Essays / The Pontifical Papers

ON CERTIFICATED PRESIDENTS | A Short Legal Study by Ayo Sogunro

A persistently irritating headline in Nigeria’s political news today rotates around the high school certification or otherwise of General Muhammad Buhari. This is not only a distraction from the relevant issues and questions, but it is also a debate brought about by a totally arbitrary and irrelevant insertion during the drafting of the 1999 Constitution.

Sometimes, a little history helps to put things in proper perspective. So, here’s a short study in Nigerian constitutional history.

1n 1963, the requirements for becoming the President of Nigeria were fairly simple. All you had to show was that:

(a) you are a citizen of Nigeria who has attained the age of forty years; and
(b) generally, you are not disqualified as a lunatic, a bankrupt, jailbird or similar situations.

If we ignore the reliability of the lunacy bit, this was a provision sufficient enough to accommodate the needs of the founding fathers of Nigeria. And they happily continued with their other wranglings until the youthful military called “Game Over” in 1966.

Fast forward to 1979 when then General Obasanjo arranged to give us another go at a constitutionally guided government, the drafters of the new constitution decided to keep things short and even simpler. And so, in 1979, to become the president, all you had to show was that:

(a) you are a citizen of Nigeria by birth;  and
(b) you have attained the age of 35 years.

So, in 1979, you had to be not just a Nigerian citizen, but a citizen by birth—which was good for that strongly anti-neocolonialism era. The reduction of the age requirement was also not surprising considering that, up to that time, Nigerian leaders were relatively young people. Balewa was 48 when he took office, Ironsi was 42, Gowon was 32, Murtala was 37 and Obasanjo himself was 38 when power fell to him in 1976.

And so, democracy started afresh, until Buhari, ironically, interrupted the flow and restarted the cycle which has led to the current requirements of the 1999 Constitution.

When we reset in 1999, the ante for presidency was upped, and a fair amount of Nigerians were suddenly disqualified—somewhat arbitrarily. To become a Nigerian president today, you have to show that:

(a)  you are a citizen of Nigeria by birth;
(b) you have attained the age of forty years;
(c) you are a member of a political party and you are sponsored by that political party; and
(d) you have been educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent.

The judiciousness or otherwise of the age increment aside, the additional two new requirements of political partisanship and formal education have no credible bearing on the caliber or quality of a potential Nigerian president. Instead, the current requirements unnecessarily disqualify non-partisan Nigerians and successful Nigerians who, intentionally or by fluke of circumstance, skipped the formal education process.

Now, here’s the problem: while it is difficult to say that Nigerians have little political passion, it is more arguable to state that Nigerians have little political thought. This is why so much energy and so little thinking has been displayed in the continued debate over the existence or otherwise of General Buhari’s “School Certificate”.

First, the 1999 Constitution makes the “School Certificate or its equivalent” (the term is laboriously defined in the interpretation section) a minimum requirement, therefore overshadowing its status by the possession of demonstrably higher levels of certifications. If Buhari has higher certifications, then fine and case closed.

Second, and more importantly, this provision is an arbitrary constitutional requirement whose relevance we should question in the first place. Why should a formal schooling certificate be a requirement to run the country? If this was a sensible provision then why stop there? Why not let’s go for maximum impact and request a university degree? Or even a post-graduate degree.

But, of course not.

Consequently, the existence of this kind of nonsensical provision in the 1999 Constitution is what leads to the kind of nonsensical debate it is currently generating in Nigeria. The only worthwhile debate around that provision should be how soon we can have it deleted from the 1999 Constitution.

Buhari vs Jonathan aside, at the end of the day, it is more advantageous for us to have an experienced but non-formally educated pragmatist, than an inefficient but universally-certificated dumbass.


Ayo Sogunro is the author of Everything in Nigeria is Going to Kill You. A lawyer by profession, he also indulges in socio-legal philosophy on this blog. Interact with him on Twitter via @ayosogunro.

Meanwhile, for those keen on discussing serious issues, follow @funmilola on twitter and the #NigeriansAsk #Qs4GEJ and #Qs4GMB tags on social media. Visit the NigeriansAsk website for more information.


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17 thoughts on “ON CERTIFICATED PRESIDENTS | A Short Legal Study by Ayo Sogunro

  1. This just brings an end to the raging controversy going on right now. My flaw with this article is with this assertion – “until Buhari, ironically, interrupted the flow and restarted the cycle which has led to the current requirements of the 1999 Constitution.” – you should know that Buhari didn’t take part in the overthrow of the shagari admin and was selectively chosen to head the govt after the coup over Babaginda and others.


  2. This piece expresses my sentiments profoundly, and I doff my hat to you for stating the issues so explicitly and coherently.

    I have just one small input. Though I must forewarn that reality has made this point superfluous and almost moot.

    The new requirement in the Constitution of partisanship, as much as it has precluded non-partisan prospective candidates which should be contested in a court and have deleted or modified, might have been imputed to also ensure credible and quality candidates, as agreed to by majority of a party’s members, run for the exalted office of President.

    Isn’t that a possibility? But as I said earlier, our reality has almost rendered this point moot.


  3. I think the phrase “School Certificate OR ITS EQUIVALENT” has been largely ignored. The word “equivalent” is omnibus and can be interpreted to cover some form of informal education in which knowledge was gained.


  4. Your prejudices are obvious, if the constitution is to be amended we both know the process through which that can be achieved. In any event if the constitution says ‘a secondary school certificate or its equivalent’ then a higher level of certification if indeed possessed by Buhari may suffice but till date what we have is an affidavit and it is my humble opinion that the moment the military proclaimed unequivocally that they were not in possession of Mr. Buhari’s WASC, WAEC or what not he automatically became a perjurer.


  5. Small observation: the President in the first Republic was Head of State, not Prime Minister. Largely ceremonial, it my go to why it required an age older than the 35 years that its requirement was initial reduced to in 1979; and also the lack of educational qualification.
    I believe that some education is required for an executive position, and that may be the thinking that allows for the “or its equivalent” phrase in the law. Some leeway into allowing for other forms of certificated education.
    For the record, I agree with all other points raised by Ayo Sogunro. Buhari’s education is what I hear lawyers call a “Notorious fact”. It is public knowledge that he was in the officer corps of the Nigerian army. It is public knowledge that he is educated beyond secondary school certificate. And all this “controversy” did was divert attention away from what was the real issue of the election, that it is a referendum on GEJ’s performance over the last 5+ years.


  6. I think everyone should take time out to read, literally, the definition of ‘school certificate or its equivalent’ in the interpretation section of the constitution instead of just forming funny opinions. I do have to say that I have been waiting for Ayodele’s take on this. Refreshing, as usual.


  7. We tend to forget that waec, ssce or its equivalence is a prerequisite for other higher certificates. It will only be unreasonable to accept a higher certificate if it is established that a person does not have a senior school cert. Politicians are dirty logicians. Their fight is to establish that Gmb does not have a school cert and without which any presentation of a higher cert is nullified.


  8. Pingback: YOU’RE STILL ON CERTIFICATES, EH? YOU HAVE NO EFFIN’ CLUE! | The Pontifical Papers

  9. Choi!!! >>>> “Buhari vs Jonathan aside, at the end of the day, it is more advantageous for us to have an experienced but non-formally educated pragmatist, than an inefficient but universally-certificated dumbass.”.


  10. Dear Ayo:

    Thank you for making all the points that, I believe, should not only negate the distraction from the very serious national issues that we face, but guide our thinking on the same, for the future.

    While I will not be party to any contention that seeks to ignore or overlook a constitutional electoral requirement, I believe that this issue should have been addressed already, so that we can best determine who will provide the leadership and vision that will best take us past Boko Haram atrocities, infrastructure failure, the looming economic adversity caused by the drop in oil prices, endemic corruption, a failing or failed educational system, etc.

    While I agree with the pragmatism of a party framework for a presidential aspirant, as put forward by a previous poster, I believe that the current mess that is party politics argues for independent candidacy. I suspect that Nigerians would love for an expanded pool of presidential candidates, beyond the choices that we currently have. In addition, it would allow for all of the decent and qualified people, who have so far stayed out of politics, because of the nightmare and expense of party politics, to be able to pursue their political aspirations on a platform of populist sentiments and the related resources.



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