By Ehichioya Ezomon
Prelude to the 2023 general election, one of several lessons stands out from the judgement of the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal (PEPT) in Abuja on Wednesday, September 11, 2019.
It’s the urgent need for the government – the executive and legislature – to work together, to “further” amend and pass the reviewed 2010 Electoral Act, to which President Muhammadu Buhari withheld his assent in late 2018.
The reason being that, whether deliberately or by sheer ignorance, many Nigerians are running with a false narrative reportedly emanating from the verdict of the PEPT, as regards certification for qualification for placement in any endeavour.
To the propagators, the five-man panel of Justices of the Appeal Court has pronounced that Nigerians need no certificates to back up their qualifications for elective offices, or any other positions for that matter.
That the mere filing of your qualifications, with no certificates attached for authentication, is enough evidence that you’re qualified for the desired position or office.
Conventional and social media have been buzzing with this narrative, with one poster on Facebook screaming on his wall: “What a plot! Nigeria does not need certificates anymore. Just list schools and you are done.”
The post attracted frenetic comments lampooning not only the judges, but President Buhari, accusing him of “inducing” the the PEPT members to align with his alleged “no qualification” for the presidency.
The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), like its diehard members, “never expected anything different from the Buhari judges,” one respondent said on Wednesday.
The source added: “But we had hoped the judges would be bold enough to rule otherwise, as Buhari lied on oath about his educational qualification.”
The PDP gave a similar liner when the PEPT dismissed the petitions filed by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and the PDP, against the declaration of Buhari as winner of the February 23, 2019 presidential election.
It’s clear that besides the petitioners’ claim that they won the election based on the results reportedly posted on a “Server” of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), they had hoped to upturn the poll on alleged Buhari perjury in Form CF001.
Hence, the PDP spokesperson, Kola Ologbondiyan, in response to the judgement, made no bones about the issue in a statement he pushed out barely minutes of the verdict.
He said: “The PDP finds it as bewildering that a court of law could validate a clear case of perjury and declaration of false information in a sworn affidavit, as firmly established against President Muhammadu Buhari, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence.
“Nigerians and the international community watched in utter disbelief when the tribunal ruled that one need not provide a copy or certified true copy of educational certificate such individual claimed to possess, contrary to established proof of claims of certification.”
Sadly, this distorts the aspect of the landmark judgement given by the lead judge, Justice Mohammed Garba, citing a Supreme Court judgment that “submission of educational certificate is not a requirement to contest election.”
According to Justice Garba: “It is established that a candidate is not required under the Electoral Act to attach his certificate to Form CF001 before the candidate is adjudged to have the requisite qualification to contest the election.”
Among issues the petitioners canvassed is whether Buhari was qualified to stand for the election having failed to attach a copy of his WASCE, as pleaded in the relevant INEC form.
The petitioners said by this anomaly, inconsistencies in his name and age, and denial by the Army that his certificates weren’t in their custody, Buhari had lied on oath, and ought to be disqualified from the election.
However, the tribunal held that Buhari wasn’t only qualified, but also “eminently qualified” to contest, as he had satisfied the requirements in the 1999 Constitution (as amended), and the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended).
Specifically, the panel relied on sections 131(d) and 137(1)(j) of the Constitution, to determine the qualification of Buhari for the presidency.
Section 131 prescribes that a person shall be qualified for election to the office of President if “(d) he has been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent.”
And subsection (1) of section 137 states that a person shall not be qualified for election to the office of President if “(j) he has presented a forged certificate to the Independent National Electoral Commission.”
In resolving the issue of qualification, the PEPT judges also had recourse to Section 318 of the 1999 Constitution, as it relates to “Interpretation” – to determine if Buhari was suitable to contest, as per education up to “School Certificate level or its equivalent.”
The express and unambiguous provisions of Section 318 of the Constitution give no wiggle room for the PEPT judges to embark on a “voyage of discovery” that undermines the meaning of “School Certificate or its equivalent.”
In any case, the Constitution vests the INEC with the power to determine what’s “acceptable” to it as qualifying for the conditions precedent to contesting the presidency.
In the instant matter, the electoral body considered the “equivalent” to School Certificate, and found President Buhari suitable to stand for a second term in office.
Judgments are based on laws, concrete facts and evidence advanced “within the four walls” of the courts, and not rooted in emotions, sentiments, hearsay, and media commentaries.
To arrive at its decision, the tribunal members filtered thousands of documents; weighed all pieces of evidence adduced by the petitioners, respondents and their witnesses; compared and contrasted case laws; and made references to legal books, journals and dictionaries.
And it carefully, and painstakingly analysed and delivered its findings in a nine-hour judgement that unbiased minds should firstly praise, and if unsatisfied, proceed on appeal to the Supreme Court, as the final arbiter on legal matters in Nigeria.
Therefore, it amounts to calling a dog a bad name in order to hang it, for the PDP and allied critics to castigate the PEPT judges for perhaps declining to set aside the laws governing electoral processes, and give the petitioners judgement.
* Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.