I had planned for this edition of this column to focus on something entirely different from this serving. As with every columnist, I was busy in my head scanning possible areas and topics of interest. At the same time, I also engaged in virtual gathering and storing of points I thought I would need. However, that was not to be.
That change came suddenly last Tuesday. I had gone for my ritualistic morning workout and was listening to one of my all-time favourite sportcasters, George Iniabasi Essien (Mighty George). As is his wont, he was in his element, reeling out history, facts, figures, humour, everything -smoothly; exactly the way anyone who knows radio would: with a compelling soundtrack doing wonders at the background; loud enough to be heard, low enough to not be a nuisance. Then, the sport presenter who calls himself the midfield dynamo, broke away, overlapping like Friday Elaho in his heyday, to something I wish he hadn’t delved into.
At once, cursing under my breath, I became agitated, angry, sad, bitter, lost. Tears welled up in my eyes, fell off and snaked down my cheeks. I wanted Mighty George to stop but he didn’t, because not only could he not tell the trauma he had caused me, he was also only doing what he should. On my own, I could have saved myself by simply putting away the earpiece but I couldn’t; I was hooked on the sweet-bitter radio experience.
So, what exactly did Mighty George do that dealt me such a horrible blow? Well, before I tell you that, promise me you would forgive him for bringing me to tears. I like him, I don’t want you hating him for that singular mistake. After all, who among us has never, directly or indirectly, caused someone to cry?
Let such a one cast the first stone. Before that though, here’s what the reigning Nigeria Sport Journalist of the Year did on air that fateful Tuesday to provoke such strong emotion from me. The day was the posthumous birthday of Sam Okwaraji, the 25-year-old Nigerian patriot who believed in his fatherland so much that he became a football martyr. Mighty George told the late footballer’s story the way I had never heard or known it, with perfect amounts of salt, pepper, palm oil and sundry condiments.
I didn’t know until that Tuesday that Okwaraji’s father had died when the boy was just five. That it was the mother who stood alone to sponsor the exceptionally brilliant chap abroad for further studies. That he became a professional footballer in Europe at 21, a lawyer with a master’s degree in international law from the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome at 23, and at 25 was pursuing a doctorate. That he came for the match that took his life (I think against Angola in Surulere, Lagos) against the wish of his European club at the time dismissing them with lines that no Nigerian before him had spoken nor has any after him!
‘I am a lawyer, you know. You signed me to play football for certain conditions but I don’t think it included reselling my service to my country. You or your club cannot stop me from … playing for my country. Let me tell you, I am going to represent my country whether you like it.’
While Mighty George recalled that better forgotten history, my mind travelled to that 1989 day. I remembered the whole thing vividly because, in spite of and despite being all of 31 years ago, it remains fresh to this day in my memory since it happened on my birthday -12th August. I turned 18 on that day and was in Cameroon watching the game on television. It was at the 77th minute of the pulsating world cup qualifier that the midfield maestro went down and -as we learned after the match- died of congestive heart failure.
Three decades and counting, the palpable blatant injustice as recaptured in Mighty George’s historical reporting cannot but evoke resentment. Resentment against this country, against government, against our football managers. What has been done for compatriots such as S.S. Okwaraji, Esq. as well as the unknown soldier and other heroes and heroines who died for this country?
Specifically, for Okwaraji, who was called to the national team in 1988, kept representing Nigeria against the wishes of his club, flew himself to and from all national team engagements never once collecting bonuses because he felt it was an honour, and, therefore, ought not to be paid, to play for his country and, above all, whose $4 billion European insurance benefits could not be claimed by his family because he died away from that continent, can it be said now or ever that the labour of this hero past was not in vain? If, like me, you can only shake your head because the shame in that answer is too much, perhaps you may want to check out how the country has hitherto ‘thanked’ Okwaraji and his family. We gave him N10,000 in health insurance, complete with a mini statue of him at the stadium where he died; a stadium long abandoned -but, of course. There are some more little mercies we should be thankful for.
One, then governor of his home state of Imo named a stadium after him. Forget that the stadium is now an eyesore. Two, in 2017 (all of 28 years after), the National Assembly promised to take care of his family. Alas, till date, nothing!
From the foregoing, it is easy to see why an alarming majority of Nigerians feel nothing for this country. That’s why every citizen who succeeds to any office in the land grabs all that is possible and moves on. Clearly, a country notorious for the reverse culture of undervaluing excellence, nationalism, honesty and such other nation-building virtues must undergo 180° about-turn to reconnect with sanity, forgiveness and progress. We could start by reaching out to and reconciling in full with the 81-year-old Okwaraji matriarch who denied herself everything to train her son only to lose him to a country that didn’t deserve him in the first place.
God bless Nigeria!