Nigerian Official Caught Up in Women's Football 'Lesbianism' Row

Nigeria women's football team.
Nigeria's female football team celebrates a goal during a match at the Women's World Cup in Winnipeg, Canada, June 8, 2015. The vice-president of the Nigerian Football Federation suggested that lesbianism might be a negative influence. USA TODAY Sports Images/Reuters

The governing body of Nigerian football has defended itself after its vice-president reportedly blamed the poor state of women's football on homosexuality.

The vice-president of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), Seyi Akinwunmi, made the remarks at a meeting of sports writers in the city of Ibadan in Nigeria's southwestern Oyo state on Saturday, according to Nigerian daily Punch , when listing the problems affecting female football in the West African country.

Akinwunmi, who said that his "passion for female football is as great as it is for grassroots football," listed lower financial returns and less public interest as some of the problems blighting women's football in Nigeria. Then, he appeared to turn to the issue of sexuality. "Lesbianism kills teams," said Akinwunmi, according to Punch . "People are afraid to talk about it. The coaches take advantage of the girls, so there is much more to build in female football."

The comments generated significant interest in the Nigerian media and the NFF published a statement from Akinwunmi on Monday defending his comments. Akinwunmi said that he had merely noted that potential sponsors considered women's football to be "synonymous with lesbianism" and therefore "shied away from supporting the women's game." Akinwumni said that he had informed reporters that the NFF is "sparing no effort to correct this erroneous perception and to spur the growth and development of the women's game."

The Oyo State Chapter of the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria—which hosted the event—also published a statement on Monday in support of Akinwunmi. The statement said that Akinwunmi's comments were "being interpreted out of context and being promoted in negative connotations by those bent on mischief." The statement added: "His [Akinwunmi's] only mention of lesbianism was in general terms and not relative to women's football and it in no way suggests an opinion on [the] sexual orientation of any player."

Sexual relations between gay and lesbian couples is illegal in Nigeria and new legislation passed under former President Goodluck Jonathan in January 2014 criminalized same-sex marriage, members of LGBT groups and public displays of same-sex affection, with homosexual couples facing up to 14 years in prison if they break the law. During a July 2015 visit to the United States, when the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage was raised, current Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari "point blank" refused to discuss the issue, since homosexuality is "abhorrent" to Nigerian culture, according to presidential spokesman Femi Adesina.

The issue of gay marriage came up here yesterday. PMB was point blank. Sodomy is against the law in Nigeria, and abhorrent to our culture.

— Femi Adesina (@FemAdesina) July 22, 2015

The Nigerian women's national team, known as the Super Falcons, are the most successful in Africa. The team have competed at every Women's World Cup since the competition's inception in 1991 and have triumphed in the Africa Women Cup of Nations nine times.

Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian LGBT activist who came out in national television in the country in 2004, says that Akinwunmi's reported comments "do not appeal to common sense" and should have consequences. "It's extremely irresponsible and in any sane community such a statement would lead to somebody losing their job. Unfortunately it's not the same in Nigeria," says Alimi, 41, who says he fled Nigeria in 2007 after an assassination attempt.

The coach of Nigeria's male national team, Sunday Oliseh, recently resigned citing unpaid wages and other contract violations. Alimi says he is surprised Oliseh's resignation was not also blamed on homosexuality by the NFF. "Is that caused by homosexuality as well? Are the homosexuals holding back the hands of the government to pay the salary of the coach of the national team?" says Alimi.

Akinwunmi's reported comments are not the first time the issue of LGBT rights in women's football has come up. Former Super Falcons coach Eucharia Uche came under fire in June 2011 for calling homosexuality "dirty" and admitting she forced lesbians out of her team, AFP reported . FIFA also looked into claims that Dilichukwu Onyedinma, chair of the Nigeria Women's Football League and an NFF executive committee member, had banned lesbianism from Nigerian football.