NTF tries to overcome the global crisis in Nigerian Taekwondo © Getty Images

Taekwondo is one of only six sports that have won Nigeria an Olympic medal, yet it remains an untapped resource, constrained by challenges both internally and externally, Punch Nigeria reports.

By 1987, the Taekwondo Association of Nigeria (now the Nigeria Taekwondo Federation) founded by George Ashiru joined the World Taekwondo Federation.

The sport’s rapid growth in the country led to to continental success in 1987 as Ashiru won a silver medal at the 4th African Games in Kenya.

In 1988, Taekwondo debuted as a demonstration sport at the Seoul Olympic Games. In 1992, Nigeria clinched a silver medal in the Barcelona Summer Olympics, courtesy of Emmanuel Peters, even though the sport was not yet a medal-scoring event at the time.

After Ashiru and Peters it was Chika Chukwumerije who sprang to global acclaim of the sport in Nigeria. Chukwumerije competed at three African Games winning bronze in 2003, gold in 2007 and silver in 2011. He also competed at the Olympics in 2004, 2008 and 2012, winning his only medal - bronze - at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

Chika Yagazie Chukwumerije fights Akmal Irgashev of Uzbekistan for the Men's +80kg bronze medal at the Beijing 2008 © Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Chika Yagazie Chukwumerije fights Akmal Irgashev of Uzbekistan for the Men's +80kg bronze medal at the Beijing 2008 © Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

At the 2014 Belgian Open, Chukwumerije’s brother, Uche, won a gold medal for Nigeria. Since then, the Nigeria Taekwondo Federation has only claimed two medals — bronze medal in the male 68 Kg category through Chinazom Nwosu at the 2018 African Taekwondo Championships and most recently silver at the 2022 edition of the competition.

In 2015 Ashiru, the NTF president at the time, was impeached for alleged financial impropriety and abuse of office. He was reinstated by the court, which ruled that his impeachment was illegal. In 2017, Ashiru was again forced out of office by the board members of the federation, who again accused him of financial mismanagement and abuse of office. He was replaced by Margaret Binga, and it caused many controversies,.

Binga was controversially inaugurated as the new NTF president by then sports minister, Solomon Dalung, after the incumbent Ashiru, who was vying for a second term in office, got to the venue of the polls on 13 June to discover that his name had disappeared from the list without reasons given.

The controversial election and the rift was evident following its adverse effect on the Taekwondo community, as the 15th PANAMAI West Africa Open Taekwondo Championships scheduled for the National Stadium, Lagos, from 24-26 August, 2017 was postponed indefinitely because of the rift.

Afterwards, Several aggrieved stakeholders also boycotted the 2017 National Youth Games and Nigeria was placed on a temporary suspension by the World Taekwondo Federation with key information about the country’s officers and secretariats left blank by the world body.

During the next election in 2021, it was evident that Binga was an unpopular choice after she failed to get a single vote at the polls as Abdullahi Saidu-Baba emerged as the new NTF president with a landslide win.

Cash-strapped NTF has continuously found it difficult funding athletes to major international events, which has deprived the athletes of rankings on the global scene.

Travelling abroad for competitions has almost become a thing of the past for Taekwondo athletes following the economic hardship, which has translated to a drop on the country’s medal chances and rankings at the international level.

The NTF was forced to postpone the second edition of the Kebbi Open Championships — scheduled for this year — to 2024 citing “circumstances beyond our control”, while many believed it was due to the low turnout of athletes at the Kebbi camp, following their inability to fund themselves to the venue.

In 2023 Nigeria missed the World Championships in Azerbaijan. Expectedly, Nigeria’s no-show in Azerbaijan had its ripple effects on the sport and the athletes. Firstly, it denied the athletes a great chance of qualifying for next year’s Olympic Games in Paris, France, NTF president Abdullahi Saidu-Baba said to Punch Nigeria.

NTF President Alhaji Abdullahi Saidu-Baba © PAI Media
NTF President Alhaji Abdullahi Saidu-Baba © PAI Media

“A tournament like the World Championship has high ranking points and if your athletes compete, they will gather good ranking points and that will help significantly for qualifying for the Olympics,” Saidu-Baba said.

“Some countries have already qualified for Paris 2024 from these competitions, but unfortunately, due to lack of funding, we did not participate. From the other few competitions we went for, we have made it to the Olympic qualifiers, and that is where we will do our best to qualify for the Games.”

Benjamin Okuomose, who was in line to compete at the World Championship, said his world came crashing down after it.

“It was really frustrating and discouraging for me but I kept my head up, still looking out to the future, that it will be better somehow.”

However, the federation managed to fund only a single athlete, Elizabeth Anyanacho, to the 2023 African Taekwondo Championships in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and the 24-year-old repaid the trust, clinching a silver medal in the women’s -67kg.

“Since I came in as the president, I have not received a kobo from the government. If anyone says otherwise, let them bring evidence,” Saidu-Baba said.

“The last sports minister Sunday Dare made it clear that they cannot fund federations regularly, so, the federations should look for other sources of funding themselves. So, we had to do extra work to get sponsors and with the economic situation of the country, it is not that easy to get sponsors.”

The cash crunch has also translated to several stagnated grassroots programmes that would breed the next generation of the country’s Taekwondo athletes.

“People clamour for grassroots programmes and I have been able to host some in Kebbi. During the last administration of Margaret Binga, when I was the NTF Vice President, Chukwumerije was Technical Director then; the federation went as far as coordinating multiple championships, even bringing foreigners to compete with us and train, so that our athletes can sharpen their skills while also sponsoring international training programmes.” told Saidu-Baba.

Saidu-Baba said he funded the building of the sport’s only High Performance Centre in Kebbi, a major reason why athletes would all converge there to be able to assess, the facility, the only one in the country.

“I am the one who has been financing the camps for the athletes. I moved one of the camps to Kebbi because it is the only place we have the Taekwondo High Performance Centre, which was built by me. Inside the HPC, there is accommodation, the athletes can train there, relax and eat there as well,” he added.

“The government of today cannot give all the support to all the sports federations. That is why we need sponsors from organisations, individuals and some companies, who are able to fund our events,” NTF Secretary-General, Adamu Maikano, said.

Students of Kebbi Taekwondo Academy © Kebbi Taekwondo Academy Facebook
Students of Kebbi Taekwondo Academy © Kebbi Taekwondo Academy Facebook

President, Taekwondo Supporters Club, Gideon Akinsola — who said plans were on the way to chart a new path forward for the sport — reiterated Maikano’s view.

“If we had sufficient sponsorships, we will be able to put all our athletes in the right frame of mind to produce more medals, and take Nigeria’s name back into world reckoning. I have been in football, so, I know the level of support it gets and if Taekwondo has similar support, Nigerian Taekwondo will go higher and surpass the previous records,” Akinsola said.

“In the past years, we lacked unity in the Taekwondo community, but with the new leadership, I am sure we can come together. The Nigeria Taekwondo Federation, the Nigeria Taekwondo Black Belt College and the Taekwondo Supporters Club of Nigeria, if these three bodies can come together, as we are already planning to, we will move Nigerian Taekwondo to greater heights,” he added.

Young sensation Chibuike Oranye claimed two gold medals at this year’s National Youth Games in Asaba, Delta State, sparking hope of a bright future once again.