Justice John Okoro, the Chairman of the Supreme Court panel overseeing appeals against the election of President Bola Tinubu, emphasised the need for Atiku Abubakar, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) standard bearer in the February presidential election, to prove the allegation of certificate forgery against Tinubu beyond a reasonable doubt. His submission came during the hearing of the election petition appeals filed by Atiku and Peter Obi of the Labour Party Monday.
Atiku had filed the appeals seeking to nullify Tinubu’s victory and to substantiate his allegations that Tinubu was not qualified to contest the presidential election due to alleged certificate forgery. In an effort to support his claims, Atiku had requested the Illinois Chicago district court to compel Chicago State University (CSU) to release the president’s academic records.
The former vice president had accused Tinubu of falsifying the CSU diploma for a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration awarded in 1979, which Tinubu submitted to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as part of his credentials.
In his request, Atiku demanded access to a copy of any diploma issued by CSU in 1979, a copy of the diploma the CSU awarded to Tinubu in 1979, and copies of any other diplomas with the same font, seal, signatures, and wording that CSU awarded to other students similar to what Tinubu received in 1979.
Tinubu’s lawyers opposed Atiku’s application, citing privacy concerns but conceding that only the certificate should be released, not other privileged records.
However, the United States court ordered the release of Tinubu’s academic records, which were then submitted as fresh evidence in support of Atiku’s election petition appeal to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
During the Supreme Court hearing, Atiku’s lead counsel, Chris Uche, argued for the admission of Tinubu’s academic records as crucial evidence. He described the issue of Tinubu’s academic records as weighty, grave, and constitutional, urging the Supreme Court to admit the fresh evidence.
“The issue involving Tinubu’s certificate is a weighty, grave, and constitutional one, which the Supreme Court should admit. I urge the court to admit the fresh evidence of President Tinubu’s academic records from CSU presented by Atiku,” said the senior lawyer.
Uche also appealed to the court to consider Tinubu’s records while avoiding undue technicalities, emphasising that, as a policy, the Supreme Court should take a comprehensive view of the evidence.
Nevertheless, Justice Okoro, during the hearing, emphasised that the matter at hand was of a criminal nature and must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. He pointed out that there were two conflicting letters from Chicago State University, with one authenticating the president’s certificate and the other discrediting it.
“This is a criminal matter that has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. There are two conflicting letters from the CSU: one authenticating the president’s certificate and another discrediting it,” Justice Okoro stated.
Justice Emmanuel Agim, another panel member, raised concerns about the depositions that Atiku was seeking to tender as evidence, noting that they were done in the chambers of Atiku’s lawyer, not in the courtroom.
“I expected the college to write, disclaiming the documents in dispute. Does a stenographer have the legal authority to administer oaths? We are dealing with a matter that touches on national interest,” Justice Agim observed.
In response, Uche argued that the depositions were conducted in the presence of Tinubu’s US lawyers, emphasising that there was no dispute regarding their validity.
Akin Olujinmi, the counsel to the All Progressives Congress (APC), urged the court not to admit the fresh documents, asserting that Atiku should not be allowed to introduce documents that were not presented at the tribunal.
“You cannot smuggle a document into the Supreme Court without first tendering the same at the trial court. The appeal is misconceived and lacks merit. It should be outright dismissed,” Olujinmi stated.
Wole Olanipekun, the lawyer representing President Tinubu, similarly urged the court not to admit the fresh documents, pointing out that INEC was not a party to the matter.
“The depositions are not admissible in the USA. It is akin to deposition, which we have in Nigeria. The deposition was not done in court, and INEC was not a party to it. The deposition must be adopted by the individual who deposed to it before it can be admitted as evidence before the court,” Olanipekun reasoned.
Olanipekun also emphasised that the 180-day timeline stipulated for the conclusion of election petition cases should not be altered, describing it as a rock-solid rule.
The counsel for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Abubakar Mahmoud, requested the court interpret Section 285 of the constitution and urged the court to dismiss the appeal.