Emeka Alex Duru
Until the Supreme Court makes a definite pronouncement on the eligibility of President Muhammadu Buhari for the February 2019 presidential election, his candidacy for the exercise will continue to remain a major issue of debate among political analysts. The September 11 verdict of the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal (PEPT) on the matter has not laid it to rest. It has, rather, widened the debate, as the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate in the election, Atiku Abubakar, have appealed the judgement at the Supreme Court.
The tribunal had validated Buhari’s victory at the February presidential poll. Some had expected that the verdict would bring to an end the legal battle embarked upon by the PDP and Atiku, seeking to upturn the declaration of Buhari as winner of the poll.
In its judgement, the tribunal had dismissed the petition by the PDP and Atiku for failing to substantiate their petitions beyond reasonable doubt. The five-man panel led by Justice Muhammed Garba, which took the grounds of the petition one after the other, had dismissed the petitions in their entirety in the unanimous judgement that lasted about eight hours, describing the issues contained in the petitions as mere allegations and lacking in probative value.
Reactions have, ever since, trailed the judgement. PDP, for instance, had described the judgement as “provocative, barefaced subversion of justice, and a direct assault on the integrity of our nation’s justice system.” The party, in a statement by its national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, said it was particularly shocked that the tribunal failed to point to justice despite the flawless evidence laid before it showing that the President, among other considerations, was not qualified to contest the election. The PDP has formally filed an appeal against the verdict of the tribunal at the Supreme Court.
The appeal is centred on the qualification of Buhari in the election, among other issues. The tribunal had affirmed that Buhari had more than secondary school certificate, having attended various courses. “He is not only qualified, he is eminently qualified,” it said.
This, incidentally, has remained a major topic among critics of the President following his failure to submit his academic credentials to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The issue, predates the 2019 elections. It actually came up in 2015 general election. The President had then failed to submit his credentials to INEC, claiming, that his certificates were with the military. While INEC posted the names of other candidates for the presidential election and their academic credentials, Buhari, did not submit his. Rather, he presented an affidavit to the commission, wherein he said, “I am the above named person and the deponent of this affidavit herein. All my academic qualification documents as filled in my presidential form, APC/001/2015, are currently with the secretary of the Military Board as of the time of this affidavit.”
Curiously, the military had denied being in possession of his credentials, adding that, in the early 1960s when he joined the Nigerian Army, no record showed any verification was done on the original copies of his credentials.
“Records available indicate that Major General M. Buhari applied to join the military as a Form Six student of the Provincial Secondary School, Katsina, on October 18, 1961,” a former army spokesperson, Olajide Olaleye, was then quoted to have stated.
Olaleye added, “His application was duly endorsed by the principal of the school, who also wrote a report on him and recommended him to be suitable for a military commission.
“It is a practice in the Nigerian Army that before candidates are shortlisted for commissioning into the officers’ cadre of the service, the Selection Board verifies the original copies of credentials that are presented. However, there is no available record to show that this process was followed in the 1960s.”
PDP and its candidate thus argue that the failure of the President to attach his WASC certificate to his form runs against the stipulations of Section 131 of the 1999 Constitution on aspirants for the office. The Section 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 40 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.”
For the PDP, Buhari’s inability to present concrete evidence on his academic credentials amounts to perjury. This perhaps, informed the position of a member of the PDP legal team, Mike Ozekhome, that they would “challenge the ‘misevaluation’ of critical evidence in the tribunal judgement.
Lagos-based columnist and social commentator, Femi Aribisala, argued along this line, stressing that Buhari had committed perjury when the military denied his claim that it was in possession of his academic certificates.
He said, “In 2015, the Military Board deposed that it did not have Buhari’s academic credentials. That means Buhari committed perjury when he swore on oath that the military had them. As a matter of fact, the Military Board does not even have the photocopies of Buhari’s credentials because he did not submit them when he enrolled in the Nigerian Army. This denial by the army that it has Buhari’s certificates means he committed perjury when he swore on oath that the army had them.”
Not even the presentation of an attestation certificate and confirmation of school certificate result on the President by the West African Examination Council on Friday, November 2, 2018, has doused this controversy. The council’s registrar, Iyi Uwadiae, presented the certificate to Buhari at the Presidential Villa, Abuja. For PDP, this is not enough, as it insists that the President is not qualified to run for the office.
The All Progeressives Congress maintains, however, that Buhari was qualified for the election and, indeed, won convincingly. For the party, the PEPT verdict, “validates the decision of most Nigerians to do away with the past as expressed in their overwhelming votes in the 2019 elections.”
Buhari expressed similar sentiments in describing the ruling as victory for Nigerians who trooped out to overwhelmingly elect him for a second term in office.
Eyes, are, therefore, on the Supreme Court to make a final decision on the matter that many say will have profound effects on future elections in the country.
•Duru writes from Lagos