Wearing Khaki is my trademark – Solomon Dalung
Immediate past sport minister, Solomon Dalung, doesn’t shy away from controversy but loves to be in the centre of the storm. “Well, what I missed most as the Minister of Youth and Sports Development was the barrage of criticism; and Dalung was making the headlines every day in pages of newspaper and it was either ‘sack Dalung’ or ‘change Dalung’,” he said matter-of-factly.
For the four years that he was in the saddle as the Minister of Youth and Sports Development, the beret and khaki-wearing lawyer and politician was a thorn in the flesh of the Amaju Pinnick-led Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), sometimes drawing the attention of football ruling body, FIFA.
Talking as he had never done in and out of office, the self-professed disciple of the late revolutionist and Burkina Faso’s President Thomas Sankara speaks boldly about his grouse with Pinnick and NFF, why he petitioned EFCC to probe the football house, his politics, dress sense and other related matters, in this interview with Abuja-based Correspondent, Andrew Abah. Excerpts…
What was the toughest decision you made as the sports minister?
The toughest decision I made was when I decided to take the side of law in respect of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) crisis where the supreme court finally decided on the matter and sacked the leadership of NFF; reversing the matter to status quo and to go back to the decision of the Jos Federal High court, which annulled the election of Amaju Pinnick-led NFF board and affirmed the Chris Giwa as President of NFF.
That was a very tough decision because not so many people, even the senior colleagues in the profession, differed with me but I maintained my stand till today.
When the judgment came, I wrote to the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, but first consulted the vice president who told me to subject the judgment to the advice of the Attorney General which I did and by the advice of the office of Attorney General is that the rule of law is sacrosanct and I should comply with the judgment of the supreme court.
Shortly after, there was another letter from the office of the Attorney–General seeking to suggest something differently after I had acted. So there was pressure that I should reverse my earlier position but I chose to stand on the rule of law because to the best of my knowledge as a lawyer, the decision of the supreme court of a sovereign nation overrides the statues of a non-state actor.
FIFA is a non-state actor, which is an NGO. The statues of FIFA can never supersede the decision of supreme court of Nigeria, even though it was administratively overruled and that did not change my position. That is one of the toughest decisions I have taken.
Some people felt you were all out to persecute the NFF, especially Amaju Pinnick. What was your grouse with NFF and Pinnick?
Well, I have no grouse with Pinnick and NFF. It is just sentiment and perception that made people to reason that way. I have nothing personal against Amaju Pinnick and I don’t also have anything personal against NFF.
But the problem I have with the NFF is their unwillingness to operate within defined rules and that is one of the major challenges I have with them.
Honestly, it didn’t start from the present executive but it is more or less a tradition they have been used to over the years.
I was told by a staff of Sports Ministry that when there was Sports Commission that the Director General (DG) was stronger than the minister and sports federations because of their affiliation with international bodies, and their weapon ban, which they used to cow nations into submission knowing too well that sports is a national passion.
So the moment there is a threat of ban, the country will start running from pillar to post even sacrificing their own sovereignty. Like NFF, I don’t have anything personal and I am very close to Amaju Pinnick and his wife and the wife calls me till date.
The problem is that they are used to doing things in their own way and once you want them to comply with rules and regulations they will cry foul and drop names and paint the picture of crisis. But I know that one day Nigerians will know the true pictures of their activities.
It was also assumed that your perceived persecution of NFF worked against you not to be reappointed as minister despite your closeness to President Muhammadu Buhari
Well, returning as a minister is not a right and is not even an issue. Feeble-minded people will think that way because being appointed as a minister is the sole responsibility of Mr. President.
The president decides who to work with, so there was nothing automatic for anybody returning to office as minister. My closeness to Mr. President exists till date.
I knew Mr. President long ago before becoming president in 2015 and I am still close to Mr. President and I will remain close to him till death do us part. I am an advocate of freedom and should be allowed to choose freely whom to work with and in or outside cabinet I will continue to support Mr. President to succeed.
The issue of not returning has nothing to do with NFF or Amaju Pinnick. What I know is that I ensured that NFF operated within their rules. The statutes of NFF say that everybody should be elected on the board but the board is made up of appointed members and when you insist that they should follow the statutes it becomes persecution.
The federal government under my watch funded every NFF competitions from qualifiers to the competition proper. I also know as a fact that FIFA sponsors every competition of national teams including payment of flight tickets, insurance, accommodation and allowances of players.
I also know as a fact that there are sponsors that sponsored national teams and some states government also supported NFF and NFF will come up with multiple budgeting.
The multiple budgeting goes like this: NFF will take the budget to the federal government, same to sponsors and then to the state governors and at the end of the day, NFF will end up, not paying players and officials their allowances and once you asked questions you will be designated as persecuting the NFF because as minister we are to be a chorister of NFF and not to ask questions. Again, once you ask questions about the money collected from government it becomes persecution.
There was an allegation that NFF bought you a house at Gwarimpa in Abuja immediately you assumed office, how true is this claim?
Well, I heard the same rumour on radio that NFF bought me a house when I assumed office through a company of my cousin. It was so ridiculous that people will think that way.
Well, as matter of fact if NFF bought a house for me, they should be bold enough to come to say this is the house they bought for me.
Unfortunately, the house people alleged me for at Gwarimpa was on rent and at the expiration of my rent I handed over the key of the house to the landlord and packed out.
I call it wild allegation. NFF didn’t buy a house for me, but if NFF bought a house in my name, they have not given it to me.
Some people believe that the credibility problem the NFF is facing today was your handiwork since you dragged them before the EFCC to probe their finances
Well, there is nothing wrong for me doing my job. I don’t have a choice rather than to do what I know is right. I am not the one that started their problem, it’s FIFA. FIFA audited NFF Account in 2016 and published on their website that NFF has been indicted for about 19 infractions and the NFF didn’t inform me.
They replied the queries issued by FIFA. It was when I saw it on FIFA website that I invited them and they confirmed that the report I have from FIFA is true and I asked them to explain what happened to the money because the money in the audit report was $1.1m unaccounted for, so they couldn’t explain it to me and they were not even cooperating.
It was during the NFF Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Lagos that I asked them to audit their account and make it public and instead of explaining to me to issue a communiqué saying that I don’t know what was happening.
Also, in that FIFA report, it was clearly stated that Nigeria was not going to be given development grant until the money was accounted for.
The money was given to NFF but the sanction now coming from FIFA goes to Nigerians. So I can’t sit and watch Nigerians losing development grant because of some actions of few individuals at the NFF.
So what I did was to write EFCC to unravel the circumstances and EFCC came back within a short period and said I lied because I said the money was $1.1million, that they have discovered that the money was even $2.5m and at the end of their investigation the report they sent implicated NFF for inability to account for $16m between 2014 and 2016.
That is N5billion sponsorship fund unaccounted for and $5milion also unaccounted for and other millions of naira and dollars unaccounted for from EFCC report. I didn’t start NFF probe but FIFA started it so it is wrong for people to say I started the probe of the glass house.
I reported the matter to EFCC because there was nothing to explain to Mr. President if he asks me the action I have taken. Would I tell the president that I did nothing because I was afraid of people calling it persecution?
You related with so many people during your tenure as minister, who are those you found their pieces of advice invaluable?
Well in every stage in life whether in office or out of office, there are those you find their advice or opinion that doesn’t count to add up to my vision.
These are groups of those who curry favour and propose ideas that are not even realisable if only government can put money in it and sponsor it even if it is going to be a failed project, they are not worried.
These kinds of people are so common around the corridors of power. One of the experiences I had was when one of them suggested the establishment of “Court of Arbitration”. He was a fellow colleague, a minister.
The idea looked very interesting but then it was an idea that was impossible to implement but he wanted me as a minister of youth and sports to constitute and pronounce the establishment of Court of Arbitration.
That is a court that can commit somebody to life ban or imprisonment. As a lawyer, I looked at the jurisdiction and approached the Chief Justice for consultation and I discovered from the advice of the CJN that such court should require a legislative pronouncement and so it was not possible, but the person was just pressuring I should go ahead.
But when he could not get what he wanted he went round writing about me. He has gone to the new minister, I pray he doesn’t convince him to get himself into trouble to establish Court of Arbitration without a legislative backing that would definitely put the new minister into trouble. Such people don’t care in as much they can get what they want in their favour.
You were probably the longest serving sport minister since the return of democratic rule, what are those things you can lay claim to as your achievement?
It is not about laying claims but concrete achievements except they are upturned by higher achievements. When I was appointed as a minister, there was this international swimming pool at National Stadium Lagos that was abandoned for years.
I renovated and revamped that sporting facility. I launched it and put it into use and today we have functional Olympic swimming pool for the Swimming Federation. Under my watch as a minister, Nigeria returned to medal table at Olympic Games; Nigeria won bronze medal in Rio.
I also partnered a corporate body to renovate the para-power lifting gymnasium in Lagos and updated it with state-of-the-art equipment.
Nigeria won the world championship trophy in Scrabble, first in Africa and won it back to back in 2017. Under my leadership, Nigeria qualified for World Cup in Russia with a game to go in the qualifier without the multibillion jumbo size presidential taskforce, the first time in the history of Nigeria football.
To be very honest, I have nothing that I am regretting and I am so grateful to God that I am lucky for now to be the longest serving minister of sports.
I always take responsibility for everything, I do. I am a very strategic personality. Many people underestimated my capacity to understanding issues not knowing that the person who trained me in politics armed me very well with a theory that if you go to a community of con people you must play the fool.
When I assumed office I played a fool so that everybody will play a card of wisdom. In sports, stakeholders saw me as a man who wears red beret.
A man who doesn’t know anything and I watched all of them closely. I am full of praise to God who gave me opportunity to serve and learnt more about people in terms of attitude, behaviour and characters.
All decisions I took while in office were done for the benefit of Nigeria and Nigerians. If I am called again to serve I will still stand by my earlier decisions.
What informs your mode of dressing; are you an activist?
Well I have mentors like Thomas Sankara who inspired me very much. But again, it is not like as a lawyer I can’t dress in suits. In fact, if I dress in suit I look more handsome and attractive.
As I said, when I was appointed I heard a lot of people saying that I didn’t know anything. I am a very funny personality. I arrived a place where fools were gathering I would be the most foolish person to enable me to pick their wisdom so I decided to appear that way.
I wanted not to be taken serious, because if I was wearing suit, or agbada or babariga, the barrage of criticisms would have been much. Some believed they own sports and Dalung was not a name associated with sports.
A person who went to school in one sport or other, so my dressing was a survival strategy and it helped me survive sports effectively.
The kind of hatred I got right from the day I was appointed surprised me, so I decided to attract less attention. The so-called stakeholders in sports looked at me as ‘mumu’ (neophyte) but I watched all of them dancing naked.
Frankly, my dressing was a survival strategy. The stakeholders in sports would have sent me to my early grave.
What kind of person is Solomon Dalung?
Well, the name Dalung in my dialect means ‘who can fight you?’ and I think the name actually works for me because it has been very difficult for anyone to fight me.
I am from a very humble background of poor parents and we are still poor but alive. Nobody expected that I will get this far in life. I am somebody whose perception of life is that life is nothing.
I reflect daily on the vanity of life because we are here today, tomorrow we are no more; this gives me concern on how to relate with fellow human beings.
I have soft spot for humanity and I try to love fellow human beings and I don’t discriminate. I deal with basic human nature irrespective of our background and differences in races, either religion or colour of skin.
I am a person who believes that we should take life very simple. I don’t allow people to carry my bag when I am travelling because when I leave office where will I see them to carry my bag.
I want to live among the people, feel the people and share with the people and when I bow out in life I want to be buried as a poor person.
What do you miss most as a sport minister?
Well what I miss most as a sport minister was barrage of criticisms and Dalung making the headlines every day in pages of newspaper either ‘sack Dalung’ or ‘change Dalung’, that I miss very well because it helped define me.
But since I left office, it is so dull and I am not hearing ‘replace Dalung’ again. I really miss the name calling; ‘boy scout’ and ‘red beret’ may be, that is why I am even looking fresher every day.