Although it’s been no less a distraction to the dingy campaigns, the certificate debacle of the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, General Muhammadu Buhari, should be addressed for the record, write Shola Oyeyipo and Ojo M. Maduekwe
Spare a thought and ponder this: does the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), General Muhammadu Buhari, possess the minimum requirement by law to be Nigeria’s president? More than any other discrediting allegation against Buhari by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in any election year, this particular question has generated the most controversy and indeed, bears both the moral and legal burden.
It began with a statement credited to the National Secretary of the PDP, Professor Wale Oladipo, describing Buhari as a “semi-literate jackboot”. Oladipo, who had compared Jonathan to Buhari as a case of light and darkness, said the February 14 presidential election was “between a cosmopolitan highly focused PhD holder and a semi-literate jackboot”.
Reacting to character, the APC had quickly refuted what it considered an insult to a man it holds in very high esteem. The barrage of claims and counter claims that later strewn the various news media and continue to do so, coupled with the PDP insistence on Buhari proving them wrong, is what has kept this controversy alive.
Until the controversy becomes a legal matter, it may continue to be regarded as a political tool by the PDP to discredit Buhari. Unlike the other allegations of Buhari being a sectional leader and the APC being the political wing of the terrorist group, Boko Haram, this particular certificate controversy does not look like it will fizzle out of public discourse any time soon.
A jittery PDP is clinging to it badly and has succeeded in sustaining the tempo. During some of their campaign rallies, they have continued to put it forward as a campaign subject. The Ondo State Governor, Olusegun Mimiko, at the recent PDP kick-off campaign in Lagos, said “We will not settle for a president with less than a university degree.”
When President Goodluck Jonathan campaigned in Ekiti, the State Governor, Ayodele Fayose, maintained the argument. “Anybody who wants to be the president of this country must have the necessary qualification… Let General Buhari flaunt his certificate if he has got them,” Fayose said.
In practically all his campaign rally, Buhari has not come out by himself to refute the PDP allegation. Rather, the defence he’s put up so far are from his aides, associates, party members and supporters. Failing to answer the question if Buhari has the required certificate or not, which allows him by law to aspire to the position of the president, they have argued that since the matter was not an issue in 2003, 2007 and 2011, why did the PDP bring it up now.
His media aide, Mr Rotimi Fashakin, believes it is not only political, but also a plot by the army to ridicule Buhari. “They are just looking for something to hold desperately to be able to prevent Buhari… Before now, General Buhari had contested elections for three occasions. Are you going to say that he didn’t present any certificate for those three times?”
Fashakin maintained that there was “no case” to be submitted since Buhari had risen to be a Major General in the army and also attained the position of a military Head of State. According to Fashakin, Buhari’s rise in the army could not have been possible without his credentials, which he said were “well documented by the Army in those days”.
Emanating from Fashakin’s argument, counter-arguments have been raised, questioning the position of the APC and Buhari. First is what the law says about eligibility to contest the presidency. Described as lacking in substance, many of the arguments made by supporters of the APC, rather than nip the controversy in the bud, have succeeded in creating in people the desire to see if Buhari is indeed one who respects the rule of law.
There are opinions that if Buhari indeed completed his secondary school education, and did not drop out midway to join the military, a predictable Buhari would have made his certificate public. Failing to do this, and personally answer questions regarding the issue, has aided PDP’s attack on Buhari. His continued silence is being construed as an acceptance of guilt, which has brought his much touted integrity to question.
To answer the question that has been thrown up by the controversy, a precedence would be set for how politicians regard the electoral laws pertaining to qualifications for participating in elections into public office. Nigerians are looking at an issue which could be used to argue the annulment of the February 14 presidential election should Buhari win.
According to a constitutional lawyer, Mike Ozekhome (SAN), how the controversy is handled “is very crucial to our democratic norms and values.” Many are already projecting that if Buhari wins the election, this will set a bad precedence. According to them, what moral right will his government have in asking others to present certificates before employment as civil servants or screening as ministerial appointees by the National Assembly?
From all indications, Buhari may have failed to complete his secondary school education before joining the army, where he rose to the position of a Major General and then later through a coup, became a military Head of State. His supporters are asking: “What is the need of a certificate to become president?” But the law requires that he must have one to lead Nigeria.
Chapter 6, Section 131 of the 1999 Constitution says a person shall be qualified for election to the office of the President if (a) he is a citizen of Nigeria by birth; (b) he has attained the age of forty years; (c) he is a member of a political party and is sponsored by that political party; and (d) he has been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent.
Ozekhome, during an interview said Buhari was not qualified to contest the election. According to him, “I know that Nigerians would be curious about why this matter is just coming up for the first time and after all this man had contested the last three presidential elections”.
The problem, according to Ozekhome, is that past INEC forms simply provided that the candidates state their qualifications without providing proof. “But right now, the rules have changed. Form CF001 says apart from filling your qualifications, you must attach them; you must attach photocopies of your qualifications and to attach means to bind; it means to glue-to.”
Ozekhome, according to a THISDAY report, argued that “Section 131 of the Constitution was very clear that the certificate must have not below school certificate level, or its equivalent, and its equivalent means GCE, WASC, NECO, etc; those are the equivalents”.
To exonerate Buhari of any wrongdoing, some supporters of the APC have sought to compare his swearing to an affidavit as a replacement to having a certificate, to be similar to the action taken by the vice-president of the PDP, Namadi Sambo, who declared in a document that his Bachelors and Masters’ degree certificates were consumed by fire.
But Ozekhome argued that “If you do not have any of these qualifications, what you will do is to apply to WAEC or NECO, and say my certificates are lost, burnt or stolen by armed robbers; I want you to issue me a letter certifying that I have this qualification. That was what happened in the case of the vice-president, Namadi Sambo.”
Sambo, according to reports, filed a document which were received and stamped by INEC “between December 10 and 18 2014 and validated by two letters from the ABU”. Notwithstanding, Sambo is reported as possessing the minimum qualification, which Buhari has failed to provide, but insists in his affidavit to be with the Secretary of the Military Board.
In an interview with a national daily, the Army Public Relations Director, Brig-Gen. Olajide Laleye, was reported as saying, “Every serving and retired Army officer has at least a copy of his certificates and credentials kept in the Nigerian Army while that same serving and retired officer has copies of those same certificates and credentials.” According to Laleye, there is a laid down procedure for requesting for one’s certificates, which was well known to all serving and retired officer.
“If you want anything checked in your file, you simply follow the due process and it would be given to you because the credentials belong to you”. He said the Nigerian Army does not refuse to anybody his credentials if due process is followed. “Not only does the Nigerian Army keep these things, the individual officers, whether serving or retired, have copies”.
On that claim, Ozekhome said Buhari referring INEC to the Military Board for his certificate was like a job interviewee asking his interviewer to go to the last place where he worked and get his certificate.
“It is like, as an applicant, you want a job, you come before your interviewers; your interviewers say, we have looked at the form you filled for this job; we have not seen your certificates; and you say, the last place I worked, they have photocopy of my certificates, go and ask them. That is wrong”.
What is right is that by the 1999 Constitution, Buhari who is highly seen as a man of integrity and whose campaign thrust has been to put an end to official corruption is expected by law and moral certification to provide the required minimum certificate, or in a situation where that is not possible, the moral thing that is required of him would be to own up and save his integrity.
Although that is the moral thing to do, Buhari is not likely to do that because doing so can cost his party the presidential election. The other option is by going ahead with the election, and if he wins, the 2010 Electoral Act as amended, empowers the PDP to seek redress in court.
Section 31 subsection 5 of the Act states that “Any person who has reasonable grounds to believe that any information given by a candidate in the affidavit or any document submitted by that candidate is false may file a suit at the Federal High Court, High Court of a State or FCT against such person seeking a declaration that the information contained in the affidavit is false”.
The certificate controversy is a tricky one for several reasons. According to the electoral guidelines by INEC, December 30 2014 marked the last day for withdrawal of candidates and replacement of withdrawn candidates by political parties. Any decision now is left with the court. Now, due to the proximity of the elections, getting a judgement from the court on the matter appears impossible.
Again, the issue is a tricky one for even the election management body, INEC. The PDP had accused INEC of cover up, preferring instead that Buhari be disqualified from contesting. In response and according to the law, INEC has asked the PDP to take their matter to court; that the law does not empower it to disqualify but accept candidates presented to it by political parties.
Speaking on the options available to the PDP penultimate Sunday, the Commissions Director for Voter Education and Publicity, Mr. Wale Uzzi, and its Director for Legal Services, Mr. Ibrahim Bawa, stressed that “In line with Section 31 of the Electoral Act, the commission has no powers to disqualify any candidate whose name has been submitted to INEC.
“This is the power of the law and it is expected that a political party in the calibre of the PDP should know this aspect of the provision of the law. If the PDP feels strongly about this matter, it knows what to do. It should take him to court and that is the only option”.
Left only with the court option, the PDP and APC have continued to relish in claims and counter-claims – both trying to amass support from the voters in a matter that can only be decided by the court. While the PDP is insistent that Buhari cannot contest the election, the APC has asked them to focus on issue-based campaigns and quit arguing about the certificate.
A statement by the Directorate of Media and Publicity of the APC presidential campaign and made available to THISDAY, asked Jonathan to address the country on the Baga killing, and stop being “insensitive” but “account to Nigerians” for the lives lost to the Boko Haram in Baga.
“The issue of certificate of General Buhari is a non-issue as everyone knows that Buhari is a product of Daura Primary School, Katsina, Provisional Secondary School (now Government College, Katsina), and the Nigerian Military Training College. This is in addition to several other courses he attended at home and abroad,” the statement claimed.
The media director of the PDP Presidential Campaign Organisation, Femi Fani-Kayode, on his part, said “The inability of the All Progressives Congress, General Muhammadu Buhari, to present even the minimum requirement of just a school leaving certificate questions his moral and other credentials for pursuing the position of the president of Nigeria”.
Director General of the PDP Presidential Campaign Organisation, Ahmadu Ali, in Ado-Ekiti last week, at a campaign rally organised for Jonathan, told the crowd that Ekiti had more than 60 per cent of all the professors in Nigeria, and so the people, “have no business voting for somebody whose schools’ certificates we have just been informed were not available”.
Former Kogi State Commissioner for Information and founder, The Broom Platform, an online platform for the promotion of Buhari candidacy, Dr. Tom Ohikere, said the PDP cannot question Buhari’s integrity.
"It is an absurdity and aberration for the PDP to claim that General Buhari has no school leaving certificate. It is an insult to our military authority for a political party to politicise that Buhari was admitted into the Army and has risen through all file and ranks without basic qualification and even to have risen to the position of the Head of State.
"The PDP has insulted the nation in the comity of nations. Gen Buhari, having passed through the same school and passed out same time with late General Musa Yar' Adua, earned a school leaving certificate. If I may ask, when has a well deposed court affidavit become questionable? It behooves the receiving authority to investigate any doubtable claim in an affidavit for authentication.
"I'm sure that has been done by INEC and therefore the reason they are disregarding PDP barking dogs," he said.
The National Publicity Secretary of the APC, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, also expressed disgust and described the claim that the party’s presidential flag bearer does not possess primary school certificate, as a smear campaign with its attendance consequences on the image of Nigeria and the military in particular.
“It is disgusting. These are clearly people who have no issue to campaign about and who have resorted to smear campaign. But does it make sense to say that a man that rose to the position of a general in the military does not have a primary school certificate? I can assure you that in a short while we will bring the issue to a close.
“They think are bringing down the person of Buhari; but what they are saying is that the Nigeria military is made up of illiterates. They are belittling our Army before the international world. Don’t be surprised in the near future, if a Nigerian general is to lead an international contingent and the people refuse on the grounds that Nigerian generals are illiterates.
“How can they say a man who attended the Nigeria War College does not have primary school certificate? Interestingly, despite their efforts to discredit the man, the general is getting more popular. Was it not one of Nigerian footballers that said ‘if it was just the NEPA bill that the general possesses,’ he would vote for him? You see, it is ridiculous!” he lamented.
Lagos lawyer and human right activist, Mr. Festus Keyamo believes that the ruling PDP is only chasing after the shadow when it is getting the signal that the coming election may not be in its favour, stressing that the argument lacks substance.
“There is nothing in it. They are just blowing the issue out of proportion. Everywhere, you can use any affidavit in lieu of a certificate you cannot lay your hands on, so far you stated the school you attended and it would be the discretion of the commission to accept it or not.
“The PDP appears that they are losing an argument and are resorting to personal attack. I’m coming out with a bombshell. I’m writing a full piece about the qualities of leadership.
“Leadership is not a function or consequence of academic qualification. If it were so, then we should go to the ivory tower and pick the best qualified professor and make him the president. There would be no need for election. But leadership is always a divine gift that is noticeable even at primary school level or infantry level.
“You will notice leadership at that level in some people by the way they mobilise their classmates,” Keyamo said, arguing that the certificate issue be put aside for some more fundamental issues.
Similarly, a Lagos-based constitution lawyer, Mr. Fred Agbaje, who examined the issue from both legal and political perspectives, said the allegation being cropped up against Buhari is a “non-issue.” While he insisted that having risen to the rank of Major General in the military, he could not be said to be an illiterate, he also contended that what should matter at this point is who is most suitable to get the country out of its economic crisis.
Agbaje also maintained that for as long as it is the PDP that is bringing up the issue, Buhari has no need to bother about it, since the burden of prove lies absolutely with those accusing him of not possessing the certificate.
“To me, that topic is a no-issue. Blame your constitution not Buhari. It is too late to blame Buhari. If there is any defect, it is the constitution that should be blamed. The constitution says ‘school certificate attempt,’ not that you should pass it.
“The man said he attended elementary school and the military school and by the way, the Nigerian Defense Academy (NDA) is an equivalent of primary school certificate. Are you saying a man who went through the rank to get to the rank of a Major General is not qualified to rule Nigeria? As far as I’m concerned, it is not an issue. The question of who can fix the economy should rather be what we are asking now,” he said.
As far as the law is concerned, he said Buhari has nothing to worry about because “It is those making the allegation that must prove it. Buhari has no work to do in respect of the allegation.”
Also, a Lagos-based paint manufacturer, Mr. Akinusi Isaac, shares Mohammed’s view, when he expressed the position that the campaign against Buhari is simply an attempt to get him off the race because of his popularity and the determination of Nigerians to elect him as a replacement to the incumbent government of President Jonathan.
“It is too late for the PDP to bring up such issue. It would have been easier for them to use such claim to disqualify him if he had not been a past Head of State – in such situation, they could be saying that.
“Now, it is obvious that they are just finding one way or the other to disqualify him because they are afraid of him. But as far as I’m concerned, either he has certificate or not, he is the most matured and experienced leader that Nigeria needs as at now. We could judge from what he had done. They should go and check the records to see the goods he has done to this country in the past.
“Then apart from that, what is the value of an educated leader whose impact is not felt by the people. In fact, some of the so-called educated persons seem to have gone to school to learn how to steal our commonwealth,” he said.
But former House of Representatives member, who represented Kabba/Bunu/Jjumu Federal Constituency, Hon. Duro Meseko, felt the APC presidential candidate could be suspected for not having approached the Army to request for the certificate.
"Of course, there is genuine reason to suspect General Buhari for the fact that he has refused to apply to the Army Council for the release of photocopies of his certificates. It's gravely suspect that despite the outrage this has generated, the APC candidate has continued to keep an undignifying silence. There must be some cover-up somewhere," he claimed.
A source in the presidency, who in fact is a member of the presidential campaign committee of President Jonathan, also took a similar stand as Meseko. He suspected that two things must have happened – that it is either that he attended the school but was drafted into the military without completing his education, or that he attended the school but failed woefully and could not present the certificate of failures to Nigerians.
“Let me tell you, some of the likely scenarios that may have played up in the Buhari matter. Being a Northerner myself, even me that I graduated in 1980, work was waiting for me. Then considering the time people like General Buhari attended school, it was a time of low man power in the North.
“Remember that the Nigerian independence was delayed because the North complained of low man power. So it is likely that he didn't graduate from the school before he was drafted into the Army, or that he didn't pass and he didn't want Nigerians to see his failures.
“He is supposed to show proof of attendance and that is the result. If you don’t have the result you couldn't be claiming to have attended a school. It is either you never attended the school or you are hiding it from the people so that they do not see your F9s,” the source argued.
There is no doubting the fact that the matter has assumed an annoyingly distracting twist, this however does not change the fact that the APC and its candidate must address the matter, particularly on the grounds of morality and integrity if all it appears to be doing is undermine the legal angle to it.
Understandably, some have called this controversy a distraction; others insist that the law must be followed to the letter. It is therefore left to be seen how this would be resolved without scathing the integrity of Buhari, the only credibility the general seems to be taking to the battle.