Nigeria football chiefs ordered to face corruption trial

Abuja - Nigeria's High Court on Tuesday ordered five top football bosses to face trial for corruption, as they are accused of stealing millions of dollars intended to develop the game in the country.

Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) president, Amaju Pinnick, and four fellow co-accused face 17 charges for financial crimes at a trial in the capital city of Abuja.

His co-accused are NFF vice presidents Seyi Akinwunmi and Shehu Dikko, as well as general secretary Mohammed Sanusi and executive committee member Ahmed Yusuf.

Justice Ifeoma Ojukwu ordered the four men appear for trial on July 1.

The case examines a raft of charges, from failure to declare their assets, to the alleged theft of $8.4 million, paid by world governing body FIFA to Nigeria for participation in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The NFF officials are also accused of taking cash through a web of schemes, including payments received for "fake friendlies" -- games that never happened -- as well as unexplained payments to match-agents.

None of the five were in court, having avoided judicial summons in person.

"We are expecting the accused persons, the defendants, to come to court and take their plea," said prosecution lawyer Celsius Ukpong, from the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the recovery of public property.

All deny the charges, with NFF, a government-backed body, calling the accusations "frivolous and baseless."

President Muhammadu Buhari launched a high-profile campaign in 2015 to prosecute corrupt officials who had stolen what he said were "mind-boggling" sums of public money.

- String of scandals -

The trial came to court after complaints against missing cash from NFF coffers meant to be used to develop the game in Nigeria.

A failure to account for funds given by FIFA led the governing body to suspend grants to the NFF since 2015.

It follows a three-year period where a string of senior football figures have been implicated in damaging scandals.

A group of protesters, who claimed to be footballers, were at the court with placards displaying various inscriptions demanding for the NFF officials to stand trial.

In a separate case, three other NFF officials are being sued by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for alleged theft of some $10 million from grants paid by FIFA and the Confederation of African Football, CAF.

Former chairman of the Nigeria Premier League, Victor Baribote said there was a "breakdown of trust between players and footballing officials."  

President of the Nigerian Players Union, Harrison Jalla, said corruption at the NFF was "endemic", but that "hardly anyone has the courage to challenge it."

Millions of dollars in funds to run the country's most popular sport are unaccounted for, and the game is struggling at grass-roots levels.

Nigeria's national and domestic league football teams have struggled because of funding from sponsorships pocketed at top levels, and not spent on the players, Jalla alleged.

"Sponsorships have been mismanaged, so that players who should be the main beneficiaries, are often left behind," Jalla said.

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