As young men growing up in the commercial city of Aba, Abia State, the name Rangers International Football Club of Enugu resonated with us. It was a time when the team loomed larger than life in football circles in the country and Africa. Indeed, Rangers made such waves in the national league and continental championships that it was a household name. The team made its financiers proud as well as Nigeria as a nation, winning laurels upon laurels.
Also popular in Nigerian football at that time was the IICC Shooting Starts of Ibadan, Stationery Stores of Lagos and others. Rangers and these other clubs had cult followership then. Those were the days when football was football in Nigeria. Football in Nigeria was strong and interesting then. And the rivalry between the top teams, like Rangers and IICC, made the national league tick. You needed to experience the interest and anxiety whenever Rangers and IICC played, whether in Enugu, Ibadan or in Lagos, as the case may be. It was always tension-filled.
Looking at the national league today, those who saw the Rangers and IICC days in the 1980s would say, like Chinua Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart, “worthy men are no more.” The spark has gone out of the national or professional/premier league in Nigeria, with the emphasis by sports lovers on the English Premier League and others. This is not to say that managers of football in the country are not doing their best to make the league worth the while. No. They are trying their best. However, the task is not for them alone. Sponsors and football lovers have roles to play. When everybody plays the required role, the league would be better recharged and vibrant.
When you talk about Rangers, names of soccer legends and maestros whose football prowess made the team popular would always come to mind. Who would talk of Rangers without Emma Okocha, the original JJ? Nobody can talk of Rangers without the mention of the names of Christian Chukwu, Emma Okala, Aloysius Atuegbu, Emeka Onyedika and many others. These and many others, at one time or another, lifted the glory of the team and Nigeria. They were and are a personification of Rangers. They gave their best and life for the team. They gave their all for football in Nigeria, as they also played for the national team as a crowning glory.
On Wednesday, when Enugu State governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, alongside the president of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Amaju Pinnick, as well as representative of oil magnate, Femi Otedola, visited Christian Chukwu, who has been ill for some time, I remembered Rangers of yore. Also one phrase in the country’s National Anthem came to my mind. “The labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain” is what Nigerians as a people affirm in the National Anthem. It is a commitment to upholding the virtues of past heroes. It is a national commitment to remembering the country’s heroes and to accord them respect. As Ugwuanyi, Pinnick and Otedola did the needful, I could not but remember “the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain.”
It is good that in Chukwu’s time of need, when he is down with a protracted illness without much money to take care of himself, Otedola offered to pay the hospital bills for his treatment abroad. It is good that Otedola has also redeemed his promise by presenting the $50,000 cheque to Chukwu. It is great that Governor Ugwuanyi announced automatic employment for Chukwu’s son, who has been unemployed. These are commendable efforts that would make those who served Nigeria in the past proud. It would also give the younger ones the impetus to do something for their country, knowing that they would be remembered in future.
I have been wondering why it took the intervention of Otedola from Lagos and South West to rescue Chukwu, while there are rich Igbo who could have done it. What it shows is that most Igbo do not know how to treat their heroes. Chukwu needed help but couldn’t get it from his Igbo clan, at a time a rich Igbo man donated money for the reconstruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Italy. It was like in time past when an Igbo rich man donated millions of dollars to Havard University, USA when universities in Nigeria are in ruins. What is wrong with our Igbo brothers? This is not to say that donation to a church or school is wrong. We should stop this international “eye serve” and serve humanity truly.
A time has come for Nigeria as a nation to evolve a programme to take care to its heroes in all spheres of life. There are many Nigerians who have done great things that uplifted the nation. There are many who have died serving the country. How has Nigeria reciprocated by taking care of them or remembering them? What have we done to immortalise those who died for the country or to take care of their immediate families or both? Our reward regime should not only favour those who have occupied political offices, like heads of state, presidents, governors and other political office holders, many of who contributed to the problems plaguing the country today. The reward system should be all-encompassing, recognisiing everybody who has contributed to the country’s good history and evolving greatness.
Football legend Samuel Okwaraji collapsed and died at the National Stadium, Lagos, while playing for the national football team. A policeman from hell shot dead great athlete, Dele Udo, in Lagos when he returned home to serve his country. Mr. Michael Taiwo Akinkunmi used his talent to design the national flag of Nigeria. Pa Ben Odiase wrote the National Pledge. Chief Moshood Abiola died in prison as he fought for democracy. Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna won Nigeria’s first ever gold at the Commonwealth Games. Chioma Ajunwa is the first Nigerian and indeed the first black African woman to ever win a gold meal at the Olympics. These are Nigerians who have done some great things for the country. How have we, as a nation and as a people, remembered and honoured them?
While the Nigerian flag is flying high, as one of the symbols of our sovereignty, Akinkunmi is not flying too high. Apart from the tokenism of government, state or federal, that may have been extended to him, he is there figuratively on his own. Okwaraji’s mother is not faring well, as she remains a symbol of depravity caused by death of a son who died on national service. Dele Udo’s family is there. Abiola’s family lost out and we are still not sure if June 12 is Democracy Day or not, in his honour, as we have not seen any legal backing/framework to this effect, apart from the presidential pronouncement. How do we remember Ifeajuna, Ajunwa, Okwaraji, Akinkunmi, Odiase, Udo and many others?
Those who have made Nigeria proud should be remembered, honoured and catered for in their lifetime. Government should do it. Corporate organisations should do it. Individuals should do it. It is, therefore, encouraging and commendable that Ugwuanyi and Otedola have stepped up to save the life of Christian Chukwu, the great footballer who led the Nigerian national team to glory as a player and who also coached the national team. Government should also fish out others who have done well for the country and cater to their needs. Some of these people are old and retired into penury. Some of them do not have good shelter. And where they have, it is devoid of amenities and maintenance. We should not wait until these people are dead and then we start releasing embellished tributes that are mere lip service and organising grandiose funerals.
Kudos to the Muhammadu Buhari government for the role it played when former Vice President of Nigeria, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, was ill. That the government organised Ekwueme’s evacuation from Nigeria to the United Kingdom for treatment is an indelible gesture. Ekwueme did not survive, but government did what it should. There are still many Ekwuemes who also need the attention of government. They should get it not only when they are sick, but even in their good health and abundance. State governments should emulate the Federal Government by identifying Nigerian heroes from their states, take care of them and do some interventions, as they should.
It is by so doing that “the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain.”