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 behoves 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. After thirty-two years, it is not too late to honour this epitome of patriotism with a post-humous national award.
Promises to honour him, cater for his family, scholarships, and jobs for his relations, manifested only in his bust which Governor Babatunde Fashola re-dedicated outside the National Stadium in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of his demise.
His commitment to Nigeria and the game has remained a reference point since his passing in 1989. He is still missed.
Mrs. Janet Okwaraji, Sam’s mum, died in June 2020 at 83. Sports Minister Sunday Dare had in May 2020 donated food items and N50,000 to Mrs. Okwaraji praising his late son thus, “I’ve always been drawn to greatness and I admire people who lived their lives to elevate the status of their communities and nations. Okwaraji was not just a footballer, he was an icon and great patriot. He was a great professional who redefined football in Nigeria with many young talents benefiting from his ingenuity and sacrifices by re-writing our country’s name in gold in world football.”
Stephen Keshi died in June 2016; he scored the lone goal against Angola in that game.
Tajudeen Yusuf (Kogi State) of the House of Representatives moved a motion on 12 August 2015, the 26th anniversary of his passing, for the Federal Government to immortalise Sam, the motion was passed. Yet nothing has been done about it, five years on.
Coach Paul Hamilton died in 2017.
Phillip Achebe died in 2013
Alhaji Babayo Shehu died in 2011
The National Stadium is derelict, and dying, it has not hosted a match in 15 years!