Basketball ban reversal comes too late for Nigeria women's national team, D'Tigress

Nigeria's D'Tigress qualified for the FIBA Women's World Cup in Australia by beating Mali in February, but will not be able to compete after their place was given up due to the Nigerian government's now-reversed two-year ban on international basketball. Nikola Krstic/MB Media/Getty Images

Six weeks after withdrawing Nigeria from international basketball for two years, president Muhammadu Buhari's government have made a U-turn and reversed the ban. But it came too late for the women's national team, who have seen their place at the FIBA Women's World Cup taken up by Mali.

Ismaila Abubakar, an official at Nigeria's Sports Ministry, said last Thursday that the reversal came after a meeting between Sports Minister Sunday Dare and FIBA, and receiving guarantees from the Nigeria Basketball Federation [NBBF] to include all stakeholders in reconciliatory meetings going forward.

But that peace treaty is of little solace for D'Tigress players, who will not be able to compete at the FIBA showcase in September, after their place was given to Mali, who were the next-ranked team in their qualifying group. Nigeria had, ironically, beaten Mali in order to qualify.

NBBF President Musa Kida described the decision to reverse the ban as a major victory for Nigerian basketball, saying: "I am quite glad to see that this decision is reached, and it is a major victory for basketball. It gladdens our heart that the Federal Government has decided to return basketball to where it rightfully belongs."

But his happy response was certainly not shared by Adaora Elonu, captain of the Nigeria women's team, who told ESPN she'd rather not comment on the situation. Her team had beaten number five-ranked France, amongst others, to qualify for the World Cup.

A team member, who did not wish to be named, described the situation as "a nightmare that many of us are still trying to come to terms with," and told ESPN that the players were "distraught and pained" by the actions of the officials costing them a place "after we worked so hard to qualify."

Ike Diogu, captain of the men's national team, said the ban could have been even more devastating for basketball in Nigeria. It would have threatened the men's team's qualification for the 2023 FIBA World Cup and 2024 Paris Olympics, and risked an even longer ban from FIBA for government interference.

"It was very devastating to basketball in Nigeria," Diogu told ESPN of the withdrawal. "The withdrawal was detrimental for us because I don't think people really understand how hard it was for us to get to the point where we are now.

"It took 10, 12 years just to get to the point where we could compete. If we had got a 5-year ban [from FIBA], we would have to start all over again and there is no guarantee it would get right back to where it is now, because there is a whole generation of young guys who would be miss out playing in these tournaments."

Diogu, who most recently played for Zamalek at the Basketball Africa League, has opted to sit out international hoops this season regardless of the ban, and will rather play in the Big3 Tournament for Snoop Dogg's team.

In any case, the convoluted situation in Nigeria is long-simmering, and really comes down to two rival factions who want control of the hoops governing body in the country.

Most recently, Nigeria's Sports Minister Sunday Dare had refused to recognise the election which had returned Musa Kida and his cabinet as the legitimate board of the NBBF.

This, even though the election was held under a Constitution approved by the Ministry, the Nigeria Olympic Committee and FIBA, and the election was held with a FIBA representative as an observer.

FIBA also sent a letter to Nigeria's government recognising the legitimacy of that election and the leadership of Kida. Instead, the government withdrew the country from international basketball and set up an interim committee.

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka, both of whom are of Nigerian descent and represented the country internationally, had spoken out against the ban last month.

Ujiri released a letter saying, "Enough is enough.

"The leaders of the basketball ecosystem in Nigeria continue to rob our youth of their present and future while tearing the entire basketball community apart -- this needs to stop."

For his part, Udoka said just before leading his team out to Game 2 of the NBA Finals, that the issues with Nigerian basketball had not changed in the years since he represented the country: "It's a lot of the same stuff I dealt with as a player, which is disappointing."

High-level sources told ESPN that during the recent peace talks, FIBA made it clear that if the withdrawal were to stand, Nigeria would be handed an additional 5-year ban running concurrently with the period of withdrawal and lasting through to 2027.

FIBA's refusal to budge, and pressure from businesses, players, and fans, finally forced the ministry into a retraction. To help the ministry save face, the NBBF agreed to write a letter of apology and also agreed to Constitutional amendments.

"At our last board meeting, we resolved to put machinery in motion to bring every genuine stakeholder to the table," Kida said.

"We have also resolved to maintain a very high level of respect for the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Sports, as we recognise their supervisory role in line with global laws governing sports federations."

The NBBF board led by Kida -- and now recognised by the government as the legitimately elected leadership of basketball in the country -- will now be officially sworn in on July 1.

It is not the first time Nigeria has withdrawn a sports team from international play and then reversed the decision when faced with the dire consequences. In 2010, then-president Goodluck Jonathan announced the withdraw of Nigeria men's football team from international competition, but also made an immediate U-turn barely four days later when FIFA reacted by handing down a provisional ban on the country.