Unused and hopelessly ailing stadiums are not only a Nigerian problem. These so-called “white elephants” can also be found in Brazil, Portugal and South Africa. Japan and South Korea even demolished some of their loss-making arenas after the FIFA World Cup in 2002 already. Critics regularly decry the lack of adequate long-term planning when it comes to allocating major sporting events to specific nations and the corresponding building of new stadiums. In most cases, the municipalities have to pay the running costs which often go into the millions, even though they are struggling financially already.


In 2015, Arukaino Umukoro won the Sports Reporting award in the CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Awards for this story.

Lukman Lawal prefers to train in a private gym in Ogun State, rather than the one at the 45,000-capacity National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, which once hosted major national and international competitions. Lawal, who won silver at the 10th All Africa Games, Maputo, Mozambique, in 2011, and also represented Nigeria at the boxing competition of the London 2012 Summer Olympics, is one of the many boxers that shun the stadium because of the poor state of facilities there.

Kazeem Adeyemi, who also represented Nigeria at the 2007 All Africa Games, argues along the same lines: “When I went to Cuba to prepare for the All African Games, I saw better gym facilities than the ones here in Surulere. We need better facilities to become world class athletes.”

There are at least 30 stadiums in Nigeria. Only a few regularly host any form of sporting event. Some do not have any events all year round, as their facilities are left to rot away. As a result, the growth and development of many athletes who cannot afford to go abroad for training have been scuttled and their future left in jeopardy.

White elephant projects?

Eight stadiums hosted matches during the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, Nigeria 2009, among them the Abuja National Stadium in Lagos, the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu, and the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Stadium in Bauchi. Built with billions of Naira, all eight of them have a combined seating capacity of about 200,000. Filled up to the rim, they can generate about N40m ($239,000) only from ticket prices.

Sadly, none of these stadiums can boast of such figures due to lack of sporting and non-sporting events. Also, the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East of the country has drastically reduced the chances of hosting any major sporting event in the region. The last major sporting event hosted in the region was held in Kaduna State in 2009.

Nigeria, Stadion
White Elefant Stadiums

One of the most recently built is the National Stadium, Abuja. Built in 2003 at the cost of N54bn (about $321m), it is one of the costliest in the world. However, in the midst of illustrious company such as the iconic Allianz Arena ( €340 million – about N71 billion) and Arsenal football club Emirates stadium (£390 million – about N102 billion), the Abuja National Stadium sticks out like a sore thumb.

Shunned by national teams, the stadium that once played host to the All Africa Games in 2003 could be likened to a rich man stripped of his wealth and deserted by friends, as it no longer plays host to any major competition or even football matches of the national team, the Super Eagles. The last major match it hosted was the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier match between Nigeria and Sudan in October, three years after it last hosted a major match – a 2-2 draw with Guinea on October 8, 2011.

Total neglect

The National Stadium, Surulere, is in a worse state. Built in 1972, the stadium hosted several national, continental and international competitions, including the Africa Cup of Nations in 1980, and the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 1999. However, its main bowl is now a footballer’s nightmare, with dead electronic scoreboards, non-functioning floodlights and pitch in total disrepair. The last major competition that was held there was the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, which was jointly hosted by Nigeria and Ghana, in 2000.

Today, it is more famous for its beer joints and restaurants rather than its sporting activities. At nights, under the cover of darkness, without functioning floodlights, it becomes home to shady characters who loiter around its premises to carry out nefarious activities.

Its other indoor sporting facilities are not any better: From the dirty, algae-infested swimming pool which hasn’t been used for years, the worn-out tartan tracks, to the boxing gym – all are in need of urgent renovation.

Abuja Stadium, Nigeria
Abuja Stadium, Nigeria

Similarly, the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, Oyo State, and the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu are also in poor shape despite the billions of Naira spent to build them. When contacted, the stadium managers refused to speak with us.

Gabriel Okon, President of the Nigeria Track and Field Coaches Association decried the neglect of Nigeria’s stadiums. According to him, the standard of the stadiums in the country is a reflection of the sports industry: “We have to create tournaments, sporting events and activities to keep our sportsmen and women busy and productive in these stadia. Such competitions would make the stadiums fully utilised; we don’t have to keep waiting for national or federal competition.”

Kashimawo Laloko, coach and former Technical Director of the NFF, said the non-use of sporting complexes in the country negatively affects the development of grassroots sports: “School competitions can be held in these stadiums regularly to utilise them and it would help sports development in the country.”

Economic loss

Asides from the lack of development of sporting talents in the country, pundits say lack of use of the stadiums built with billions of taxpayers’ money also means the loss of economic revenue for the country. Okon says that when competitions take place, they create job opportunities for thousands of Nigerians. According to him, during the 2003 All Africa Games, which was hosted in Abuja, over 3,000 jobs were generated.

Kojo Williams, former President of the Nigeria Football Federation, agrees with Okon and notes that the use of these stadiums would give jobs to the over 20 million unemployed youths in the country. Furthermore, a proper league structure in the country could generate additional money for Nigerians. “In my time, I told pleaded for all the league matches to be played in the top stadiums in the country. I also suggested that the stadiums should be commercialised and leased out to the private sector. None of these plans saw the light of day.”

As a consequence, Nigeria's national football teams do not have a specific sports venue to call home. In the last two decades, the major fixtures of the Super Eagles have been rotated across at least six different stadiums in the country due to several factors, chiefly the poor state of the pitches. Also, unlike what obtains in other football-crazy countries, the Super Eagles have also had to play some of their Grade A friendlies in foreign countries such as the UK. Millions of Nigerian fans are therefore denied the opportunity of seeing their foreign-based stars in action on home soil.

Only full at free entry

Also, most of the matches played in the Nigerian Premier League and other local league divisions are played in near-empty stadiums, even the most competitive fixtures barely attract up to five thousand visitors. In most cases, where there are crowds in their thousands — especially during FA Cup final matches — it’s because the entrance is free or the gate fees were flung open after fans did not show up.

White elefant stadiums in Nigeria
White Elefant Stadiums

After a long period of inactivity, the Ahmadu Bello Stadium in Kaduna hosted an African Cup of Nations qualifier match between the Super Eagles of Nigeria and the Pharaohs of Egypt on March 26th this year. Despite it being a 25,000 capacity stadium, over 40,000 people thronged the arena to watch the match after the state government allowed free entry for spectators. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) recently imposed a $5,000 fine on Nigeria for not providing adequate security and allowing too many spectators into the stadium.

The new sports minister, Solomon Dalong, who was appointed in November 2015, said the stadiums would be refurbished and the renovations at the national stadium in Lagos started in January this year. A few sections such as the swimming pool have been given a facelift. Other than that, nothing much has been done.

First published: Monuments of waste: Nigeria's white elephant stadiums