The Peoples Democratic Party has submitted Razak Atunwa’s name to the Independent National Electoral Commission as its gubernatorial candidate in Kwara State, weeks after the politician was caught in a brazen act of forgery.
Coming after Nigerians mounted calls on the PDP to reject Atunwa, Friday’s development showed the main opposition party was indifferent to the manipulation of a national document by one of its own, and even complicit in the desperate moves the politician has been making to escape the consequences of his act.
Atunwa’s name was listed amongst over 30 candidates presented by political parties in Kwara for the 2019 governorship election. INEC published the list on Friday afternoon, and it showed Razak Atunwa listed Oladipo Muyiwa as his running mate.
The list came out three weeks after PREMIUM TIMES published an investigation exposing how Razak Atunwa sidestepped the national service after graduating from the university and then forged a discharge certificate of the National Youth Service Corps which he presented to the PDP to prove his eligibility for political office.
Atunwa, who chairs the Justice Committee of the House of Representatives, also obtained a sworn affidavit notarised at the Kwara State High Court in Ilorin, the state capital, saying under oath the forged document he presented was genuine.
A clause in the PDP nomination forms says an aspirant stands automatically disqualified if any of the credentials presented were later found to be counterfeit or misleading in any way.
But since October 22 when Atunwa’s forgery was laid bare, the opposition party has ignored calls to speak on the matter, focusing instead on shielding the politician from both political and legal consequences the forgery poses.
The PDP is protecting Atunwa even though the party was the earliest and most vocal of all opposition elements in demanding the resignation and criminal prosecution of former finance minister, Kemi Adeosun.
Mrs Adeosun stepped down from office in September, over two months after PREMIUM TIMES reported she did not serve the nation after graduating from the university, opting instead to forge an exemption certificate of the NYSC in other to take employments in the country, including the ministerial position.
Mrs Adeosun has since departed Nigeria, minimizing the chances of being prosecuted.
There are also no indications that law enforcement agencies would arrest Atunwa for forging a national document, an uncertainty that the politician has exploited to continue his scheming to become a governor.
PREMIUM TIMES found in late October that Atunwa was plotting to substitute documents he presented to the PDP to win the party’s primaries. Although the embattled politician has, for years, claimed to have obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from two universities in the United Kingdom, he believes submitting only a high school certificate would extricate him from the NYSC Act that requires a university graduate to participate in a year long national service.
Since 1973, every Nigerian who attends a university or polytechnic has been mandated by the NYSC law to participate in the national youth scheme for one year after graduation, provided the person finished before age 30.
Failure to serve would prohibit such an individual from employment in Nigeria, and making false claims about serving attracts up to 14 years in jail. Also, anyone who graduates before 30 but deliberately declines to serve has committed a crime that attracts 12-month imprisonment, even if the person did not forge NYSC documents.
Only a person who obtained a degree after 30 or served in the military or won national honours medal qualifies for exemption certificate under the NYSC law.
But even if Atunwa presents his high school certificate, he would still run into legal troubles for committing perjury. He had sworn under oath at Kwara State High Court in Ilorin that he had university degrees and participated in NYSC between 1995 and 1996.
The two universities he attended in England and his qualifications were also still available on his page at the National Assembly website as of 10:40 a.m. on October 29.
Atunwa forged his certificate even as Mrs Adeosun’s scandal was still generating storms across the country. He also took the step even though communications minister, Adebayo Shittu, whom PREMIUM TIMES’ found did not also present himself for national service after graduating, was disqualified from the governorship race in Oyo State by the ruling All Progressives Congress — even though he did not forge a certificate.
Analysts say that coming amidst a looming general election, Mr Atunwa’s forgery scandal marks a major test for the PDP. The party lost the centre after 16 years in 2015, largely on allegations of gross incompetence and corruption.
But the party has made concerted efforts to demonstrate redeeming values in its nearly three and a half years of opposition. After a protracted internal wrangling that nearly consumed it but for the intervention of the Supreme Court, the party has held two national conventions that political analysts commended for enriching Nigeria’s political space.
The convention that produced Atiku Abubakar as the party’s presidential candidate a month ago particularly received encouraging reviews from political commentators, who saw it as free and fair, away from past conventions that often ended with a band of disgruntled politicians revolting.
For a party grappling with a bleak future as recently as two years ago, Abubakar’s candidacy appears to have elevated the PDP to the same political stature as the ruling APC, but Atunwa’s scandal is capable of derailing that trajectory, said political commentator Abubakar Usman.
“For any serious organisation, Razak Atunwa’s case is not even up for any argument as to whether he should be immediately discarded as a governorship candidate,” Usman told PREMIUM TIMES on Saturday. “It is either the PDP has changed or it has not.”
“The party apologised to Nigerians only a few months ago, promising that it would not run government the way President Buhari has made everything about us as a nation into a big joke,” the analyst added. “Even if Nigerians believed the party at the time and were open to giving them a second chance, this matter about the man in Kwara may sink all of them together in 2019.”
Usman said there is little wisdom in keeping Atunwa as a candidate in the wake of the scandal.
“There is already free evidence to nail him in court, which I have seen on PREMIUM TIMES, I cannot imagine any candidate for political office escaping the legal arsenal that would be unleashed by opponents,” Usman said. “If for any reason that Atunwa man is not caught and disqualified from the race, there are several pre-election rulings that the PDP could learn from and see that it cannot help its candidate get away with this level of criminality.
“I emphasise, if nothing is hastily done, both the party and the candidate are going to sink together because Nigerians home and away are fed up with being taken for fools by politicians on both major parties,” he said. “It is a simple task to remove that Atunwa man and the baggage he now constitutes, but they seem too feeble to do that.”
Atunwa is favoured by Senate President Bukola Saraki, who recently became a national leader of the PDP after rejoining the party late July. The candidate has been campaigning fervently across the state in apparent defiance of the scandal over his credentials.
The lawmaker has been promising residents during campaign stops that he would open up the state’s economy in order to engender an upward mobility for the largely agrarian population. He also promised to run an inclusive government that would put youth at the centre of most policy decisions, citing his own achievement of when he was first appointed a commissioner at 36.
Party insiders told PREMIUM TIMES Bukola Saraki, who is in control of the PDP structure in Kwara, has been reluctant to drop Razak Atunwa, fearing he might not find someone as loyal to replace him.
“Our leaders know that Atunwa cannot get anywhere because of the forgery case, but they are afraid of offending the Senate President,” a senior official at the party’s national secretariat told PREMIUM TIMES on Saturday. “They are still begging him to let go of this problematic choice and immediately pick another one.
“There is still an opening for substitution of candidates, we still have some weeks to go and we are hopeful something would be done before the deadline so that we can build our chances of overcoming this disastrous APC at the upcoming elections,” the source added, preferring his identity be concealed to avoid being sanctioned for disclosing internal information without authoritisation.
Kola Ologbondiyan, the party’s national spokesperson in Abuja, did not return PREMIUM TIMES’ messages seeking comments on the party’s handling of Atunwa’s forgery scandal.