By Essien Ndueso
When Governor Udom Emmanuel assumed office in 2015, he made an unequivocal statement that the future of sports in Nigeria lies in Akwa Ibom. His arrival coincided with the failure of Nigeria in global sports tournaments. The Super Eagles as defending Champions failed to qualify for two successive African cup tournaments. The age grades competitions that the country held sway previously became elusive all of a sudden. Parading one of the largest contingents to the last summer Olympics games in Rio De Janerio, the Nigerian team came back with a solitary bronze medal, won in football.
The Governor who maintains that Nigeria has no business performing dismally in global sports scene with the abundance of raw talents untapped across the country and has embarked upon series of programmes targeted at hunting and nurturing talents into international stars. The Governor also approved the establishment of model school sports academies in the 10 Federal Constituencies in the state with the completion of the first school sports complex at West Itam Secondary school sports complex.
The first ever youth sports festival for all schools in Akwa Ibom State was held with a charge on students to see the competitions as a common spring board to fame and a brighter future. Governor Udom Emmanuel who declared the competitions open at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, said by exposing the students to the best sporting facilities at an early age, his administration was giving them wings to soar to greater heights. The result of this include, increased interest and participation in sports by the youths and the recent overall 2nd best team, won by the state contingent to the 2017 National youths sports festival in Illorin, Kwara State.
For the National male soccer team, Mr Udom Emmanuel has become the team’s number one supporter, providing them a fortress in Uyo for their home games and stimulating support and inspiration for the Eagles’ success. The smooth sail of the Super Eagles to next year’s mundial in Russia, has been greatly linked to the active support of the Governor through his prayers and maintenance of good sporting and hospitality facilities for the team’s success. For example, apart from the financial incentives to the Eagles, the visit to the team’s camp and mobilizing fans to cheer the team in the home qualifiers against the Cameroonian’s, the Governor on September 1, 2017 in a statewide prayer and fasting in the state had prophesied victory for the team. “The Eagles cannot come here and play against Cameroun on a day we are praying and fasting as a state, and fail to win. I believe that God will answer our prayers and enable our Eagles to win by at least 2-3 goals,” Governor Emmanuel had said. The match ended 4 nil.
But the governor does seem determined to do more. To him , sports in other places are multi-billion naira businesses which could only be so realized in Nigeria if there are timely provisions of standard facilities for budding talents. Before 2015, Akwa Ibom state did not have a significant presence in the national sports scene. Akwa United, the state darling team was a mere passenger in the elite division of the national league. It had never reached the final of the FA cup or Federation cup as it was variously known previously. No team had ever recorded such feat from this side of the wood, the former South Eastern State region. Only few people believed Governor Emmanuel when he said that he is turning Akwa United into continental hopefuls, and even when the team emerged champions in 2015, it was assumed to be a fluke. However in 2017, the team bounced back, well-motivated, inspired and funded by the state government. For the first time in its 20 years history, Akwa United in 2017 finished as one of the best four teams in the Nigerian Elite Division, in 4th position, one point behind third place Enyimba International of Aba.
Before the final match of the AITEO Cup played at the Agege stadium last October, the players were pleasantly surprised at the visit of their number one supporter and leader, Governor Udom Emmanuel. He met them at the dressing room few minutes before the match and had a word of encouragement to boost their spirit. Even the array of spectators largely Akwa Ibom sports loving supporters were full of optimism of the victory of their darling team, especially with the level of motivation by the Governor. The contingent from the state at the match reemphasized the governor’s zeal in sports development. Commissioner for Information, Charles Udoh, Health Dr Dominic Ukpong, Chief Whip of the House of Assembly, Hon. Emmanuel Ekpenyong, House Member for Ikono, Hon. Victor Udofia, and the member representing Onna, Otuekong Nse Essien, were among those who voiced their confidence at the Agege Stadium before the match.
The tension soaked match which ended in a scoreless deadlock saw neither team able to score a goal, meaning that the encounter had to be decided on spot kicks. It was tensions raised during the resulting penalty shootout as penalties are usually regarded as no man’s specialty. And in this instance, over 7 kicks missed the target with only 4 making it inside the net. Until the deciding kick from Gabriel Okechukwu of Akwa United, after the spot kicks had stretched to sudden dead ball, the atmosphere was electric.
Next day at the Ibom International Airport, on return from the epic encounter, a visibly excited Governor Udom Emmanuel told state house correspondents the significance of the victory, identifying unity and teamwork as key ingredients to development. Most Akwa Ibom stakeholders, including, the Permanent Secretary, Bureau of Political and legislative Affairs, Mr Nse Edem, state ALGON Chairman, Frank Archibong, among others, have this to say about sports and Governor Emmanuel’s passion for Sports.
When finally the all-conquering team arrived in Uyo, it was a harvest of celebration and festivity. The players were full of excitement and appreciation to the Governor for motivating them to the unprecedented victory. They included the team captain Otobong Effiong, Goalkeeper Olorunleke Ojo who was adjudged the safest hands and most Valuable Player of the tournament, and Christian Pyagbara the highest goal scorer.
Shortly after Akwa United finished as the 2017 winners of the largest football competition in Nigeria, the Aiteo (Federation)Cup, Governor Udom Emmanuel was on his toes once again, this time kick starting his promises of more sports facilities in the state. Referring to Akwa United’s performance on the night, Governor Emmanuel had said, “I know my team, that is not how the boys usually play. They were not used to the astro turf at the Agege Stadium and that affected their usual smooth free flowing game. As soon as I get back home, we are commencing work on another stadium, which will complement the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium,” Governor Emmanuel had said.
That new stadium turns out to be the almost forgotten old Eket township Stadium constructed by a former chairman of the area, Obong Samuel Atang in 1992. The stadium which was fast becoming an eyesore, is now being replaced by a modern sporting edifice. The issue of a befitting stadium for Eket became a mere political talk shop for successive administrations, irrespective of the area’s contributions to the economy of the country through its oil wealth. Today, Governor Udom Emmanuel has intervened, answering the prayers of Eket people in a spectacular way. According to the Commissioner for Youth and Sports, Sir Monday Ebong Uko, the Eket stadium is a 15,000-seater edifice designed to be equipped with high quality tartan tracks and astro football turf imported from Turkey, Germany and other major sports capitals. The essence is to decentralize sports competitions and provide more standard outlets for sporting activities.
“These are some of the equipment ordered from abroad’. ‘The administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel is not just delivering sports facilities to Akwa Ibom people but facilities which measure up with what is obtainable in other climes”, the Commissioner said.
“I thank the Governor for applying the highest level of financial engineering in the face of the prevalent economic situation of the Country as epitomized in his prudent management of available funds to deliver world-class democracy deliverables to the people of the State”, Mr. Uko posited.
The speed applied in the project execution, is akin to the pace at which the governor is developing all sectors of the economy. If the assurances of the Sports Commissioner are anything to go by, then by March this year, a greater percentage of the project would have been executed. This will be a major leap for a project expected to be completed by the next third anniversary of the Udom Emmanuel-led administration in the state.
Currently in the state, the preliminary stage of the second edition of the schools sports competition has commenced with the local government and zonal eliminations underway. The state darling soccer team has commenced its continental assignments with its first match against the Hawks of Gambia. For the team which has already maintained an unassailable lead on the top of the nation’s elite division table, the morale is quite as it has endeared itself to soccer loving Akwa Ibomites.
It is noteworthy that sports, as a major tourism sector, cannot thrive in an environment bereaved of other tourism and hospitality facilities. This is why the state is investing in over 1700kms of road networks in all parts of the state, revitalizing the health sector with the remodeling and equipping of secondary health care facilities that had hitherto been sorry tales. In the area of security of live and property, Mr. Emmanuel’s leap know no limit as he has rallied support to the different security agencies to ensure the constant maintenance of law and order in the state. The free and compulsory education and industrialization policies, are also catalysts to peace, as the people are mentally armed towards job security and insured future.
Last year while in the state for the schools sports competition, Barr. Solomon Dalung, the nation’s sports minister had lauded Governor Emmanuel for re-inventing sports developments and had challenged other states to key into the vision witnessed in Akwa Ibom.
With these, it is safe to agree with Dalung, that Akwa Ibom under Governor Udom Emmanuel, is charting a course as a pacesetter in the sports scene in Nigeria.