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Onigbinde: How I miraculously escaped assassination as a coach

 At 80, Chief Festus Adegboyega Onigbinde reveals how he miraculously escaped assassination as a coach

Chief Festus Adegboyega Onigbinde dazzling at 80

At 80, Chief Festus Adegboyega Onigbinde has not lost a tiny bit of his whippy tongue. A reporter’s delight any day, the two-time Super Eagles coach shares his upbringing, life lessons, works with NFF, CAF and FIFA and down- to-earth views on the state of the nation. It is vintage ‘Chief’ as he compressed his life journey from a ‘village boy’ to international recognised football instructor and coach into an hour interview with TAIWO ALIMI. Excerpts:

How do you feel at 80?

I feel good. I don’t feel any different. I am blessed with good health and I thank the Almighty for that. I feel good.

So what is the secret?

Being a sportsman has helped me. It keeps me fit because there is no way that you can coach others that you would not be involved in it too. But, there is more to it. Scientists have proved that people grow older more from the mind than the other part of the body. If you keep malice, begrudge people, and pay too much attention to negativity; you are poisoning your system. Of course, they will degenerate. That is what I will say is part of the secret of my healthy life.

I bear no malice. I have no enemy. Most importantly, I say and do what I feel is right. No matter how you feel. That keeps my mind very free and healthy.

Do you have any fitness regime?

My life is full movement. How long have I been a sportsman? You won’t believe it if I tell you that, even now, I still coach. And, how can you be coaching without exercises, without keeping fit? It is not possible. Then, I find way to keep fit around the neighbourhood.  I have friends living some kilometres away. Instead of driving, I walk to their places. I also move round my place here. I also give myself some physical activities.

What about your diet?

I don’t have any special diet. I am what you call omnivorous. I take anything. I have never had a course to be told to take less salt or sugar. Less than a month ago, I was with my family doctor for check-up. After taking all the vitals, my BP was 100/60, which I consider to be going into hypo level, even more than hyper level. And the reason is that if Sunny Ade brings all his music under my bed, it doesn’t stop me from sleeping. I will sleep. You have to accept one thing, that we are created to create problem and to solve problem. So, no problem can weigh me down. If anybody has any ill-feeling with me, I want it to remain in his head and not transfer it into my own head and that does not stop me from relating pleasantly with him. That is my life.

This idea, has it always been with you or it was inculcated as you grow older?

I cannot remember an occasion that when my father or my mother got wild because of some other people’s headache. My father was quiet, intelligent; some of the time when bad things are happening, he even takes his eyes off it. Maybe, another day when that issue comes up, that is when he would refer to the former incidence. It is the same thing for my mother.

I remember only one occasion when my mother gave me a good beating. That day, we went out and I drank a cup of palmwine that got me tipsy. I did not intentionally take it. Custom demands that as the youngest man in the group, I had to serve the undiluted palmwine, and by custom, when you serve, you have to take the first cup and report back that the wine is good. I took that one cup, and by the time I got back home I was behaving somehow. My mother lured me into her room and gave me some serious beating. And that is why up till now I am a social drinker. That is the only time that I remember that she beat me and that left a lasting impression on me. 

So, it not a new thing, even in my work as a coach I meet all kinds of people. Mind you, before I became a coach, I was a teacher for about 20 years. I taught in the primary, secondary and teacher training, and these institutions you meet with different types of children. Thank God, I went through the systematic teacher training system. I did my grade 3, 2 and 1 and all these things were part of our education in teacher training college.

And, that was why a year ago, I sent a paper to the presidency highlighting that the standard of educational, that has fallen, was due to the abolition of teacher training colleges. That indicates that we no longer have professional teachers. Everybody is complaining. Three days ago, I read that 83 per cent failed the West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) examinations. How do you explain that? Going through the teacher training also prepared me, in addition to my humble background.

What is your blueprint for education in Nigeria?

Well, we have to go back to the old system of training our teachers. Of recent, a state government asked teachers to take Primary Four exams, and we know what happened. Many of them failed. Unfortunately, when the government decided to deal with these teachers, people started protesting, so, where are we going?

So, when you want to produce quality students, you must first produce quality teachers. You can’t give what you don’t have. People don’t actually appreciate what training a teacher involves. In this same room, we were discussing this issue with some friends and one of them said what is the relevance, once you now the subject, teach it to the pupils, and I told him it is more than that.

For example, if we are here and some masquerade just appears drumming and dancing outside. What would be the reaction of your people? They would want to see what is happening, and what would be the reaction of the teacher? You push them back, probably beat them because you are not a trained teacher. A professional teacher would now better. He would encourage the pupils to appreciate the music, by taking them out to see them and when they are outside there, they are learning.

The way people are dancing and the song they are singing. Some of them would even want to ask questions. Why is this like this, why is that like that? They are learning. That is not all. By the time they get back to their classroom, what would be their attitude? They have satisfied their curiosity and they are ready to listen to you attentively. That is an example of professionalism in teaching. And unless we go back to that or find a way of replicating those teachers, there will be trouble. You can get it right unless you do it right.

Chief Festus Adegboyega Onigbinde has an eye for great talents

And there is another problem. By the time Nigeria went into private educational institutions, Nigeria was not ready for it. You have people who are running private schools today, just for the money; from the primary up to the university level. And there is no adequate supervision. I remember in those days, two months before an inspector would come, they would have been notified and you would have the management of that school preparing for that visit, and keeping the school clean. But, we don’t have that anymore. Everybody does what he likes. There is no control. So, when you set a standard, there must be a system of monitoring that full compliance is kept.

I know we have the Nigeria University Commission, but how much do they ensure that our universities keep that standard. We have Ministry of Education, but do they still operate the way they used to. Then, the ministry will supply the syllabus, and they would come occasionally to see how you are conforming to the regulation.

Today, in Nigeria, even if the inspectors still go round, what will happen? They would be bribed to write favourable report about that school. Sometimes, they don’t even turn up at all once they have been settled. I’m afraid for the future of this country and some of the time I feel like shedding tears for this country. God gives us all the potential to be a great country, but what are we doing about it?

Take for example, my profession (football coaching), how many thousands of football talents do we have wasting away in the rural areas of this country? But, there is no system to identify them. Not to talk of polishing them. The system is not there.

In your years of coaching, which one did you enjoy most? Is it as a youth coach, in the clubs or national team?        

Chief Festus Adegboyega Onigbinde at the 2002 FIFA World Cup

I always enjoy more, maybe because I am a trained teacher, working with the young ones.  I enjoy seeing them develop. I love it. And that was why in 1983-1985, the first time I handled the national team, I did not invite any foreign-based player. They were all local players, local boys.

It has an advantage. These local boys are young and they would be ready to do what you want them to do. In December 1975, we worked with a team and I was trying to correct one player there, and he retorted ‘that is how I have been doing it.’ I want players that are teachable. When I was going to the World Cup, I started preparation at home. At any rate, the old ones who were playing in Mali threatened that they would not report, until they saw the team taking shape that they started reporting in ones and twos, and, eventually, some of them played their dirty games.

I love watching children develop, which gives me that happiness that I’m doing something great.

Twenty years as an educationist, something you claimed to love so much. Yet, you dumped it for football? 

Is coaching not teaching? (Laughter) I’m still in the same profession.  Candidly, if you have a flair for developing people, it can be at any level or profession. After teaching for 20 years at primary, secondary and higher institution, what more do I want? And all along while I was teaching, I was also coaching as a game master. So, it is more or less a continuation.

Apart from your parents whom you always talk about, what are the other things or people that moulded you to becoming who you are today? 

The background is very important. Then, if you are lucky to meet the right kind of people, and you are receptive to their ideas, you will develop. The teachers I went through in my primary schools were model teachers, including the headmaster, and I learnt a lot from them.

Coming into football, in 1958, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was in London with the other political leaders to discuss Nigeria’s independence. And there were some Nigerian sportsmen who were operating in the United Kingdom (UK) and one of them was Teslim ‘Thunder’ Balogun. He invited him to come back home as a coach in the then Western Region Sports Council. He came back that same year and he was touring the region, which extended to Port Harcourt, Asaba, looking for football talents.

He spotted me at Ife and was trying to lure me to Ibadan to come and play. But, that was not possible because I was already a Grade 2 teacher earning about 10 pounds a month. If I came back to play an important match and win, they would probably give me two shillings. What would I have done with that? However, he kept in touch with me and was always inviting me to Ibadan. Then, as God would have it, I did my teacher Grade 2 course in Ibadan at St Luke and that brought us more together, especially in the second and final year when I became the coach and captain of the school football team.

I would invite him to come and assist me. That year in 1961, Balogun organised the first real coaching course in Ibadan and made it mandatory for me to attend. I was a student and I thought leaving my studies for three weeks could affect me, but he told me that he saw some qualities in me that would make me a successful coach. He even exaggerated by saying that some of these qualities he didn’t have. That was how I attended my first coaching course in June/July 1961. You will agree with me that was an influence. He gave me the encouragement and the opportunity to start.

Then, in Yoruba land, there is a saying that ‘egbe buburu ba iwa rere je’ meaning, if you keep bad company, you are likely to be influenced.

So, if you are careful the kind of friends you keep, you will have some good influences on your life. And that is why the English says: ‘show me your friend, and I will show you who you are.’

I have said it before that criminality in this country is youth-oriented. People say because there is no job. If there is no job, is killing and robbing people a good alternative? The company you keep matters a lot.

I like to influence in a positive way too. And that is why even in my profession, I am sometimes ostracised, because they see me as a non-conformist. And I don’t regret it. I smile happily and move on.

What are your opinions about the new order in both CAF and FIFA?   

Well, I think it is natural for changes to come. People say that the only thing that is constant is change itself. One should expect it to happen. But the problem is, these people taking over, have they been patient enough to learn from the older ones? That is the problem. You want to apply a clean break, starting from zero once again. Is that progressive? I think that is the problem.

I got information few days ago that one of the programmes that I was involved with at CAF level, a developmental programme geared at grading all African coaches. Before we did it, we went to Europe and got UEFA developmental programme, got that of America, Asia, used that to evolve our own African thing. Right now they are talking about dumping it and going back to the old order simply because it would serve the interest of some individuals. It is unfortunate.

How much do you enjoy working with FIFA?        

Oh! Wonderful! And the way it came is what actually got me excited. In 1984, I took Nigeria to Cote d’Ivoire Africa Cup of Nations and in spite of problems, I came back with silver. That was the highest Nigeria would achieve playing outside Nigeria. That was the first time a Nigerian coach was taking Nigeria to the Nations Cup. And, I did not have a presidential handshake when I came back.

Coincidentally, the present president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, was military Head of State, then. I remember that on the day we played the final, somebody just came into the dressing room and said he had a message from the head of state. He wished us well and when I came back the authority did not create an atmosphere to thank him for that. That is why up till now I’m looking forward to when I would come face to face with him, and tell him ‘a belated handshake sir’ (laughter).

I need my handshake. I would request for my handshake. My reward thereafter was my removal. Up till now I have not been told why I was removed. If working under that condition which I worked, came back with silver, I thought somebody would say, ‘if we encourage him maybe he would do even better.’ But, my reward was my removal from the team. And, I left gladly. I am not going to allow anyone to get me worked up.

In 1988 Africa Nations Cup in Morocco, I was in Nigeria analysing for a television station in Ibadan, and usually CAF would have their election. So, they conducted their election and Issa Hayatou was elected with a new executive. I understood that after the election at their meeting, Hayatou said they needed people who understood the game and a Tunisian asked ‘what of the man who bought Nigeria to the Nations Cup four years ago?’

And the then, technical director of CAF cut in, ‘Yes! That was the man that gave me my toughest match of my career,’ because he was the Egyptian coach that we played in the semi-final. And that was how they started looking for my name and they got me inducted into their technical committee, and at the same time, named me one of their technical instructors. That was in 1988.  Then, in 1994, after walking with CAF for six years, I got a letter from FIFA that I’ve been designated as a FIFA instructor. I later got to know that it was on the recommendation of CAF, and not Nigeria.

Now what was I saying? The link between 1984 and my CAF assignment, God is a marvellous. If I was not removed as Nigeria’s coach, I would not have had the opportunity that I got from CAF and FIFA. Someone would have said he would not have time for us because of his Nigeria assignment. That was how I got to CAF and as result of my performances they recommend me to FIFA.

My assignments with the two bodies have taken me to not less than 40 countries in Africa alone, not to talk of other parts of the world.

And that was not all. At the FIFA Junior World Cup in Malaysia ’97, when the first Vice-President of FIFA, Jack Warner, met me at a dinner he put together; at the dinner, he just looked at me and said, ‘Chief, if Nigeria had people like you why do they go to Europe to look for coaches?’ I just shrugged my shoulders. In about 15 minutes, he looked at me again and said, ‘tell me why you will not come to Trinidad & Tobago and help us?’ I kept quiet. It was a Tunisian, who was head of technical committee of CAF that answered him, ‘we cannot allow chief to leave Africa.’

About two hours after, I got a letter of appointment from Trinidad & Tobago.  And he said he wanted immediate reply, and I started dodging him. When we got to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, Blatter (Sepp) invited me to a meeting, and I was wondering what it was all about. He said, ‘I understand Jack wants you to come to his country, and you have not given him a response.’ He looked at my face, it was not welcoming. He said ‘Chief, you know what, regard it as part of FIFA development programme,’ and I’m a member of FIFA Technical and Development Committee.

So, my hands were tied. But, my face was still not welcoming. So he said they would send me to West Indies so as to study the environment for two months before taking my decision. So, on October I moved to West Indies where I spent two months. As soon as I landed there, Jack gave me an envelope and inside it was the contract from Trinidad & Tobago. He asked me to study it for the two months and with the proviso to amend, before committing myself.

I was hopping from one Island to another for two months and when I came back to the capital of Trinidad & Tobago, I just gave back the envelope to Jack. I persisted for two more days and that was how I signed the contract in November 1997.

Chief Festus Adegboyega Onigbinde’s Super Eagles squad at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

I was to have assumed duty in January 1998, but on getting to Nigeria they got to know that I have signed a contract. Nigeria was to host the junior World Cup in 1999 and they now came around to say that I’ve been appointed as the chairman of the organising committee to stop me from going there. Meanwhile, up till today there was no letter of appointment. I only heard it on the media. How do we operate? I went to Abuja and we were to go to Zurich to discuss with FIFA. I did not know what we were going to Zurich to discuss as chairman of organising committee. I had to keep talking with Jack that I had some delay and eventually I resumed in April, a job I ought to have started in January.

And, when I reported, the then chairman of NFA sent a query that I abandoned my duty post. What duty? The only duty post I abandoned was the one in Trinidad & Tobago. Where is your letter of appointment? That is Nigeria for you. These are the issues. I was in Trinidad & Tobago for three years and the development programme I established there, saw them, eight years later, qualify for the World Cup final in 2006.

Some of the time I feel that I am crazy, that I am in a strange country, that I don’t belong to this country.

So, I enjoyed my time in CAF and FIFA and I can say that I am well appreciated. But, can I say the same for my country?

I guess I can call you an elder statesman now?

At a tender age of 80. (Laughter)

So, what are your opinions about the state of our nation?

The political situation in Nigeria also makes me feel very sad. I am not pretending. Some of the time I shed tears when I see what they are doing. For example, we have misinterpreted the meaning of democracy. Because you are in opposing party, you talk to the president of your country as if you are talking to a robber. What picture are we sending? The question of positive and objective criticism is gone because you want to score political point. It is unfortunate. That is on the one side.

On the other hand, even people who are governing us; in the various parliaments:  Senate, House of Representatives, and the states Assembly, when you see the class of people there, you wonder where the country is going. Their behaviour, their utterances give one that impression that we are not going anywhere. Even, the electorate are no better. With a tin of rice, we are ready to vote for known armed robbers and then, we turn around and complain. Who is to blame? You and I.

What is patriotism in Nigeria? The definition of a gentleman in Nigeria is an idiot. If you are marked for a position, people will come and meet you and tell you amass wealth when you get there because if you don’t, you’re an idiot. I just pray for the country, but the signs are ominous. People who are truthful and straight in this country are abandoned and side-lined and if you are not careful, you are gone.

I usually relay this story when I want to thank my God. In 2007, I escaped assassination by special miracle of the Almighty. I have never quarrelled or struggled for position or money with anybody in this country, so what was my offence? Because I was talking and some people said he’s talking because he’s alive.

I was invited to a town in Oyo State here to talk and motivate a football team. I got there at about 2pm. The man who invited me was taking me round and round. He did not take me to my hotel until 10pm. And, the hotel was just a plot of land away from his house. This was somebody who would have said please ‘why don’t you stay in my house.’ He left me in the hotel about 11pm and by 11.15pm, I was changing into my pyjamas, when I started hearing gunshots outside. I switched off the light, and kept quiet.

I crawled to the window and peeped outside. I saw two cars with their lights on, meaning their engines were running. Before I got back to my bed, these people were at my door, and they started hitting my door with iron rod. When this continued I sent a test message to the man who lodged me in the hotel: ‘Robbers at my door.’ After hitting my door for some minutes, they moved to the door on my left and with two blows that one gave way. They were looking for a link-door. There was none. They came back to my door and continued and it did not give way. They moved to the door by my right and that gave way with some blows. No link-door.

So, they came back to my door and started banging again. After a while they became jittery and left. That my door did not give way was indeed a miracle. About 20 minutes later the police came and started shouting, ‘come down,’ but I did not answer them. I just stayed in my room. When they left I went back to my bed and slept like a baby, because I believed God has perfected his job. Apart from a miracle, I don’t know what else to call that.




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