As I have stressed repeatedly, I have no partisan emotional investment in the political brawl between President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, or in who is and is not president of Nigeria. My only partisan affinity is with the truth or, to reecho iconic Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, the best obtainable version of the truth.
This intervention is for people who genuinely want clarity from the blinding maze of propaganda and intentional falsehoods flying around. It’s not for sentimental partisan hacks and political devotees who just want an affirmation of and a comfort to their prejudices and preconceptions.
As an American citizen, a graduate of two American universities, and a professor in one, I can tell the reader three major things Atiku’s Nigerian lawyers and his supporters on social media— and in some openly partisan news sites— are getting wrong.
The major one is the idea that because Tinubu presented a certificate (called a “diploma” in America) to INEC that didn’t emanate from Chicago State University, whose registrar affirmed under oath that Tinubu graduated from there, he has committed forgery in the legal sense of the term. That thinking betrays ignorance of the American university system—and results from people using their limited Nigerian lenses to refract an American phenomenon that’s beyond their experiential reality.
Certificates are not used as legal proof of graduation from any school in America and therefore can’t be forged in the legal sense of the term. Only transcripts can be used as legal documents to validate the genuineness of claims to have attended institutions, including secondary schools.
Had Tinubu presented a counterfeit transcript to support his claim of graduating from CSU when he didn’t, or merely to claim a higher GPA than he actually earned even when he graduated from there, that would have been forgery in the legal sense of the term, which is understood to mean “Criminal falsification by making or altering an instrument with intent to defraud.”
In this context, “intent to defraud” would mean Tinubu wanted to pass himself off as a university graduate when he wasn’t. But he is. His transcript says he is. The registrar of the university said under oath that he is. A classmate of his said under oath that they graduated from the school the same year. That’s all that matters.
One indication of the legal worthlessness of certificates in America came from the CSU registrar’s admission in court that the school had many uncollected diplomas going as far back as the 1930s. Certificates are not required to prove graduation here. That’s why people can afford to ignore them.
Intriguingly, the registrar said Tinubu also didn’t collect his original certificate from the school and that it is still lying there. Why did he say he lost it?
In the United States, a certificate is in many ways similar to a graduation ceremony. Most people attend it and listen to the president of the university formally confer diplomas on them with “all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.” But it has no force of law. Not attending a graduation ceremony doesn’t deprive you of “all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.”
If you organize your own graduation ceremony, invite friends and family, and ask your father to confer your degree on you, it’s fine so long as you validly earned the degree. Incidentally, an American family friend of mine did exactly that last May. His autistic son can’t tolerate the sensory overload of large crowds. So, he organized his son’s graduation and invited friends and family. He dressed as the president, and his wife was the provost. His eldest daughter was the graduation speaker.
In America, the diploma is the printed version—or fixed extension—of a graduation ceremony. It’s merely ceremonial and can be tweaked or individualized by anyone without legal consequences.
It betrays a stupendous poverty of legal and logical imagination to say that the “forgery” (unauthorized redesign is a better expression) of a non-legally-binding ceremonial document of a validly earned degree invalidates the degree. It’s never mentioned in CSU’s diplomas that alteration of the documents renders them invalid because they have no validity beyond being decorative documents.
You find that kind of language here only on transcripts. On Tinubu’s CSU transcript, for instance, we find such legal language twice. The left-hand side of the transcript says, “Explanatory legend and authenticity confirmation information on back.” On the right-hand side, it says, “THIS RECORD IS NOT OFFICIAL UNLESS IT BEARS A SIGNATURE AND SEAL OF THE UNIVERSITY.”
The diploma does not have such language because in America the diploma is no more important than a school’s academic gown. For example, I use a cheaper, “forged” version of the academic gown of the university that awarded me a doctoral degree (that I ordered from a third-party vendor online) to attend graduation ceremonies at the school where I teach now. At the time I graduated with my doctoral degree, I could only afford to rent the gown. Most people here do the same. It doesn’t invalidate our degrees because we’re using the unofficial academic gown of our universities.
I admit, though, that Tinubu was careless. He is in Nigeria where certificates have a different meaning and valence from the United States. He should have submitted CSU’s official diploma to INEC. But what he did does not, by even the most feverish stretch of conspiratorial fantasy, rise to the level of a Salisu-Buhari-type criminal forgery.
Unlike Salisu Buhari who forged a University of Toronto degree that he didn’t earn, Tinubu attended and earned a degree from Chicago State University. What Tinubu did with his certificate is pointlessly self-harming in reputational terms in Nigeria, but it’s not illegal.
The second major misconception of America came from Atiku’s lawyer by the name of Kalu Kalu. He said at a news conference on October 5 that “the Chicago State University admission application form has a claim that… the owner of that document is a Black American, and the document Bola Ahmed Tinubu submitted to INEC, he denied having dual citizenship which means it doesn’t belong to him.”
I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help myself from letting out a burst of deep, loud, hearty laughter when I read that. It’s pure hilarious ignorance! You see, America has an enduringly irresistible impulse to taxonomize humanity into discrete racial categories. Every official form here requests you to identify your race. The modern options are “White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.”
In the mid-1970s when Tinubu applied to study at CSU, what is now “Black or African American” on official forms in America was simply “Black American,” particularly in historically Black Universities like CSU.
The US Census Bureau has historically defined “Black or African American” as “A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.”
“Black American” was the only category that closely applied to Tinubu, so he chose it because the form instructed him to “CHECK ONE BOX.” Checking the “Black American” box didn’t mean he called himself a Black American or that he impersonated a Black American. It only meant he identified HIS RACE as “Black American.” No more, no less.
The other options in the form were barely decipherable, but I could pick out “American Indian or Alaska Native,” something that looks like “Spanish Surname American,” another that looks like “Eurasian American,” etc. Although the form gave the option for “Other (explain),” most Africans here typically choose Black American as the closest description of their race.
Finally, a Dr. Abimbola Adenike Tinubu, who lives in a small town called Opelousas in the state of Louisiana, is being touted by social media trolls as the woman whose identity Bola Tinubu allegedly stole. The problem is that the lady was born in 1971, just 4 years before Tinubu enrolled at Southwest College. She graduated from the University of Ilorin in 1998 and came to the US later.
It’s chronologically and rationally impossible for Tinubu to steal the identity of a 4-year-old Nigerian preschooler (who came to America decades after Tinubu left it) and then present himself as an adult male to enroll at a community college!
Plus, Dr. Abimbola’s Whitepages information shows that she has never lived in Virginia where the social security number associated with President Tinubu was issued or Chicago where he went to school. She has only lived in Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana.
Look, Tinubu’s life is wrapped in multiple layers of mind-bogglingly intricate fraud, but you can’t peel off these layers of fraud with fraud. You do it with the truth.
And Atiku can actually inflict fatal moral wounds on Tinubu and potentially immobilize him in 2027 if he pursues the leads that came out from his “fishing expedition” in Chicago. A low-hanging fruit is Tinubu’s obviously fraudulent secondary school attendance claim.
He can write to Cambridge University to verify the GCE A-level result that Tinubu presented to Southwest College. If it turns out that it’s fake or belongs to someone else, he can cause Daley College to rescind his associate degree.
If his associate degree is rescinded, his bachelor’s degree from Chicago State University will automatically follow. With no qualifications to present to INEC to prove that he has at least the equivalent of a secondary school certificate, he’d be legally ineligible to run again.