This Former Separatist Capital Is Africa's Newest Fitness Hub

This Former Separatist Capital Is Africa's Newest Fitness Hub

A Nigerian body builder exercises in a gym.

SourceMARCO LONGARI/Getty

Why you should care

The city was a symptom of Nigeria’s political ailments. Now it’s a beacon of fitness. 

Overweight at 17, freshman university student Chidinma Francis decided to shed the extra pounds during her November break. She knew exactly where to go: Okpara Square, in her city of Enugu. Elsewhere in Nigeria, she would have had to join a gym, or hunt for weekend running partners. In Enugu, she instantly became part of a larger community. Once a breakaway region’s capital, the city is now emerging as Africa’s latest fitness hub.

Nnamdi Azikiwe stadium, named after Nigeria’s first president, every day draws more than 200 youth — three times as many as a decade ago — from the grittier, less wealthy neighborhoods of downtown Enugu, Nigeria’s 10th-most-populous city. For those keen to sweat it out indoors, the city today boasts at least 10 gyms, catering to every economic stratum, compared to just four in 2008. Since 2016, Enugu has hosted Nigeria’s only half-marathon, and its November 2018 edition is expected to see 2,000 runners and more than 7,500 spectators, organizers say.

And at Okpara Square — named after the region’s former premier, Michael Okpara — men and women, young and old, line up every morning to jog, do crunches and Russian twists and join aerobics sessions, usually in groups. These fitness enthusiasts arrive at the square — the nerve center of Enugu’s transformation — by 6 a.m., whether it’s a weekday, weekend or public holiday. Around them are fitness-kit vendors and fruit and smoothie sellers with small shops on rollers. Some are singing while drumming with sticks and rattling the ichaka, a handheld beaded gourd used as a musical instrument.

It’s a whole culture.

Makuo, Enugu resident and soccer and yoga enthusiast

For decades, this wasn’t what Enugu was best known for. In 1967, it was briefly the capital of the short-lived Republic of Biafra, which broke away from Nigeria during a bloody 30-month-long civil war. It was also known as the Coal City for its abundant coal deposits and mines. Today, it’s a one-of-a-kind fitness-friendly city in Nigeria, pulling up the reputation of a country that has traditionally languished in Africa’s fitness rankings behind South Africa — which has the highest concentration of gyms — and nations with legacies in distance running, such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Whereas group workouts are usually reserved for the weekends in much of Nigeria, here in Enugu, older diabetics and obese youth striving for fitness daily are a regular sight, says Makuo, a 27-year-old pharmacist who joined soccer and yoga classes at the square four years ago.

“It’s a whole culture,” says Makuo, who goes by a single name.

The seeds for this transition were laid as far back as the 1980s. But Enugu has had to face multiple setbacks — from terrorism and political instability to, ironically, democracy — before its recent emergence as a unique fitness hub in Nigeria.

The Biafra civil war claimed almost 2 million lives — many due to a forced famine because of a blockade imposed by federal Nigerian authorities against separatist regions — and in the 1980s, the country was still smarting from that conflict, shuffling between multiple military regimes. But the then military governor of the old Anambra state, from which Enugu was carved out in 1991, was a sports-loving administrator. Emeka Omeruah, a former minister of sports and chairperson of the Nigeria Football Federation when the country won the FIFA U-16 World Championship in 1985 and Olympic soccer gold in 1996, encouraged fitness activities in Enugu’s public spaces. These included Okpara Square; the Power Mike Centre gym — named in honor of Michael Okpala, the Nigerian wrestling legend — at the old state sports council grounds; the Nnamdi Azikiwe stadium; the grounds of the National Orthopaedic Hospital and a colonial-era amusement park.

When democracy returned in 1999, civilian governors disposed of many of these public assets, privatizing some to reduce fiscal burdens and selling others to cronies for kickbacks or to proxies fronting for them. Others were encroached on illegally or left to decay. The sports council grounds are now part of a residential estate, while the amusement park has been transformed into a huge shopping mall. Part of another park that used to host a semi-professional soccer tournament has now been encroached on by a private school. The rest of it is overgrown with weeds.

In 2011, a bomb scare during the flag-off of the reelection campaign of then Governor Sullivan Chime led to the shutdown of Okpara Square, leaving diehard sportsmen and women with no alternative but to temporarily turn to an adjoining street, seldom used before the ban.

But the setbacks couldn’t kill the spirit of fitness that had taken root in Enugu, which has now exploded. Seven years after the terror scare, the square is effectively a massive fitness center with all the trappings of an early morning marketplace — all with little or no support from successive governments. Malls in the town are now stocking costumes and sports equipment too heavy or too costly to be sold at the square.

Within this seemingly united picture of a city overtaken by a fitness craze, fissures along class lines exist. Those in the city’s more highbrow neighborhoods like Independence Layout prefer Okpara Square to the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, seen by some of the city’s elite as visited by the “rougher” sections of society. “Okpara Square is like a class thing,” says Arinze “A-God Rizzy” Ifediobi, a radio jockey with Urban Radio 94.5 in Enugu.

And not all fitness enthusiasts stay involved with the daily regimen after a while. Francis, for instance, joined groups at Okpara Square in 2010, continued for a few years, lost some weight and then quit. She no longer runs daily. For some, the fitness regimens are also a way to make new friends and catch up on local gossip. Makuo confesses that’s an incentive for him too.

But for others, the city’s fitness culture is a motivator to keep up with healthy exercise routines. “When a lot of people run together, you run longer, funnily,” says Ifediobi. That new identity is something Enugu hopes will run long too.

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