• Monday, July 22, 2024
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Certificate forgery and victims of own craft

Okoi Obono-Obla

Since the return of the country to civil rule, a number of politicians has been accused of altering their academic certificates and found their way to undeserved positions in the country. For this, many have bit the dust as they were either forced to resign their positions or were hindered from assuming the offices they were being considered for.

The story of certificate forgery in this dispensation started in 1999 with the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Salisu Buhari. The speaker was caught-in-the-web of a scandal when his claim of attending Toronto University in Canada turned out to be false.

His forgery also extended to his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) certificate, where it was also discovered that the place he claimed he completed his National Youth Service- Standard Construction in Kano- was also not true as his name could not be found on any record on the list of those who completed the scheme.

Buhari was exposed by a news magazine, which then ran with the headline ‘The face of a liar’ with Buhari’s bold picture, which drew public attention to the scandal. He also lied about his age, claiming he was born in 1963, when his real year of birth was 1970.

After investigations, Buhari was found wanting for forgery and he was forced to resign. He was convicted for certificate forgery and sentenced to two years in prison with an option of fine. He paid the fine. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo later granted him state pardon. That perhaps, ended his political career after presiding as speaker for just six weeks.

The next prominent high office holder, who resigned from office on account of forgery, was former Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun. The UK-trained investment banker was enmeshed in the scandal of a forged certificate over the mandatory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme for Nigerian graduates.

Adeosun, who claimed she was 34 at the time she finished her college in the UK and therefore, not qualified to serve having passed 30, the age limit, procured an exemption certificate. After investigation, the certificate turned out to be forged.

She was then forced to resign from office and facing imminent pressure of prosecution, she left Nigeria for the UK in September 2018. The dual Nigerian and British national, who was appointed minister in 2015, was exposed by a popular online media platform.

Before leaving, she issued a statement, saying she felt bound to resign after the investigation, saying, “This has come as a shock to me and I believe that in line with this administration’s focus on integrity, I must do the honourable thing and resign,” she said.

In August 14, 2019, news filtered in that President Muhammadu Buhari has suspended the Chairman, Special Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, Okoi Obono-Obla,“with immediate effect”.

In a letter dated Wednesday, August 14, 2019 and signed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, Obono-Obla was accused of “falsification of records and financial impropriety”.

A House of Representatives ad-hoc panel, had after its investigation found Obono-Obla guilty of using forged West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) certificate to gain admission to study Law at the University of Jos. WAEC later confirmed his certificate forgery.

The President took action against Obono-Obla after the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) also found him guilty of impropriety. Facing prosecution, Obono-Obla, who risked being jailed, allegedly fled Nigeria to the UK.

On Thursday, February 13, the Supreme Court nullified the election of Bayelsa State Governor-elect, David Lyon of the All Progressives Congress (APC) just 24 hours to his inauguration.

A five-member panel of the Supreme Court led by Justice Mary Odili sacked Lyon on the grounds that his deputy, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo presented false information to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in the run up to the November 16 governorship election in the state.

The Supreme Court ruling was in consonance with an earlier ruling of the high court on the matter. The apex court therefore, ordered INEC to withdraw the certificate of return issued to Lyon and Degi-Eremienyo.

INEC was also ordered by the court to immediately declare the party with the highest number of lawful votes and geographical spread. The candidate of the PDP, Diri Duoye, became the beneficiary and he has since been sworn-in as governor of Bayelsa State.

The above scenarios speak of desperation to acquire power and influence at all cost, which has affected the moral compass of the nation and question its norms and values.

Speaking to BDSUNDAY, public affairs analyst, Majeed Dahiru, said the situation is disturbing, describing it as an “absolute flight of  morality in the polity”, which is a consequence of desperation to acquire power and influence at all cost.

“Since the return to democracy 20 years ago, Nigerians have seen a continuous deterioration of their political process into a criminal franchise of power grab for self service at all cost and morality appears to have taken flights in everything we are doing in this country.

“Immorality pervades the entire country and that is why we are not even able to implement our laws. In fact, the executive is not able to execute any law neither is the judiciary able to interpret the law in line with the morality of the rule of law because the law was crafted to safeguard morality and so when a system is devoid of morality, it becomes dysfunctional,” Dahiru said.

In the case of the political parties allegedly involved in certificate forgery, Majeed said, the political parties are actually mandated to carry out screening on their own to make sure they present the possible candidate that has gone through the crucial test of integrity before presenting them to the public for elections.

“So, it is a chronic failure on the part of the political parties that they present for election candidates that have questionable character as seen in the rampant cases of certificate forgery. So, if a political party and a ruling one for that matter which mantra of change is anti-corruption thrust can now be caught not in one instance, not in two instances but in many instances, presenting candidates with questionable certificates, it tells you how much immorality has pervaded the polity,” he added

On September 15, 2010, a family was at the Murtala International Airport Lagos to bid farewell to their son who was traveling to Spain for football trail with a Spanish second division club.

Happy to see the aspiring international footballer make his way through the immigration and security posts for boarding, the family left praising God for the beginning of a journey that would change their fortune and life for good.

Sadly, after several hours, the young man did not call from Spain, but from Panti Police station in Yaba, Lagos, where he was detained for travelling with fake Spanish visa, and travel insurance.

The father could not drive to the police station to see him because he suspected that his driver’s licence was fake, having been delivered by same contact that arranged fake travel documents to his innocent son.

The unfortunate young man was among the thousands of victims who fell for the scam of document forgers at Oluwole Market, a once notorious hub for anything bad on Lagos Island, especially fake documents.

Also, a police division in Abuja almost could not detect genuine work identity cards when some hoodlums who were parading as police officers were caught last year in Apo Village, all because of the fake identity card that was creatively done by the ingenious forgers.

Moreover, employers of labour are getting all manner of certificates from job seekers now, especially foreign certificates, which seem to get more attention than first class degree certificates from Nigerian universities.

The preference has given rise to certificate forgery across all levels of educational qualifications.

“My friend graduated from a university in the Philippines and he got a good job based on that certificate, which I don’t think is foreign enough.  But he was thrown out of the job four months later when his manager discovered he could not deliver on the skills he was employed for,” Susan Akpan, a hotel auditor, said.

The auditor later made inquiry and discovered that her friend was in jail for many years in Malaysia and decided to get a forged degree certificate to make up for the years he claimed to be in school over there.

There are many who jet out of the country and return years later with forged certificates. But the intrigue for the likes of Akpan is that the employers here hardly verify the authenticity of certificates whether foreign or local.

But for those who cannot afford to travel for fake foreign certificates, there are more ingenious document forgers in the country to help.

From fake degree certificates, international passports, visas, drivers licence, receipts, contract papers, land documents to sensitive government seals, there is no document people under pressure, those who want shortcuts and many with criminal intent cannot get at Oluwole, Old Market Road, Onitsha and many other hot spots for fake documents across the country.

Probably, it was in one of those ingenious forgers that helped Kemi Adeosun, with the fake NYSC certificate, which saw her resigning from her exalted position when the heat was overbearing for her.

As well, same people forged University of Jos certificate for Ibrahim Hassan, a Plateau State lawmaker, who was sacked later when Musa Kurya, the judge declared that there was no proof that the diploma submitted to INEC by Hassan was genuinely obtained from the University of Jos.

Sometime ago, Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo, a senator, was  issued a bench warrant by a Lugbe Grade 1 Area Court, Abuja for alleged failure to honour a summon on a suit accusing him of presenting a forged NYSC Exemption Certificate.

Are regular certificate screening exercises just a waste of time?

In a country where public office holders are made to pass through several screening processes, one wonders how those parading forged certificates were not caught.

Pascal Emeh, a forensic lawyer, noted that the security operatives that conduct the screenings are often not aware of the fake certificates as they are given guidelines on what to check and how to check them.

“So, if the guideline does not support making inquiry from the schools, nobody will dare make effort to find out because it may involve logistics, which government may not be funding,” he said.

He suggested that same scenario happened in Kemi Adeosun’s case because she had used the certificate to pass a screening test for her appointment as commissioner for finance in Ogun State where she was screened.

He also noted that some of the culprits are not discovered on time because they may be enjoying the protection of a godfather until when such powers clash with another political interest or bloc.

“The day a man declares interest for a political position, same day his detractors will start digging out his past to see if there are things to hold him back, especially if they think he is a better candidate. If you are seen as opposing the powers, they may dig into your past as well and things that did not matter before will become a big sin like in Kemi Adeosun’s case. One wonders where the godfathers were when she was being ‘persecuted’”, Emeh stated.

Certificate forgery as an economic sabotage

Declaring certificate forgery as an economic sabotage, Ademola Ogunu, a financial expert, said that certificate forgers have always had it good when they are caught.

“They should be made to pay back all money and entitlements they got while occupying positions with forged certificates. It is sad that Salisu Buhari paid fine and was later pardoned by Olusegun Obasanjo, former president. He is even rumored to have been appointed on a federal board. Why will others not do same?” he decried.

Going by Ogunu’s line of thought, certificate forgers should in addition to going to prison, be made to pay back all money they earned while illegally occupying positions in order to serve as a deterrent to others.

He thinks that that money would have paid for one or two constituency projects; lift some youths from unemployment and impacted the people than the illegal earners.

“There is no way Salisu Buhari did not make at least N200 million as speaker; that money can get three good primary schools and a hospital in his constituency. But he is enjoying his fraud and others are using him as example to continue occupying positions with fake certificates until when they are caught and pardoned later,” he said.

From ‘Oluwole’ to photo-shopping

But apart from certificate, the game of forgery is changing every day making forgery more difficult. For instance, with the digitised and more secured Nigerian passport imbedded with hidden chips, finger prints and facial captures, forgers are finding it difficult to produce fake ones.

As well, fake visas are becoming a thing of the past with high-tech employed by embassies and visa on arrival policy that is gaining ground.

Truly, the game is fast changing now with technology. But forgers know this and are also updating their skills. Instead of the usual shanty shops, makeshift buildings and hideouts, forgers now stay anywhere including corporate offices and their houses to carry on with their nefarious activities.

With indesign skills, high-tech scanners, apps like photoshop, seal imprints and desktop computer, forgers can virtually design any document from the most secured bank cheque, travel documents, certificate of occupancy, payment receipts and to the best university degree certificates.

The intrigue of document forgery is that it is prevalent across all sphere in life the country; from a parent in the village presenting fake state of origin certificate to get his son in Nigerian Defence Academy; land owner presenting 1970 receipt in order to pay less for his Certificate of Occupancy, to a senator who has been in the Senate for a third term with fake university degree or NYSC certificate.

The perpetrators are hiding under unemployment to continue in their nefarious activities. Even when there is job, there are people who will always want the shortcut to anything and document forgers are more than willing to help them.

 

 Obinna Emelike (Lagos) and Innocent Odoh (Abuja)