All eyes will next week be on US District Judge, Nancy Maldonado as she considers what seems a complex political legal tussle between President Bola Tinubu and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar following the outcome of the February 25th 2023 presidential election. The Chicago State University (CSU) is at the epicentre of a bitter political dispute in Nigeria over allegations of fraudulent educational certificates, which President Tinubu is being accused to have filed at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), qualifying him to contest at the polls.
The Presidential Election Petition Court (PEPC), on Wednesday 6th 2023, in a unanimous judgement in the cases brought against President Tinubu’s victory by his two dominant rivals, declared that Tinubu indeed, won the polls as both Atiku of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi of the Labour Patty (LP), failed to prove beyond reasonable doubts, any irregularity and non compliance with Nigeria’s electoral rules, including the certificate issues which originating source is being questioned.
Former Vice President Atiku claims that documents showing that President Tinubu graduated from Chicago State University in 1979 are not authentic, a reason he wants as grounds to nullify Tinubu’s election victory. The matter is presently before the Supreme Court for further consideration and judgement after it was dismissed at the PEPC.
In US, Atiku wants the Court to compel the Chicago State University to release certain academic documents of President Tinubu who is one of its former students, to help his case in the legal dispute at Nigeria’s apex court. The former Vice President is in search of concrete evidences. He filed the application on 2nd August, 2023 requesting from the University the academic documents of PresidentTinubu.
Judge Jeffrey Gilbert of a US magistrate Court in Eastern Illinois had granted the request by the former Vice President, which has been challenged by the President. However, District Judge, Nancy, last week Thursday in an emergency hearing agreed to stay an order requiring CSU to provide certain academic documents of Tinubu, a development that sparked off intensed debate as to whether a US magistrate judge really has jurisdiction and authority on a matter of this international dimension. Experts do believe that it is obviously a complex situation of significant legal and diplomatic challenge.
What is not in doubt however is that CSU has confirmed Tinubu’s attendance and graduation the institution. The University however says that it cannot authenticate the diploma in question, as it is considered a ceremonial document and not part of a student’s official academic file.
President Tinubu and his legal team are not sleeping either, They are exploring every window of defence for victory in the US legal battle. The Tinubu’s team believes that Atiku is on a wild goose chase and only dissipating his energy at both ends. A constitutional lawyer who does not want his name in print because the matter is still pending in court told NewsQuest that the former Vice President is only desperately running everywhere to lay hands on any incriminating evidence that should help him in Court.
“Atiku won’t succeed. His desperation to lay hands on any available incriminating evidence that would spring victory for him in the Supreme Court is not possible.
You know that the Supreme Court will never nullify Tinubu’s election on the grounds of certificate. What our law requires as educational qualification to vie for the office of the president is just a school certificate or a secondary school certificate at most. So, what has a university certificate got to do with the Nigerian presidency?” the lawyer noted.
Aside the seemingly empty legal pursuit of the PDP candidate however, some legal experts see the US court case as one that will significantly enrich Nigeria’s jurisprudence, as it would certainly serve as a reference for subsequent election cases.
Of interest also in this complex legal battle is US District Judge Nancy Maldonado’s decision to delay a previous order issued by Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Gilbert, asking the CSU to provide certain academic documents related to Tinubu’s time at the University. Maldonado’s decision to delay the order was based on a request from Tinubu’s attorneys, who argued that Gilbert’s decision needed to be reviewed by a district judge.
The delay is crucial, given the legal deadlines looming in Nigeria. Maldonado acknowledged the complexity of the case and expressed her commitment to ensuring a fair process. She also emphasised the importance of adhering to established legal rules and procedures, underscoring the high stakes involved.
One of the central issues in this case revolves around whether magistrate judges have the authority to issue binding rulings in matters with international significance, such as this one. The Ninth and Tenth Circuits have previously weighed in on this matter, suggesting that rulings under 28 U.S.C. § 1782, the statute invoked in this case, are akin to dispositive motions. According to these circuits, magistrate judges may only report and recommend to district judges in such cases.
This distinction raises important questions about the authority of magistrate judges in handling cases like this, where the outcome can have far-reaching consequences. The uncertainty surrounding the appropriate standard of review further complicates the matter and underscores the need for legal clarity in cases involving international disputes.
At the receiving end is the Chicago State University, which is now caught in the crossfire of the political and legal dispute. The university has expressed its willingness to provide the requested documents once the legal issues are resolved. However, it is now facing significant legal fees and reputational damage due to its inadvertent involvement in an international political conflict.
CSU’s predicament highlights the challenges faced by institutions that become embroiled in legal disputes beyond their control. The University has been careful to adhere to federal law, specifically the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which governs the release of students records. It has confirmed Tinubu’s attendance and graduation but remains constrained by privacy regulations.
As the legal battle continues, it remains to be seen how the courts will navigate the intricate web of international politics and legal complexities. The case underscores the importance of upholding established legal procedures and rules, especially when they intersect with high-stakes international disputes.
Back in Nigeria, Tinubu has won round one, at the level of the PEPC. He is also hoping to secure victory at the Supreme Court regardless of whatever evidence that Atiku gets from the United States.