By Reuben Abati
It is not often that cases before a court of law become so important that they get discussed in beer parlours, open places, other rooms and generate so much public attention beyond the court room, even after judgment has been delivered by a court of competent jurisdiction.
But it happens, presenting, relative to context, the spectacle of concurrence and/or populism or a conflict between the court of law and the court of public opinion. This in itself is a reaffirmation of the role of the judicial system as a social modulator, beyond strict positivism, rather than a derogation from the relevance of the judiciary. Such cases are known in legal circles as “cause celebre” either for the attendant popularity and public interest or the precedence that they establish. Nigeria found itself confronted with such a case recently with the decision taken by the Court of Justice Taiwo Taiwo (Federal High Court, Abuja) in the matter between Oluwakemi Adeosun, former Minister of Finance of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Attorney General of the Federation. This is an interesting case that has the prospects of becoming a locus classicus, in its present form or on appeal (if that happens) with regard to the issues of citizenship, appointments into public office and participation in Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps Scheme (NYSC). I will tone down the legalisms involved, but what are the facts before us and what conclusions can we draw from this particular case?
In November 2015, Kemi Adeosun, born in 1967 in London, England, to Nigerian parents from Ogun State Nigeria, was appointed Nigeria’s Minister of Finance by the Muhammadu Buhari administration. Before that appointment, she had worked in the United Kingdom as an accounting assistant at British Telecom, London, also at Goodman Jones as a senior audit officer, as a manager at London Underground, and later at Prisms Consulting. She was also a senior manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers. In 2002, she returned to Nigeria and took up an appointment as a Financial Controller with Chapel Hill Denham Management. She became Managing Director of that company in 2010. In 2011, Adeosun was appointed Commissioner of Finance in Ogun State by then Governor Ibikunle Amosun who promised to turn around the fortunes of his home-state. Four years later, Kemi Adeosun was further elevated when she ended up as Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, after President Buhari and Governor Amosun won a second term in office as President and Governor respectively.
It was widely assumed Mrs Adeosun earned that promotion due to Amosun’s influence. Amosun is a well-known Buhari ally and a prominent member of the ruling party. As Minister of Finance of Nigeria, Adeosun, an Economics graduate of the University of East London and a Chartered Accountant with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, further ended up as Chairman of the Board of the African Export-Import Bank (AfreximBank). Her profile was something made out of a fairy tale: amazing, well supported.
In 2018, that fairy-tale turned sour when an online newspaper, Premium Times Online alleged that Mrs Adeosun illegally obtained her NYSC exemption certificate. In Nigeria, no citizen, who is a graduate, is allowed to be employed in either the private or public sector, without having gone through a mandatory one-year national service. This requirement is spelled out in Section 12 of the NYSC Act and embedded in the 1999 Constitution. Premium Times, after calling out Mrs Adeosun, promised to conduct an investigation. And it did, with unsavoury outcomes. This generated tension, ethnic politicking and a heavy dose of blame game. In the middle of all that, and the ugly implications for the integrity of the Buhari administration, Kemi Adeosun resigned from her position as Nigeria’s Minister of Finance on September 14, 2018. Her resignation letter, addressed to President Muhammadu Buhari is available online. But let me quote the following paragraph from it. She writes: “I have today become privy to the findings of the investigation into the allegation made in an online medium that the Certificate of Exemption from National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) that I had presented was not genuine. This has come as a shock to me and I believe that in line with this administration’s focus on integrity, I must do the honourable thing and resign.”
Kemi Adeosun’s resignation was an unusual thing to do in Nigeria. Most of her compatriots would never have done so. Resign from such a “juicy position” as Nigerians call it? No! But she did. And there were questions about whether she jumped or she was pushed. Other questions were asked: was she set up and sacrificed by the same man who made her Minister of Finance, her former boss, Governor Amosun? Did she herself get too big for her boots, and forgot her own beginnings? Who blew the whistle about her NYSC Exemption Certificate? As pundits went to town, Adeosun left town. She has now returned three years later, with a bang. A month ago, she got a generous mention in the newspapers as the founder of a Foundation – “the Dash Me Store”, an online thrift-for-charity initiative that she has now established to support the vulnerable in society. It was her first major public appearance in 3 years. And it wasn’t meant to be just one of those events. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was in attendance for all the possible symbolic reasons, as Chair of the occasion. That was great optics. Adeosun may have left the country in 2018 for controversial reasons, but she has returned on a high note, with perfect timing.
For me, this was particularly confirmed by the court ruling dated the 7th Day of July 2021 in suit No: FHC/ABJ/CR/303/2021 between Folakemi Adeosun – (Plaintiff) and Attorney General of the Federation – (Defendant) before His Lordship Hon. Justice Taiwo O. Taiwo in the Federal High Court of Nigeria, Abuja Judicial Division. As it were, Kemi Adeosun had approached the Federal High Court to seek declaratory reliefs to the effect that (i) she was not under any constitutional disadvantage or prohibition at the time of her appointment as Minister with regard to her participation in the NYSC scheme, (ii) she cannot be subjected to any disability or disadvantage on the ground that she did not participate in the NYSC and that ((iii) being a United Kingdom Citizen as at 1989 when she graduated from the University of East London, UK, at the age of 22 years, she was ineligible to participate in Nigeria’s NYSC. The learned Judge observed as follows: “In brief the fact of this case is that sometime in 2018, while the plaintiff was serving as the Minister of Finance of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, it was being paraded in the public space that she did not participate in the NYSC scheme and as such ought to have been disqualified from holding the office. It was further alleged that the said insinuations have remained unabated, thereby, consistently putting the plaintiff at disadvantageous positions in the pursuit of her career, both within and outside the country, this has therefore necessitated the plaintiff to file this action.” Counsel for the defendant relying on Section 12 of the NYSC Act and Sections 147 (5) and 192 (4) of the 1999 Constitution responded accordingly. The Court decided in favour of the plaintiff and granted the declaratory reliefs in her prayers before the Court. The ruling has been heavily criticised in the court of public opinion, and that has generated as much interest as the substance of the case itself.
First, there is this argument that the court did not address the issue of certificate forgery which was the basis for Mrs Adeosun’s resignation in the first place. Those who push this line of argument forget that this was not the matter before the court. A court of law is not duty bound to embark on a voyage of discovery or offer what has not been pleaded before it with admissible evidence. Procedure is critical in law and in common parlance, the court is not a Father Christmas. In this matter, a civil suit by the way, Kemi Adeosun had approached the court to protect her reputation, to which she claims much damage had been done by the circumstances of her exit from the Nigerian government in September 2018. It is perfectly within her rights to do so, one’s reputation being so fundamental to everything else.
Second, some persons have expressed concern about the citizenship question raised in the ruling. They ask: Granted that as of 1989, when she graduated Kemi Adeosun was not a citizen of Nigeria, and therefore ineligible for participation in the NYSC scheme, under the then extant 1979 Constitution, when she then returned to Nigeria to work, what steps did she take to become a Nigerian citizen? They point out that the 1999 Constitution after all, does not automatically confer citizenship. There is a proper definition of citizenship under Chapter 3 of the 1999 Constitution, so at what point exactly did Mrs Adeosun become a Nigerian? And how could she have been appointed a state Commissioner of Finance and later, a Federal Minister if there was no understanding that she had become a Nigerian citizen although entitled to dual nationality? And why would she sue the Attorney General of the Federation? Again, these questions were not raised by the defence counsel before Justice Taiwo Taiwo. The issues for determination were clear and specific. What has been offered is a technical, Constitutional interpretation of what the law says with regard to participation in the National Youth Service Corps Scheme of Nigeria, and the legal status in that regard of all persons, of Nigerian parentage but foreign nationality, caught between the 1979 and 1999 Constitutions with regard to eligibility to participate in the scheme and the question of their citizenship. But does the ruling of the Court meet public expectations? No.
Third: Will the office of the Attorney General of the Federation appeal this ruling? I doubt. Will the Federal Government now file a suit to accuse the former Minister of Finance of the forgery of a certificate that everyone is saying is the main issue? Hmm. That won’t happen. This is Nigeria. Mrs Kemi Adeosun’s reputation with regard to the NYSC matter has been judicially restored, and all insinuations about her involvement in this quasi political-legal tango have been laid to rest. Her brother Dele Ogun has been quoted as saying Premium Times, the online newspaper, has questions to answer. So, should she sue Premium Times that generated the storm in the first place? She shouldn’t bother. There is no point fighting a battle she can’t win. Only the naïve would pick up battles with the media like those thick-headed characters who believe that they can restrict the freedom of information in society. I hope their advisers have seen the robust push-back by the Nigerian media community which started yesterday. Nigerian newspapers are now carrying placards against the government: from front-page advertorials to editorials!
It has been said that Kemi Adeosun’s legal victory is a victory for all Nigerians who were born abroad before the 1999 Constitution and who do not have to participate in the NYSC. Except that this is one case where the law does not answer all the questions. It must indeed be a fit and proper thing to serve one’s country, or even die for it. The NYSC was introduced in 1973, to move Nigeria beyond the pains and tragedy of the civil war and to promote national unity and integration. If things were normal, there would have been no reason for anyone to avoid the opportunity to serve the country. Kemi Adeosun was 22 in 1989, and she was not a Nigerian citizen. When she returned to Nigeria in 2013 at the age of 34, she was already beyond the age of eligibility for the NYSC. She has now succeeded in proving her case in court. But other foreign-born Nigerians with an eye on the future should study her case closely and learn a critical lesson about the importance of one’s roots. They need to realise that the Adeosun case does not automatically offer them any protection under the law. Adeosun probably never imagined that she would ever have anything to do with public life in Nigeria.
Many Nigerians in diaspora, a growing generation of children with Nigerian parents and foreign citizenship often overlook the umbilical manner in which they are linked to Nigeria by blood. They are proud to say that they have nothing to do with Nigeria and that they belong to other countries. But the pull of home and ancestral roots is forever strong. Most of the athletes in the D’Tigers Basketball team who represented Nigeria a few days ago and made history beating Team USA, the most dominant basketball team in the world, probably do not have a Nigerian passport, and may never have been to their ancestral home. They wore shirts emblazoned with the message: “Naija no dey carry last”. They stepped up and proved it. Every Nigerian child born in diaspora should look beyond Kemi Adeosun’s legal victory. A sense of home and roots, is the strongest DNA in our veins. The river may flow downstream into the oceans, without looking back, but it is bound to dry up if it loses touch with its source.
What is most unfortunate, however, is the crisis at home that drives a wedge between Nigerians at home and those in diaspora. While we urge the latter to identify with home, connect and remember, Nigerians born and bred at home, are in despair. They are either seeking to emigrate or secede. If they are lucky to graduate from a higher institution, they are not even happy to participate in the NYSC or serve the country. Nigeria is so insecure parents do not want their children posted to certain parts of the country. Nigeria has a way of killing dreams. The NYSC is one of those dying dreams. And that is why the Adeosun case, controversial as it seems, is bound to end up as just one of those things in the court of public opinion.