“How will the stadium not be dirty? There is no maintenance; even the sweepers come around to clean this field only when there is a party.”
This was the response of a football coach on the state of the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos. The statement is just one of several attestations of negligence suffered by the country’s first national stadium.
Built in 1972, the National Stadium served as a training center for Nigerian athletes, established and aspiring, but has since become a haven for prostitutes and drug peddlers, apart from serving as a food and drink joint.
A year after it was built, the National Stadium became the center of attraction as the All Africa Games came underway. For 11 days, the stadium hosted world leaders and leading sports professionals. Nigeria went on to win 63 medals, including gold in football, which pitched the country second only next to Egypt.
Aside from the All Africa Games, a number of international competitions such as the 1980 and 2000 African Cup of Nations and FIFA World Cup qualifying matches were hosted there. While the memories endure, the world class facilities that made the hosting of such competitions possible are long moribund. From the overcrowded table tennis court to the derelict all indoor games complex, further down to the main bowl, the various sections of the stadium beg for attention.
With a capacity of 45,000 seats, the National Stadium, in some other clime, could have been a source of huge revenue for the federal government. But the main bowl is constantly under lock except during football matches organized by private companies. Even then, movement within the main bowl is restricted.
A father took his four-year-old son, who had been yearning to see the race track that he had seen on television, to the stadium but the boy had to shed some tears before the guard allowed him and his father in for only 10 minutes.
“We are not allowing people into the stadium,” he told the man to the disappointment of his son. The boy began to cry, throwing tantrums and refusing to release his grip on the gate. After much begging from the father and the boy’s inconsolable cry, the guard allowed them in.
In August of this year, SaharaReporters visited the main bowl during a football boot camp organized by Cowbell, a dairy product, and observed that only one of the gates to the main bowl was opened and all the entrances to the bleachers and stands were locked. The kids, she noticed, urinated in different corners of the main bowl as there were no toilets accessible to them.
“The male toilet is always locked and that woman there [pointing at an elderly woman who kept watch of the only accessible toilet] will not allow us use the opened toilet,” one of the Cowbell participants said, after discreetly relieving himself at the corner of the track. It was later found out that people pay N50 to use the toilet. In order to avoid the fee, many defecate or urinate anywhere they consider convenient.
From Playground To Urchin Hangout
The National Stadium has become a popular hangout for young boys, many of whom run errands for older men.
“If your child is not under the care of a good coach, he is not safe in the stadium because there are plenty of bad boys all over the place,” a boxing coach told our reporter. “Some of the ‘agbayas’ also send them to buy ‘Igbo’ [marijuana],” adding that his trainees do not run such errands.
Our correspondent spoke to a man named Sniper, who appeared to be in his early 30s, who buys his marijuana from dealers loitering outside the main bowl.
He explained to our correspondent that the dealers, with bags of hemp slung over their shoulders, are careful to only sell to customers they can trust.
“They know how to sell to people,” Sniper said. “They will look at you very well. They know how to check people before they sell.”
Although the National Stadium has long lost its shine as a sport center, it certainly does well as a social center, particularly at night. Perhaps the more flourishing businesses in the sport complex are those that offer food and drinks, with chilled beers and spicy ‘Nkwobi’ and pepper soup as main attractions. Beyond these are women who come to strut their stuff, hoping to strike a deal for the night. According to Sniper, there’s no dull moment in the stadium at night.
“Business is good here,” one of the joint owners said. “We have customers and because this place is secluded, they are free to do as they like. Some of them come in with their girls while some meet new girls here,” she said, smiling.
Little to Cheer
Undoubtedly, the stadium is an embarrassment to many Nigerians today, but Amanda and her mother are happy for the opportunity to use the stadium even in its poor state.
Six-year-old Amanda was one of the participants of the Olumide Ayodeji basketball camp.
After taking a few shots and drinking her water, she told our reporter that she loves coming to the stadium to play basketball with her friends.
“The basketball camp has helped keep the kids busy. They are on holiday, so instead of leaving them at home to watch TV all day or go for summer classes, sport is a better option,” Amanda’s mother explained.
Similarly, Laolu, a lawn tennis player, said he loves to visit the stadium.
“I like coming to the stadium, but my parents prevent me sometimes. Lawn tennis is not like other sports and this place is different from other parts of the stadium where you see rough boys. I am trying to save up so that I can buy my own racket,” he said.
More Talk, Less Action
Solomon Dalung, Minister for Youth and Sports, visited the stadium in March this year and acknowledged that it was in shambles.
“The national stadium, which was regarded as a monument of our national history, has become a national embarrassment. It is in a very sorry state, as the level of dilapidation can never be compared to our level of civilization,” Mr. Dalung said.
Prior to the minister’s visit, the Lagos State government indicated interest in acquiring the stadium, a move Mr. Dalung viewed positively.
“We can’t fold our arms and watch this monument continue to rot away. We intend to renovate the facility and bring it back to its prime position as sports city where other sports, apart from football, can also be developed. That is why I welcome the decision of the Lagos State government to step in to restore our national pride and bring it back to a state we all can be proud of.
"It is the first step and a very important step in the process of a possible takeover. This inspection has given us first hand information as to what is required to bring back the edifice to use,” assured Mr. Dalung.
He clarified, however, that taking over management of the stadium does not mean ceding ownership of it to Lagos.
Since visiting the stadium, little, if anything, has been done to improve it.
According to Deji Tinubu, the special adviser on sport to Akinwunmi Ambode, Lagos State governor, the state government is still “waiting for a positive response from the federal government.”
Mr. Tinubu, who spoke with SaharaReporters about the handover, said the Lagos State government “will be patient.” He also said Lagos State has no power over a federal government property without permission to take charge.
However, should a federal government property become a harbinger of insecurity, patience might not be the best virtue, because as it stands, no one knows for sure whether or not such patience will pay off.
But until then, urchins will continue to use the stadium to buy drugs while prostitutes flourish in the monument of shame.