A very unhappy anniversary for Nigeria

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Nigeria has been celebrating fifty years of independence over the last week. FIFA turned up late to the celebrations, but they did at least bring a present – indefinite suspension from all international competitions with immediate effect on account of government interference.

Happy 50th anniversary everyone!

FIFA’s statement read as follows: “The FIFA Emergency Committee decided today, 4 October 2010, to suspend the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) with immediate effect on account of government interference.”

“This decision follows the latest events linked to the NFF, such as the court actions against elected members of the NFF Executive Committee preventing them from exercising their functions and duties, the stepping down of the acting NFF General Secretary on the instructions of the National Sports Commission, the decision of the Minister of Sports to have the Nigerian League start without relegation from the previous season, and the fact that the NFF Executive Committee cannot work properly due to this interference.”

“The suspension will be maintained until the court actions have ceased and the duly elected NFF Executive Committee is able to work without any interference.”

Since a dismal set of World Cup performances saw the Super Eagles eliminated at the group stage, Nigerian football has been in turmoil.

The thrilling beauty of World Cups, and the reason they continue to retain such dramatic weight, is because of their unique capacity to shape or permanently alter football’s landscape. World Cups ingrain themselves in our minds so deeply, their spotlight so intense, that any resulting repercussions are forcefully accentuated.

We saw it with France, where the national team’s antics prompted a seismic shift in the perception of football and footballers by an outraged French public.

France’s World Cup debacle prompted serious soul-searching - not just in football terms but also socially and culturally. In the Netherlands, aggressive World Cup final tactics against Spain provoked a complete identity crisis, leading renowned figures like Johan Cruyff to question the very essence of what Dutch football is supposed to stand for. World Cups can shape and alter national identities.

The Yak's miss against Korea proved costly

In Nigeria the same applies. If Yakubu was not so negligent in his finishing, the Super Eagles would have qualified for the second round (undeservedly so, but still…), none of this would have happened and I wouldn’t be here writing this column. But all this did happen and here we are. Cause and effect.

So what happened, exactly?

When Nigeria were eliminated from the World Cup, Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan, to the sound of worldwide sniggering, announced the withdrawal of his nation from international competition for two years. As the statement read, this was done “to enable the country to put its house in order.”

The statement also announced an audit of the World Cup’s organising committee after Rotimi Amaechi, head of a special presidential task force on the World Cup campaign, commented, “We went to the World Cup and found all sorts of problems.”

Among those problems, the payment of allowances of $800,000 to 220 delegates to the World Cup in South Africa, only 47 of which were authorised Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) officials, mismanagement of N900million (US$6million) World Cup funds, the purchase of unnecessarily luxurious buses, the incurring of a $125,000 fine in South Africa for booking a hotel unapproved by FIFA, mismanagement of $250,000 used to charter a faulty aircraft for the Super Eagles from London to South Africa and the $400,000 spent on a friendly match between Colombia and Nigeria in London.

All these were charges brought against NFF officials including former President Sani Lulu by Nigeria’s anti-corruption body, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in a court case in September. The same body of officials who, in FIFA’s words, are being “prevented from exercising their functions and duties,” by the government’s court orders.

Following Jonathan’s bold decision, Lulu and three other members of NFF’s board were sacked, pending a general assembly to appoint a new board to take Nigerian football forward. After years of inefficient, wasteful management of Nigerian talent, this was perceived as a move aimed at sweeping out the old and ushering in a new, transparent era for Nigerian football at administrative level.

The players were left to reflect on a disappointing summer

In Nigeria, many are of the opinion that serious structural reform is desperately needed. Jonathan’s actions were seen as drastic but necessary to facilitate root and branch reform. Jonathan came into power with electoral reform and the fight against corruption high on the ticket. Here he was showing that the fight extends to corruption in Nigeria’s football administration.

The only cloud on Jonathan’s horizon is FIFA. Government interference into football matters is strictly forbidden by football’s international governing body. FIFA’s threat of further sanctions – the exclusion of Nigerian referees and Nigerian teams from the African Champions League and no guarantee of re-entry into FIFA after two years are served - prompted Jonathan to go back on his decision.

FIFA’s blanket rule on government interference however is both draconian and ill-thought-out. For a start, the NFF is government funded. Unlike the FA in England, which is self-sustaining and only receives a small percentage of government funding for grassroots projects, the NFF relies heavily on government grants. Surely a government should be free to investigate how its own money is being spent without fear of sanction from people whose job is to organise football matches? Not according to FIFA.

In the three months since the World Cup ended, Nigerian football has seen a board sacked, elections held and then suspended, new board members elected and then refused position, committees established and then put on hold, claims and counter-claims, litigations, accusations, complaints and enough sniping, back-biting and bureaucratic posturing to fill another ten seasons of low-budget American political drama.

The people in power don’t want to give it up. The people out of power complain that their paths are being unfairly blocked. It is, quite simply, a complete and utter mess.

FIFA’s one size fits all stance does not help. Their announcement rebukes Nigeria’s government for not allowing the NFF Executive Committee to “work properly” and cites “the stepping down of the acting NFF General Secretary on the instructions of the National Sports Commission” as reason for Nigeria’s suspension.

But that acting general secretary, Musa Amadu, was summoned for contempt of court, alleged to have defied a court order to stop the processes leading to the NFF board elections. And the body FIFA scolded the Nigerian government for “not allowing to work properly” is currently under investigation for a series of corruption charges. How’s that for rough justice?

Ultimately, it'll be Nigeria's fans that suffer

Unravelling this web of corruption and deceit is a process that requires hours, weeks and months of investigation. In July, the EFCC froze three NFF bank accounts as part of its investigation into the alleged N1.3 billion fraud.

When Glenn Hoddle was interviewed for the Nigeria job before the World Cup, he alleged that having agreed a US$1m contract, he was told it would be announced at US$1.5m with the rest as kickback for an official. The plumes and plumes of smoke make it hard to believe there is no fire.

FIFA’s blanket policy on ‘government interference’ is fundamentally flawed as it fails to take into account cases where government is the only body powerful enough to investigate those suspected of mishandling public funds.

Imagine running a factory that supplies milk and discovering that vast amounts of your produce is going to waste, only to be told you’re not allowed to investigate the cows’ milking area.

President Jonathan’s hands have effectively been tied by FIFA, while suspending Nigeria only brings us back to where we were in the first place – attempting to put the country’s house in order.

Hopefully FIFA’s suspension provides Nigeria with the catalyst it needs to carry out comprehensive structural reform. Things need to move fast. Nigeria are supposed to play Guinea in an African Cup of Nations qualifier this weekend.

However all the accusations, investigations and recriminations since the Super Eagles’s mismanaged World Cup campaign only shines a torch on the suggestions of corruption that have blighted Nigerian football for years.

Sadly, the spilt milk here is a generation of Nigerian footballers and football fans whose love for the game has been let down badly by poor administration.