Every facet of human endeavour is characterised by the possibility of disputes. This is especially so in the Nigerian football sector that has witnessed increased commercial investments and growing popularity among different groups of people.
However, the disputes resolution regime in the domestic football sector is underperforming, thereby rendering the sector uncompetitive and unattractive for investments. Against this background, this article makes a case for establishing an effective dispute resolution regime in the Nigerian football sector.
Overview of the Dispute Resolution Regime in Nigerian football
Time is of essence in resolving football disputes as football seasons run with pre-fixed calendars. Thus, to circumvent the rigours, cost and acrimony of the conventional court-based legal proceedings, many jurisdictions have well established alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms to resolve sport-related disputes.
Football has also developed its own sport-specific dispute resolution mechanism, largely based on arbitration, with the goal to avoid resorting to regular courts for resolution of football-related disputes alongside the accompanying problems.
Article 59(2) of the September 2020 edition of the FIFA Statutes – the legal framework of FIFA prohibits recourse to ordinary courts of law as a means of resolving football-related disputes.
Article 57(1) of the FIFA Statutes recognizes the jurisdiction of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) “to resolve disputes between FIFA, Members, Confederations, Leagues, Clubs, Players, Officials and licensed match agents and players’ agents.” However, this jurisdiction is only to be exercised by CAS after the internal dispute resolution mechanisms, which all member associations of FIFA are expected to establish, have been exhausted.
At the domestic level, the Nigeria Football Federation Statutes 2010 (the NFF Statutes), specifically Article 4 (3), provides for the establishment of the necessary institutional means to resolve internal disputes between members, players, clubs and officials of the NFF.
Specifically, the NFF Statutes provides for the establishment of a Disciplinary Committee with limited jurisdiction to administer the Disciplinary Code of the NFF. The decisions of this Disciplinary Committee are subject to appeal to the Appeal Committee of the NFF.
For contractual or employment-related disputes in the Nigerian football sector, an aggrieved party’s first port of call should be the National Dispute Resolution Chamber (NDRC), an independent and duly constituted arbitration tribunal. +
FIFA has already established a Dispute Resolution Chamber (DRC) to handle international disputes, and FIFA has enjoined national associations to establish NDRCs to handle disputes within their respective jurisdictions.
Article 68 of the NFF Statutes provides for the establishment of a national equivalent of the NDRC – an Arbitral Tribunal – meant to deal with all internal football-related disputes outside the jurisdiction of the Disciplinary Committee.
The state of Dispute Resolution in the Nigerian football sector
The state of the dispute resolution in the Nigerian football sector leaves much to be desired. There is no record that the NFF has established its own domestic arbitration tribunal, and this has resulted in many football disputes involving players, clubs and other stakeholders lingering in our courts.
Of notoriety are the employment-related disputes of local players. In the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL), players are subject to unfair employment contract practices and other acts of impunity by clubs.
Late last year, it was reported that the players of a popular Football Club planned to sue the club over unpaid wages and bonuses. We also recall that the female national football team once refused to exit their hotel rooms on account of unpaid bonuses. Given that FIFA statutes and the NFF Rules prohibit the adjudication of disputes by ordinary courts, disgruntled players and administrators are often left in precarious positions.
In the absence of the NDRC, it appears that the Players’ Status Committee, established under Article 53 of the NFF Statutes to regulate the transfer system and player status, has had to bear a heavy burden in resolving disputes involving player status and transfer, employment, and contractual stability. Some players even resort to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, for labour and employment-related matters, which some commentators say is against the provisions of the FIFA Statutes and the tenor of sports law jurisprudence. Another problem is the bureaucratic process of enforcement of awards given that a good number of domestic clubs are owned by state governments.
Overall, the Nigerian experience with football disputes has been one of frustration and a lack of reparation. This has impacted the competitiveness of the players and the domestic league. The public confidence in the league and the sector at large has also waned. This development is unimpressive, and it could potentially truncate the aspirations of future international football stars based in Nigeria at the moment. It is, therefore, imperative to change course.
Bridging the gap
The first recommendation is that the NFF should fulfil its statutory obligation to establish the NDRC because an institutionalised judicial body to adjudicate football disputes is desperately needed. As required by the NFF Statutes and following the NDRC Standard Regulations of FIFA, the NFF’s Executive Committee should set up rules and regulations for the composition of the National Dispute Resolution Chamber. Relatedly, the NFF should entrench good internal governance practices. This will, beyond reducing the backlog of matters in our courts, reduce the administrative insecurity caused by court actions while also promoting player welfare and providing safeguards for stakeholders and investors.
Furthermore, simply establishing an arbitration tribunal would be insufficient unless firm steps are taken to ensure that the awards are delivered and enforced. Football judicial bodies’ decisions must be respected by national and league administrators. Parties who fail to comply with such decisions must face disciplinary proceedings.
Aside from football, a sports-specific national dispute resolution body is required, which would be the national equivalent of the world sports dispute resolution body, the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Recognising this need, Nigeria’s National Council on Sports (NCS) endorsed the decision of the Nigerian Olympic Committee (NOC) to establish the Nigerian Court of Arbitration for Sport (NCAS) over a decade ago as a solution to the recurring sports (mostly football) disputes that have been brought before ordinary courts. The NOC established a Planning Committee to develop the legal framework/guidelines for the establishment of NCAS and a report was presented. However, it does not appear that the NOC has taken any further steps since then.
Finally, the development of sports law jurisprudence cannot be overemphasised. This will include specialist quasi-judicial bodies, to adequately regulate sports legal relationships and efficiently adjudicate over sports disputes, while keeping the uniqueness of sports in mind.
It is undeniable that the Nigerian football sector desperately needs an efficient dispute resolution regime. Making the dispute resolution effective will be a disincentive for parties notorious for breaching contracts in the Nigerian football sector. The recommendations canvassed in this article can only come to light where there is regulatory will to effect the changes and an absence of political interference.
Bisi is a partner at Olaniwun Ajayi LP & Adediran is an associate at Olaniwun Ajayi LP