07/11/2017 04:57 SAST | Updated 07/11/2017 04:57 SAST

Football Is Africa’s Second Language

Can you think of anything which galvanises different people -- regardless of race, religion or language -- more than football?

Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters
South Africa v Burkina Faso -- FNB Stadium, Johannesburg, South Africa -- October 7, 2017. Burkina Faso's Traore Bertrand in action with South Africa's Kamohelo Mokotjo.

­­Nigeria is a nation that was created, not born. Nigeria is not only a country of 36 states, but of 520 different languages, 250 different ethnic groups and 5 different religions, each spread across 182 million individual Nigerians. And yet, there is more that brings us together than divides us; our unity is increasingly coming from a shared passion that transcends colour, creed or language. It has something I've been thinking a lot about this week as our company Aiteo continues to support unity efforts across Africa.

Growing up in Nigeria, we knew that much of our history had been shaped by external forces. In our nation's past, we have been pushed around, carved up and defined by the forces of foreign interests. But today the power that sustains us, the power that has allowed Nigeria to become the most successful economy in sub-Saharan Africa, is not an external one: it is our own people.

Aiteo's new sponsorship of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Awards got me thinking: through the unity of our people we have created a shared identity, and nowhere is that shared identity more apparent, more celebrated and more unifying than in football. Nigerian cities, once too familiar with the echoes of fearful cries, resound today with the passionate cheers and gasps of suspense that can only be aroused by the beautiful game.

I challenge readers to think of anything which galvanises different people -- regardless of race, religion or language -- more than football. Go to any African country and you will find people watching it in bars, markets with friends, barbershops, playing it in schools and writing about it in newspapers. Football is one of the only places in which competition does not become an unhealthy competition, in which difference does not become a division, in which tension and fear, passion and promise are channelled into something that brings people together, not renders them apart.

And Nigerians have learned the hard way the importance of preserving constructive, if opposing, points of view and not letting them define or ignite underlying divisions. We know the role the culture, education, dialogue, tolerance and shared projects, between people on either side of the divides of our nations, must play in the public and private sphere, if we are to overcome division.

It is a language not spoken in words or gestures but in a shared love of a common interest. If any of our children were to meet -- one from Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Angola -- toss them a football and you can guarantee that friendships, common ground, laughter and handshakes would emerge quickly. And if football is something that can unify our young people, why should we not also use it to unify across the differences of our continent?

We should ensure our national leagues are superlative in every respect: that talent is nurtured, that success is recognised and that hard-work is rewarded.

More than anything, football crosses cultures and unites. Like a shared pursuit of a pan-African economic powerhouse, football should be held up as one of the new pillars of a pan-African future. If economic bridges can be built in trade; then cultural bridges can be built in sports. They are the two strongest pillars of African unity that every single person can get behind, and will let every single person get ahead.

Ask any young African if they are a football fan and they will surely say 'yes'. But ask them which team they support and the answer is more likely to be Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid, than Rivers Angels, Accra Hearts of Oak or Canon Yaoundé. Whilst Europe is the place from which we inherit many of our traditions, language and culture, the instantiations of these to which we aspire need not derive from outside our own borders. Just as indigenous companies are outstripping the competencies of many Western players in the field of oil and gas, we should be seeking to do so too on the football pitch.

We should ensure our national leagues are superlative in every respect: that talent is nurtured, that success is recognised and that hard-work is rewarded. This recipe will also ensure that our national teams, when they meet across our continent, can put on a spectacle to rival the meeting of European national clubs, eliciting pride, respect and unity from both sides.

We need to ensure that, in every domain, our children can aspire to be African, whether in areas of business, medicine, law, politics or sport. And to do this will often require those of us with the means to reach into our pockets, to help facilitate those with the ambition and the talent. This is why I am proud that Aiteo, the company I founded 16 years ago, has decided to sponsor the CAF Awards set to take place in Accra, Ghana, in January next year. It is exactly this sort of platform, which recognises distinction in football from over the year, that allows us to take pride in sporting success on our continent.

It is time to take ownership of our excellence, to establish our own language of success. Aiteo announced this year a US$8.2 million package of sponsorship that would transform the Nigeria Football Federation, prioritising stability by funding the salaries of coaches. The final of the Aiteo Cup last week in which Rivers Angels took on the mighty Ibom Angels, was a gripping sporting display to which I was a grateful and proud spectator.

But spectatorship is not enough by itself. We must act. We must shape and change the relationships that football can open up on this continent. I will be reaching out my industrial counterparts across Africa and encourage them to adopt wholesale the transformative model Aiteo has gifted to the sport in Nigeria, in the expectation that they too can, quite literally, raise their game.