Charles Udoh, Akwa Ibom State commissioner for information and strategy, in this interview with ANIEFIOK UDONQUAK, explains the rationale behind the state government’s investment in sports and the opportunities being created for youths in the state through the avenue. Excerpts:
In recent times, we have seen the influx of people to the state in what has been called sports tourism; what does the state stand to benefit in all this?
A lot of people don’t know the benefits. Let me use the Zambian versus Nigerian match as an example. Not many people knew that the Zambians came in with two aircraft with a 400-man delegation. Two weeks before they got here, they hired a woman here to prepare all their meals and if you look at the woman’s economic life today between then and now, it is transformed. If you look at the fact that major hotels in Uyo were fully booked, that guarantees that salaries and basic incomes into those hotels are catered for. If we look at the barest of them all, the recharge card seller, the person might have sold more. Now take away the Zambians. Every neighbouring state to Akwa Ibom State, people migrated to Akwa Ibom State, that is massive income coming to the state. It does not go to the government directly. Now, what did government promise two-and-a-half years ago? It promised job creation, wealth creation and power alleviation. Government did not promise to grow more jobs in the civil service. Government promised that it was going to create enabling environment for business to begin to thrive. Now, the ordinary man who sells recharge card, if he manages his finances well, he can grow his business capital. Imagine when we have the succession of those events coming up in the state, it means many people would have a steady stream of income. The economy would begin to grow, even around the where the stadium is located, many shops are opening there. People are beginning to think of what to do to benefit from the hosting of football matches. Some people are aspiring to have merchandise shops in front of the stadium knowing that there will always be an event. Football is big business and that is why people invest heavily. Government has done this because we want to give beyond the social and our young men who probably would have seen Victor Moses as a robot now they see him live believing that if Victor Moses can play in Chelsea, it means they can also play at Chelsea. So, the young man in the street who is talented can begin to say I cannot be timid. If I have the opportunity, I would grab it with both hands.
What has informed government’s decision to be involved in sports development?
In the last one or two months, there have been some topical issues around the state which I thought we need to expand further. For instance, a lot of people don’t understand the benefits of Uyo hosting the Super Eagles. A lot of people don’t even understand the importance of Akwa United winning the FA Cup the second time in three years. A lot of them don’t even understand how that connects with government. From the angle of the people of Akwa Ibom State, I used to play football in this state and I know that we never had opportunities. Today, no Akwa Ibom man can be timid rather we intimidate people. The mention of Akwa Ibom, people will stand up and take us seriously. Those are things we need to bring to the attention of all and then for the young ones who are aspiring, I sit down sometimes and I ask myself, may be my life would have been different if we had the kind of environment we have today. My dream of going to school was not to wear coat and tie, I wanted to be a footballer and so I went to school just as a back-up plan and unfortunately we did not have those opportunities. I ask myself if we had the opportunity they had, it means we would have ruled Nigeria. Today, our young men don’t even see the opportunities in front of them. We need to take these messages to the people. Let them begin to see the opportunity and key into these opportunities. Today, the state government is building industries, and what do you hear, instead of us standing up as a people to look for opportunities around those facilities, people in the name of politics are saying it is not true. I am thinking that with the things that the state government is doing, there might not be those gigantic projects, things that are sustainable that if we support and help educate people , it will change the way we think and our ways of life. There is so much pressure on government in terms of employment. So today we are having opportunities when we are setting up industries to be able to give Akwa Ibom person an opportunity to have the choice of deciding either to work in the private sector the public service. I decided when I stayed back in Lagos to get a job, my father was complaining that I should come back home and take up appointment as an assistant lecturer that I was offered but I told him that everything in life is a risk. Our people should be able to change their psyche. Someone called me to find out though the governor had succeeded in making Akwa United win the FA cup, how many Akwa Ibom people are in the team and I said, what about Real Madrid, how many players from Spain are there? We have facilities. We want to give our young ones the opportunity to aspire.
Is it true that Akwa Ibom government is no longer the real owner of Akwa United FC? Is it true that Akwa United has been privatised?
Privatised? I am not aware of that. To the best of my knowledge, Akwa United is a fully-owned state team, it is one of the teams owned by the state government that is discussed in the state executive council. That shows how serious the state government takes Akwa United. Akwa United is probably one of the teams in Nigeria where salaries are promptly paid and the players have no reasons to complain. Not because the state government has so much money to throw about but simply because government sees the benefits of investing in sports. And you know that football is one sport that unifies the people across the political divide. At the Agege Stadium in Lagos when we were vying for the FA cup, there were no political parties, there were no ethnicity, everybody rose in unison to say that it was Akwa Ibom State and when we won, we all congratulated each other and came back together with the trophy as Akwa Ibom State. Football is one sport that unifies beyond Akwa Ibom State. So the state government solely funds Akwa United up till today and will continue to do so in the nearest future. We know that in the history of football in Nigeria, state owned teams hardly do well. Governor Udom Emmanuel is determined to ensure that ours is a model state owned team with a difference. If you look at the league table, there is very few state-owned teams right there. Ours is a unique one, Akwa United is 100 percent owned and funded by the Akwa Ibom State government.
The state government has recorded many landmark achievements in sports, how can this be sustained to boost sports tourism in the state?
What the state government will do is simply to go back to the drawing board to see what we did well, how do we sustain it and why didn’t we do well and how can we improve upon that. No one would record the level of success that we have recorded and rest and say we have arrived. That will be deceitful, for me, we have not arrived. That is just the beginning because, I know the governor we have, his dream is to conquer Africa and take it to the world stage. We have just won the FA cup; we just lost the finals of the female FA cup. We have just taken Nigeria to the World Cup in Russia next year. We will with the guys in the sports ministry sit back and begin to see how do we step up to the next level. We have a team today and I can proudly beat my chest that we play the best style of football and that must be sustained. As a team, foreign scouts are hanging around. I know the technical crew of Akwa United has done their homework. When we started the league, we had problems in few areas especially in goal keeping and midseason we brought in a keeper and today is the most valuable player in the Aiteo Cup. Government is not resting, we would continue to ensure that we step up the game and also it is important because we want to give our youths opportunity. Don’t forget that when the governor took over the mantle of leadership, he promised to build sport facilities, he promised to develop sports and so far, one sporting centre has been completed, the second one is nearing completion. We had the youth sports festival which is the direct result of what our performance at the national sports festival was. And you see the impact of Akwa United which is the direct result of government’s investment in sports. The female team has never been to the FA cup final and it will be an escape route for some girls from poverty. Akwa United today is a model, I don’t think any player in the country would be approached by Akwa United and such a player would turn it down for any reason because we have made our mark. We lost the league narrowly and for me. If we had the full compliments of the players we had till the end of the season, we would probably had won the league. This shows that our technical crew did its homework well. We realise midseason that we had loopholes and we brought a few players who totally turned around the team. Today we have Akwa United going back to play at the continental level. Remember our last involvement in continental competition and we ended in a fiasco because we lost at home. Now lessons that were learnt and we have applied those lessons. Now don’t forget that today we are lucky to have a team manager in Akwa United that is seen it all in terms of African football. And so with the experience he has, we won’t make the same mistake again. And we also have a team that is littered with players who have represented Nigeria. We have about five or six boys who have played for Nigeria at different competitions. That experience will come in handy. The only fear I have is if the foreign scouts with the lure of Dollars let them be, again, even if they leave, we would still go round the rest of the country to find new players to come and represent the state.
Grassroots sports development is key in discovering new talents; is the state government thinking in this direction?
We are on the right track. First we have sports centres in our schools. The reason is simple. We need students to combine sports with education. You don’t need to abandon education for sports. You take about a feeder team, we have Akwa Starlets, the reality is that in other climes, there are organised systems which are devoid of sentiments. We are just at the starting point. But we have so many teams in the league. That is why we have Akwa United and Starlets These teams are supposed to be breeding grounds. That is why we also have youth sports festival for us to find new talents. We had the first youth’s sports festival which was highly successful and we pick talents that went to the national sports festival that did us proud. By the time we do the second and third festival, I believe we will find enough talents to be able to feed our teams. We cannot grow talents overnight because these talents need exposure and experience to be able to get into the centre stage. If you pick a talented young man from the youths sports festival no matter how good he is and throw him into the thick of Akwa United, he will struggle to survive. It is a gradual process until they are matured enough to get into the main team.