready for the sports festival because of the time left before the events begin.“How will they get the National Stadium ready? Do we have the maintenance technology when we did not contribute in building the stadium? Where will the money come from? The tracks have failed and cannot be fixed in a few days. That is the challenge in running sports in Nigeria,” he said.