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Grassroot Sports Development: Towards the Rejuvenation of School Sports in Nigeria

The 2018 National Sports Policy (NSP) draft clearly articulates the vision and direction of the Federal Government (FG) on sports development, particularly on grassroots sports. National Council on Sports (NCS), the highest policy-making body will have to meet to ratify the policy. The Federal Government’s vision is to “develop the sports sector to a world-class level, taking into cognizance sports for all, amateur and professional sports by providing programs and facilities that encourage stakeholders to perform at their best in pursuit of excellence, while benchmarking with best practices for continual development.” 

Three objectives in the NSP pertinent in this discussion include (1) the promotion of a school and institutional sports development, (2) the emphasis of sports is an integral part of the curriculum of educational institutions at all levels (Nursery, Primary, Secondary and Tertiary), and (3) the identification and development of athletes. The NSP calls on the three tiers of government to put in place frameworks and mechanisms for the identification, training, nurturing, and monitoring of talented young athletes. 

The school sports system became an instrument for achieving the above objectives. This is a global best practice.

When Sani Ndanusa, former president of the Nigerian Tennis Federation became the Minister of Youth and Sports Development in 2009 and later the president of the National Olympics Committee (NOC), he committed to develop and improve school sports. Subsequent sports ministers made similar promises but failed to continue the foundation set by Ndanusa, who insisted that a quality grassroots sports development is needed to create a path to podium success in continental and global competitions. The path begins at the primary schools. 

Ndanusa and Chief Patrick Ekeji, his Director-General laid an ambitious and progressive sports development plan to reform the sports sector. The plan included provisions for the development of grassroots sports to begin at schools’ level and sought private/public partnership. They released a 13-Point Agenda for Sports Development. But the plan failed to accomplish its aims or meet its desired outcomes. Both argued that it failed because it lacked legislative backing and private sector support. 

On October 22, 2012, former President Goodluck Jonathan organized the National Sports Retreat to reverse the trend after the National Contingent at the 2012 London Olympics failed to win a single medal. Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, the Minister of Youth and Sports development was determined to revamp the sports sector. He introduced drastic measures and programs at the national level, but he was removed and replaced by a new sports minister Danagogo, who failed to continue with Abdullahi’s programs. 

In 2015, a new political party led by President Muhammadu Buhari took over the government and appointed Solomon Dalung as the new minister of sports who laid out a vision. Dalung served only for three and a half years but was credited for the reform in the national sports federations. He believed that functioning sports federations are the backbone of a successful grassroots sports’ development, especially at the schools’ level. He encouraged national sports federations to work closely with state sports associations to invest time and resources to school sports. It is not clear whether national sports federations and state sports associations have complied.  

When Sunday Dare, the current the Minister of Youth and Sports Development came to office in 2019, he declared that infrastructure, grassroots development, athletes’ welfare and sports as a viable business will be the top priorities of his administration. Former Minister Solomon Dalung had recognized the need to revamp school sports and said that “there has been a systemic failure in our sports development and our school sports” and observed that “it is only in the southern part of the country that you still have sporting activities in few schools, but in the northern part, it is almost dead.” Dalung believed that “states and local governments have a key role to play in grassroots sports development where athletes are discovered and nurtured.” 

Minister Dare, in his commitment to addressing the challenges facing sports development and improvement, has partnered with governments agencies and the private sector notably the Nigerian Economic Summit Group to deal with aspects of his programs. Programs such as Adopt-an-Athlete is getting some great review but there are challenges ahead.

According to the 2018 National Sports Policy draft document, sports and education can coexist. “Sport is an integral part of the formal system of education. It is essential for the total development of an individual, and sports shall, therefore, be part of the school curriculum from nursery school to the tertiary levels.” School sports in Nigeria started to deteriorate at the end of 1990s. In the 1970s and 1980s, school sports were vibrant all the country, young female and male athletes were seen competing actively combining sports and academics in football, basketball, track and field, tennis, table tennis, etc., and competing favourably against their counterparts around the world, winning medals and promoting a positive image of the country. 

School sports is considered one of the most important aspects of Grassroot Sports Development in countries that value sports both as a recreation and a competitive endeavour. The most successful nations at the international competitions such as the Commonwealth and Olympics Games use school sports to identify and nurture talented athletes for podium success right from an early of age of 5. Young athletes are exposed to physical activities and sports skills with the dual benefit of staying healthy and the provision of an opportunity for the discovery of sports potentials that were nurtured to represent the sporting interests of the country in both national and international sports competitions. In these industrialized nations, grassroots sports start from the schools and the primary schools became the conveyor belt and a feeder system. Facilities are provided by the government. Programs in primary and secondary schools are monitored. Activities and results are documented and archived.  

One of the concerns as expressed by many observers and echoed by Dalung is that “what we have now is that state governments leave sports development to the federal government.” He also believed that “budgeting is another bane confronting sports development. He said that “budgeting for sports have not been encouraging and urged the Nigerian legislature to change its attitude to sports.” 

The Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) is the primary organization charged with the responsibility of organizing and coordinating school sports in the country. The YSFON is to liaison with national sports federations and state sports associations to organize competitions in their respective sports.  

One of the major problems mitigating against the revival of school sports is the government effort and the buy-in of politicians. Other problems such as coaching, funding, and private sector support are also critical. Minister Dare is aware of this malaise. He has promised to expose Nigerian coaches and technical officials to modern techniques in coaching and officiating. It is widely believed that youth coaches need a specialized coaching technique, he said. Moreover, the lack of or poor implementation of the National Sports Policy undermines public trust and public and private sector interest in investing sports, especially at the school’s level.

As the National Council on Sports (NCS) meets next week in Edo State, following the postponement of the National Sports Festival tagged “Edo 2020” by President Muhammadu Buhari due to the possible infiltration of Coronavirus’COVID-19 into the country, the extraordinary council will have the opportunity to reconsider the return of the National Sports Commission as a legal, moral and legislative authority to guide the return of school sports. Some of the recommendations for NCS include a reevaluation of physical education curriculum, primary schools, strong directives for junior and senior secondary schools, increase funding, monitoring of sports federations, engagement and provision of incentives to the public and private sector, and strengthening the capacity of institutions of sports. 

Our suggestions and advice therefore are:

My thanks to Dr Kweku Adedayo Tandoh, former Director of Sports, Lagos State and former Chairman, Lagos State Sports Commission and Dr Sadiq Abubakar Abdullahi, Adjunct Professor, Curriculum Studies and Global Education, Florida International University, Miami, Florida, USA, for their expert, professional and very useful ideas and contributions to this article.

akinadejum@aol.com 

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