In 2003, the Federal Government made a very bold statement as they spent $360m (N53bn) to build a world class sporting facility in preparation to host the largest ever All Africa Games – Abuja National Stadium now christened MKO Abiola National Stadium.
Sitting on a 72 acres of land, the stadium houses several facilities such as 60,491 capacity covered main bowl, 3000 capacity indoor sports hall, 2000 capacity gymnasium, 2000 capacity swimming pool amongst others.
However, over the years, the Abuja national stadium had morphed from a monument of national pride to a site of national embarrassment. The sprawling edifice became home for the destitute, den for criminals and as well as a fertile ground for grazing by herdsmen.
The facilities were not spared as the main bowl was overgrown with weed, electrical wirings and cables for cameras were disconnected and stolen, and the roofs of some of the buildings were leaking amongst other dysfunctionalities.
However, the decision of the Minister of Youth and Sports, Mr. Sunday Dare to make use of the Abuja national stadium as his office in September 2019 set the stadium on a right path.
The relocation of his office to a large extent ‘opened his eyes’ to witness the varying degrees of dilapidation in the stadium and thus necessitating the process of revival to reclaim the lost glory of the magnificent national edifice. And he began with restoring the football pitch.
In September 2019, he revealed that Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote had accepted to renovate the main bowl and work was going to begin the following two weeks.
“Yes, Abuja is coming back up. Already we have gotten Dangote, I can say that he has agreed to bring back the Abuja football pitch, the light and scoreboard. Work will start in another one week or two weeks.” he said then.
But to the chagrin of Nigerians who had waited to see the stadium return to its glory days, the renovation never took place as he promised.
Few months after, precisely in June 2020, Dare said he could not stampede the renovation as the project is a private project and the funds are coming from a private individual.
“We were on the verge of completing the documentation process before the novel covid19 struck out and we had to shut down the whole country, a global shutdown as the case may be,’ Dare said.
“Remember, It’s a private investment, private support from Alhaji Dangote’s company and they have to go through a lot of processes, they have to invite up to 8 different contractors; They have to visit the stadium, they have to turn in their bill of quantity and they have to sit on a review board.
“The company also has to decide on which contractor is the most suitable to give us the best job, being the National stadium, all of these take time, they are normal standard operating processes,” he said then.
However, with gray areas sorted out, on August 27, 2020, the federal government officially flagged off and handed over the pitch of the Moshood Abiola National Stadium, Abuja to the Dangote Group, for the commencement of the facility’s rehabilitation to be carried out by Aron Nigeria Limited , a Lagos based Construction Company.
According to a statement issued from the media office of the minister of youth and sports development, Sunday Dare the rehabilitation was to be completed in 24 weeks with February 2021 as the deadline.
Speaking at the handing over ceremony, Dare asserted that the promise made on the assumption of office that the pitch and indeed other facilities will be revived, is in line with the ministry’s policy of Adopt Campaign.
“I promised that this pitch and indeed other facilities will be revived and put to best use by athletes. In line with that mandate, we sought the support of many philanthropists and sold them our vision of bringing back the glory days when our national stadia were filled to capacity on football game days which were the melting pot of various cultures and people of all ages,” he said then.
The pitch which is located in the Package A section of the stadium can host 60,491 fans who can gather and watch football games but in recent years, that has not been so as the stadium was abandoned and the once lush green grass became withered.
Instead of hosting football matches, the main bowl has in the past also hosted many cultural and religious events, as well as the tragic recruitment into the Nigeria Immigration Service in 2014 where at least 19 people were killed and dozens injured.
With the sad story of the main bowl set to change as Dangote took up the task of renovating some parts of the main bowl with $1 million at the Abuja National Stadium.
Accordingly, the football pitch was to be regrassed and fitted with modern facilities while the scoreboard was to be completely changed and be Video Assistant Referee, VAR, complaint.
Plans were put into motion and a Lagos based construction company, Aron Nigeria Limited was awarded the contract to bring the main bowl back to life.
In a chat with a top official of the company in March 2020, he said then that the company was on course to meet up with the February 2021 deadline as agreed with the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development while revealing the planting of grass would commence in a week’s time.
The official who spoke under anonymity further said that the two scoreboards was to be installed in September.
However, the FG and contractor could not meet up the February 2021 deadline as widely reported.
In April 2021, the Executive Director of the company, Adeniji Adesoji, told journalists in Abuja that the delay in delivering the project within the 24 weeks of the award of the contract as promised, was due to COVID-19.
“We should have completed the project and handed it over by now, but we had issues with COVID-19, because the main pitch itself required us bringing hybrid seeds from America and that affected us. The scoreboards, with all the components, were to be imported from Europe; that also affected us,” he said then.
In the same vein, Dare met again with the press in March 2021, a month after missing the initial deadline and stated that the renovation deadline had been shifted till June.
“The ongoing rehabilitation work at the Moshood Abiola National Stadium undertaken by Alhaji Aliko Dangote and the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos courtesy of Chief Adebutu Kensington will soon be completed.
‘We started by ejecting illegal occupants, cleared illegal structures to bring out the beauty of the edifice which is comparable to any top Stadium in the world. By the schedule of the contractors, the rehabilitation will be completed by June,” he said then.
Checks by our reporter showed that neither the pitch nor the score boards installation has been fixed.
A visit to the stadium showed that the grasses have been completely removed while the old scoreboards have been dismantled.
It was gathered that there were no equipment either being used or parked somewhere and no workers were seen by our correspondent on site.
The absence of workers as well as the equipment to work with has sent palpable fears among football lovers if again the renovation date won’t be shifted beyond June and deny them the opportunity to once watch a football game.
However, in a phone chat with Adesoji, the pitch has been laid with the grass and within the next two weeks, they will go back and do some weeding. He also assured that the June deadline will not be missed.
He also said the scoreboards to be used is at the port and will arrive Abuja next week.
“We have fitted the pitch with Pure Dynasty Paspalum. There is no one on ground because the grass is still growing and we have installed automatic sprinklers. We wet in the morning and at night.
“We have to wait for the grass to grow before we start weeding. You know there is no way there wont be weed. In the next two weeks, we should start weeding.
The scoreboards should be cleared by next week. They are already at the ports,” he said.
The last competitive football game was on April 12, 2016 which was the 2nd leg of the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations qualifier between the Super Falcons of Nigeria and Senegal while the last major sporting event held at the stadium was the National Sports Festival in 2019.