A Nigerian ChampionWhat does national pride mean?

What does it mean in the context of being a Nigerian?

These are questions that the average thinking Nigerian is plagued with on a daily basis. We are all witness to the sorry state of Nigeria today and the stories of her progressive deterioration since independence, yet the song of hope of a better tomorrow has continued to be handed from one generation to the other with no indication of a promise land in sight. The implausibility of this song of hope is a glaring reality that we are yet to come to terms with considering that things have hardly ever really improved in Nigeria since 1960.

The fact that Nigeria is one of the richest nations in the world in terms of her abundance in natural resources and cultural diversity is most tragic because it has neither translated into development, nor provided a better living and an empowering atmosphere for her citizens. The reverse is clearly the case.

That notwithstanding, Nigeria has continued to survive and occasionally astound in nearly every field of endeavor despite being an undeveloped nation sorely plagued and stunted by corruption. Every now and then, a hero arises and momentarily replaces our black mourning clothing with robes of excellence and a crown of gold.

Two days ago, a respected acquaintance from the Nigerian Boxing Federation visited my office with a young athlete – Efe Ajagba, a boxer par excellence; and a bright star on the rise who had just secured the only spot for Nigeria at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio after qualifying for the final of the just concluded AIBA Africa Olympic Boxing qualifiers in Yaounde, Cameroon. The 2015 All Africa Games gold medallist went on to defeat Morocco’s Mohammed Arjaoui at the finals. He glowingly represented Nigeria by starting from the rung of the boxing ladder to the top.

Efe Ajagba at the 20th Commonwealth Games

Efe Ajagba at the 20th Commonwealth Games

With Efe Ajagba.jpg

With Efe Ajagba and his latest gold medal

When the young lad was introduced, national pride took over as myself and my colleague fell over ourselves taking pictures with him and admiring his latest medal of achievement. It’s not every day you come across an actual gold medalist at an international competition. For all I cared, I was rubbing shoulders with a potential Floyd Mayweather who I got to learn, hit boxing limelight after his exploits at the Olympics. The down-to-earth young man was obviously amused and gladly obliged.

After all the fawning, we got to talk. He wasn’t much of a talker but he communicated as best as he could as we watched clips of his fights on his mobile phone where he decimated his opponents through thoughtful, skillful and intelligent boxing. And of course, there was that vicious right-hook that flashed without warning, knocking the wind out of his opponents. He spoke about his fights; how his knuckles usually got swollen after each fight and how ice usually did the trick in mending them; the unsportsmanlike behavior exhibited by an opponent in the just concluded competition who sought to emulate Tyson when he was frustrated by Holyfield in the ring and a wide range of topics.

As we spoke, what struck me was the pride and light in his eyes as he spoke about representing his country and his Delta State of origin on the world stage. For a moment, I tried to imagine what that felt like; to be famous, to be cheered, to be loved, to read your name on the pages of the newspaper, to have your profile on the internet’s search engine next to your herculean achievements – it had to be good.

I was still going through his phone, looking at his photo gallery when I came across pictures of what was his training ground in Nigeria is and I was overcome with disgust. The training ground looked like the ruins of an ancient amphitheater where gladiators achieved glory and died; obviously the remains of a dilapidated and abandoned structure that once stood a proud stadium.


A champion’s training ground at home

My admiration for this young man who fought against the odds to succeed multiplied immensely. Efe Ajagba is the personification of the heroic rose that grew out of the cracks on a cemented floor. The hanging car tires with strong twine that sought to replace some training equipment and the make-shift boxing ring which consisted of four battered wooden poles barely standing connected by a single drooping rope all through with a once grassy floor now barren from the foot-works of amateurs and trainers dreaming of professional glory as the platform was all so picturesque.

I was once again reminded of the reality of the country we all lived in; a country that demanded much after providing nothing; like a deadbeat father who abandoned his child at infancy only to appear many years later to lay claim to the now-successful-child-turned-adult. Our conversation took a negative turn when he complained bitterly about how badly Nigerian athletes were treated by the instituted bodies that were meant to safeguard their interests and nurture their skills but had become parasitic elements and agents of disillusion to many who had ever had a dream to bring glory to Nigeria’s name.

This is no new story however but shocking nonetheless. These sports administrative bodies filled with redundant and constantly recycled old horses receive hefty allocations yearly from the national purse to cater for the welfare of athletes but divert same to fill bottomless pockets and satisfy their insatiably greedy appetites without being penalized after leaving many frustrated talents in their wake. It is the reason we have so many great Nigerian athletes breaking barriers in the world of sports for different nationalities because a deeply corrupt Nigeria and her institutions suppress talents and productivity.

I felt his pain…even as I applauded his sacrifice. The infrequent and sometimes insulting allowances can’t even cover the cost of food supplements, training kits and other necessary equipment. I felt it more when he lamented how the perception of his financial status had changed without an actual corresponding change in his financial status especially now that he had responsibilities to family and friends. All I could do was encourage him to focus on improving himself as a person, better his career chances by hard work and push on regardless of the obstacles as much as possible, putting God first above every other thing.

The Nigerian situation is a demoralizing one that can reduce the burning fire of talent and skill to a flicker until it is finally extinguished. The last Olympics I really spent time to watch many, many years ago as a teenager, I had wondered why we had so many Nigerian names representing flags other than green, white and green. The answer is so clear now.

Efe Ajagba is a talent Nigeria should be proud of and guard with all jealousy, as well as many others showing potential. The Nigerian project will continue to be a pipe-dream, a white elephant project if she does not allow talents flourish.