“Our hosting of the 19th National Sports Festival will be significant as our beautiful and historic city of Calabar, rich in heritage and hospitality, and the first capital of our great nation plays host to all Nigerian athletes from all over the world, professional and amateur alike, in the year of our country’s centenary celebrations.”
Those were the words of former Governor of Cross River State, Liyel Imoke, while unveiling the National Sports Festival logo in 2014.
The governor was so optimistic, when he declared that his administration would host a National Sports Festival that would be different from others since the inception of the Games in 1973.
Imoke had fixed November 2014 for the fiesta, which he tagged ‘The Centenary Games’ to commemorate Nigeria’s 100 years. It was also tagged the ‘Paradise Games.’
For eight years, the impact of Imoke’s administration was felt in all nooks and crannies of Cross River State. The sports sector was not left out. The governor had wanted to host the 19th National Sports Festival in 2014 as a way of crowning his effort as ‘the most sports-loving governor’ of the era.
To show his readiness for the Games, Imoke invited people from far and near to witness the unveiling of the festival Mascot in a ceremony held at the Venetian Arena in Calabar, the state capital.
The mascot ‘Bamba’, according to Imoke, is a gorilla from the rainforest of Boki, a landlocked area surrounded by tourism destination centres like Obudu, Ikom and Ogoja in Cross River State.
The unveiling in mid 2014 was a gathering of past sports heroes, especially those who made Cross River State proud in international sporting events like the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and World football tournaments.
The festival’s logo, consisting of five colours of blue, yellow, black, green and red, according to Imoke, was uniquely designed to enhance the status of Cross River State as a destination brand.
However, three years down the line, the wait for ‘Bamba’ (the gorilla) to appear from the rainforest of Boki is shrouded in mystery, as the 19th National Sports Festival continues to suffer postponement.
Since the commencement of the National Sports Festival in 1973, Cross River has never hosted it. Only two states in the South-South, Edo and Rivers, have played host to the festival. While the city of Benin was venue during Bendel ’81 and Edo 2002, Port Harcourt hosted Rivers ‘88 and Garden City 2011. One state in the South-East, Imo, hosted the fiesta in 1998.
In the South-West, Lagos has hosted the festival four times -1973, ’75. ’89 and 2012, just as Oyo State hosted Oluyole ’79 edition. Ogun State played host to Gateway 2006.
In the North-Central, Kwara State hosted the fiesta in 1985, while Benue played host to Makurdi ’96 edition.
Kaduna in the North-West has hosted it twice in 1977 and 2009, while Bauchi in North-East has equally played host to the festival on two occasions (1991 and 2000).
The Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, was picked as venue in 2004, a year after the Abuja National Stadium played host to COJA 2003 All African Games.
After Governor Imoke’s promise of delivering ‘the best festival in Nigeria’s history’ failed in 2014, all attention shifted to his successor, Governor Ben Ayade, to make the dream a reality. The belief by many sports-loving Nigerians then was that Ayade, who also came on the platform of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), would do everything within his power to host the festival, which has eluded ‘The People’s Paradise’ since 1973.
After several postponements, the Sports Festival was ‘finally’ scheduled for November 8 to 21, 2016 in Calabar.
But several meetings by Directors of Sports of the federation, as well as visits by sports ministry officials with officials of Cross River State seems not to answer the question on when the 19th National Sports Festival will hold.
There may be a change of venue, if Governor Ayade continues to foot drag. A few weeks ago, Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, hinted that the ministry was considering hosting the 19th National Sports Festival in Abuja, because Cross River that won the rights since 2012 is not forthcoming with a date for the event.
Dalung revealed that the Main Organising Committee (MOC) for the festival was begging the sports ministry to provide the sum of N650m to host the fiesta in Calabar.
“They have insisted that we provide as much as N650m for them to host the festival. If we had N650m, then why do we have to go to Calabar?” Dalung asked.
Speaking further, the sports minister said: “We conveyed the National Council for Sports in Calabar and made several inspection tours of facilities to ensure that we hold the event this year, but it does appear that we might be going back to Plan B,” he said. “Our plan B is that if Cross River State cannot host the event, we will come back to Abuja and host the National Sports Festival. We are determined because without the National Sports Festival we cannot enrich the talents’ profile of our athletes for national and international competitions.
“We have succeeded in hosting the National Youth Games against all odds and we will go back to our plan B if Cross River state relocates the burden of funding the games to the ministry.
“We would have held the National Sports Festival this year in Abuja, but it was difficult because we just hosted the National Youths Festival, another important event.”
Dalung said it was unfortunate that after two fund raising events, Cross River still failed to hold the festival. “The question is: What did they do with the money realized from the two fund raising events? We are looking at hosting the festival in the second quarter of next year,” he stated.
The Permanent Secretary of the sports ministry, Christian Chinyeaka Ohaa, is chairman of the 13-man MOC, while Lizzy Onyenwenwa, the Acting director SPRD is the secretary and Jude Amadi, the director of Sports, Cross River State, is Assistant Secretary.
Also in the MOC is Cross River State Deputy Governor, Prof. Ivara Ejemot Esu, who doubles as the chairman Local Organising Committee (LOC). He is the vice chairman of the MOC. Other members include: Comrade Asu Okang, Engr. Habu Gumel, Monday Emoghavwe, Hauwa Akinyemi, Dr. Are Ademola, Engr. Ibrahim Shehu, Tunde Kazeem, Dr. Abdulkadir Muazu and Dr. Kweku Tandor.
Cross River State government after three postponements, fixed the games again for this November, but with no contractor yet to return to site to restart work, there are signs that the state may have given up on its plan to host the event.
The festival, which is held biennially to discover talents for international and continental competitions, has suffered many postponements in the past.
After Bendel ’81 edition of the festival in Benin City, the fiesta suffered its first postponement in 1983 due to what sports ministry officials described then as ‘unclear political atmosphere’ after the military coup of Gen Muhammadu Buhari.
It didn’t hold in 1983 as scheduled and there was also no festival in 1984. After Kwara ’85, the festival did not hold as scheduled in 1987. Rather, it took place in 1988 in Port Harcourt. To bridge the gap, Lagos offered to host the fiesta the following year (1989).
After Bauchi ’91 edition, which was nearly marred by religious violence, the National Sports Festival suffered its worst postponement. It didn’t hold in 1993, 94 and 95.
After Makurdi ’96, there was stability, as the festival was hosted biannually from Imo ’98, Bauchi 2000, Edo 2002, Abuja 2004 to Gateway 2006. The only postponement was the one-year gap solicited by Kaduna State. Instead of hosting the event in 2008, the KADA Games was held in 2009.
Rivers State hosted 2011, while Lagos played host in 2012 (just one year interval) to honour the agreement it entered with the sports ministry during the biding process in Kaduna. Cross River won the bid to host the 2014 Games during Eko 2012 festival in Lagos.
Will ‘The Centenary Games’ which former Governor Imoke promised would be a culmination of all efforts towards re-establishing Calabar as the true home of Nigerian sports remain a mirage? Or will Governor Ben Ayade live up to his promise of bringing Nigerian youths to Calabar to experience a passionate and vibrant exhibition of peace, serenity, heritage and generosity of spirit of the good people of Cross River State?