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56 year old Jamila Buhari ‘JB’ speaks exclusively to Shot! on how she persevered to overcome cultural and religious barriers to become the first woman to officiate football in Nigeria. She also speaks on her refereeing career and football in Nigeria.
How did you start your football refereeing career?
Well my refereeing career started well back in the early 80s in Kano where was I was born and bred. Then we actually didn’t have women playing football but the passion I had for football was so much that I used to travel by night following the Kano State football team anytime we qualified for the challenge Cup finals. The matches were normally played in Lagos because that was the capital of Nigeria. I would travel with the supporters in the night to watch the match and then travel back in the night to Kano. Then I was like how can I really do something better. I felt being a supporter or spectator wouldn’t really give me the desired satisfaction. This motivated me to ask the then Kano State referees council if it was possible for a woman to be a referee. I was told there were no restrictions. But they said they had not heard any where in Nigeria where there was a woman referee. Since they did not see it as a problem, I enrolled as a referee in training, RIT, in 1981. I did one year as an RIT and then sat for Grade three and passed the examination. As a grade three referee you don’t go out to officiate national matches. Nobody knew me in the nation then. It was just within Kano State. As a grade three I was not allowed to even run the lines. Once in a while, I was made the fourth official during state competitions. After the mandatory three years, I sat for grade two examinations and I passed at one sitting. Still once in a while they gave me the lines. So the zeal kept burning and I continued until I sat for grade one examination and passed.
What challenges did you face when you decided to become a football referee?
I must tell you it was a great challenge because we all know what Kano is in terms of religion. And a woman coming out in shirts was unthinkable. Then I used to wear a short inside and a short skirt over the short to as much as possible conceal the cancellable. I tried not to aggravate some of the spectators based on religious norms. It was quite challenging and most of the men believed I was not going to go anywhere. Most of them thought I was going to fizzle out. I don’t believe in fizzling out of anything I start. I don’t start what I cannot complete and I don’t complete what I cannot start.
When you started did you enjoy the support of your parents?
Let me tell you the truth. My mother was another I took to football refereeing. My mother loved football so much. You may not believe this but my mother was to deliver our last born. He was under labour and we were heading to Nasrawa hospital. However, we had to pass through Sabon gari to the hospital. When we were passing, a match was going on in the stadium. She was the one driving. So she drove straight into the stadium. I was with her and I protested but she asked me to shut up. It was a match between Racca Rovers and Bendel Insurance. After the match she drove to the hospital and few hours later she put to bed. That time I was working with the Kano Sports Council. So when I went to work the next day and told my colleagues that my mother had given birth, they said look my friend why are you lying. Is it not the same woman we saw at the stadium kicking her legs?. She loved football with a passion and I enjoyed her maximum blessings.
What was your first experience as a centre referee?
I remember vividly my very first match in the centre at the Kano township stadium in Sabon Gari at the end of the 90 minutes I was given a very dirty slap by one of the players. It was a rude shock because you did a match and everybody is happy with your performance and your reward is a dirty slap?. I said what the hell is this but he got the beating of his life. When he was questioned as to why he slapped me, he answered that what gave me the impetus to become a referee as a woman and in kano. I see challenges as inspirations. When you challenge me you bring the best out of me. So I was challenged by that slap and I said oh that means I did a good job. Again he was asked was it that she did not officiate well? He said no, that wasn’t it but he only wanted to deter me. I said nobody deters me from what I want to do. That actually spurred me and gave me more impetus and I continued until in 1991 I was called to do the opening ceremony match of the 9th National sports festival in Bauchi.
You went on to be listed as a FIFA referee in 1991 but when did you get your major breakthrough?
I will say I came to national prominence after I officiated the opening match of the 1991 National Sports festival in Bauchi. Football was then the major highlight of the opening ceremony. The minister of sports then was General Y.Y kure and the special Guest of honour was General Dogoyaro. I was the first woman to officiate at that level. Interestingly, a lot of ladies who came for other sports saw what happened. I was told by a lot of them that when they saw me officiating it excited them and it made them to join football refereeing. I remember vividly in 1991 when we went to Cairo for the All Africa Games, I met General Dogoyaro and he said he actually asked if it was novelty match. He said he had neither seen nor heard a woman officiate a football match. He said but as the match progressed he asked where is the woman you said is going to officiate because that cannot be a woman dashing from one end of the field to the other. He actually dashed me some money. In 1991 when the maiden FIFA women World Cup was to take place in China, FIFA wrote to all associations as usual that they should send the names of one female referee each for the maiden world cup. Being the only woman referee in Nigeria, my name was sent automatically. Later on during the time of MD kadiri as Secretary General of the then NFA, there was this scandal about jersey and the board was dissolved. Another board was constituted and that saw me becoming the first female board member of the NFA.
How many international matches did you officiate before your retirement?
I did not officiate any FIFA organised match and I will explain. Like I told you the maiden Women World Cup women referees were really not used as much. It was just a kind of exhibition for them to see what was going on. As at the time the second female world cup was coming up, I had retired from active refereeing. So I did not officiate any FIFA match before my retirement from active refereeing. But the fact about is that then we did not have women football in All Africa Games at it is today. There was no women football in the Olympics as it is today. This means we did not have so many competitions for women.
From what you said you only lasted for 13 years as a referee. Why did you retire so early?
I did not retire because of age. I retired because I wanted what I planted to grow. When I decided to quit refereeing we had Princess Ime Udoka who was a second woman to be a referee in Nigeria but is not recognised. We had also Edith Nwakere and Faith Irabor. As at that time Bola had not come onto the scene. We also had one or two other women referees. When I saw them coming up, I said to myself, If I am there as a referee, women being what they are, they might look at me as a rival and not as somebody who wants to help them. So I said okay I will step aside. I have gotten to the pinnacle so what is there again for me.
Considering the hostile environment Nigerian referees are faced with, where did you get the courage and confidence to apply the laws of the game?
Basically who saw me officiating will know that I don’t give a damn I did what the laws of the game asked me to do I don’t care whose ox is gored. I never knew anything about home or away. Secondly my upbringing contributed a lot. We were brought up to see the truth and tell the truth no matter what happens. That kept me going.
Looking back, would you say you are happy with your contributions to Nigerian football in the area of refereeing?
I cannot thank God enough for making me the trail blazer. I set the pace and today Nigeria can boast of so many women referees because I dared the odds to open the door for more women to come into football refereeing. I am so proud that today we have a lot of women as referees and FIFA referees. It is a thing of joy and you will agree with me that we have very very competent female referees that can do anything the men think they can do on the field of play. I am so proud of the likes of Faith Irabor because she actually took after me. She was a no nonsense referee as well.
From your wealth of experience what would you say is responsible for the continuous absence of Nigerian referees at major international competitions?
We have this problem of where you come from, that is ethnicity. For fear of being accused of ethnicity and favouritism, those in charge keep sending different referees for international matches. CAF keeps seeing different faces. This does not provide room for consistency. You have to be seeing at least three times and each time you go you are being assessed. You are assed once, twice and thrice. From these three records, they will now be able to put you in category A, B or C. But here if a Yusuf goes for first, second and third match there would certainly be uproar. There will be allegations of ethnicity. You have marginalised the north, east, south or west. And age is also not on people’s side. This is why I am happy with the current NRA. The leadership is making it very mandatory that you cannot be FIFA listed at a certain age so that your life span as a referee will be longer. In addition, in this part of the world, people don’t like to say the truth about their conditions of health. Most times referees cut corners by getting fake medical certificate of fitness just to participate in physical fitness test. When they pass and their names are forwarded to CAF, they are discovered after another thorough check up is done on them. CAF does not compromise issues of medical so that they are not queried by FIFA. So I want to say before now age was not helping issues, ethnic diversities did not help matters. So basically those were some of the handicaps we had.
But most people believe Nigerian referees are not competent enough to officiate at that level? Like the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup.
It is nothing other than what I have just told you. People who don’t know these things keep shouting that Nigerian referees are not good. I put it to you that Nigerian referees are among the best in the world today. I tell you the honest truth. It is difficult to find referees that are as good as Nigerian referees. I am not saying that there are no bad eggs among the referees. For every rule, there is an exception. There is no perfect human being. However, we hope that in the nearest future we would be having Nigerian referees in the world Cup. I am positively positive by the grace of the almighty that the next Cup of Nations we are going to have a FIFA centre referee.
Would you say you have been recognised and appreciated by football authorities for your contributions?
Laughs my brother if the truth must be told, I have not but I want to also give kudos to the Maigari led NFF. Last year, I was made the match commissioner for the international friendly between Nigeria and South Africa female national team in Lagos. And currently, I am a member of the Appeals Committee of the NFF. But then honestly, I think if the truth must be told Nigeria should encourage me to get to CAF and to get to FIFA. Currently I am a Nigerian referees match assessor but these are the things that the country should push for me to be in CAF and FIFA.
Are you not thinking of leading the Nigeria referees Association in future?
I don’t want to be the president of NRA. I wouldn’t want to be that but I am thinking I might probably take up an executive position in the NRA because I want to as much as possible alleviate the sufferings of Nigerian referees. I would want to help NRA get sponsors as it is done in Europe so that the burden on the referees could be reduced. If referees are made comfortable, it will help cut down to the barest minimum the brown envelope problem.
Considering the obstacles you had to overcome to become a referee and the dangers you faced while officiating, do you regret your decision to become a football referee?
Not at all. I was telling somebody that if I were to die and comeback, I would still comeback to football because I love the game with a passion. Yesterday a young man was saying to me aunty you are still into football? I asked him, do you want me to die now? If you take football away from me, you have taken my life. Football is my life. I live, I eat, I drink, I sleep and I wake up with football.