Lagos (AFP) – Elite, stylish and extravagant, the social scene at the annual Lagos polo tournament is as much of a show as the game on the pitch.
Big name politicians and businessmen hobnob with tribal kings and queens, while imported professional players from Argentina, Syria and South Africa up the stakes on the field.
The Lagos Polo Club, a green gem in the heart of Ikoyi, one of the upscale neighbourhoods of Nigeria’s commercial hub Lagos, has long been a watering hole for the country’s elite.
When the Lagos Bonhams face the Kano Akasma under the blazing sun, a small crowd of young women wearing ornate fascinators watch from the edge of the lawn, sipping from flutes of luxury champagne, one of the sponsors of the event.
The tournament, which started last week Wednesday and ends Sunday, February 21, is “going to be the best tournament ever”, Ayo Olashoju, captain of the Lagos Polo Club, said to AFP.
The field has been fully renovated, explained Olashoju, while the foreign professionals, dubbed “hired assassins”, have been contracted by local teams for extra strength.
“This is my ninth year in Nigeria,” Santiago “Chino” Estrada, a famous Argentinian professional player, said. “It’s improving every year.”
Lagos is “becoming a really nice club to come and play” even if the hot and humid climate is not ideal for horses, he said, pulling his leather riding boots over his white pants before heading out to play.
British colonisers brought the sport to Nigeria at the turn of the 20th century, later converting a military airstrip into the polo club, Lagos Polo Club president Ade Laoye said.
Far from becoming a colonial relic, over the years the polo club has grown to become the favoured meeting place of the most influential politicians and businessman.
Dodan barracks, headquarters of the military dictator who assumed power in 1966, are conveniently located next door.
Many heads of state played there, including avid polo player General Yakubu Gowon, who ruled for a decade until 1975.
Today the club has 240 members — a who’s who of Nigerian society.
On Friday, those spotted in the crowd included the son of Bola Tinubu, former governor of Lagos and one of the most powerful politicians in the country, members of the Dantata family dynasty from the north, and relatives of the richest man in Africa, Aliko Dangote.
Far from becoming a colonial relic, over the years the polo club has grown to become the favoured me …
They will take in the polo over two weeks of competition, interspersed with fashion shows, art exhibitions and, of course, hat contests.
Businessman Murtala Dankaka, captain of Kano Akasma, Nigeria’s largest city in the north, only started playing polo three years ago, though he has been riding horses since childhood.
“There are about 15 teams from Kano. We have a club and there are private polo farms as well, ” said Dankaka.
Horses feature prominently in the country’s predominantly Muslim north, where emirs and eminent personalities are more often than not accomplished equestrians.
“The emirs, up north, were always great horsemen. And they enjoyed riding horses and encouraged their sons to ride horses. And that’s why there’s a big following in the North”, Laoye said.
The “durbar”, a festival where horse riders dressed in billowing robes and colourful turbans pay homage to the emir, is also one of the great cultural attractions of Kano.
Today, the cities of Kano, Katsina and Kaduna have major polo clubs, along with many private polo grounds, including luxurious hideaways like the Fifth Chukker in Kaduna.
In total, Nigeria has between 35 and 40 clubs, estimates Laoye, who says he wants to make the sport “more accessible”.
Still, cost is an issue, Edozie Onwuli, an immigration agent who plays in Ibadan, 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of Lagos, said.
“If you buy a pony — the local word for horse — which comes from Chad, Niger and Sudan, it costs between 300,000 and 1.5 million naira (between 1,300 and 6,500 euros, $1,400 to $7,200),” but for a pure Sudanese the price can go to three million naira (13,000 euros), he said.
Meanwhile, an Argentinian horse, considered the must-have in Lagos, “can go up to $50,000”, he exclaimed.
“That’s a whole lot of money.”