Captain of Nigeria’s rugby union national team Onoru Jatto has warned that the country risks “losing everything we have worked for over the last few years” if the decision to dissolve the National Rugby Football Federation (NRFF) board isn’t immediately reversed by the Federal Ministry of Sports.
The NRFF was one of 31 sporting federations whose boards were ‘dissolved’ by sports minister Sunday Dare on 30 April, leading to a swift response from Rugby Africa which deemed the act government interference and enacted an immediate suspension of Nigeria from participating “in all Rugby Africa and World Rugby activities until further notice” effective 3 May.
Nigeria’s suspension means the national team, the Black Stallions’ participation in next month’s Rugby World Cup pre-qualifiers in Burkina Faso is in serious jeopardy.
And after suffering one long term ban in the past over government interference, the prospect of another spell in the international wilderness feels Jatto with dread and he led his teammates to protest the dissolution of the NRFF board at the Nigeria Olympic Committee Secretariat in Lagos on Thursday.
“And I’m sure you can imagine, in those two years the ranking will change a lot, and Nigeria is going to drop down to almost the bottom once again. So everything we have worked for over the last few years will be wiped out,” Jatto told reporters at the protest ground.
The Black Stallion captain denied that the players or the NRFF had any hand in getting the country banned, insisting that the ministry’s decision which precipitated the ban could “kill Nigerian rugby dead”.
“You know rugby is not a well known sport here. The world rugby and rugby Africa, they completely frown upon any government agency getting involved in sports. So as soon as this news came out, they instantly reached out to us, and told us that they were writing a letter and we were going to be suspended. So this is all on them, nobody gains from this.
“They’ve written that letter, I’ve seen a letter addressed to the Honourable Minister, and there’s nobody that gains from this. There’s nobody in the rugby federation that would gain from a ban. So it makes no sense for them to ban us. We’re all devastated by this, all of us that are here, trying to push for a change should be at work. I should be at work, but I’m here, because I have a passion for this. We know that if the ban is upheld, this will kill Nigerian rugby, it will kill it dead.”
Dare’s move has been pilloried in many quarters as government overreach especially as it rides rough shod over the constitutions of the sports federations.
Jatto said the players’ protest was to draw the attention of the Sports Minister Dare to the effect of his decision on the fortunes of the national team which stands to not only lose their place in the pre-World Cup qualifiers but reverse all the progress recorded in trying to bring rugby into the mainstream.
“We’ve come with a letter from the players union, to hand over to somebody who can then reach out to the Honourable Minister on our behalf, because we don’t know what else to do,” Jatto said.
“There’s no way we can meet in person, so we’re trying to do whatever we can. So hopefully by tomorrow, this can be overturned and we can go [to the pre-qualifiers in Burkina Faso]. African Rugby pays for our flight ticket to the tournament. So, they were ready to pay for it, but because of this, this is why we were suspended, because they can’t spend money on a team that is not going to come. The tickets are not refundable. So, it doesn’t make sense for them. So, this is very important for us.
“We struggle every year, we fight every year for this rugby. It’s not well known. Every year, people ask me, “So Nigeria plays rugby?” We’re fighting to make it known in Nigeria, but with these hurdles, every time we get banned, we go back. It’s like we take 10 steps forward and then take 50 steps back every time we’re banned. So, we don’t want this, we don’t need this. We want to keep pushing rugby forward. We want to reach new heights for Nigeria. We want Nigeria to be known in the rugby world as a force. So, please, we are pleading and we are begging for this to be overturned.”
Jatto’s frustration is particularly acute given that Nigerian rugby is only beginning to pick up and build from the ruins of a similar two-year ban that lasted until 2018.
Following that ban, the then recently elected board led by Kelechi Mbagwu managed to secure Nigeria’s reentry into the international fold and while the coronavirus pandemic has dampened things a bit, Jatto fears the sports ministry is on the verge of repeating past errors that brought nothing but bleakness and retrogression and for a sport that isn’t professional, the Black Stallions captain fears that persisting with the ministry’s stance will kill the sport for good.
“This is not the first time. I’ve been here when they’ve done it twice. The first time, we had to re-qualify back from Togo, which was an experience. Then, a couple years ago, due to some fracas during the election, we were banned again. It took almost two years; a year and a half for us to be reinstated. With that time, our ranking had dropped. We had to go to Niger to play, to re-qualify.
“That journey alone, the sleeping conditions, everything about it was a nightmare. But we pushed through, we won that match because we know what it meant to us. Even two years ago, when we had to go to South Africa, because of our drop in the rankings, we started in a harder position. So all the work we had done– We had gone to South Africa in 2015, we had finished well, we finished well placed in the rankings, and we had to drop down because of the ban. Now we have gone to South Africa, two years again, and we finished well in the rankings again.
“This position we’re in, for this pre world cup qualifiers, we’ve not been here before. We’re trying to push as much as we can. We have to play in Burkina Faso, we’re supposed to play Burkina Faso, Burundi and Cameroon. If we come through that, we’re supposed to go to Tunisia to play Tunisia, Zimbabwe and someone else I believe. So, we’re trying to push for it because we want to grow this sport. We don’t really get any money from this sport, we’re doing it for passion, we’re doing it for the love of the game. But when we keep getting banned like this, it’s demoralising, the players just lose hope. If we have no hope, then what’s the point of carrying on?”