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.
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