CAPE TOWN, South Africa – The Nigerian government made a sudden U-turn on Thursday and cleared its national basketball teams to return to competition immediately.
The decision to lift a ban on the teams from playing in international competitions came after an appeal to the government by the Nigerian Basketball Federation and “intervention” by former Nigerian international players, the sports ministry said. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari approved the return to play, the ministry said in a statement.
The Nigerian government withdrew its teams from international competitions for a two-year period last month, mentioning a leadership struggle and other administrative problems within the national basketball federation.
That move led to the women’s team losing its place at the World Cup in Australia in September. It’s unclear if the team will be able to get its place at the World Cup back after international governing body FIBA named Mali as a replacement. The Nigerian sports ministry said it had recently been speaking with FIBA.
The two-year ban also banned the men’s team’s qualification for the 2023 World Cup. The World Cup qualifiers start again July 1, and the Nigeria men’s team tweeted following the lifting of the ban that it was “scrambling” to see if it can now make the qualifying competition in Kigali, Rwanda.
The men’s World Cup also serves as the qualifying tournament for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Nigeria is in danger of missing both if it misses those qualifiers in Rwanda.
The Nigeria men’s team is led by Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown and upset the United States in a warm-up game ahead of last year’s Tokyo Olympics.
The government decision last month to pull the teams from international competitions was fiercely criticized by players on the Nigeria teams but also drew reaction from figures in the NBA. Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka, who are both of Nigerian descent, expressed their frustration with the leadership of Nigerian basketball.
The sharpest criticism came from the men’s team, which tweeted early this month: “We hope someday Nigeria will be led by a government without corruption & greed. The future of Nigeria basketball is extremely bright and we are being held back by our leaders.”
There has been a long history of problems at the Nigerian Basketball Federation, but the latest issues center on a leadership tussle after two separate presidents were elected to lead the NBBF in parallel elections. The sports ministry said the lifting of the ban depended on the NBBF honoring a commitment it gave to work with the ministry to resolve all its “issues.”