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The Nigerian president's 'Obama moment'

By Tolu Ogunlesi, Special to CNN
  • Nigeria's president suspended national football team after their first round exit at the World Cup
  • The move mirrors drastic action taken by the U.S. president over the oil spill and Afghanistan
  • Depending on who you ask, the president will come across as a joker -- or genius

Tolu Ogunlesi works as Features Editor with Next, a daily newspaper based in Lagos, Nigeria. He was awarded the Arts and Culture prize in the 2009 CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Awards. He writes a weekly column, Ongoing Concerns, for Next, and has spent the last three weeks following the World Cup from cities in Germany, the UK, Spain, Belgium and Holland. You can read his blog here.

Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) -- Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan is an angry man. He deserves to be.

The Super Eagles, Nigeria's national football team, have finally blown the bottom out of the good luck that has, in the last few years -- in the absence of a true fighting spirit -- sustained them. They went to the World Cup, saw, but conquered nothing. Not one win in three matches.

Knowing that his countrymen and women might be looking for ways to give vent to the unimaginable frustration of dashed footballing hopes, and perhaps suspecting that his speculated presidential ambition in 2011 will bear the brunt of this disguised national aggression, the president has hurriedly found solace in the principle that attack is indeed the best form of defense.

In doing this Mr. Jonathan appears to have been understudying his American counterpart, who in the last few weeks has been forced to take two drastic reputation-salvaging steps: Ass-kick a wayward oil giant, and show his Afghanistan war chief Stanley McChrystal the door marked "Exit."

Video: Nigerian football team suspended

In his "Obama Moment," President Jonathan on Wednesday fired the management of the Nigeria Football Federation. In addition a spokesperson announced that Nigeria's national teams would not be participating in international football competitions for the next two years, to "enable us put our house in order and enable us work out a more meaningful way to engage the global stage in terms of football so that this kind of rather embarrassing outcome we had in South Africa will not repeat itself."

Understandably Nigerians are deeply divided in their opinions. Depending on whom you asked, Mr. Jonathan will come across as joker -- or genius.

The "what-the-hell-was-Mr.-president-thinking" camp will wave FIFA's guideline scroll like a red card and tell you that no right-thinking leader would dare to defy FIFA's strict policy of non-interference in football by the state.

They will remind you that it is rulers like Robert Mugabe who attempt stuff like that, and that the last time anything like this happened in Nigeria it was the dark-goggled tyrant Sani Abacha who was in power. (In protest at the role Nelson Mandela played in the 1995 expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth, Abacha forbade the Super Eagles from participating in the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, instantly earning a FIFA ban.)

Those who think President Jonathan is a genius will argue that such drastic action was sorely needed; the inevitable anesthesia before long overdue surgery. They might also put forward the argument that Mr. Jonathan's seemingly deliberate defiance of FIFA's non-interference policy is an inspired move to attract FIFA sanctions; a crude but ingenious way of creating the perfect opportunity to overhaul the country's stubborn -- and shameless -- football administration.

To get an idea of the kind of people that run football in Nigeria, you have to consider the fact that no official of the Federation offered to resign over any of the following World Cup-related scandals: The disappearance of $200,000 in cash from the Federation's headquarters in March; an accommodation fiasco that necessitated the last minute change of hotel accommodation for the Eagles in South Africa and which cost the country $125,000 in fines; and the dismal performance in South Africa.

Wherever one stands in this debate, one fact however appears incontrovertible: Knowing how important football is to the average Nigerian, and the extent of the anger that Nigerians are feeling towards the Super Eagles and the football administrators, Mr. Jonathan has made what appears to be the classic populist move.

Had he, like Saddam Hussein's son Uday, ordered the flogging of the national team, or caused to be inserted into the new constitution a clause banning the use of overpaid foreign coaches (the Nigerian coach under whom the Super Eagles qualified for the World Cup was dropped, post-qualification, for a Swedish coach whose team failed to qualify for the same tournament,) there are many at home who would instantly deem him a statesman.

While the debate continues, I, as always, choose to see the sunny side of things. Nigeria is once again in the news. That same day I got an email from a German friend who heard the news of the ban on German state television. And then I saw it on CNN.

It is good to be in the news again, for reasons other than religious violence in Jos, or despoliation in the Niger delta. I am especially excited because the story this time is not that our president is missing, but instead that he is busy at work, doing something that Nigerian presidents will not normally win any prizes for: Dealing ruthlessly, even if controversially, with lingering government ineptitude.

If only he'd be this angry about our failings outside the football stadium.