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Exclusive Interview: “MY SCHOOL IS FIRST OF ITS KIND IN AFRICA”, ~Segun Odegbami


On Saturday, July 22, 2023 the graduation ceremony of the Segun Odegbami International College and Sports Academy, SOCA, in Wasimi Orile was held amidst joy, fun and excitement. The lucky granddads that went through six years in this citadel of learning and sports were released to unleash their talents on the world. In this interview, conducted earlier with SUNDAY ADEDEJI, the proprietor of the school, Dr. Olusegun Odegbami, highlights the reasons for establishing the school and the challenges so far:

Segun Odegbami with publisher of Daily Standard Online, Sunday Adedeji

On November 9, 2023, it will be sixteen years since SOCA started operating as Nigeria’s first multi-sports co-educational secondary school. How did the idea come about and how has the journey been so far?

Well, I am a product of the combination of academics and sports. Things have been rough for me. As somebody who has been documentarying the history and the lives of footballers in the past, it is not a story that is sweet to tell because it is littered with unfortunate stories of some of the most celebrated amongst our footballers who as a result of not getting high level education or not getting involved in some vocational training that could have helped them after their football career are over. Their stories are not sweet to tell. As we get older, I am burdened by the needs to intervene in the lives of so many, even outside of football that are related to sports. You spend the most productive life for young people playing in a career that does not sustain beyond the mid-30s. After your mid 30s, that career is over and you didn’t train for anything else. And even where you trained, it is difficult to convince the market, the public that you could do something else outside of sports. It is that, primarily, and my experience in the United States of America, where I went for an athletics programme and I met Bill Clinton (former president) as well as representatives of the United Nations, and they were introducing the application of sports in the eradication of illiteracy, poverty, hunger, disease, HIV/Aids, unemployment in the world. They were using sports to eradicate all those things as part of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) agenda for the United Nations. It was an eye opener that sports have the power to do all of those things. Of course, it just gingered me to come and do what I had wanted to do, to set up an institution where we can can practicalize it, combine the two so that it is a model for other people to see, other state governments to see, local government to see that you can actually combine the two and get the best. Train the athletes to be the best, train them to have a sound education, and when they combine the two the country will benefit. It will also help develop your community and environment. So, it has been fantastic. Since the school was set up, it’s been difficult because resources are limited.

How easy or difficult has it been to fund the activities of the school? What facilities, both sporting and academics are available in this institution to distinguish it from others around us?

Well, let me tell you that this school, I believe is only one of its kind in the whole of Africa today. I am not seeing any other school that has the same kind of focus, the same kind of vision, the same kind of content of its activities as this school has, even as small as it is. It is designed only as a model. It is not an end, it is, so that people can see like a prototype, a small type and then go and expand it. Those who have the resources, the government that have the resources, to show them it is possible. So, that is what this school is. When we are in full session, we are not even there yet.

The maximum capacity projected is one hundred and twenty students only. We will not take more that one hundred and twenty students. We have six classes, JSS1 to SS3, and each class has a maximum of twenty students, so that the teaching is intensive. We can touch every student in the teaching that we are giving them in academics, so that the little facilities we have for sports will go round the students. That is why everything is limited. The landscape we have for the school is 50 hectares of land but we are only using 10 hectares of land because we don’t have the resources to build it up and provide the seven football fields we wanted, the two basketball courts, the two tennis courts, the big track and field stadium that we wanted and so on and so forth. So that tells you again that this is not a football academy. This is a sports academy, and the sports are the ones in which Nigeria is naturally gifted. We have a football academy here, we have a track/sprints academy, we have a tennis academy, we have a basketball academy, we had before and we are reviving a music, dance, drama and film academy. So, the school is unique in that context because we do a full national range curriculum in education. We do our NECO exams, we do WAEC exams, we do GCE O Level exams, and then we do the scholastic aptitude tests because our focus is on our students going to America. Academically we are first class. We are running beautiful courses here. We have great teachers; even when they are not so good and they come in here they see the kind of orientation that we give them. They see what our vision is and we tell them that the best way to learn is to teach. For you to teach, you have to learn. They have to work hard; they have to study hard because our students have to be the best in the world. You can only produce the best students in the world if you are the best teacher, so everybody aim to be the best at what they do.

Still on aiming to be the best, some years back, SOCA was nominated for an award by the UK’s “Beyond Sports” organization for its social inclusion impact. What does that recognition meant for your school?

The nomination actually came from the blues. I didn’t know the organization. Somebody actually saw what we were doing many years ago, this was about eight years now particularly in relationship to the Wasimi Orile community, where we gave all the women in the village what we call the low interest loan. We gave them free later; we didn’t collect the money back after a couple of years. The arrangement was that we would give the money to them as a loan, no interest and at the end of the year when they have used it to improve their business and enhance it, they would refund our money. The first year, they all refunded, except one lady whose husband died and they had to use the money to bury him. It was fascinating to me and we returned their money to them and said they could borrow it the following year. By the third year, we left the money with them and it became their capital to run whatever businesses they were running. In our village, you find people who make garri, you find a lot of farmers and bricklayers. We make sure that this school is populated by the villagers in term of services that they can render. They are the security men, they are the bricklayers, they are the gardeners. So we engage the community seriously and that is what “Beyond Sports UK” heard information about it and nominated us for an award. They sent me a ticket , went to the event which was massive. I didn’t know it was like because nominees came from all over the world. The chairman of the project then was the former British prime minister, Tony Blair. He was also the ambassador of the project. Great sportsmen came there, like Michael Johnson, Mutumba Mutombo the great Congolese basket baller, and here was I with my little small school’s project nominated as one of 35 such projects in the world. Though we didn’t win it, but we were nominated. I was asked to present the case of the school. I presented my case nicely and they encouraged us that we should go and intensify what we were doing. This is global recognition for us and I came back determined to take the school to the next level. Not to worry so much about the incentives that would come from being nominated from that place I needed to take it to a level so that when I go back there I will win it. So it has taken me eight years. I have not gone there but they’ve been sending me information. As you can see for yourself, we are at a point now if I should submit where we are presently, I believe that winning as best in the world is just around the corner.

Since SOCA offers development of the youths through education and sports, which area of sports is the institution engaging the students in?

There is this misconception outside there that this is a football academy, because I am a football person. There is a football academy inside the project, but there are also other academies. As I told you, we have tennis academy, the basketball academy, the track academy, which is for sprinters only because they are young pupils. We don’t do long distance races, we don’t do field, we only do tracks and the sprints academy. And then what we had before, which we are going to revive is the arts side of it, which is about film, dance, drama, music academy; all combined. Even though now, all the students take part in the arts. We have a photography department in the school where all the students are into photography. It is a subject offered by WAEC. This is one of few schools in the country that takes photography as a vocational course for all the students and we pass. It is only that the teacher who was teaching us before had left and we couldn’t find a good enough teacher, a competent photographer who can look at the syllabus and do it. It is an integral part of the project and Tunde Kelani is our consultant on film. Uncle Steve Rhodes (late) was our consultant on music. That is another academy which we have within the school, but which we didn’t develop so well but we are still going ahead to develop. You can see that Tunde Kelani is very much involved with what we are doing.

This school is the only of its kind in this clime. Are you in partnership with similar institutions outside of Nigeria?

Well, we are in partnership with only one institution, and that is Wayne County Community College in Michigan, USA. We have a signed document of a relationship. They actually visited us in November last year; their Vice Chancellor and a few others came here. They just seized the opportunity of my daughter who is the first African Vice Chancellor of an American university who was getting married to come to the school to come and see the school they have a relationship with. So we have a relationship with them. Our students who are interested can take courses in the university once they finish here, spend one or one and half years finish the courses there and they will end up with Associate Degrees. They can spend two more years to end up with full degrees. It is an option but you see all the students are coming and interested in sports. Wayne County Community College is not a sport institution in America, it is academics. We have not had our students transit there, even though we have a relationship, but we also have a relationship, though unofficial with several colleges and universities now in America who are waiting for our students to graduate. Last year, out of fourteen that graduated, before they finished their exams, ten of them had secured admission into universities in America and they were all on scholarships. That is just to tell you how effective whatever we are doing is.

What is the process of admission into SOCA and what requirements should a pupil have to be eligible for consideration?

You have to have graduated from your primary education. You have to have passion for sports, that is, you really want to be in sports. Then, you must be ready to combine sports with academics. So many people come here, some come they have good academic results and want to take part in sports. Because we don’t have a large pool to select from, we only want twenty students in a class, if we have forty students applying we are in trouble.

Finally in the next five to ten years, how do you want to see the school?

I want to see it as the best of such institution in the world, to produce athletes that would be Olympic champions. You see, you cannot produce what you don’t have. We are establishing a home, a settlement for returning black brothers, African Americans who want to return back to their roots. Part of grand plans of the Wasimi Orile Project is to create a settlement in this environment where our black brothers can come back to and live and support financially and build industries in to come back to their roots. They will bring their brothers and convince them there is home for them, there is land to build houses, invest in industries. They want to bring windmill industry, solar powered industry and mechanized agricultural farm here. My radio station is coming to be here too. I have a four-bedroom chalet like a resort that is coming to the environment. We are going to have farm lands for all manner of things, a fish farm, a grass cutter farm. So we have a plan. Don’t be surprised if you see a super facility for sports come up in this environment in the next few years funded by some international organizations.

New students resuming for the 2019-20 academic session at Segun Odegbami International College and Sports Academy (SOCA), Wasimi Orile
Students of Segun Odegbami International College and Sports Academy (SOCA), Wasimi Orile in classroom
A section of the sport gymnasium of Segun Odegbami International College and Sports Academy (SOCA), Wasimi Orile
The Wasimi Youth Summer Football championship, organised by Segun Odegbami International College and Sports Academy (SOCA), Wasimi Orile

(Above is an excerpt of interview conducted by Sunday Adedeji, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Daily Standard Online newspaper with Dr. Olusegun Odegbami, former international footballer and proprietor of the Segun Odegbami International College and Sports Academy, SOCA, in Wasimi Orile, near Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria. ©2019)

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