I came over to Lagos for a few days to take part in a stakeholders conference for Nigerian Rugby. Although my stay was for only four days I managed to pack a lot in and I was involved in meetings within a couple of hours of landing from an overnight flight via Casablanca. These were pre-meetings before the conference itself and it soon became clear that those that were going to attend would be able to have their say but the absence of those who chose not to attend was a statement in itself.
I won’t dwell too much on the conference held the following day, but the presence of the Secretary-General of the Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC) was crucial, with his contributions showing that his appointment was a shrewd one. This is a man that understands sport and sports administration and he is not afraid to wield the big stick if that proves to be the most effective way of getting results. Rugby is now in the Olympics and he is very keen to see Nigerian sport succeed to help boost the morale of the country’s people. Nigeria’s football team recently won the Africa Cup of Nations and the rugby team’s potential as world-beaters, particularly on the Sevens stage, is something the NOC is keen for the Nigerian Rugby authorities to realise.
In our role of independent facilitators and mediators for the conference I went with Fred Ollows from Kenya to meet an old friend of mine Ntiense Williams, one of those that didn’t come to the conference, to hear his point of view. It is clear that there are quite different standpoints on how the game should be run and unity will be difficult to achieve. Fred and I are working on a report to be published in due course.
Thursday was a day off which I wanted to use to explore more of the country where I was born, so I was taken an hour’s drive west of Lagos to Aleko beach. Popular at the weekends, the coast was almost deserted midweek and as I sat under palm trees watching the sea in 30 degree heat, I began to unwind for the first time in many months. A lunch of croaker fish and yam grilled over a fire washed down with the local Star lager added to the sense of tranquility, and when a young woman arrived carrying a tray of mangoes on her head I wondered if I had found paradise.
There were a couple of incidents that reminded me that things are never as simple as they seem. A small group of people appeared on the beach about 200 feet away from us, all but one in white robes and the other with her face painted. It was explained to me that they were there to exorcise a demon from the woman with the painted face and although the owners of the area where we were eating tried to chase them away they carried on regardless. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what went on but a fire was lit before the poor woman was beaten by the others with branches. I understand that there was probably a sacrifice before the victim was stripped by which time I assume the demon had been banished as she then got dressed in the same white robes of the others.
The second incident was a reminder of the power of nature. I went to the seafront to look out to the Atlantic Ocean and sat on a sand ledge while the warm water lapped around my toes. I could see what is referred to the seventh wave coming in – a wave that is bigger than the others and overtakes the one before to create a surge that travels further up the beach than usual. I expected it would mean that my knees would probably get wet, but as it raced in I realised too late that I had underestimated how strong it would be and I was immersed in sea water up to my shoulders. More worrying was the undertow that tried to suck me back into the ocean as the wave retreated but I managed to clamber out of its grip.
Although the place was as idyllic as any Caribbean island the hidden dangers are there. Nevertheless I have resolved that when I return to Nigeria I will spend three or four days somewhere along the 800 miles of beach just getting away from it all.
Fortunately I had brought a change of clothes and we headed back to the city for dinner with the President of Nigerian Rugby. That’s when we hit one of Lagos’ biggest problems, its traffic. I actually thought it had improved since my last visit, especially when I found out that the okada motorbikes that people used as personal taxis had been banned. They had caused so many deaths over the years that the state government took them off the road. However, having got to the city fairly quickly the last two miles saw us make tortuous progress, taking over two hours to cover. Nigerians take a simple yet robust approach when in a traffic jam – if there is foot of space between one car and another they will get their bumper into it. No matter that it is on the wrong side of the road or if a pedestrian is trying to cross over or that it blocks the path of a dozen other drivers, they must get their vehicle in there first. It’s not surprising that progress is slow at the best of times.
The morning of my last day was spent first of all meeting up with my old friend Sola who has driven me each time I have come to Nigeria, then going to Lekki market on the hunt for some bargains. The range of merchandise is huge but the original art for sale is worth the visit alone. I came away with a couple of paintings, two African print shirts, some belts and bangles and necklaces for presents when I get home.
There were some informal meetings in the afternoon about the way forward for the game, including an idea to set up some touch rugby in schools using coaches from the UK, then the best way to end any visit – a curry.
Short though my visit was, it reaffirmed by love of the country and its people, and strengthened my desire to see rugby flourish in Nigeria. I am already planning to return next year but before then there will be work to do in the UK with the Nigeria Exiles set-up. My sincere thanks to Jide for being such a generous and attentive host and to my new friends Babilola and Fola who, along with all the other people I met, made the trip a memorable one.
Pictures from my trip