SEGUN ODEGBAMI: The many parts of Amaju Pinnick!

Let me join all Nigerians to congratulate Mr. Melvin Amaju Pinnick, the current President of the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, for his amazing victory at last week’s elections for a seat on the exalted Executive Committee of FIFA.

To many Nigerians, it is a remarkable achievement because it runs against the tide of the state of Nigerian football over which he superintendents.

Many people wonder how he did it? Some question the significance of his new position in FIFA to Nigeria’s fortunes in football. How will he, now a global citizen representing the interest of Africa in FIFA, impact the domestic game in Nigeria and its development?
Despite all these unanswered questions hanging like fruits from a tree, Nigerians have been largely supportive of his success, wishing him well, and hoping with great expectation that he will influence Nigerian football from that height and impact its rapid development.

So, whilst we wait to witness the next stage in the evolution of Amaju Pinnick, I seize the opportunity to look into the many amazing parts of this man who knows how to fight.

Amaju – the student of sports politics!

I don’t quite remember the first day I met Amaju Pinnick. I recall, however, that we shared a mutual interest in who became the next president of the Nigeria Football Association during the ‘coup’ against Ibrahim Galadima in 2005, or so.

The meetings of that period in Abuja and Kano have become jumbled in my memory even though I faintly recall being immediately impressed with Amaju’s contributions whenever he spoke, his infectious enthusiasm, plus his zeal and passion for ‘justice’ in Nigerian football administration.

I recall that we may have been in the same political ‘camp’ at the time until the long hand of ‘government’ under the steering wheel of Amos Adamu, came to topple the applecart, and truncated Galadima’s second-term agenda.

When the dust of that ignoble venture in Kano settled, Amaju must have learnt useful lessons, settled into a well-calculated corner of Nigerian football, studied the crazy system, mapped out a strategy from which he would, at the opportuned time, launch his climb up the ladder of football administration in Nigeria.

It was a private dream he did not share then.

He had the advantage of age on his side (he was young, in his 30s, I believe), had a growing ‘war chest’ and immense political clout with his close relationship to Governor James Ibori originally to the bargàin.

Like a bird of prey, he patiently bid his time, and, almost 10 years later, he struck. He was elected President of the NFF, an incredible feat considering the history of NFF elections in the country.

For him to head Nigerian football was no ordinary deal. He learned very quickly, taking useful lessons along the circuit of Nigerian football.

Amaju – the political diplomat!

One day, 2 years into his reign as President of the NFF, I invited Amaju Pinnick to my house for breakfast and a heart-to-heart conversation. He obliged and came, I believe, out of respect for my person, something he has always demonstrated throughout our carefully cultivated and maintained relationship.

As we sat over morning coffee, I revealed to him my intention to contest for the Presidency of FIFA. As President of the NFF he was to be my starting point. Without his buy-in the project would never leave the ground.

He was obvìously initially stunned by the magnitude and sheer bravado of what I just told him, almost casually. He must have been thinking I was either mad, drunk, joking, or all of the above. I could ‘see’ his mind racing – the audacity of my ambition, and (as I got to learn later) the ‘conflict’ with other interests and intents that I did not know about until he revealed them to me after calming down from thw effect of my volcanic announcement.

He did not mince words. He told me clearly: If I wanted to become FIFA President there was no way I could do so and succeed with Issa Hayatou still on the saddle of African football. Of course, I understood that.

It was his prescription of what I should now do about it that left me perplexed. He advised (knowing fully well it was not even an option I would choose in a million years) that I should go to the Cameroun, visit and inform Issa Hayatou, secure his blessing, and convince him to drop his own well-advertised ambition. Failure to do those things and to get his support, would leave my ambition in tatters and stranded in the hangar.

Go to Issa? Haba, I was not on a suicide mission. How could I, one of Issa’s most virulent critics ànd a regular antagonist, go and get the same Issa’s support?

Our breakfast and conversation abruptly and uncomfortably came to an end. But before we parted, Amaju ensured that he left clear hints that I understood would not make him seen to have betrayed my trust when he finally decided to pursue his own dream, an almoat similar ambition to contest and to have a solid foothold in the Confederation of African Football, CAF.

Without saying more than that, I understood immediately. I might become a clog in the wheel of his own ambition and fortune. He would not scuttle my ambition, but he would not push it too!
I admired his forthrightness to tell me where he stood, even though his response shook me. I respected his candour.

He must have correctly weighted the effect of our subtle ‘confrontation’, found that I was ‘harmless’, and simply went ahead to pursue his own dream, without guilt or fear.

It was a masterstroke. After that he did not need to pretend to me, or anyone else for that matter, about his ambitions.

Amaju knew what he wanted and was going to go for it.

2 years after that breakfast meeting, he was in CAF as a member of the Executive Committee, his dream fulfilled. Meanwhile, I was still nursing the bruises of my own failed attempt to even secure endorsements from 5 Presidents of African Football Federations that I could not muster from my home base in Nigerian, and Amaju could not muster for me because he too was ‘involved’ and interested. My ambition was in conflict with his future aspiration. We cannot be flying 2 planes within the same airspace.
Amaju brought to football politics what Usain Bolt used effectively in his sprinting – a deliberate singlemindedness, focus and determination.

Amaju – the humanitarian!

8 years ago, before he became President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick called me up to find out about the Sports Academy I founded in Wasimi Orile, Ogun State. His Foundation was interested in supporting the education and sports development of a few young boys from his State. He would start with 2 indigent youngsters, he told me.

After our conversation on the details, he immediately undertook to fund the complete education of two students of Delta State through the academy. The students were to be selected by officials of the Foundation based on the level of their indigence. The poorer they were, thè higher their chances of getting the scholarship.

Within a few weeks, I visited Asaba, the capital of Delta State, where I was presented with the two students that had succeeded in wading through the rigorous selection process. Neither of them knew or had ever met their benefactor.

After one year, one of the two students voluntarily left the school to pursue another dream elsewhere, leaving behind, 10 year old Tosan Edokhogo, à boy that went on to become a model student of SOCA, eager to learn, eager to take to sports, and eager to make the best use of the opportunity that fate had thrown onto his lap to conquer the world.

Amaju Pinniçk, without ever knowing him, funded Tosan’s entire 6-year academic and sports education at the Segun Odegbami International.College and Sports Academy, SOCA.

Notwithstanding any reservations about the man’s politics, business, social engagements and so on, all of which I am not in any way qualified to be a judge of, his munificense as in the case of Tosan, is a clear demonstration and testimony of Amaju’s humanity. Thats what I can testify to.

Amaju – the politicàl Chess player

It has been over 6 years since he became 2-teŕm President of the Nigeria Football Federation, the first Nigerian to do so successfully despite the turbulence that has characterised most of the period he has spent on that seat.

The past one year, particularly, has been an ‘impossible’ year, filled with the carnage of the Coronavirus pandemic. Before that, for 4 of the 5 preceding years, the NFF that he led had been bunkered down by various extraneous issues – harassment by anti-graft and anti-corruption agencies, unending court cases, the controversial engagement and elongation of the contract of a failed foreign coach, and so on. The NFF under him has not had any peace. Consequently it has a poor image in the corporate world that could have oiled its activities and funded its programs, but did not.

So, almost miraculously, it is with this limping federation as his background that Amaju has emerged to occupy a seat on the Executive Committee of FIFA which gives him an automatic place in CAF and a place in the history of successful football administrators from Nigeria.

It is hard to comprehend, therefore, the rise and rise of Amaju Pinnick in international football administration.

To his eternal credit, Amaju’s deft political manouverings truncated Hayatou’s self-perpetuation-in-office agenda.

Amaju became CAF Vice-President as a reward of his effort, only for him to lose out in the subsequent power-play that unfolded under Ahmad Ahmad, the surrogate leader from Madagascar who was too ‘small’ for the big office he occupied, weighed down by his lack of experience and pedigree in African football. He was merely a pawn used to checkmate Issa.

In the past 2 years, Amaju suffered humiliation in the hands of the man he helped to install. He was unceremoniously removed as Vice-President.

Last week, Amaju Pinnick, played yet another trump card, rising from the ashes of his misadventure with Ahmad to support Patrick Motsepe of South Africa to become the next CAF president, and getting the support in numbers from that exercise become only the third Nigerian in history to occupy a seat on the exalted FIFA Executive Committee.

Despite all these Amaju comes across, not as the cause, but as the victim of the various ‘ailments’ that have plagued Nigerian football, particularly the politics involved in several aspects of the football environment from which no President is immune or has ever escaped.

Amaju simply used what he found on ground to build a formidable political machine of stakeholders.

After indicating that he would not be going for a third term in the NFA he has had some respite and has masterfully played the politics of football at the highest level to great effect.
It has been an amazing journey from 2005 to the present times.

He established a new platform, did whatever he did, and came out last week smelling like a rose flower, praised by all, even by his worst enemies?

But back to the big questions about how an Amaju in FIFA can impact Nigerian football. Without doubt, Amaju will benefit from the position personally, building a profile in international football administration politics that will be useful to him. Of the legacy he can leave behind, I have no idea. We may have to wait and see if he will do for Nigerian football all what Amos Adamu who was the last Nigerian to hold that position, failed woefully to do in his time.

Amaju has one and half years to go as President of the NFF.

He can still leave a good record if he applies his political skills and dexterity to manage Nigerian football administration – be more transparent, more humble, more embracing of critical minds that he neglected and failed to use, and allow a level playing field for the election that will produce his own successor, by making the process simpler, more representative of genuine stakeholders and less amenable to political manipulation.

All said, I join all Nigerians in congratulating Amaju Pinnick and wish him a great stay in FIFA. I only hope Nigeria will benefit somehow in the process.

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