Alhaji Sani Lulu Abdullahi, former President of Nigeria Football Federation (2006-2010), spoke to some journalists, including DAILY ASSET Editor, Danusa Ocholi recently on how he administered the NFF and other issues in the country. Excerpts:
A lot has been said about the administration of the game under your tenure as President of NFF, may you tell us the secret of the remarkable turnaround which Nigerian football experienced during this period? Nigeria attained the 9th best position on FIFA monthly rankings under your leadership, while the country won the FIFA World-17 Cup, among other achievements?
I feel flattered whenever people like you say my administration is a success story. As a humble person, I feel anybody can lead in any aspect of human endeavour, if God Almighty so wishes. My getting to NFF leadership was ordained by God, as it also took me some time before I got to the position. I wish to also thank the government and the people of this country for the opportunity they gave me to serve t my nation. There are many people that are better than me. I see my mission in NFF as an opportunity to serve God and the citizens of my country. It was tedious serving at that level. The first thing I did was to identify Nigerians who could help me to succeed, from the 15-member Board; those who could help me drive my mission. I had a vision to use football to make a better Nigeria, to launder the image of my country.
I thank God for making the vision a reality, and I thank him for giving me experienced people like Taiwo Ogunjobi and Amanze Uchegbulam, among others. I felt since they are older and more experienced than me, I had to humble myself before them. Together we formed a powerful management team. We got results because we were able to create an enabling environment that would make results possible. I ran an open and transparent administration. It was towards this end that I initiated a Sports Writers Association of Nigeria, SWAN Forum, where at every quarter; I had interactive sessions with sports journalists, sports editors, in Lagos.
They were always serious sessions, where I gave account of my stewardship to the people. We did our work transparently, and openly as well. I had nothing to hide. With the support and understanding of Nigerians, we achieved so much even when there was no money when I assumed the leadership of the NFF. We even met debt, huge one on the ground. I thank God we achieved results because we were organised. Our Board was not corrupt, not even our Secretariat. We also pursued youth programmes with vigour. We introduced the Under-13 championship which produced Iheanacho and others. At the FIFA level, we ensured we participated in all their final –organised championships, and we were the first country to achieve this during my tenure. That was why I said with confidence that our FA was the best in the world. We were focused, and we ensured we created platform for all to excel. I came to also realise that a lot can be achieved, and that was exactly what happened to us. During my time, we ensured that the right things were done.
We were always thinking of how the entire society would be lifted, how Nigeria could take its rightful place in the entire world. We were not only number nine in the world; my Federation should be the best. I had at the back of my mind that with Nigeria’s population, we came out with the mindset, with the concept that Nigeria must be the greatest country as well in football. No society is perfect, and there was no way we could excel if we look at the negative sides. We were focused on the good things about our country. Our election followed due process, and FIFA was on the ground when it was conducted. The country’s leader by then, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo endorsed new statues for us, which we forwarded to FIFA. It was on this account that we changed NFA to NFF. But see what happened to us in 2010.In everything I thank God. I had to return to my immediate constituency, which is grassroots football development, and that was how I embarked on FOSLA Academy project. Most of the students are from very poor homes, from primary schools. I have, by the grace of God been able to sponsor most of them; In fact more than 70 per-cent of the students are under my scholarship. I am proud of what they have achieved in their first six years. The first set of students has graduated and I am making effort to take them to tertiary institution so that they can continue with their education. They all did well in their WAEC, NECO, and JAMB.
The school scored 100 per-cent in all. The great thing about FOSLA is that we are very strict on their age. No room for age cheats in any form, with proper documentation of all the students. They are identified with right ages right from the school. They all have their ages on their international passports. I am happy with their achievements so far, and I feel fulfilled, though we still have a lot to do. Despite challenges, God saw me through the NFF. I feel Nigeria can be the greatest country in the world, if we all key into the change mantra of the present administration of General Muhammadu Buhari.
How do you feel that after inheriting debt of more than N300 million on assumption of office as President of the NFF, you were still forced out despite leaving a whooping N2.8billion in the coffer of the NFF? Worst still you were still charged to court?
It is already seven years we left the scene, and each time I reflect on what they did to us, and what is still happening, I feel sad, very sad. Here was the place we met huge debts on the ground, and at the time we were leaving, we left so much in various accounts of the NFF. I feel pained, anguished. Despite all we are going through, despite our persecution, despite the oppression, Nigeria remains our country. Since our case is still in court, I will be cautious not to comment on it. This is an issue that has touched me greatly. You might be aware of the efforts I have made to bring this matter even to the attention of the government. During former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, I wrote several letters, including advertorials, to the then Nigerian leader, where made it known in my letters how I met a debt of N300 million in the NFF, and left N2.8 billion when I was forced out of office in 2010. The plot to remove me was because of the huge money we left in the accounts; some corrupt people wanted us removed so that they could lay their hands on the money in the coffers of NFF. I see myself as having rendered selfless service to more than 170 million people of this country. They know my plight. In all this matter, there is nowhere anybody can hold me and my Board culpable, if the Finance Committee and the Secretariat are not involved. There is an issue that beats my imagination, greatly. While we were impeached in July 2010, in December of the same year, my impeachment was vacated by the NFF Congress. I had taken NFF and FIFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sports, CAS, and because of the embarrassment this would bring to FIFA and Nigeria, Issah Hayatou, former CAF President intervened in the matter.
With this development, ordinarily my case was supposed to be withdrawn, and for me to be given my position back. I have not taken action on this because I am passionate about Nigerian football. What NFF would have done on my case was for it to have written to EFCC to withdraw my case from court. Nigerians are not asking on this issue, especially for a case that has lingered for seven years. Nevertheless, I have absolute faith that the present government under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari will do something about my case. I have absolute faith in the government. Above all it is God’s time that is always the best in the affairs of men. God’s time will determine everything. I am more concerned on what is happening to my colleagues. They should leave Amanze Uchegbulam out of this matter. Everything in this world has its time. In all if we are to succeed as a nation, we must collectively fight corruption.
May you still share with us the magic behind your Board’s much talked-about success, the type not witnessed in the annals of football administration in this country?
We tried to monitor whatever programmes we carried out, and we also ensured that we were present in virtually all the activities of FIFA. We would always ensure that we were present in all, as many as were humanly possible. FIFA president by then, Sepp Blatter was amazed at the level of Nigeria’s participation in all their organized championships, and he hailed us for this. Again, we did our work with utmost humility and fear of God. I did not allow my self to be carried away by the office. Any time we had major events, including international matches, I was always the last person to leave the venue. Even the area boys can attest to this. Although I take my self last in my service to my fatherland, I know that I am important before God Almighty. I was always driven by this desire to ensure that Nigeria became the world’s number one in football. In all before God, I am impartial in my dealings with my fellow beings.
How did your regime handle the issue of government interference in the administration at NFF?
As a civil servant who was used to ways government is run, it was not too difficult for me. I applied wisdom to get result. In any relationship you find yourself, you must have good relationship with government, for there is virtually nothing you can do without the government at this level. The main challenge we had was that there were some persons in the system who are bent on sabotaging government’s policies and programmes, including those that had to do with our administration. But with proper wisdom and comportment, those people will be identified. It is important to note that during my tenure, we faced a number of challenges under the last administration. But we thank God that we can breathe fresh air under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, who has demonstrated to all that he stands for truth and fairness. President Buhari has demonstrated that he is a leader committed to fighting corruption, to ensuring security and indivisibility of Nigeria, and prosperity of all. There is light at the end of the tunnel, by the grace of God with his anti-corruption war. He has undoubtedly taken many steps ahead of where we were as a nation, and as a people.
On my part, I wish to thank him for creating enabling environment which has made it possible for me to develop my pet project, FOSLA Academy, through which I am contributing my quota to the development of grassroots football in the country. I have strong faith in the ability and capacity of President Buhari to make the country great, among the committee of nations. I have absolute faith in him to succeed in steering the ship of this great country. Nigerians from all strata of the society should give him the necessary support, for he means well for the country. It is my prayer that God Almighty will make him to recover fully so that he can execute his cardinal programes of fighting insurgency and insecurity ; the anti-corruption war and revitalisation of the economy.
Reflecting on your impeachment, what factors do you think were responsible?
I was not impeached. Somebody in authority just used his influence unjustly to get me out of NFF. The closing date for elections had elapsed, and I was unopposed. I was unanimously endorsed for the second term by all the geo-political zones. In all the places I went, including the South West, I got the confident vote to continue, but some people used dirty means to remove me. They employed crudest means to have me removed. Somebody in government was directing the whole affairs. Some people were not comfortable with me because of my principled disposition; I stand for truth. That is why we need leaders like President Muhammadu Buhari who stand for truth. May God help him to recover fully. Buhari is a leader genuinely committed to fighting corruption. There is light at the end of the tunnel for this great country with his anti-corruption war. He has taken us many steps better than where we were. On reflection of my impeachment, I am not disappointed because of what happened. It is possible that if I was not removed, I would have died in office, and God preserved my life in the process. Actually I was literally carrying Nigeria and the problem of the country’s football on my head. I was almost a walking corpse because of the problem I was carrying on my head. Let me make it emphatically clear that there is nothing I left in the NFF that would want me to go back there. Nothing. I had assets, and they reduced drastically at the time I was leaving NFF. I used my money to serve Nigeria, and when I was leaving, I left huge amount in the coffers of the NFF, something that never happened in the history of football administration in the country. NFF will be the last place I will accept to work again in my life. They are still owing me up till today. I give it up as my sadaka for, serving Nigeria. I am not happy because some people stopped me from giving my best for the service of my fatherland. I love my country with all my heart, but one idiot stopped me. I am battling bitterness but I thank God for saving my life. It does not give me joy; rather I am in tears that after serving our fatherland with all our mind and strength, what we got was our being taking to court. But Nigerians have not cared to ask why these people are being treated so. But I am consoled with the sympathy I enjoy from all strata of the society. Anytime our case comes up, houseboys, mechanics, friends and many others out of sympathy, contribute money for us. They sympathise with us. In spite of all these, I will not curse my nation, because Nigeria is my country. Those wishing us evil should change, if not the judgment of God will come upon them.
There were incidents, reports of match fixing during your tenure. Who were those responsible, and what efforts did you make to handle the matter?
To the best of my knowledge, I was not aware of anything. I only heard of this when we had left office. And anything that happened without my knowledge is a nullity, a fraud which I will not only dissociate myself from, but condemn in its entirety. Again, if at all such things happened, it must be because in any human system, there are bound to be bad eggs since there is no perfect human organisation. But I can tell you that NFF under me never did that rubbish. We tried our best, and worked so hard to maintain our reputation. My management had the policy to do the right thing at all time, and we never compromised on anything that would soil our image and that of our country.
What roles do you intend to play again in NFF?
As for me, a faithful citizen, I do not intend to come back to NFF again. For now, my attention is on my academy, FOSLA, which I am managing for the befits of my country. It is a gift from God. I love sports, and I am using by academy to serve my country. God who knows everything will direct what I will do tomorrow.