By Ikeddy ISIGUZO
PATRIOTISM is a mere word, without meaning, and absent in government policies. Over time, governments of Nigeria have done little to impress on Nigerians the importance of loving our country. On 12 August 1989, millions of Nigerian television viewers were witnesses to an exceptional phase of patriotism when Samuel Sochukwuma Okwaraji died playing for Nigeria against Angola at the National Stadium. It was a qualifier for the 1990 World Cup.
His death was the seal on the instances the young man showed how much he loved his country. Scaling various obstacles, doubts about his abilities, differences with his clubs, he stuck to playing for his country. He died for his country in peace time. He did not need to die. He loved life so much that he would have wanted to live to fulfill various plans that he had for himself, for his family, for humanity.
He died with his dreams. He earned a master’s in law and was registered for a PhD. He played his football across many countries in Europe. His talent never failed to please. His manners were as pleasing. The most painful thing about his death is not the loss to his family and friends. His death exposed us. We are patriots only in words. What has happened in 20 long years to all the mouthing about Okwaraji?
The Federal Government made loud noises at his death. The responsibility to honour this young man, who was an icon of patriotism, was never an issue. It would be trivial to suggest that Okwaraji is suffering this neglect because of his roots. It is not true. What did his State government do? In 1998, an official of the Imo State Government attended the Ninth Okwaraji Memorial Lecture and promised the Imo State Government had great plans to honour him.
One of the plans was the naming of the National Sports Festival that held in Owerri that year after him. Okwaraji was never mentioned made at that festival. Former Governor Achike Udenwa is from the same locality in Orlu with Okwaraji. He was Governor of Imo State for eight years. He did nothing for the memory of Okwaraji. That
Patriots are in abundance in Nigeria. Some Nigerians could have been more patriotic than Okwaraji. However, none died in the same emotional circumstances that he died. Millions of Nigerians were thrown into deep mourning over his death. He died in search of honours for his country. His death answered all the questions about how we treat patriots.
Patriotism is not important to Nigeria, though no country can succeed without patriots, those men, and women who believe (blindly) in their country. It behooves their country to keep assuring them, and others, that patriotism pays.
Here we do it with words. The lines in our hallowed national anthem – “The labour of our heroes past, Shall never be in vain” – become hollow in the way we treat heroes. Is it any wonder that our national anthem cannot inspire Nigerians? Each time we render those lines we lie to ourselves and gleefully live with the lie. In death, a few things were proposed to honour Okwaraji.
One was that the No. 6 shirt he wore in death should be retired permanently. It was not. A few weeks after, a Nigerian player wore that number to a very ignoble end: he was ejected in a game against Cameroon. Okwaraji’s winning bonus for that game of August 12 has not been paid 20 years after his death.
There was supposed to have been an insurance cover for the team, the family did not benefit from the claims, if any. The promises to complete and maintain the mausoleum his family built were not kept. I remember the voluminous promises government officials made 20 years ago. Many of them have moved on to bigger national responsibilities, approaching their new assignments with the same heartless passion they engaged in treating Okwaraji.
How else does one become a patriot, if after offering his life is worth nothing? The repercussion of our scant national attention for patriots shows in Nigerians insisting on being paid (better in advance) for services they render their country. Sam Okwaraji haunts this country. This young man so loved his country that he would not have wanted to leave us with such a burden. Do we blame him for serving his country so well that we are at a loss about how to honour him, such that in 20 years we did nothing?
The Lagos State Chapter of the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria and Mr. Dan Ngerem for years kept Okwaraji in our memories. It is not a shock that the Nigeria Football Association (now Federation) remains indifferent to this matter. I thank everyone who played a part in sustaining the memory of our friend, brother, and patriot. Twenty years is not too late to honour this epitome of patriotism with a post-humous national award.
TWENTY years ago, Bryan Robson coached England to a 1-0 loss to Saudi Arabia in a build up to the 1990 World Cup. The Sun (London) was angry and dramatically cast its headline in Arabic. Translated it read, Go Robson, Go, Even The Arabs Say So. Robson stayed on to lead England to its second semi-final ever in the World Cup. Robson, 76, bowed to cancer last week, closing a chapter in a distinguished playing and coaching career with some of Europe’s best teams.
This piece was first published in Vanguard on 12 September 2009