By Ebere Okonkwo FCIS
In most societies in the large swap of space called Nigeria, there is usually the adage, that has the equivalent meaning of, “if you asked, you will be told” in most of those societies, the adage is used to limit the damaging impact of rumours, half-truths, and in unfortunate cases, reckless statements made in complete ignorance of the true position of things. Most African societies long practised the principles of Natural Justice which include the concept of having complete and total knowledge of facts of an issue before passing judgment or making reckless statements.
It is from the above, sound, and healthy social prism that one must view the latest outburst on the person of Senator Biobarakuma Degi Eremienyo, a distinguished senator representing the good people of Bayelsa East at the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, by one Alhaji Awo Harmony who was described as an activist and Ex militant. In truth both the faceless author and the Ogbia justice Freedom Movement he claims to represent, have been found to be non–existent. Once again Senator Degi has to face malignant forces who would rather remain anonymous than face up to the truth and be guided in the direction of reality and justice.
Despite the anonymity of the originator of the article, it is important to state that this piece does not set out to throw equal invectives at the authors, but in the spirit of good relations for which the Ogbia people and indeed the people of Bayelsa are known, to explain the true position of things to avoid the purveying of half-truths and in some cases ignorant positions as far as the Person of Distinguished Senator Degi is concerned.
It is of course true that the Supreme Court in its decision of 13th February 2020 confirmed the decision of the Federal High Court delivered by Justice Inyang Ekwo disqualifying the candidacy of the APC Governorship Team on the grounds that the Senator Degi made a false statement to the Electoral Body by reason of the submission of academic certificates bearing differences in the names written on them. The decision which in the opinion of this writer is flawed failed to address the issue of the genuineness of the documents, whether they were forged, and whether Senator Degi had falsified those documents.
The decision was curiously dismissive of the efforts made by the Senator’s team to call evidence to show that all those academic documents were duly issued to him for the stated attainments and by the right awarding or issuing authorities, the spelling errors in his name notwithstanding.
All these questions could have been truly tried by evidence, especially where, not only the political future of an individual is in question, but where also the destiny of an entire state, the will of the people, who voted overwhelmingly for a party and candidates of their choice was in issue.
The decision of the Federal High Court, which was confirmed by the supreme court, was also not rooted in or accommodating of social realities. In truth, investigations and social experiments have shown that the misspelling of names in academic certificates especially in the milieu and generation to which Senator Degi belongs is rife and commonplace. In truth, pronunciation intonation bears a large part of the blame for such errors. More so, at the relevant time in issue, what was the level of data and information accuracy obtainable in local communities in Nigeria at the time? A more compelling question is whether the courts should be blind to these realities and therefore be complicit in making it fatal for both an individual and a whole state?
Bayelsa unfortunately was not the first where misapplication of law and evidence will result in manifest injustice to a people or to an individual. Imo State was another case where technical considerations were unduly elevated resulting in an unjust outcome for both the people and an individual. Imo state people while accepting the judgment of the court are not however trying their best to inflict more pain on the individual involved but have learnt to be their brother’s keeper in assuaging the feelings of a man who has been treated unjustly. They have not failed to remind the government of the day that they are a product of a judicial decision and not the will of the people. Bayelsa East people and the kinsmen of Senator Degi, whom he has nonetheless served faithfully and meritoriously in the Senate, should be able to make a similar distinction between wheat and Chaff.
On his part, Senator Degi has also not accepted the unjust and false conclusions of the judiciary on his person. Various actions have been filed against him to rely on the unjust decision against him to remove him from the Senate and to destroy his journey of principled public service to his people.
One of such cases was filed at the FCT High court by a person purporting to represent the good people of Bayelsa East Senatorial Zone, sponsored by a faceless group that called themselves the Bayelsa Integrity Group. That action was filed to compel the Inspector General of Police to commence Criminal Proceedings against the Senator for forgery, given the outcome of the judgement of the supreme court.
The group had earlier petitioned the inspector General of police but while the investigation ordered by the IG was ongoing, the group desperately rushed off to the FCT High Court to commence the action. The investigation report of the IG’s team which was tendered in court was to the effect that the certificates in issue which were submitted to INEC were duly issued to Senator Degi and the discrepancies were spelling errors which were acknowledged by the issuing authorities.
During the actual proceedings, in which the court was called upon to determine if the Senator had forged those documents and was, therefore, subject to have criminal proceedings against him, more than a dozen witnesses were called, from officials of the school in Bassambiri in Ogbia, the Secondary school in Ogbia, WAEC office in Abuja, INEC office, Rivers State University of Technology, NYSC office Abuja and even living school and classmates of Senator Degi, who testified to the veracity of the person of the Senator and also to the genuineness of the Certificates, the spelling errors in them notwithstanding.
Key evidence tendered in court which the Federal High Court of Justice Inyang Ekwo did not allow to be brought in by calling for a proper trial, included, attendance registers from 1974 -76 of the State School Bassambiri, and the WAEC Photo Album in which not only the mix up in the name was properly identified but also in which the identity of Senator Degi was established by photo Evidence. Letters from the supreme court confirming the identity of the Notary Public before whom the affidavits of correction of names were deposed, were tendered
After a highly technical and deservingly robust trial, the court found the certificates to be genuine and duly issued to Senator Degi. The case by the Bayelsa Integrity Group was dismissed as they failed to establish the Forgery on which their case was based.
It must be noted that the Supreme Court has gradually begun to correct the hasty decisions in which discrepancies in the name and certificates of a candidate were treated unwaveringly as proof of fraud, falsification and forgery exemplified in the Senator Degi’s case. As we know the courts are human and therefore fallible. In the case of Senator Frank Ibezim of Imo North Senatorial District, which is on all fours with the Senator Degi case, the Supreme court in a very circumspect decision held that discrepancies simplicity, cannot establish forgery, falsification, and fraud, but that any court called upon to determine such cases ought to call evidence as such weighty allegations are inappropriate to be tried by Originating summons.
The import of the decision in the IBEZIM’s case is that there is unspoken remorse in the way the Degi matter was decided.
It is for the above reasons that any discerning person should know that in view of the existence of an evidenced-based judgement of a court of competent jurisdiction, holding that Senator Degi’s academic documents are genuine, the attempts to besmirch his person and portray him as a document forger are unwarranted, legally unsustainable, constitutionally untenable and will soon become actionable. If there are other cogent reasons for denying Senator Degi participation in the electoral process, it should not be for the already judicially settled matter of the genuineness of his academic credentials. The FCT high court has put it beyond peradventure.
Additionally, it must be noted that the disqualification from participating in an election into the Senate is a constitutional matter and should be treated delicately. Where a person is unduly excluded from an electoral process because of a non-existent ground, it could raise a cause of legal action that may jeopardize that process. Section 66 (1) (i) of the constitution is the extant provision in respect of the matter in issue. It provides that a person shall be disqualified in a particular election if he has in that election submitted a forged certificate to INEC. By the tenor of that section of the constitution, there is nothing in that section that presupposes a permanent bar from participating in another election.
This argument is even reinforced by the fact that where the constitution envisages a bar, it clearly imposed it as it did in Section 66(1)(d) which provides for a ten-year bar for a person convicted of a criminal offence.
The first question therefore is, did Senator Degi submit a forged certificate to INEC? In both the Federal High Court and the Supreme court, the question of Forgery of the certificates was totally avoided and the courts focused on falsification or the making of a false statement in the INEC forms, based on the discrepancies or spelling errors in the names on the certificates. The only court that has pronounced on the genuineness of Senator Degi’s certificates (as against their being forged) is the FCT high court and its finding is that they are genuine, and we know that appellate courts usually do not derogate or depart from extensive findings of fact by the lower court. What makes this more compelling is that the trial was by writ of Summons and extensive, contrasting sharply with the procedure adopted by the Federal High Court presided over by Justice Inyang Ekwo. We believe that had Justice Ekwo, called for the trial of those criminal elements, he would inexorably have come to the same conclusions as the FCT high court.
The second question to answer is whether Senator Degi has been convicted by any court of law, to warrant a constitutional bar on his participation in the coming electoral process? The answer to that is negative. There is therefore no basis for imposing a bar where the constitution has imposed none. Other than these legal issues, the question of Zoning is one of electoral and community considerations. Bayelsa East people are entitled to decide whether one good term deserves another, and it will be unconscionable to try to truncate the will of the people by citing nonexistent legal limitations.
Finally, the Federal High court and the supreme court held that had Senator Degi presented a Deed Poll rather than an affidavit of correction from a notary public, the misspellings on the certificates would have been held as corrected. Assuming without conceding that the misspelling of the names in the certificates presented the Federal High court and the supreme court with a difficult situation in respect of those certificates, because of the use of an affidavit of correction of the name rather than a deed poll, the challenge is one of form not of substance. Yet that decision applies only to the governorship election and not to any other past or future election.
At any rate, the deed poll from the supreme court correcting those errors in the names as laid down by the Supreme Court in those cases has been effected and was tendered in evidence at the FCT High Court, and all questions as to the genuineness of the certificates have now been both judicially and administratively settled.
This piece, therefore, serves to fulfil the traditional requirement that when proper, truthful, and more current and compelling information becomes available, there is a need for adjustment of our previously held positions. It is hoped that the Ogbia people and indeed the Bayelsa people will do what closely-knit kinsmen do, stand for justice, and defend their own against the unfortunate and unjust judicial damage done to Senator Degi and the People of Bayelsa in general. We have no doubts that they will adjust in the face of the truth.
Ebere Okonkwo FCIS is a legal practitioner and Governance Expert and writes from Abuja.