Nigeria’s season of missing certificates

OLUWAFEMI MORGAN examines the controversy surrounding the academic records of some candidates in the forthcoming general elections and the implications

The presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, few weeks ago claimed he lost his certificates when he went on self-exile between 1994 and 1998. The only educational qualification on his form, as published by the Independent National Electoral Commission, was that he attended the Chicago State University in the United States for his tertiary education.

   His Peoples Democratic Party counterpart, Atiku Abubakar, deposed to an affidavit that his name on his school leaving certificate was Saddiq Abubakar. Similarly, his running mate and Governor of Delta State, Dr Ifeanyi Okowa, informed INEC that he lost his secondary school certificate.

   These claims have, no doubt, given the electorate a lot to worry about, with regards to the quality of leaders they are constrained to choose from  at the polls.

According to Section 131(d) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), a person shall be qualified for election to the office of the President if they have at least a school certificate, a requirement that many argue was due for an upward review. But despite the current constitutional provision, the nation’s electoral system has continued to be plagued by contentious academic claims and certificate scandals.

As it has turned out, Nigerians face this drama of certificate scandal every election season.

In the current republic, which began in 1999, a businessman and politician, Salisu Buhari, became the Speaker of the House of Representatives, but his tenure was short-lived when his claim of having obtained a certificate at the University of Toronto turned out to be false.

An investigative report revealed that Buhari did not only forge his certificate but also did not serve in Kano State as claimed. The certificates presented to INEC by Buhari formed the basis of the damning investigation and the scandal that forced him to resign. He was tried and convicted for forgery.

Also, in the run-up to the 2015 elections, critics and members of the opposition PDP had faulted the academic qualification of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), as the candidate of the APC in 2015 and 2019.

The scandal went on with many describing him as unqualified to hold the highest political office in the country. But in November 2018, the authorities of the West African Examination Council presented the former military leader with his West African Senior School Certificate showing that he took the examination in 1961 before joining the Nigerian Army and passed History, Geography, Hausa, English Language and Health Science.

However, for the forthcoming elections, it seems the plethora of uncertainties surrounding the credentials of some candidates remains more problematic than the way things were when Buhari was a candidate.

For instance, Tinubu had claimed in an affidavit and his INEC forms that his primary and secondary school certificates were taken by unknown persons during the military junta, at a time when he went into exile over his support for the retrieval of the June 12 presidential mandate of the late Chief Moshood Abiola.

Tinubu only listed the Chicago State University where he said he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 1979. An ally of the former Lagos State governor during the 1999 governorship election in Lagos, Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi, had at the time claimed responsibility for wrongly informing INEC that Tinubu attended Government College Ibadan, Oyo State.

Still in the APC, Tinubu’s interim running mate, Kabiru Masari, who has since withdrawn as a placeholder, had also deposed to an affidavit that his original primary and secondary school certificates were missing. Masari, who later withdrew when Tinubu announced a former Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, as his running mate, claimed he attended Masari Primary School, Katsina State, between 1972 and 1978. He said he also attended the Katsina Teachers College in 1982, where he earned a Grade II Certificate.

But the leading opposition party is not left out in the certificate drama. The school leaving certificate of the former vice-president and candidate of the PDP also raised some eyebrows. Atiku, a former Customs officer, had sworn an affidavit informing INEC that he changed his name from Saddiq Abubakar, which was reflected on his certificate, to Atiku Abubakar. Meanwhile, his running mate, Okowa, also declared that he lost his secondary school certificate.

Similarly, the presidential candidate of the Young Peoples Party, Malik Ado-Ibrahim, said he lost his certificate. And in the Action Democratic Party, its presidential candidate, Sani Yabagi, said in an affidavit that the name on his degree and West African Senior School Certificates were different from his current name.

While some political pundits argue that the issue of contentious and missing certificates does not impair the ability of a leader to provide excellent leadership. They argue that some past leaders who were well educated with genuine certificates didn’t fare better.

They note further that in a country of very educated citizens, the credentials of the leaders, especially at the level of the president and vice president, are important. They believe it is clear to many that the ripple effect of bad leadership continues to plague Nigerians because leaders need a certain level of education and exposure to proffer solutions to the multiplicity of challenges bedevilling the nation.

The Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Auwal Rafsanjani, said politicians needed to be transparent about their academic records instead of making false claims that might eventually bring them into disrepute.

Rafsanjani stressed that the constitution provides a liberal standpoint for political candidates, and that the most minimal certification required should not be made to cause any ruckus within the space. He urged politicians to be truthful about their qualifications without stifling the democratic process with unnecessary lies.

He added, “It is bad for a politician to claim to have a PhD and other certificates they do not have, especially when all they need to be voted for is the school leaving certificate. Even if the person does not have one, we know that some of those who had ordinary primary school leaving certificates in the past were far better than some of the new generation who have BSc and PhD. It becomes an issue of integrity when you say you have what you don’t have and it will go a long way to shift attention from issue-based campaigns.”

However, for a human rights lawyer and former Chairman of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Malachy Ugwummadu, missing and questionable certificates from potential leaders negatively affect the psyche of many Nigerians, especially the millions of youths who have robust credentials without jobs and the social and economic well-being to show for their academic strides.

Ugwummadu stressed the need for a constitutional amendment that would make the essential requirement for politicians who are vying for elective positions a bachelor’s degree, instead of the current school leaving certificate as stipulated by the constitution.

He added, “To put it bluntly, yes, it does affect the psyche and sensibilities of the average Nigerian, many of whom have their certificates even if it does not fetch them any job or privileges. They are scandalised; we are all scandalised that those who seek the highest position in the land are unable to categorically, firmly and with conclusive evidence establish that they have certifications for the claims they make.

“However, part of the problem is also the constitution. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides for a very low educational requirement because it is merely interested in establishing that he or she is educated up to the secondary school level or its equivalence. So, if one is able to produce even a testimonial by a principal, or a collection of friends, or schoolmates or associates who say they are aware that you went to school, you have satisfied that provision.”

 Ugwummadu, however, stressed that what is desirable for such an exalted position in the 21st century is a leader who is supposed to play on the world stage and is expected to interface and engage with a sophisticated world and even appreciate the corresponding concerns of contemporary times.

He added, “Your certificate needs not be in doubt. It is to that extent that Nigerians are becoming scandalised. Wait a minute, are we not making a mistake here in assuming that these people who are elected to these exalted positions are persons who can even engage and understand the nuances and dynamics of contemporary issues without clear evidence that they attended schools?

“So if our constitution had elevated the constitutional requirement under Section 131(d), we probably would have gone past this, such that all of these mundane excuses, inexplicable excuses flying around concerning basic secondary education would be a thing of the past.”

On the flip side, Ugwummadu said many Nigerian leaders who had extensive “paper certification,” to prove their education had also fallen below expectations. He, therefore, urged Nigerians to pick up the gauntlet of electing the kind of leaders they want since the sovereignty of the country lies solely with the people and that people need to decide what impacts on the country and what must be disallowed. Nevertheless, the human rights lawyer said given the current state of the educational system, the basic requirement for elective positions should be made to be a bachelor’s degree so that the Nigerian leader could have a full grasp of memos and briefs and could position themselves, and by extension, the country as one that competes on the world stage.

He said further, “We have seen PhD holders who messed up critically and we have seen professors who went to jail. In the same vein, we have seen people with very few certificates who have shown more patriotism, more altruism and have been better disposed to be part of the solution of the country.”

Similarly, a lawyer and political analyst, Liborous Oshoma, lamented that political leaders had continued to take the citizens for granted by the lackadaisical declaration of their missing certificates.

He stressed that Nigeria had continued to be ruled by the worst of her citizens because mediocrity had pushed performance-based meritocracy to the backwater of the values of the nation, thereby ridiculing the value of qualitative education in the country.

Oshoma lamented that many candidates do not even consider the public office as a job and a call to the service of their countrymen.

He argued, “It is laughable. Imagine yourself going for an interview in a serious organisation, and you are vying for the position of the Managing Director, and then you told the panel ‘my certificates are missing,’ or you say, ‘all I have is an affidavit.’

You couldn’t even get at least certified true copies of those certificates. Do you know how they will look at you? (They would feel) that you are so unserious, that you cannot put your acts together. So when a politician tells you that his certificates are missing , it means you do not matter in the scheme of things, so he can throw anything at you.

“It also means the certificates do not mean anything to you. You know how the rest of us protect our certificates. You want to keep them in a safe place because you need them to advance your career. What this tells you is how much we value our political offices. Nigerians don’t care, so the politicians also don’t care; that is why they can throw anything at us.

“Anyways, Section 131 says that all you need to be President is a school leaving certificate or its equivalence, and its equivalence by definition is if you can read and write in the opinion of INEC. So, when you have such a low entry qualification to be the president of Nigeria, why won’t you have candidates who would tell you ‘well, a certificate doesn’t matter, just look at my competence. I have been a governor, I have been a senator’. For me, that is arrogance. If we are to take public office seriously we have to take a look at all of these, not just certificates or claims of confidence, but we should be able to verify some of these competencies.

He continued, “This is one country where there are no verifiable parameters for rating competence. A man who promises A to Z is only able to deliver A to D, and he says, ‘You need to praise me because it is not easy to govern.’ Meanwhile, he saw that it wasn’t easy before he threw his hat in the ring. Political office is about service, yet they are taking so much for that office and are delivering next to nothing. There is no key performance index to rate the performance of the President. In civilised societies, we would have seen series of resignations but here, people remain in their offices.”

The legal practitioner noted further that Nigeria needed to devise a means of determining verifiable competence by cross-checking the quality of their educational background, adding, however, that “it does not mean we should sacrifice education on the altar of these shenanigans going on” as “there is no substitute for qualitative education”.

He said the short-term implication of ignoring the phenomenon of missing and questionable certificates is that it reduces the bar for quality governance and would further erode the urgency to educate the citizens since the least of qualified men are considered examples of success and leadership.

Oshoma added, “We need to create policies to checkmate missing and questionable certificates among our leaders. If we have people (leaders) who are educated and value education, we wouldn’t have the Academic Staff Union of Universities on strike for months and they wouldn’t care.

“If education is not important, the children of the popular road transport union in Lagos would be selling herbs and aphrodisiacs in Oshodi, but they are schooling abroad.

“That is to tell you that even those who are not educated know its value, but how come when it comes to governing Nigeria, we say it doesn’t matter. So, we need to put measures in place to checkmate all of these. If we can’t find them (measures), then we are not ready.”