The issue of competence is a hotly contested issue. In every spectrum of human endeavour, there are offices or posts designated for persons who possess a certain level of competence, the lack of which dispossesses or threatens the assumption of such posts. In the days of yore, competence to rule varied from consanguineous blood lines of rulers to the possession of combat skill, oratory finesse, and so on. However, the modern day system of ruler ship has since tolled a different line. Democracy has replaced the tedious systems with a system that gradually revolves round fairness, with freedom as its fulcrum. In Nigeria, the competence of leaders in political offices has been a nagging headache, arousing litigious practitioners to seek declarations in court of law, hence the focus of this disquisition.
President Buhari of Nigeria has a suit against him filed by an Abuja-based legal practitioner, Mr. Nnamdi Nwokocha-Ahaaiwe, challenging the competence of the president to rule in that capacity. Nwokocha-Ahaaiwe had alleged that Buhari was unqualified to aspire to the Office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria because he did not sit for the Cambridge West African School Certificate WASC) in 1961 as he claimed and as such breached the provisions of the constitution relating to the qualifications required to run for the position of President. President Buhari has also been alleged by same plaintiff Lawyer of perjury on the grounds that he told a lie when asked whether he had the WASC certificate. Quite astutely, Mr. Nnamdi relies on Section 131 of the Constitution of Nigeria, 1999 and the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2010. The questions many have asked in this regard is whether it is constitutional for him to run the office of president without a Secondary School Certificate. Now, this claim against Buhari will be addressed accordingly.
First of all, it must be understood that the Law works like mathematics. Laws, especially Statute laws are applied like formulae with mathematical exactitude. When certain steps are not followed, the result is egregious. In this regard, the constitution has set out the qualifications for Presidency under Section 131 CFRN 1999. That section provides that to qualify for presidency the aspirant “must (a) be a citizen of Nigeria by birth (b) have attained the age of 40 years (c) belong to a political party and must be sponsored by that party (d) be educated up to at least School certificate level or its equivalents”.
President Buhari’s worry falls under Section 131 (1) (d) CFRN,1999 which talks about School Leaving certificate. The lay interpretation of that sub section means that a president must have school leaving certificate which translates to contemporarily mean either WAEC, WASC, NECO, NABTEB, GCE certificates to evince that he was educated up to secondary school level. This law is beautiful, at least it grants the average Nigerian the opportunity to become a President without having to be denied on the grounds of not attaining a degree from a University. It is arguable that this provision is an undoing but that’s a topic for another day.
A closer look at Section 131(d) seems to have a far-reaching interpretation. The sub section says that the president may not have a School leaving Certificate (in this case which is the WASC Certificate that Buhari is said not to possess) but if he has “its equivalents” he can become a president. Now, what then are the equivalents of such a certificate which many have considered to be the lowest ebb the constitution can grant to all and sundry, an attempt otherwise would mean to ridicule and frustrate the idea of tertiary education?
The Equivalents of a School leaving Certificate are provided for in the same Constitution of Nigeria under the interpretation section being Section 316. The constitution carefully interpretes that “Its Equivalents” as used under section 316 (d) CFRN 1999, are “(a) a Secondary School Certificate or its equivalent of Grade II Teacher’s Certificate, the City and Guilds Certificate; or (b) education up to secondary School Certificate level; or (c) Primary Six School Certificate or its equivalent and (i) service in the public or private sector in the federation in any capacity acceptable to the INEC for a minimum of ten years, and (ii) attendance at courses and trainings in such institutions as may be acceptable to the INEC for a period totalling up to a minimum of One year, and (iii) the ability to read, write, understand and communicate in the English Language to the satisfaction of the INEC” This shows that service as a military officer for the country for no less than 10 years or even the ability to read, write and understand English Language suffices as an equivalent to the School Leaving certificate required under Section 131 (d) CFRN, 1999.
As mentioned earlier, law works with mathematical exactitude. The logic of applying the almighty formula to solve mathematical problems of a quadratic fashion, is applied likewise in law. The broad interpretation given by Section 318 of the Constitution to the term “its equivalents” mentioned in section 131(d) must be weaved into a unified whole. The outcome of such a beautiful tethering of both sections becomes the answer to Buhari’s spot of bother. Common sense already shows that President Buhari doesn’t necessarily have to possess the WASC CERTIFICATE which he is alleged of not having in his peaceable possession, all he needs to have is whatever suffices as an equivalent of the WASC Certificate as provided under the constitution. Under Section 318, It is said that the ability to read and write English Language in a manner deemed sufficient by INEC is an equivalent. No doubt the President can speak English Language in the sufficiency and appreciation of ordinary men of prudence in the society. That is all that matters. In Haske v. Magaji (2009) ALL FWLR (pt. 461) 887, the 1st respondent was declared as the winner of the sokoto state house of assembly elections. Aggrieved by the result, the appellant filed an action challenging the declaration of the 1st respondent as winner on the grounds that he was not educated to at least Secondary School Certificate level or its equivalent. The court of appeal in this case held that “the meaning of definition of School Leaving certificate or its equivalent and contained under Section 318 CFRN, 1999, can accommodate candidates who woefully failed in their bid to obtain a West African School Certificate. In essence, a candidate need not to have obtained the Secondary school certificate rather it is sufficient that such a person has attended a school and read or studied up to that level without obtaining a certificate or can speak and understand English Language satisfactorily”
Governor Oshiomhole was encumbered by the same problem as against his rival, Airhiavbere years back. It was in doubt whether he was qualified to be the Governor of Edo State given that his ambition was not traceable to any valid School Certificate. However, this same interpretation was given in his favour. As a man who can speak English Language with verve, it suffices as a valid equivalent to the presentation of any School leaving Certificate.
Another issue is the inconsistency of the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010 and the Constitution. The Electoral Act has provided similar qualifications such as those provided for in section 131 of the CFRN 1999. However, Section 156, interpretation section of the Electoral Act, did not interpret what the phrase “its equivalent” means. It suffices in this regard that the constitution enjoys supremacy over the provisions of the Electoral Act. The Electoral Act is a legislation of the National Assembly and made pursuant to the constitution of Nigeria. When an act is inconsistent with the express provisions of the constitution, the section that is inconsistent with the constitution is void and inapplicable. Section 1(3) of the constitution provides that “if any law is inconsistent with the constitution, the constitution shall prevail and that other Law shall, to the extent of its inconsistency, be void”. Thankfully, the scope of the Doctrine of Covering the field as it reflected in Attorney General of Abia State v. Attorney General of Federation(2001) 11 NWLR (pt. 725) 689 at 728; has been, in extenso, interpreted to mean that when the constitution has abundantly provided for a particular matter, any other Law which varies from that which the constitution has provided is void. It means therefore that the Electoral Act cannot be invoked against President Buhari when the constitution has interpreted the combined sections of 131(d) and 318 of the constitution to mean that the president is validly qualified and competent to hold office.
Lastly, it must be stated that the suit filed against Buhari contained allegations of Perjury as presented in the amended statement of claim before the house. This is disquieting because Perjury is a crime envisaged under Section 117 of the criminal Code of Nigeria, and as a crime, only actionable by the state, represented by the Attorney General. If indeed the president perjured, the proper person that has the locus Standi to sue is the Federal Government and such a suit can only arise after the president leaves office and not during the currency of his office because he enjoys immunity against Civil and Criminal proceedings pursuant to Section 308 of the constitution of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).
It is good law that a person must not amass a glut of certificates before he is qualified to rule. Competence to rule no doubt has to be praiseworthy but must not be hinged on educational qualifications. For the rich, education may be a doddle, but for the poor sometimes, even secondary school education is like carrying owls to Athens; a rather difficult exercise. Against this backdrop, the law is commendable and it is in favour of his excellency, the president to rule without encumbrance of any sort relating back to the educational qualifications he possessed of possesses. Section 131(d) of the constitution may be pedestrian and known to lawyers, and students of Law alike. However, it is not a cut-throat provision because a better interpretation is produced by Section 318 of the constitution. We must all advert our minds to the entire provisions of the constitution with regard to a particular issue. President Buhari validly remains as president whether or not he has a WASC Certificate. Do not peddle ignorance. Those burdened by sentiments may wail but the law is the law.
DESTINY OSAYI OGEDEGBE.