Renowned athletics Coach Tobias Igwe (a.k.a Toblow) is one of Nigeria’s most-achieving athletic coaches, who had won laurels for the country and produced champions in local and international events. He successfully guided Nigerian athletes to three Commonwealth and Olympic Games respectively and returned with laurels. Unfortunately, in his last place of employment was Abia State Ministry of Sports, he was a victim of then Governor Theodore Orji’s controversial sack of non-indigenes from the state’s civil service. In this interview with BONIFACE OKORO, Igwe, recalls exploits in his athletics career at the federal and state levels; futile appeals for help, even as he pleads with Abia State Governor to look into his case. Excerpts:
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am Tobias Igwe, a.k.a Toblow. I am from Isiala Mbano in Imo State.
When did you start your career in athletics
I started my athletic career in Lagos. In 1975 I ran, and I was the 5th best in Nigeria. In 1977, I became third best in the whole country. I was the first Igbo man to win a medal in the 3, 000 Triple Chase in the 1977 Senior Open staged in Benin. In 1978, I became Senior Champion of Lagos and then, attended my first coaching course organised by Lagos State Athletics Association. After the course, I was posted to St Finbarr’s College, Akoka. I was combing almost all Lagos. At that time, I discovered people like Henry Amike, Sunday Uti and T Bakare, to mention but a few. I sought so many athletes and in 1979, I coached Lagos State Junior Team in Arugo 1979 Schools Sports, and produced the fastest boy there in the 400 metres: and that was Sunday Uti. After that event, I went back to Lagos and started coaching. By then, those junior ones I discovered had graduated to the senior category. I went back to the grassroots and discovered Mary Onyali, the former fastest girl in Africa, with Tina Iheagwam, the World Junior Champion.
In fact, my first international outing was in Ghana in 1984, for African Zone 3. I was among the coaches. I was selected for the Ghana trip because 15 athletes in the Nigerian team came from Lagos and they were being coached by me. The chairman of the Athletics Federation as at that time, Wing Commander Dangaji, was interacting with the athletes and when about six of them mentioned me, he said: ‘ah! go and bring that coach, he must be in this team.’ That was how I made the trip to Ghana. And in Ghana, we beat Ghana and the President of Ghana then, Jerry Rawlings, left the stadium unceremoniously because we won almost everything. As a result of my performance, I was sent to handle the Nigerian Junior Team for the first World Junior Championship in Athens, 1986. There, I produced the fastest girl in that competition and that was Tina Iheagwam. I won two gold medals with the sprinters. Tina won the 100 metres and Falilat Ogunkoya won the 200 metres.
After that event, I coached Nigeria for the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1990. After New Zealand, and because Nigeria surpassed her previous outing by our performance at the Commonwealth level, I was invited to stay in camp to coach Nigerian Olympics team for Barcelona 1992, and in Barcelona 1992, we bettered the previous mark made by Nigeria.
Nigeria got only a bronze by Egbunike’s group in Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. But in Barcelona, our girls won the first Olympic medals in 4x100 metres women. I was in charge of that team, which comprised Mary Onyali, Beatrice Utondu (who I discovered in Enugu), Faith Idehen from Benin and Charity Okpara (who came from Imo but was in America then).
Then our men in the sprints (which I also was in charge of, with Emilia Edet, the chief coach then,) won the first ever silver for the country in 4x100 metres men. They were Davidson Ezinwa, Chidi Imo, Olapade Adenikan and Kayode Oluremi (now late). We came second, behind Britain. After that performance, I was again called up for the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1992. The successes we recorded at the Atlanta Game surpassed our previous outing at Barcelona. We won Gold for the first time through Chioma Ajunwa. At Atlanta, I was in charge of coaching athletes for the quarter mile. That is, I went for long sprint – 400 metres. I won Silver in the 4x4 women, comprising Charity Okpara, Falilat Ogunkoya, Bisi Afolabi and Fatima Yusuf. In fact, we would have won gold but Charity Okpara was serving a four-year ban up till a year to that competition, so she was still competition-rusty and did not do well.
Mary got bronze in the 200 metres and Falilat got bronze in the 400 metres. That was our best outing.
And in Athens 2004, when Ngerem came in as president of Athletics Federation of Nigeria, I was in charge of the Athens team again. But the preparation was not very good, because after Nigeria qualified for the competition proper, our relay team did not qualify before I came in. So we coached them to qualify and we qualified in Congo. They came back to Nigeria instead of coming over to Germany where we were. So, all the boys lost form and by the time they came to Germany, we started to rebuild, as their fitness dropped drastically.
The oyibo (white) man attached to me, after assessing them, said, this is nonsense. I started working again and rebuilding them and that was why we got only bronze in Athens. We got one bronze in 4x4 men and 4x100 men. Our girls didn’t win anything. These were the three Olympics I attended. I also attended three Commonwealth Games successfully for Nigeria. They were New Zealand (1990), Manchester (2002) and India (2010). I won medals in all the outings I have attended for Nigeria as a coach.
In all these outings, who officially engaged you? Or,were you just recruited as a coach, after the games, they discard you?
Yes, when we have national assignments, it used to be temporary. They used to write a letter that would facilitate our release from the states where we work. Then after the games, we go back to our states.
During this period, were you officially engaged by any state as a coach?
I was first engaged by Lagos State. From there, Anambra State took me up. They said they want me in their state. In fact, they offered me better welfare package than Lagos, in terms of salary. I moved to Anambra in 1986. My first outing for Anambra was the school sports they hosted and I won it for them for the first time in 1987. I was still working for Anambra before the state was split into Anambra and Enugu states. And we left for Awka. Before we left, I was on Grade Level 9, and they promised to promote me to Grade Level 12, if I followed them to Awka. But they didn’t do it. We left for Awka and there was no stadium. And I asked myself what am I coming to do in Anambra where there is no stadium or is it just that by month-end, I will take salary and my name will die off. So, Enugu State was mounting pressure on me to come to Enugu. So, I left Anambra State on Grade Level 10 and joined Enugu on Grade Level 13.
I went to Enugu State and made them to win the Sports Festival in Benue 1996. Enugu State topped the medals table in athletics, where I belonged to. I produced the fastest girl, Henrietta Ajaegbu, there too. She is now in Spain and is no longer running.
After that, I continued growing. I continued representing Nigeria because, while working with Enugu, I was normally invited to the national camp for national assignments. That was when I was invited for Atlanta. They released me. After the Atlanta Games and Benue Sports Festival, Enugu State gave me an award and cash, because they saw what they have never seen before. In athletics at Benue Sports Festival, we won all the middle distance races. I was promoted to Level 14 after the Benue outing. Col Torrey was the Military Administrator of Enugu then. I think the prominent people there were mounting pressure on him to sack non-indigenes, that they were too many in the state’s workforce. Torrey did not agree with them to sack non-indigenes.
When Torrey left, Col Sule Ahman took over and implemented the sacking of non-indigenes in 1997.
After about one year of unemployment, we were like broomstick. People were dying. I took my plight to the public via the newspapers: I cried and questioned why they should treat me shabbily even when I was doing well. I raised the Ezinwa brothers from Achi in Udi Local Government of Enugu State; Clement Chukwu, I got him from Nsukka. I asked why should you people disengage a result-oriented human being like me? My director then did all he could to make sure that I was recalled, but all to no avail as they maintained that it was a government policy.
I went to Imo, my home state and met people. They said: how can they employ me on Grade Level 14 when an assistant director in the state was on Grade Level 14? They asked me if I could come down to Grade Level 12 (laughs). I just made u-turn and went back to Enugu.
It was Alhassan Yakmut - a former director-general of National Sports Commission (NSC), when he was zonal coordinator in Enugu - that took me to 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, where I was helping them. I helped them to win the Army Games (or something like that). I produced one girl there, Callista Onyejiaka and one Daniel Yerima, they were all gold medalists there. The army gave me a lifeline then to sustain myself, but I was talking in the papers that Enugu was not fair to me. What is non-indigene in sports? Sports, everywhere, is a universal language.
After a year and half, I was engaged by Abia State government. The Director of Sports in Abia, Anaelechi Obonna, who retired as a permanent secretary, I didn’t know, was reading what I was saying in the newspapers. So, he came to Enugu direct to ask me to come down to Abia. I was formally engaged by Abia State government in 1998.
When I came to Abia, my first outing was Imo ’98. I came here around June or July. That competition was around December. I swung into action immediately on my arrival, because if I came to Abia and failed to pull weight, they will say, ‘ehen, shebi you don go, Abia no win.’ I brought all the experience I had in the world and gave it to Abia. We went to that competition and it remains the best Abia outing. In the whole festivals they have gone, have they performed better than Imo ’98? In Imo’98, Abia won the overall in athletics. I won the four Low Hurdles for women and men. Victor Okorie, from Arochukwu, won in the men’s category. I brought him from Enugu when they disengaged me because I discovered him around that time, so I have to come with him to Abia. He won the gold. Onyemuwa won gold too. I won 4x100 metres Girls’ relay. We won the 800 metres women and men. In fact, there is one boy that won two gold medals for Abia in that Imo‘98, Justine Agu, who was also from Enugu; he was also disengaged by Abia.
When I left Enugu, I brought some of my boys to Abia, including Uchenna Emedolu,who won the World Cup in athletics and they employed them. It was continent versus continent. We represented the African continent, after Tunisia African Championship, from where we were selected. I was selected because I was in-charge of sprint and because Frank Fredricks from Namibia withdrew from 100 metres and ran only in the 200 metres. He gave Emedolu, who came second behind him, the chance to run the 100 metres. Emedolu won the World Cup 100 metres. That boy is disengaged since five years now.
The first Igbo man, Stanley Ojobasi, to win 3, 000 metres Triple Chase, where I majored, that is where I was third best in Nigeria during my days of running, was trained by me and he won gold. That is, he bettered my record. That boy, a graduate of IMT,Enugu, from Awgu, is languishing. He was also disengaged.
After the Imo competition and after some years, I was promoted to Level 15 in Abia when Emeka Inyama was our Commissioner for Sports, because of my achievements. And that gingered me to work harder. Abia also did very well in Bauchi festival in 2000. Emedolu could have run in that competition, but he left for Malta for trials because I got him from football. So, he said he wants to go to Malta and see whether he can get a club there and play. When he tried there and he didn't get a club, he came back.
The Director of Sports, Mr Anaelchi Obonna, literally sacked him for not participating in Bauchi 2000, but I pleaded on his behalf and he was reinstated. During the Gateway Games, another festival, Emedolu gave Abia State two gold medals in 100 and 200 metres and everybody was happy with him. Abia produced the fastest boy in that competition. I was in COJA and I won gold medal for Nigeria in 4×4 women and my boys came second in 4×4 men and one of the girls I coached also came second in the 400 metres.
After COJA, the Atheltics Association of Nigeria gave me the Best Coach Award, after returning from Spain, where I produced the fastest man from the World Cup in the Africa versus Asia Games in Hydrabag, India. The athletes I took to India swept the whole sprints. They were Fasuba, and Tamuno Sikpi from Rivers. Nigeria came first and second in the 100 metres and in relays, we won all with Frank Fredricks in our team. The last people I discovered for this state and made them champions were Nkeiruka Uwakwe who won two gold medals. She left for America two years ago on scholarship; Chukwudike Harry who I discovered from Amachara during their inter-house sports meet, was the fastest Junior Africa two years ago. He won under 17, 18 and under 20 and represented Nigeria in Mauritius and won gold for Nigeria. He got scholarship to America immediately, but when he got there, he said he did not like the school and he came back. He is now in UNIPORT and will represent the school in the West African University Games.
When I came back from India Commonwealth Games, I sponsored Abia team with 25 athletes to Lagos, when the government said there was no money. I lodged them in a hotel, fed them with my money and brought them back with laurels. In that competition, I produced the fastest boy and fastest girl from Abia. Some of them are still there. In the same 2011, I took about 11 athletes from Abia to Senior Open in Calabar and spent four days and catered for all the expenses – camped them in a hotel, fed them and brought them back. Up till today, nobody has made any refund to me. It pains me today when I remember such sacrifices, and nobody fights for me.
I had been disengaged before I discovered the best athlete, Eke Kalu, the shot-put champion now. I saw him along Club Road and saw a mighty boy with an intimidating muscle. I tapped him on the shoulder. He said, yes, can I help you? I said yes, you can help me and help yourself. He said by how? I said you are wasting, look at your frame. With this stature, if you go to shot-put, you will do very well. He said he has no chance to train because of the job he was doing.
I came up with another idea. I said look, you have only two years and you will get scholarship to go and study in America, even when you go there, you can even play American football and make money. The boy agreed and the next day he got to the stadium even before me. As at that time they were recruiting sportsmen to replace those that were sacked. When he entered the Board Room, everybody stood up. He was the first to be documented. In the next three days, they gave him appointment letter. I started coaching that boy even as I was disengaged and I was going to the stadium because of him. The first competition was Lagos festival: the boy won silver for the first time. He is now leading in Nigeria.
When were you disengaged by Abia?
In September, 2011; that time they carried out disengagement of non-indigenes.
My erstwhile director and retired permanent secretary, Anaelchi Obonna, was very proud of me, but there is nothing he can do about my case. He is retired now,and nobody even listens to them again and nobody is talking on my behalf because, you see, my rank is like level 16.
I don’t know if anyone in the Abia Sports Council is scared of me. Nobody wants to talk on my behalf. Even some of them used to protest that it is my name every time that goes to the media, that I was of higher rank than them who are indigenes. I will say: ‘look, if you work like me, you will even go higher than me.’ People were not happy with me because I left Lagos, Enugu and Anambra. Anambra people were particularly not happy with me, because I was working with them before I left for Enugu. My brother, what have I done? Even Nigeria is not taking care of me. Nobody is looking into my problems. Why am I so neglected?
I am a three-time coach for Nigeria in the Olympics and I got medals in all the outings, and also three-time coach of Nigeria at the Commonwealth level and got medals for Nigeria in all the outings. Two times African coach in the World Cup in Africa versus Asia, where I cleared the sprints. Why should I be treated this way?
What efforts did you make to get the government to reverse your disengagement, given your relevance to sports advancement in the state?
I wrote a letter to the then governor, Chief T.A.Orji, through the then Secretary to the State Government, Prof Mkpa Agu Mkpa. The SSG had asked me to do the letter after meeting with him. I don't think he followed it up because one day, we met him in the stadium, my director then, Mr Ejikeme Ikwunze (Mr Football), was around. Mkpa said, “Coach, you are not the one to write, it is the director who is supposed to write.” I don't know if he did write.
Mr Football used to be proud of me. When he was made the Special Adviser on Sports to Governor Theodore Orji, I thought it was the best opportunity when he would have handled my matter. But nothing positive came my way. My record speaks for me. There is no governor who you will show my performance and what I have done for the state that will not say bring him back. I have taken my case to many people, seeking their intervention. I have met Emeka Inyama. The day I met Emeka Inyama, it was in the stadium. He asked the current Director of Sports, Isaac Ogbonna, what he has done about my case. The director said we have written. ‘Ah! You have written and you didn't follow it up?’ Emeka Inyama asked him. He said ‘we are waiting.’
How old are you now?
I am 63 years now
And, I believe you are a family man?
Yes. I have two children, a male and female, who are still in the secondary school.
Since 2011, what have you been doing to survive?
I was in the Nigerian team during the Mauritius Games and some other small, small competitions, like African Junior Championship. I was also in All-Africa Games in Congo, the last one, and I earned small money from them. I went as far as Gombe to coach when they were looking for a coach to help them for the festival, so they employed coaches on contract basis. So, I was in charge of the athletics, but they dissolved their boards and when that happened, they had to lay us off. They were even owing us up to two months before we left, as Boko Haram was trying to invade the place and my people were crying so much. I had to come back. So, since I came back, I have just been here.
Is there no way that the Athletics Federation can help you?
I have told the president of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria that I am suffering. He has been promising to help, but is yet to do anything concrete and NSC, too, did not help matters. The NSC, it appears has preference for foreign coaches, as it has engaged four American coaches in athletics.
Now that you have found yourself in this situation, what is your plea to Abia state government?
Look at what I want them to do for me: I want them to reinstate me and retire me and then, if they want me to work on contract basis, I will still work the way I worked, even do better than before, because the state is lagging behind in sports now. No single national champion in Abia now in athletics, is it good? Sports is nose-diving in Abia.
•Photo by Boniface Okoro shows Coach Tobias Igwe (a.k.a Toblow).