The Ban on Lesbianism in Nigerian Football: FIFA Statutes vs. Nigerian Law

On the 28th of February 2013, the Chairperson of the Nigerian Women’s Football League, Mrs. Dilichukwu Onyedinma reportedly declared at the league congress that lesbianism has been officially banned from Nigerian football. This resulted in protests from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) interest groups. It is not the first time that women’s football in Nigeria is making headlines for its abhorrence of homosexuality. At the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the coach of Nigeria’s Super Falcons – Eucharia Uche was reported to have stated in an interview that she had eradicated homosexuality from the squad, further describing it as “morally very wrong” and “a dirty issue”. For this she was reprimanded by FIFA’s head of women’s competitions, Tatjana Haenni, who stated that “FIFA is against all forms of discrimination”. In the present instance, Mrs Onyedinma was also quoted as having said that players who were found to be in contravention would be dismissed, disqualified and barred from representing Nigeria. As a result of this, LGBT interest groups Football v Homophobia, the Federation of Gay Games, the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation and AllOut have written a formal complaint to FIFA President Sepp Blatter and FIFA General Secretary Jérôme Valcke about the discriminatory behaviour by Nigerian women’s football authorities against lesbian footballers.

FIFA’s position on homosexuality is clear – it opposes all forms of discrimination including discrimination based on sexual orientation.  TheFIFA Statutes, in its article on non-discrimination and stance against racism, provides that discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion. The omnibus phrase was clarified by Tatjana Haenni as quoted above; furthermore, when asked about FIFA’s stand on the issue, Sepp Blatter said: “We’re very clear about it. The sexual orientation of a player or coach is a private matter. People have to be able to live their lives free from all forms of discrimination.”

FIFA remains a private body and while its rules and regulations could have social implications on groups and individuals, discrimination in different forms remains an issue with varied legal implications in different political and legal jurisdictions. Whereas some countries recognise a right to freedom from discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, others do not recognise such a right, some of which even make homosexuality a criminal offence. The views are so polarized that Asian and African delegates walked out of a United Nations Human Rights Council debate on gay rights in March last year, refusing to grant legitimacy to homosexuality. The United Nations jurisprudence recognizes the right to freedom from discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. From the Toonen v. Australia landmark decision of 1994 to the 2008 declaration by some UN member states, human rights protection is being extended to sexual orientation. However, the challenge lies with countries (such as Nigeria) where homosexuality constitutes a criminal offence.

Nigeria is said to be one of 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal. Apart from the much publicised Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill, the current national laws contain sanctions for homosexuality, albeit laden with some ambiguity. The Penal Code (operational in Northern Nigeria) and the Criminal Code (operational in Southern Nigeria) both make it an offence, punishable with up to 14 years imprisonment, to have carnal knowledge of any person “against the order of nature”(section 284 and 214 respectively). Even in States that have adopted Sharia law, homosexuality constitutes a crime. Sufficient light is thrown on the subject by Jibril Nanzing Bani and Ahmed Garba in Part II of their co-authored article on the crime of homosexuality in Nigeria. The criminalization of homosexuality in Nigeria is perhaps explained by the House Majority leader of the Nigerian House of Representatives, Mulikat Adeola-Akande, thus: “It [homosexuality] is alien to our society and culture and it must not be imported. Religion abhors it and our culture has no place for it.”

The current scenario is one where FIFA seeks to protect homosexuals from discrimination, whereas Nigerian law proscribes homosexuality. This is an obvious case of conflict between FIFA regulations and national laws. While FIFA enjoins its member associations to respect the laws of the land, it usually does not compromise on its prohibition of administrative interference. Usually, incidents of interference are cases with mostly commercial, labour, employment or administrative implications. The fact that this issue of homosexuality has criminal implications in the Nigerian legal context makes it even more complex. As long as homosexuality remains a crime in Nigeria, it may be too much to expect the national institutions not to interfere with this ‘right’.

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