by Reuben Abati
Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives was the Guest Speaker at the 52nd Convocation Ceremony of the University of Lagos, his alma mater, on Monday, January 17, 2022. The theme of the lecture was: “Building Back Better: Creating a New Framework for Tertiary Education in Nigeria in the 21st Century.” The Speaker had a lot to speak about but what has caught public attention is his declaration that the time has come to increase the academic qualification for persons seeking to lead Nigeria either as President or at other levels within the political space: in other words, the President, Governors, and members of the National Assembly. He argues at page 16, of his 22-page published presentation, that just as the National Assembly reduced the minimum age of eligibility for public office, in response to the “Not Too Young To Run Campaign”, there would be a need to also review the mandatory academic qualification for persons aspiring to high offices, in order to enhance the quality of candidates who elect to lead Nigeria. I agree with the Speaker of the House of Representatives. My only concern is that in the face of a yet to be concluded amendment of Nigeria’s Electoral Act, he as Speaker of the Blue Chamber, has not yet raised it on the floor of the Assembly or cause it to be raised, in line with parliamentary procedures. He has chosen the platform of a public speech, and even more surprising is the fact that since he raised the subject, there has been very little attempt to amplify his viewpoint which I think is very relevant to current attempts to deepen Nigeria’s electoral system. My own take is that Gbajabiamila has raised a very fundamental question about Nigeria’s leadership recruitment process. Who should lead Nigeria? Who is best qualified to do so? The Speaker said that current provisions in Section 131 of the 1999 Constitution are no longer relevant in the 21stCentury, and that the limits set therein are too low.
Section 131 of the 1999 Constitution simply says that “a person shall be qualified for election to the office of President if: (a) he is a citizen of Nigerian by birth; (b) he has attained the age of forty years; (c) he is a member of a political party and is sponsored by that political party; and (d) he has been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent.” Section 142 states the same provisions with regard to the office of the Vice President. The same provisions apply to other elected positions except with regard to the age of qualification as indicated in Section 65 (2(a) for candidates seeking election into the National Assembly, Section 106 (c) for the State House of Assembly and Section 187(2) for Governors and Deputy Governors. In section 137, the Constitution outlines the grounds for disqualification. But Gbajabiamila’s concern is about Section 131(d) and the insistence on “School Certificate and its equivalent” in the 21st century. What does this mean exactly, in today’s Nigeria? The answer is provided in Section 318 (1) of the 1999 Constitution, which is the Interpretation Section. Here it is expressly stated that in fact a Primary Six School Leaving Certificate is enough for anybody to aspire to any political office in Nigeria. Even the equivalent of a Primary School Leaving Certificate would be considered good enough. Section 318 defines “school certificate and its equivalent” as (a) secondary school certificate or Grade II Teacher’s Certificate, the City and Guild’s Certificate or (c)Primary School Leaving Certificate or its equivalent and -(i) service in the public or private sector in the Federation in any capacity acceptable to the Independent National Electoral Commission for a minimum of ten years, and (ii) attendance at courses and training in such institutions as may be acceptable to the Independent Electoral Commission for periods totaling up to a minimum of one year, and (iii) the ability to read v, write and understand and communicate in the English language to the satisfaction of the Independent Electoral Commission, and (d) any other qualification acceptable by the Independent National Electoral Commission.
Thus, the Nigerian Constitution has created a liberal and accommodating situation whereby anybody at all can occupy important political positions in the country, and lead a country where the youths and others are some of the most vertically and horizontally educated persons in the world. Nigeria’s educated elite has no problems with education, the problem is that the educated ones run away from politics. When they attempt to be part of it, they are labeled and stigmatized, and so we have a country where the uneducated, the ignorant who have cash in their pockets, influential Godfathers, and the courage to hire social media noisemakers, who are even doubly ignorant, are the ones dictating the country’s pace. Within the purview of the extant law, no Nigerian political aspirant is required to show proof of having passed the School Certificate Examination or its equivalent. An F9 parallel in all subjects is considered perfect, even a concocted testimonial from a primary school or a secondary can take any Nigerian to the highest levels of government. That is even going too far. Some dubious proof of attendance at one or two seminars is enough, once the Electoral Commission says it is okay. In fact a certificate is not even required as we have seen in the case law on the subject. So why should anyone be surprised that half of the people who get elected to the National Assembly simply go there to sleep or that Governor behave like tyrants and that some State Houses of Assembly rarely meet except when money is to be shared?
Gbajabiamila thinks this is not good enough. So, why has he not raised it where it matters? Why is minimum qualification for elective office not one of the issues in the ongoing debate about the Electoral Act Amendment? Going to UNILAG to run his mouth sanctimoniously is hypocritical. Indeed, as he pointed out, and let us help him deodorize the point, Nigeria cannot continue to recruit the uneducated, the ignorant, the sleepy, rambling wing of society to lead it into the future. This of course is not new. Once upon a time in this country, a matter was taken all the way to the Supreme Court over qualifications and the apex Court ruled that the Constitution recognizes something called RSM (whatever that is) as the equivalent of a School Certificate as long as it is acceptable to the Electoral Commission. In another case, when the issues of qualification came up, the Court ruled that a candidate for an election does not even need a certificate. That is how this country has been elevating persons in ishiagu, Babariga and flowing agbada to go and make laws and design policies that they know nothing about. Gbajabiamila as Speaker of the House of Representatives must have seen the danger up close. He presides over a House of Representatives where at least one member has paraded his four wives as an illustration of his male virility and has also had the effrontery of announcing the birth of his 28th child as a major contribution to national progress. Hon. Al Hassan Ado Doguwa, House Majority Leader, is threatening to produce up to 30 children before the next general elections and he wants the Nigerian Government to classify his home as a polling unit if he achieves the feat. Gbajabiamila presided over that session. He turned it all into a joke.
And that is precisely our problem. We think leadership is a Nollywood episode. When the President’s qualification became an issue in the 2019 election, the Nigerian Army showed up in court to make the claim that the Army does not keep the certificates of its recruits. In other parts of the world, former soldiers who have made sacrifice for the country are treated with respect and exemptions may be made for them, but the risk we run which the House of Representatives Speaker may be alluding to is that in the 21st Century, Nigeria may end up electing into high offices persons who may know next to nothing about climate change, global trade, artificial intelligence and the internet of things and they will go abroad and sit with better educated persons and end up disgracing all of us. It is a problem also with the country’s value system. Wealth, no matter how ill-gotten, has become more important than everything else. With the way the aforementioned sections of the Nigerian Constitution are constructed, we may one day elect into office, touts and all kinds of characters who would not be fit enough to represent the country internationally. We elect holders of “school cert or its equivalents” and yet we still worry about the poor attention that is paid to education in Nigeria, the rank anti-intellectualism that pervades the land, and the perpetual conflict between the educated and the monied elite in our land? To be a big man in Nigeria, you only need to attend a seminar and communicate in English, and the English you speak may not even be good enough for you to get an exemption for IETLS from the UK Home Office or for TOEFL from US Education Authorities.
Our argument: as 2023 approaches, is that we cannot afford to elect into positions, persons with “school certificate or its equivalent”. That has to change. Gbajabiamila, even if he has been negligent on the subject is right. We cannot afford to send to international platforms, persons who do not know the difference between foreign exchange and interest rate, or what is called diaspora remittances. The kind of avoidable leadership recruitment crisis that this country has faced so far must come to an end. I am not asking for a collection of certificates. A graduate degree would be enough. The assumption is that a Nigerian graduate would at least have enough sense to read up on what he or she may not know, and ask the relevant questions. But it is not enough to be a graduate also. That graduate must have necessary cognate experience in either the public or private sector. I recommend a minimum of 10 years. A Nigerian university graduate who has been sitting at home doing nothing significant, should not be allowed to suddenly show up to seek high office. That is not what we are talking about. This is not about paper qualification, but a kind of training that guarantees the ability to think. Mexico once insisted on educated economists, Ph. D holders running its system. The 60th President of Mexico (1988 – 1994), Carlos Sarlina de Gortari had a Ph.D from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was an economist and an apostle of free market ideas. Ernesto Zedillo was Mexican President from December 1994 to 30 November 2000. He had a Ph.D in Economics too, but the economy failed under his watch. There was also Enrique Pena Nieto (EPN), the 64th President of Mexico (2012 – 2018) who was sometime down the line accused of plagiarism in his academic thesis. It must also be noted that between 1958 and 1988, every President of Mexico was a law graduate. Their successors were similarly well educated. The eggheads of Mexico did not make much difference. In other words, strong academic qualifications may not make up for such other factors as emotional intelligence, maturity, integrity and character that may be central to the making of a political leader. That notwithstanding, it is certainly not the same when you compare the group of incompetents and strange bedfellows that occupy the policy heights of the Nigerian economy.
We need a new orientation. We need to pay attention to how we recruit leaders in Nigeria. The National Assembly must take a second look, or should have taken another look at Section 131(d) of the 1999 Constitution. Touts speak English. Yes. Thugs have access to school headmasters who can prepare testimonials and affidavits. In Nigeria – yes. The country’s Electoral Commission will accept any “equivalent”. Oh, yes. It is just too easy in Nigeria for anyone to become a major political stakeholder. The bar for legitimate political ascendancy is too low! We are already witnessing that in the traditional institutions where all sorts can wear beaded crowns. Within the larger arena, there must be due respect for minimum standards. The irony is written larger as follows: Under Nigeria’s Public Service Rules, nobody can be recruited as an Administrative Officer (AO) without a university degree or its equivalent, and yet, in the same country, the Constitution says a Primary School Certificate holder is good enough for the highest positions available in politics! Gbajabiamila failed the test when he took his opinion to the 52nd Convocation anniversary of the University of Lagos. He probably did not want to offend his colleagues in the National Assembly whose qualifications he knows cannot be vouched for, many of them don’t have the School Certificate that is the minimum. They can’t even provide the equivalent! And yet these are the same people making laws and taking decisions on behalf of the millions of well-read and capable Nigerians who stay away from Nigerians politics because they don’t want to mix and mingle with a certain Nigerian type with whom you can’t even have a simple conversation on anything. Why are we like this? Is it still possible to save Nigeria’s 2023 from the charlatans?
Is it too late? Nobody knows. The National Assembly has transmitted the re-amended Electoral Act Amendment Bill to President Muhammadu Buhari for his second consideration in accordance with Section 58 (3) of the 1999 Constitution. There are issues about mode of primaries, but there is this other big issue about a political system that recruits persons with “equivalents” in the 21st Century. The persons with “secondary school and its equivalents” are part of the problem with Nigeria.