In 1976, Pele and Arthur Ashe were stuck in Lagos as senior military officers battled for power in the 1976 coup.
The day was Monday, February 16, 1976. The city of Lagos was playing host to the World Championship Tennis (WCT) pro circuit series.
The 70s was a golden era for Nigeria, the period of its first oil boom. As a leader in the continent and “the giant of Africa” it should be no surprise that the WCT the first professional tennis tournament in sub-Saharan Africa took place in Lagos- then the capital of Nigeria.
On this fateful Monday at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, Arthur Ashe was playing against Jeff Borowiak in the semi-final. Ashe, an African America, was the Wimbledon champion and the first black man to have won the US Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open.
The two Americans were battling for the grand prize of $60,000. Ashe and Borowiak never had the chance to get the money. During their game, military officers walked onto the court and ordered both players to stop.
“What are you doing? We are in mourning. You are making money. Are you all mad? Please go. Please go” yelled one of the soldiers to both players in front of the crowd.
Another soldier pointed a machine gun at the back of Arthur Ashe. The tennis champion raised both hands and walked away from the court.
Confusion broke loose immediately as the soldiers started to clear the terraces. The fear of the army man’s whip or the butt of his machine gun made the spectators flee for their lives.
Arthur Ashe ran to the dressing room where John McDonald, International Director of the WCT was. With him were the passports of the international players who came to play at the tournament. The two men didn’t stay there for long.
A man with a brown suit who came with the soldiers to the court entered the dressing room with a big stick and ordered both men out. Ashe and McDonald ran to the street which was pandemonium, people were running everywhere.
A Daily Mail tennis correspondent John Parsons was hit by a club by a soldier which left an 18-inch scar on his back. Parsons was on his way to file to the Reuters office in Lagos to file the breaking story when he was assaulted by the soldier.
The then US ambassador to Nigeria Donald Easum, US ambassador spotted Ashe, McDonald and Borowiak running on the street. Along with his security detail, a young Marine who dressed in civilian clothes, he secured transportation for the three men.
On their way to the US embassy, their cars got stuck in traffic because a Nigerian soldier was beating a civilian. The players decided to get down from the car and walk to the embassy. Luckily, the Hungarian ambassador saw them on the road and picked up the players. The ambassador and his security detail decided to walk. On their way, they walked into an anti-US protest by some Nigerians. During this period in Nigeria, anti-US sentiments were high.
The origin of this story started three days earlier on February 13, 1976. On this day the Nigerian Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed was assassinated on his way to work.
A few minutes after 8 am when leaving his residence in Ikoyi to his office in Dodan Barracks the sniper of Lt. Colonel Bukar Dimka took him out.
Dimka, 33, was the leader of the coup. He was the head of the Nigerian Army Physical Training Corps. Later that day he announced on the radio that the Young Revolutionaries had taken over the government. He even declared a 12-hour curfew. His message was played throughout the day on radio alongside martial music.
At the Federal Palace Hotel, one of the five American players Dick Stockton informed his American counterparts Eddie Dibbs, Harold Solomon, Bob Lutz, Erik Van Dillen about the coup. Stockton had earlier received a call from Paul Svehlik, the WCT tour manager, about the assassination.
In the same hotel was the world renowned Pele who was in the country on a tour sponsored by Pepsi. Pele and his entourage listened closely to the radio about what was happening in Nigeria.
The five American players didn’t think too much about the coup and went to the swimming pool later that day. They were chased back into their rooms by 30-40 soldiers with machine guns.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation went off the air. The Federal Government wanted to take over the radio station from the coup plotters. Dimka narrowly escaped from the gunfire. After the premises was recaptured, the radio station came back on the air with highlife music.
By evening, the Federal Government announced that the coup was successful and a curfew was still in effect. There was no mention of Murtala’s death.
During this time, the five American players received a call from the embassy to leave the hotel because their safety couldn’t be secured. The ambassador sent a minibus to take them out from the hotel. Tragedy nearly occurred as the five American players were in the minibus. The driver took a wrong turn and met a soldier at a checkpoint. The soldier was armed with a machine gun. The driver and the soldier got into an argument. The soldier pointed his gun at the tennis players and for a second the Americans thought they were going to die. Cooler heads prevailed and the soldier let them go.
There was no space for the American players at the ambassador’s residence because Ashe, Borowiak and Tom Okker (a tennis player from Holland) were already staying there. They had to stay in the home of an American family in Lagos during this volatile period.
Pele and his crew also left the hotel to stay at the residence of Brazil’s ambassador.
On February 14, the Federal Government announced that Murtala had died and Olusegun Obasanjo was the new Head of State. The FG also announced a seven-day mourning period for the slain leader.
Anti-American sentiments were high in Nigeria this time. It was believed that the Central Intelligence Agency was behind the assassination of General Murtala Muhammed.
As a result of the morning period, the tennis matches scheduled for Saturday, February 14, 1976, at the World Championship Tennis (WCT) were cancelled.
After much deliberation, it was decided that the WCT tournament would continue on Sunday, February 15, 1976. The quarter-finals took place on Sunday.
The semi-finals and finals were slated for Monday, February 16, 1976. Unfortunately, the games could not go on as you already know. Soldiers came in and stopped the tennis match with brute force.
On Tuesday, February 17, 1976, the foreign players who took part in the tennis tournament left the country. The Federal Government gave them an armed escort to take them safely to the airport. The tennis players were the first set of foreigners allowed to travel after the failed coup.
Pele couldn’t leave the country at this time due to logistics. A few days later when the borders were officially opened, Pele left the country disguised as a pilot.
The remaining games of the WCT tournament in Lagos were later played in the Caracas WCT Open on April 1. Ashe defeated Borowiak in the semi-final but lost to Stockton in the final.
The WCT never came back to Nigeria again.
.. Credits – Pulse Ng