The outcome of Abubakar Atiku’s suit abroad is essentially of salacious value, writes Bolaji Adebiyi

Twice this writer interviewed Ephraim Akpata, the first chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, over the propriety of the electoral agency and security agencies screening candidates for an election. The old man, a retired justice of the Supreme Court, argued that such an act would amount not only to preselection but also place limitations on the choice of the people. For him, the people should be left to make their choice freely without any encumbrance.

Asked if it was not necessary to weed out unqualified persons, particularly those with criminal records and of shady character from the process, Akpata said that would be undemocratic. The people know the candidates because they are from the same constituency, he said, explaining that the choice of who they want should be left for them to make. If the people elect to make someone regarded as a misfit as their leader, he said, they should be allowed to learn from the consequences of their actions. That is why there are election cycles during which the people have the opportunity to review the performance of their leaders, he concluded.

Put succinctly, Akpata’s position is that leadership selection should be the prerogative of the people, and once they make a conscious decision in that respect, the responsibility for their action should be theirs. Was the learned jurist opposed to prequalification for elective offices? Maybe, but over the years the principle of prequalification has been ingrained in the Constitution and subsidiary legislations, including the laws guiding the electoral process. The curious thing though is that despite this, the qualification of elected people continues to be a subject of bitter post-election litigations with politicians seeking technicality of the law rather than the popular will of the people to access power. This has actually given rise to the phenomenon of judicially installed public officers.

In 2007, for instance, Rotimi Amaechi became the governor of Rivers State without being on the ballot courtesy of a Supreme Court judgment, which stated that in the eyes of the law, he was the candidate of the winning Peoples Democratic Party, and should, therefore, inherit the trophy. Similar decisions would later follow with the practice of the courts removing and adding votes to arrive at the declaration of an erstwhile loser as the winner of the electoral contest. It became more perplexing, if not ridiculous 13 years later, when in 2020 the Supreme Court declared Hope Uzodinma, a fourth-placed person in the Imo State gubernatorial contest held in March 2019, the winner of the election, and ordered his installation as the governor.

Many Nigerians have, therefore, questioned the propriety of judicial installation of public officers, who ordinarily ought to have ascended office on the back of popular votes collated in the field. But the 1999 Constitution has altered and the electoral laws permit this with their provision for judicial review of disputes arising from the conduct of election. It is part of the democratic process and the need for orderliness in the society that those who are aggrieved should have an avenue to vent their grievance. What may not have, however, crossed the minds of the lawmakers, is the dimension this noble intention has taken.

So, as it has become increasingly difficult to assail electoral victory on the basis of the majority of votes, the trend is to rely on a legal technicality to access power. Rather than demonstrate that they scored the majority of votes, politicians now place more emphasis on off-the-field issues that are essentially technical to upturn the victory of their opponent. This was what happened in 2020 in Bayelsa State, when David Lyon, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress who won the governorship election, had his victory taken away on the eve of his inauguration on account of the certificate problems of Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo, his running mate. Paradoxically, Degi-Eremienyo, a senator, whose certificate was found unfit to make him a deputy governor, returned to the Senate to complete his term secured with the same certificate.

Without a doubt, Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, has applied the same strategy with his trip to America over President Bola Tinubu’s diploma certificate obtained from Chicago State University. Finding it difficult to cancel the over two million votes with which the president trounced him in the February contest, the former vice-president sought to explore the weather-beaten speculation that the Bola Tinubu that went to Chicago was the Bola Tinubu that became president of Nigeria.

After several months of legal gymnastics that ended on Wednesday in Illinois, Atiku would seem to have come back to Abuja empty-handed. Encouraged by the initial victory that culminated in Judge Nancy Maldonado asking the university to release the president’s academic records to him, Atiku thought he would find some smoking guns with which to kill off Tinubu back home. His discovery turned out to have no gun at all as Caleb Westberg, the registrar of CSU, would pour cold water on the former vice-president’s expectations with his deposition.

Essentially, Westberg said the Tinubu who went to Chicago is the one who is the president of Nigeria today. Secondly, he confirmed that one Adedeji who said he was Tinubu’s classmate was indeed correct. He explained that the representation of Tinubu’s gender as a female on the Southwest College prequalifying result was a clerical error, contending that the differences in the fonts and signatures in the certificates arose from changes in the fonts and the registrars of the university over time even as he clarified that there was no big deal about the certificates as they were essentially ceremonial.

If Atiku intended to use the outcome of the American suit as part of his appeal at the Supreme Court, he must have been comprehensively disappointed because as he and his lawyers would have found out, his discoveries are of no serious probative but salacious value. Meanwhile, it is doubtful if the apex court not being a court first instance will admit the fresh evidence at this stage of the trial.

Of more importance though is the significance of Akpata’s position. All the issues Atiku went to America to fish for evidence have been in the public space for the political life of Tinubu. They were part of the electioneering of his bid for a second term as governor of Lagos State in 2003. That did not stop him. They were renovated and heavily canvassed when he threw his hat in the ring for the APC primaries, and he prevailed. Then the opposition made heavy weather of them during the presidential electioneering. Again, he subdued his main opponents, Atiku and Peter Obi of the Labour Party.

So, clearly, the people made a conscious decision to have him as their president in spite of these uncomplimentary depositions about his past. Should his traducers and political adversaries not find other things to do with their time and allow him to concentrate on his tasks?

Adebiyi, the executive editor of Western Post, is a member of the Editorial Board of THISDAY Newspapers

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