By Lemmy Ughegbe
As one who holds government and its functionaries accountable as well as an avowed campaigner for the building of strong institutions instead of strong men, I paid more than a passing attention to the polemics surrounding the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) discharge certificate of Mr. Peter Mbah, way ahead of his emergence as the Governor of Enugu State. Regardless of the suggestions that it could be more of politics than law, it was my considered view that the primary concern should be whether or not he offended the law by presenting a fake NYSC discharge certificate. In fact, I was also initially more inclined to believe the NYSC, being the issuing authority.
However, the details of the judgement of the Federal High Court, Abuja, which affirmed the authenticity of Mbah’s discharge certificate and ordered NYSC to pay him the sum of N5 million for conspiracy, fraudulent design, and malicious misrepresentation of facts, should interest lovers of our democracy and sanctity of our public institutions because they confirm the gale of doubts induced by some steps/missteps by NYSC along the line.
Meanwhile, during the trial, Mbah averred that he completed his national service, tendering an NYSC discharge certificate No. A808297. He also tendered an application for suspension of his service to go to the Law School and the consequent approval by NYSC. He also tendered his application for reinstatement after the programme and NYSC’s letter dated 7th May, 2003 (Ref. No. NYSC/DHQ/CM/27/20), directing his reinstatement to “continue his service year from where he stopped, with effect from May 2003.”
In its own averment, NYSC admitted reinstating Mbah and reposting him to Udeh & Associates to complete his service with a probable September 2003 completion date. However, it averred that Mbah did not complete those remaining months after his reinstatement. NYSC submitted that it withheld certificate No. A673517, which it should have issued to Mbah, adding that the certificate No. A808297 he tendered did not originate from it. While I was still inclined, at this stage, to believe NYSC, reasonable doubt had been created in my mind as to whether or not the Corps was sincere in its claims because whereas Mbah tendered a certificate with No. A808297 as a proof that he completed his service, NYSC failed to tender the certificate with No. A673517 as a proof that it withheld his certificate for allegedly not completing his service.
NYSC told the court that Mbah’s certificate was among uncollected certificates, which it burnt in 2022. Instructively, by 2022, the politics of 2023 had already picked up. Are certificates such huge burdens that they must be burnt and at the cusp of a general election? And no digital copies were made in the 21st century before their incineration?
Worse still, certified true copies of certificates dated 2003 were exhibited by the NYSC in its response to Mbah’s suit leading the court to observe: “If all the outdated, unused, and cancelled certificates of National Service and certificates of exemption, certificates of absconded members of the Service Corps 1999 to 2004, were disposed of by incineration, how did the Defendants (NYSC and its Director of Corps Certification, Ibrahim Muhammad) obtain Exhibits A31 and A32 which is dated 6th January, 2003, which they certified and tendered in this case? To make matters worse, the certification by the stamp thereon was done on 19th August, 2023, long after this case was initiated on 4th May, 2023. A person can only certify a document, which originally he has in his possession.”
Again, NYSC claimed that the purportedly burnt certificate No. A673517 meant for Mbah was dated 2001, an assertion the court assessed as “contrary to the evidence in this case.”
Justice Ekwo stated: “From the evidence in this case, the Plaintiff completed his service in 2003 upon being reinstated and not in 2001. It is not possible for the 1st Defendant (NYSC) to have pre-emptively prepared a certificate dated 2001 for a member of the Corps whose service was deferred in 2002 and was reinstated to complete the same in 2003.
“Furthermore, there is no evidence of the Defendants linking the said certificate with number A673517 to either file with Ref. No. LA/01/1532 (which was the substantive file opened at the time the Plaintiff joined service) or file with Ref. No. LA/01/1532/T (which was a temporary file for the Plaintiff at the time he was reinstated) after the deferment. It is these files that would have been a formidable foundation of the case of the Defendants on which certificate it actually issued to the Plaintiff.”
Indeed, NYSC’s failure to produce Mbah’s files before the court dealt a fatal blow to their case and possibly removed any doubts of their complicity and duplicity in the whole certificate saga.
Citing several judicial authorities, Justice Ekwo held: “There is no evidence that file with Ref. No. LA/01/1532 or file with Ref No. LA/01/1532/T are documents, which are not in the custody of the Defendants and there is no evidence that both files were disposed of during the incineration of 2022. The Defendants have failed to proffer any credible evidence on the whereabouts of those files.
“I find that non-production of file with Ref. No. LA/01/1532 or file with Ref No. LA/01/1532/T means the contents thereof would have gone against the Defendants in this case and I so hold.”
Importantly too, the court held that the Defendants failed to lead evidence to prove a case of forgery against Mbah. The court held that NYSC “handled their case with levity or that they lacked the will-power to challenge the case of the Plaintiff”, adding that “No evidence was led to compare the calligraphy on certificate No. A808297, which they say they did not issue.”
Thus, in its judgment, the court declared that based on evidence before it, Mbah completed his service and that NYSC issued him certificate No. A808297. It declared that the Defendants “conspired by fraudulent design, suppressed and misrepresented facts in its supposition that the Plaintiff’s (Mbah’s) certificate Number A808297 was not issued by the Defendants (NYSC), a fact they knew or ought to know as untrue, incorrect, which constitutes the tort of conspiracy.” It further held that “the Defendants were negligent and maliciously misrepresented facts” the dominant purpose of which was “to inflict damages in his legal profession, politics, and business.”
As earlier expressed, NYSC took some steps that raised a gale of doubts about its uprightness and neutrality in the course of this saga. First, knowing how taciturn government functionaries are in delving into politically sensitive issues, it was baffling to watch the Director General of NYSC, Brigadier General Yusha’u Ahmed, defy a subsisting court order to make a categorical disclaimer of Mbah’s certificate on Arise News on 19th May 2023. It is not imaginable that the DG would defy a restraining order on himself and his agency to do so and at the risk of jail term for contempt of court without a political drumbeat.
Again, why was NYSC and its DG reluctant to reply to Mbah’s petition to it over the February 1 2023 disclaimer, but so eager to issue/make further disclaimers against him at the peak of gubernatorial campaigns?
Meanwhile, I became more suspicious when NYSC mounted a legal roadblock to stall the hearing and determination of Mbah’s N20 Billion lawsuit against it one way or the other by filing a preliminary objection instead of grabbing the opportunity with both hands to finally nail him. The said objection was predicated on Section 20 of the NYSC Act, which makes it mandatory for a Corps member to file a complaint to the Presidency for an amicable resolution before instituting a legal action. But the objection was thrown out by the court, which agreed with Mbah that this Section did not apply to him since he was neither a Corps member nor an employee of NYSC.
Again, an institution keen on fact-finding more than a witch-hunt should have checked with Udeh & Associates where it admitted posting him for his primary assignment before issuing further disclaimers. More so since he attached to his petition to NYSC, copies of the clearance letters issued by the law firm and based on which he said his allowances for the months in contention were paid into his Fidelity Bank account.
Also, DSS’ finding that NYSC could not account for twelve 8-series discharge certificates (A80829 – A808308, which includes Mbah’s) settles the argument as to whether his certificate belongs the agency. Therefore, the option left to NYSC to prove forgery was to present anyone else bearing the same certificate No. A808297, which it did not.
Another development that suggested that the whole saga was part of high-power politics was the 7th of December 2022 suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/2257/2022 (Felix Ugwu & 5 Ors. v. Peter Mbah & 3 Ors) in which Mr. Ugwu and his co-plaintiffs/applicants claimed that Mbah was an ex-convict and made a charge/plea bargain in Suit No. FHC/L/09C/2007: Federal Republic of Nigeria v. Nnamani Chimaroke & 11 Ors.) at the Federal High Court Lagos. They prayed the Federal High Court Abuja to disqualify him from seeking election based on Section 182(1) (e). Interestingly, the Plaintiffs disingenuously disclosed in their affidavit that the information was given to them by George Ogara, a senior lawyer and deputy governorship candidate of the APC in Enugu.
Surprisingly, whereas court record show that Mbah was never arraigned and never took a plea, let alone being convicted; whereas they showed that Justice M.N. Yunusa discharged him and two others from all charges at the instance of the EFCC on 7th March 2013; a senior officer in the Federal Ministry of Justice went ahead to filed processes to support the Applicants’ false claims. It took Mbah’s petition to the Attorney-General of the Federation to unravel the perfidy.
In conclusion, the Mbah vs. NYSC saga has further exposed the incestuous and dangerous interplay between law and politics in Nigeria. It crystallises the ineptitude and corruption that have ravaged our public institutions; and it is my hope that going forward we will be able to safeguard our public institutions from the allure of politricks in the interest of constitutional democracy.
• Ughegbe, a journalist, activist, and public analyst, writes from Abuja