In the build up to any high-profile football match, it is typical to see fans and spectators trooping towards the stadium and focus shifting to match ahead of kick-off. Come Monday, 26th September, 2016, Nigerian football focus will be on the city of Jos for a crucial 9:00am kick off in an unprecedented triple-header. The venue is not the Rwang Pam Stadium; rather it will be the Jos Division of the Court of Appeal.
The assigned Justices of the Court of Appeal shall be the umpires in three football cases listed for hearing on the day. The cases involve the Mr. Chris Giwa-led faction (seeking to lay claim to the mantle of leadership of the Nigeria Football Federation) and the NFF led by Mr. Amaju Pinnick; as well as a couple of cases stemming from the case filed by Mr. Mustapha Abubakar on behalf of Giwa FC, challenging the decision of the League Management Company to expel Giwa FC for failing to honour three matches as stipulated in the League Rules. In recent years, Nigerian football has been embroiled in legal disputes, but never before have three cases, with the possibility of severe consequences on the administration of the sport, come up on the same day, before the same court at the same location.
So, why is Jos suddenly the host city of modern Nigerian football crisis? Also, why are the High Courts in Jos quick to interfere with sports administration by issuing injunctions and ex-parte orders? There is no disputing the role of courts as a sanctuary for justice; but the issue is not just about whether or not there is a valid grievance. The focal point is the procedure being adopted to seek redress – whether it is a sustainable means for the development of the sport.
It is common knowledge that the globally accepted norms and regulations governing football prohibit the taking of football dispute to ordinary courts of law. The point has often been stressed that this principle is not to deny an aggrieved party access to justice, but to deliver justice in a forum that promotes the speedy, amicable and specialist resolution of whatever sporting dispute there may be. Football administration worldwide favours arbitration and other internal mechanisms, which better serve these purposes.
The ripple effect of the current state of affairs where any aggrieved person can simply approach a court and obtain an injunction to stifle the administration of a professional sport is clearly being felt. It is high time our courts acknowledged the need for a sustainable reaction to sports disputes in Nigeria. This includes the acknowledgement of the peculiar nature of sports administration and the specificity of sport. Two examples of the global standard of sports jurisprudence, from which our courts can learn are illustrated in the decisions of the Court of Appeal of Paris, France and the Federal Court in Switzerland, briefly highlighted below.
In 1998, Laurent Piau filed a complaint against the FIFA Players’ Agents Regulations. The dispute eventually reached the Paris Court of Appeal, which in arriving at its decision to reject the appeal stated that sports organizations know the specific nature of each sport and are in the best position to apply the regulations to meet the objectives and to protect the ethics of the sport. While this is a pointer as to why football matters and disputes should be left to the internal specialist mechanisms, one wonders what would have been if a court had restrained the implementation of the FIFA Players’ Agents Regulations for the whole of the 18 years it took for the case to reach this decision.
Another example is the Swiss Federal Court, which refused to issue a preliminary injunction that would have allowed Russian athletes to compete at the recently concluded Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. In a further appeal against the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to ban Russian athletes from the Games for state-sponsored doping, the Russian Paralympic Committee’s request for an injunction was rejected on the ground that the interest of the sport governing body in fighting doping and in the integrity of the sport ordinarily outweighed the interest of the Russian Paralympic Federation in an immediate lifting of the suspension. What readily comes to mind is how the interest of a single supporter (or even a single club) will outweigh the interest of a governing body in implementing the regulations to preserve the integrity of competition, or the interest of all other participating clubs, players, supporters or even sponsors, etc., to the extent of issuing injunctions or orders to interfere with or even stop a professional league from running.
It will be apt to summarize by borrowing from the words of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. According to Abdulhakeem Mustapha (SAN) in a recently published interview, the series of court cases on football matters will cripple the sport, if not checked. He advocated for the resolution of football disputes via the internal mechanisms, as is done in other parts of the world. By this, a preliminary check that a court should make when approached with a football matter, is to confirm whether or not the aggrieved party has explored the internal dispute resolution mechanisms. A party that has failed to resort the internal mechanisms is then usually referred back to the sports dispute resolution mechanism. This will certainly serve to prevent the opening of floodgates to endless law suits that will only serve to cripple the administration and development of football in Nigeria.