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The crack of mallet against ball is followed by the thunder of hooves across an old British Army parade ground. On the clubhouse veranda, men in jodhpurs and riding boots comment on the chukkers, or periods of play, in polished Oxbridge accents.

But similarity to the past ends there. Almost all the players on the field came of age since Nigeria gained its independence in 1960. Yet the new generation has embraced the old colonial sport as its own.

”The last English player left last year,” said Oladele da Rocha Afoda as he sipped a chilled lime squash on the veranda. He joined the club nearly 30 years ago and says he was its first Nigerian player. Businessmen Take Over

The shifts Dr. da Rocha has seen on the field have reflected wider shifts within Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, with about 85 million people. In 1958, when he first rode under the crossed mallets crest of the Lagos Polo Club, the virtually all white institution was stamped by the snobbery of British Army officers and colonial civil servants toward ”the commercials” British businessmen. After independence, polo’s depleted ranks were filled by an influx of Nigerian army and police officers, fielded, according to British tradition, in sponsored teams.

Today, there are no more Government sponsored teams and the polo ball is largely pursued here by successful young Nigerian businessmen.

”This was the first year we didn’t have an Army team,” said O. O. Ogunbanjo, the club secretary, of the Lagos Polo Tournament in February, which drew four man teams from eight clubs.

With his gold cuff links, tailored London shirt and business card printed ”Solicitor,” Mr. Ogunbanjo seems to represent the new generation of athletic and affluent Nigerians drawn to the ancient Persian sport. Meeting Ground for the Elite

Founded in the 1930’s, the polo club in this southern city on the Gulf of Guinea has grown in recent years to become Nigeria’s largest; it has 55 playing members, as against about 20 in 1980. An additional 300 nonplaying members bolster the club’s fame as a meeting ground for Nigeria’s political and social elite.

Each February, the nine day tournament becomes the major social event in Lagos. After the games, elegantly turned out men and women flock to a string of parties Jazz Night, Calypso Night, President’s Cocktail, Italian Ambassador’s Cocktail and Tournament Dinner Dance.

”The beautiful women come out like bees to honey,” said the club’s secretary, known simply as Toks. Sponsors for the tournament’s 12 trophies and the advertisers in its brochure include many of Nigeria’s largest banks, insurance companies and industrial enterprises.

The social cachet of polo in modern Nigeria is underlined by a new television and billboard campaign for Harp beer. In the advertisements, a trium phant polo player holds a trophy and is surrounded by admiring women.

In such an elite setting, Nigerian polo takes on a political undercurrent. With a certain symbolism, the polo grounds are across a street from Dodan Barracks, the command center of Nigeria’s military Government. And important political figures have on occasion defended this oasis of greenery and privilege from the pressure of a mushrooming third world city.

”At one time we had a lot of anti polo people people who thought it was strawberries and cream,” recalled Ahmadu Yakubu, the secretary of Kaduna Polo Club and one of Nigeria’s highest rated players.

In the 1970’s,
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a populist state governor proposed turning the polo field into a low income housing development. An influential northern general, who was also the father of a top player, decisively ended the idea. To this day, the club leases the grounds from the state at the token rent of one pound sterling a year.

Polo’s political clout stems from a similarity between officials in the military Government and the country’s top polo players; many are Moslems from the north.

”We are born with horses we grow up riding without saddles,” said Idris Ibrahim, a northerner and the captain, or most highly ranked player, of the Lagos Club as he supervised a groom adjusting the girth on one of his ponies.

Indeed, a northern atmosphere prevails among the club’s bustling community of grooms, stableboys, farriers and grass sellers. The high woven hats of the northerners are a frequent sight, and banter in Hausa, the lingua franca of northern Nigeria, is in the air. Sport From the North

The president of the Lagos Club, Bello Ahmed, said he grew up riding horses in the northern city of Kano.

”The youth in the south are now picking it up,” Mr. Ahmed said of his club, where 60 percent of the player members are northerners.

According to ancient legend, the disease carrying tsetse fly in the south frustrated the dream of Nigeria’s Moslem northerners to sweep through the south and dip the Koran in the sea.

”The tsetse kept the Moslems out, and the mosquito kept the English out,” Toks said jokingly, referring to malaria, which is common in the humid southern part of the country.

Members of the Lagos Polo Club have started importing Argentine ponies, considered fleeter and more agile than Nigerian ponies, which are closer to Sudanese and Arab breeds.

Noting that ”polo is 75 percent pony,” Toks said the new breeds are improving Nigerian play. But despite the fresh blood of horse and man, Nigeria ranks below the world’s top polo powers: Argentina, the United States, Britain and Mexico. Players here keep up with international play by circulating video cassettes of classic tournaments, like the Queen’s Cup in England and the Hurlingham Open Argentina.

Indeed, young men’s addiction to polo has proved to be as strong in Nigeria as it is in other countries.

A recent yearbook of the Nigerian Polo Association printed this memorial: ”In loving memory of our dearly departed colleague, His Excellency Alhaji Shehu Muhammed Kangiwa, the late Governor of Sokoto State, whose tragic death occurred on the 17th of November, 1981, during the 1981 Kaduna Annual Polo tournament. He died while playing polo with a handicap of plus 3.”
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