I was a teenager when I heard about Jerry Okorodudu. At the time, he represented Nigeria at various international sports events, winning bronze at the Brisbane 1982 Commonwealth Games and returning 4th at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Before then, he had won gold for Bendel State at the Oluyole 1979 National Sports Festival and was invited to the national camp for the 1980 Olympic Games but the coaches considered that he was too young, too small, and decamped him.
After his exploits in the mid 80s, he went into processional boxing, winning a number of belts, and theafter got into employment at the National Sports Commission as a coach.
To make better meaning of his new engagement, he decided to go for a professional boxing coaching course in the United States.
I got to know Jerry closely and personally years later during the Abuja 2003 All Africa Games when he was at the centre of the Nigeria boxing coaching crew, leading the team excellently to win four gold and three silver medals of the seven categories in the contest.
I however did not know what he had been going through until when I became Chairman of the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria, Lagos.
His story, as I found out, was disturbing.
After the National Sports Commission approved for him to proceed for a professional boxing coaching course and when he returned, he was given a later of reinstatement, and the Sports Ministry seconded him to the Nigeria Boxing Federation as national coach where he was paid welfare allowances pending the perfection of his documentation for payment of salary.
After sustaining him for a few years, the Boxing Federation got tired and stopped paying him.
Meanwhile, it was taking till eternity for the Ministry of Sports to regularise his payment even when they seconded him to the boxing federation and he was producing great results.
So, curiously, for over ten years, Jerry worked for Nigeria without salary. He survived on allowances and family support but kept hoping that the ministry will resolve his matter and pay him the backlog of his salaries someday, as they kept promising.
The promises went on for 12 years without fulfilment.
With the welfare allowances from the Boxing Federation stopped, living by support from friends and family and tired with the promises of the Sports Ministry to regularise his salary, Jerry decided to approach the court.
That again became a problem. The Ministry officials argued that as a Civil Servant, he should not have taken the government to court.
However, he proceeded and, after the matter was argued and all evidences tendered, the court gave him judgement and ordered the Ministry to pay him his backlog of salaries, allowances and even arrears for projected promotions.
Curiously, the Ministry took appeal against him.
On the eve of the departure of our national athletes to one international competition, Jerry came to the National Stadium, Lagos, to appeal to one of the top officials for a reconsideration of their appeal against him.
To the surprise of all gathered, the official on seeing him, said to him that he would suffer for daring to go to court; that they will appeal against him up to the Supreme Court, and even if he will win, he would have been dead before the judgement would be delivered. He pointed out that he has nothing to lose as a government official because government is not any particular person.
It was at that point that Jerry approached me for help.
In profound sympathy and commitment, I engaged the then succeeding Sports Minister, Tammy Danagogo, and the then Director General of the National Sports Commission, Chief Elegheleye.
I engaged the sports media for back up. They all, I mean all, joined me in the cause. Special mention however must go to my elder brother, Ken Ochonogor of Channels TV, my friend, Godwin Enakhena of Sports Splash, my younger colleagues, Bimbo Abiola, Raji and others of Brila FM, Blessing Nwosu, Niran Adeaanya, Ladi Egbedire of Silverbird, the then EXCO of Lagos SWAN for pumping the volume of the solicitation.
I argued before the powers that be that a national athlete of Jerry’s contributions, indeed any national athlete for that matter, ought not to be treated the way Jerry had been treated; that I see no reason in taking an appeal against the lower court judgement in his favour since they would not be personally hurt in any way by supporting his settlement; that the disposition of the ministry against Jerry was a disincentive to budding national athletes and it all negates that stanza of our national anthem about the labours of our heros past.
God bless Danagogo and Elegbeleye. They fully agreed with me.
They however directed that I should liaise with the then Legal Officer of the Sports Ministry, Mrs Uwandu, to sort out the legal issues so that the Ministry can possibly withdraw its appeal.
This I did. Indeed, Mrs Uwandu was so grateful for my intervention, revealing that, seeing Jerry’s sufferings, her heart troubled her each time she appeared in court against him, but that she had to do her job, as performance in the legal profession is evaluated by cases won.
Long story short, we agreed that the Ministry would withdraw the appeal; that Jerry would accept not full calculated payment of his backlog of 15 years salaries but a fraction; that he would be paid N100k monthly stipend until his salary issue is finally sorted out.
This was conveyed to the Court of Appeal which accordingly entered judgement in those terms in favour of Jerry.
To further make good for him, Minister Danagogo and DG Elegbeleye, again God bless them, also committed to ensuring that he was part of every international competition as coach, not only for his outstanding effectiveness in handling our boxers, but also to enable him earn estacodes to recover his years of the catarpillar.
My intervention was at about 2011/2012 and, subsequently, Jerry was paid some money, placed on the N100k monthly allowance and taken to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth and Brazzaville 2015 Africa Games at which our boxers began to recover our glory in the sport.
Though, some respite these were, they couldn’t take care of the debts that Jerry had incurred in trying to survive, feed his family and cater for the education of his children for about 15 years without salary.
However, we thought that since we couldn’t fight government, the arrangement for settlement was better than the threat by that Ministry official that they will drag the case with him until he would be dead before a possible Supreme Court judgement.
Curiously however, when Solomon Dalung took over as Sports Minister, the Ministry reneged on the commitment of paying him the monthly allowance.
I tried again to intervene but I saw no ears, no understanding, no sympathy any more for him at the Ministry that became run by soullessness.
This brought Jerry to a relapse. Creditors came on him, family expenses challenged him, daily survival became an issue.
I was not surprised that his health caved in and now, here we are.
He indeed called me when things got so so bad: “Fred, you have tried for me but, please, do not leave me” he pleaded.
But who am I? I could only do what I could do as at the time I could and with the people whose hearts were flesh enough to listen and empathise.
Jerry boy died this Wednesday, after a long in-patient admission and with talks of the hospital initially seizing his corpse over some unpaid debt for his failed treatment until, as I understand now, the family has rallied to the challenge.
Dear reader, I judge not. You be the judge.
All I can say, as I usually do is: This country, my brother…
*Fred Edoreh was the former chairman of Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN), Lagos chapter