The Eligibility to Contest Elections into the Office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria under the 1999 Constitution (As Amended)

Undoubtedly, Section 131(d) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) prescribes a School Leaving Certificate or its equivalent as the minimum educational qualification for candidates contesting election to the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It stipulates that candidates must be “educated up to at least school leaving Certificate Level or its equivalent”. Said section provides inter alia:

“131.A person shall be qualified for election to the office of the President if-(d) he has been educated up to at least school certificate level or its equivalent”.

The above provision of the Constitution currently forms the topic of vigorous discussions and debates in the media and several other fora. Some legal practitioners have already commenced legal proceedings seeking judicial interpretation of the subject, particularly in view of the fact that the nation’s general elections, billed to hold across the nation in March, 2015 are at hand.

The popular view is that a candidate contesting for the office of the President will not be eligible to so contest unless he/she produces a Secondary School Leaving Certificate. Section 131(d) has been cited in support of this popular view.

This article seeks to shed light and provide adequate explanation and interpretation of Section 131(d) from a legal point of view through the use of neutral, holistic and well established Canons of legal and statutory interpretation.

If Section 131(d) is construed in its ordinary, literal or grammatical sense, then it will mean that a presidential candidate who does not possess the Secondary School Leaving Certificate or its equivalent is not qualified to contest elections for the office of the president. A careful and a combined reading of Sections 131(d) and 318(1) of the constitution will reveal the true intention of the draftsmen. It is pertinent for whoever seeks to arrive at the true legal meanings of the contents of the Constitution to always read section 318 (definition section to the Constitution) along with other sections of the Constitution in arriving at the actual and intended meanings ascribed thereto. Section 318(1) defines and provides thus:

“(a) a secondary school Certificate or its equivalent, or Grade II Teacher’s Certificate, The City and Guilds Certificate; or (b) education up to secondary school certificate level; or (c) Primary Six School Leaving Certificate or its equivalent and – (i) service in the public or private sector in the Federation in any capacity acceptable to the Independent National Electoral Commission (“INEC”) for a minimum of ten years, and (ii) attendance at courses and training in such institutions as may be acceptable to the Independent National Electoral Commission for a period totaling up to a minimum of one year, and (iii) the ability to read, write and communicate in the English Language to the satisfaction of the Independent National Electoral Commission; and (d) any other qualification acceptable by the Independent National Electoral Commission;”

It is evident from the above definition section of the Constitution that the meaning of “school leaving certificate or its equivalent”, for the purpose of section 131(d), is a lot more flexible and accommodating than the popular view. The section gives room for candidates with the Primary School Leaving Certificate coupled with experience in the private or public sector and who have attended courses during the period of the service totaling up to at least a year to contest. In addition, such Primary School Certificate holder must also demonstrate the ability to read, write and communicate in the English Language to the satisfaction of no one else but the INEC.

Note also that the conjunction “and” and “or”, as they appear at the end of each subsection, are to be interpreted conjunctively and disjunctively respectively. In other words, a candidate may choose to rely on any one of (a), (b), (c) or (d) of Section 318(1) in isolation. A candidate need not meet all the requirements to be eligible to contest. It suffices to say that only a candidate relying on (c) must also satisfy the conditions in (i), (ii) and (iii). The above interpretation was given judicial recognition in the case of BAYO v. NJIDDA (2004) 8 NWLR (Part 876) page 544, at 629.

While (a) above requires a candidate relying on same to produce a Certificate evidencing that he has passed the Secondary School Examination, a candidate relying on (b) need not produce certificates to show that he sat for or passed the Secondary School Examination. The candidate relying on (b) only needs to show evidence of having been educated up to the Secondary School Level. “Evidence” here is being used in a generic way and does not in any way require such candidate to compulsorily or mandatorily produce a Secondary School Leaving Certificate. Evidence can be in the form of testimonials, affidavits or even photographs. Furthermore, a candidate relying on (c) must produce his/her Primary School Leaving Certificate and further demonstrate to the INEC that he can read, write and communicate in the English Language, show evidence of service in private or public sector and produce attendance of courses and training in the course of service. Subsection (d) indeed extends the definition and states further that “any other qualification acceptable to the Independent National Electoral Commission” will be sufficient. A lot of discretion is placed on INEC by said Section, and same must be exercised judicially and judiciously.

There is always the need to acknowledge the trite rule of interpretation of statutes, which is to the effect that a section of a statute should not be construed in isolation. All sections in a statute must be interpreted conjunctively, especially where the statute has a definition Section, as it is the case with the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Section 131(d) should therefore be construed in conjunction with Section 318(1) of the Constitution which defines the phrase “School Certificate and its equivalent”.

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