The controversy stirred up by President Muhammadu Buhari’s educational qualification was one of the grounds in the petition filed before the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal by the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) and its presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, challenging the victory of President Buhari in the February 23, 2019 poll. It was not for nothing that the academic qualification of the President became so central and contentious during the proceedings.
Therefore, the Nigerian public and the international community eagerly awaited how the five-member panel led by Justice Muhammed Garba would resolve the issue. The importance of the educational qualifications of the President, more than ever before, concentrated my mind after I attended a recent seminar in which seasoned lawyers and academics were resource persons. It then dawned on me why the lawyers of the petitioners(PDP and Atiku) devoted great time to argue the president’s educational qualifications.
The reasons for this are not farfetched. First, the office of the President, to borrow the words of former American president, Gerald Ford, “is not a prize to be won. It is a duty to be done”. Secondly, the attraction to the presidency should not be because of the awesome power and the glamour of the office alone .
Beyond that, the political and moral compass of the contestants for the highest office in the land must be seen to be above board. Of course, the qualifications to stand for election for president are well prescribed by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to be precise, Section 131. This section requires that, to be qualified for election to the office of President, a person must have “been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent”. Section 318 in Part IV of the 1999 Constitution also defines what school certificate or its equivalent means. Mindful of this fact, Section 31(1) of the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended) mandates all political parties to submit to the Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC), not later than 60 days before the date of an election a duly completed FORM CF001.
Also, Part C of the Form requires all presidential candidates to attach their educational credentials to the form. In addition, Section 31(2) of the Act requires every presidential candidate to attach “the list or information submitted by each candidate by an Affidavit sworn to by the candidate at the High Court of a State, indicating that he has fulfilled all the constitutional requirements for election into that office”. From what the petitioners’ lawyers averred before the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal, every other presidential candidates did, but President Buhari allegedly did not. Again, this was central to the PDP and Atiku’s case against the victory of President Buhari as declared by INEC.
According to the petitioners, instead of attaching his educational credentials, the President merely enclosed a sworn affidavit in which he stated on oath, among other claims, that his West African School Certificate(WASC) and other credentials were with the Military Board. This was in 1961. The President had also claimed that he got commissioned into the officer cadre of the Nigerian Army on the basis of his WASC result. This was however rebutted by the Army Board. The position of the Army Board was reinforced by one of the President’s colleagues in the army, Maj.Gen Paul Tarfa(retd) who testified during the hearing as a star witness for the President, saying, he and Buhari did not enrol in the officer cadre on the strength of their WASC.
That was a stunning revelation. If Tarfa’s evidence were true, as the petitioners believed it was, what the second respondent(Buhari) allegedly did amounted to perjury, and legally speaking, perjury is a criminal offence punishable under the law. But, what was the verdict of the Tribunal in all of this ? It dismissed the petition filed before it by the PDP and Atiku. Chairman of the Tribunal, Justice Garba said the evidence led by the petitioners “is like a drop in the ocean”, and that the petitioners failed to substantiate their petitions beyond reasonable doubt.
Perhaps what stunned many people who watched the judgment that lasted over eight hours, was the Tribunal’s position on the president’s educational qualifications and allegation of perjury. The Tribunal stated that the failure of Buhari (the second respondent in the matter) to tender his certificates while submitting compulsory documents to the INEC did not translate to not possessing the certificate or not being educated up to secondary school level. In the view of the tribunal, one need not provide a copy of certified true copy of educational certificate, contrary to established proof of claims of certification. The court not only went further to provide rationalisation in favour of the President, it made stunning conclusion by putting a curious ascent on the matter, thus, “there is no doubt that the second respondent is not only qualified to contest the election, he is eminently qualified to contest”.
Many lawyers hold a contrary view on the matter. Some say, even if the President attended a million military courses, in the first place, how did he get commissioned into the Nigerian Army in 1961? In that respect, the old Latin maxim, “ex nihilo nihil fit”, meaning, something cannot be built on nothing, appears valid in this instance. But that’s the decision of the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal, at least for now, unless upturned by the Supreme Court.
If this wasn’t enough shock to the PDP and Atiku, there was another rude shock. On the allegation of perjury, that is, that the President lied on oath when he filled his Form C 001, that he possessed WASC, the tribunal also resolved the issue against the petitioners on the ground that a school certificate, in the opinion of the panel, “is not a requirement” for contesting the plum position of President. While PDP had expressed utter disappointment in the verdict of the tribunal, especially the issues of educational qualification and perjury, the ruling All Progressives Congress(APC), is still relishing its victory at the Appeal Court.
In the opinion of many Nigerians, the judgement of the Appeal Court deserves a critical attention of the apex Court because when truth dissolves anything is possible. With the Supreme Court about to begin hearing on the matter, all attention will be focused on how the apex Court will resolve these issues, including the allegations of academic qualification and perjury, bearing in mind the far reaching implications of its decision on the country’s jurisprudence, in particular, election matters in Nigeria. Undoubtedly, this is another litmus test of judicial independence.
Chukwuebuka writes from Asaba, Delta State