Instead, he procured a forged discharge certificate of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) which he submitted to the PDP to prove his eligibility for public office.
The fresh revelation about Mr Atunwa came about four months after PT exposed then finance minister, Kemi Adeosun, for engaging in similar conduct, and just a little over a month since the embattled official was forced to resign as a result of the scandal.
The Kwara politician’s conduct also came to light exactly a month after this medium reported that the Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu, also dodged the compulsory service, making him ineligible for public office and employment in Nigeria.
Although the minister was later disqualified by his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) from running for governorship of his native Oyo State, President Muhammadu Buhari is yet to remove him from office.
The NYSC law requires every Nigerian who attended university or polytechnic 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 individual from gainful employment in Nigeria, and making false claims about serving could attract up to 14 years in jail.
Also, anyone who graduated before 30 but deliberately declined to serve has committed a crime that could attract 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 would qualify for exemption certificate under the NYSC law.
Mr Atunwa, born on October 17, 1969, said he studied law at the University of East London, graduating in 1992 at age 23.
Having earned a bachelor’s degree at 23, Mr Atunwa, going by Section 2 of the NYSC Act, should have participated in the year-long national service.
THE AUDACIOUS FORGERY
But rather than present himself for national service, Mr. Atunwa stayed back in the United Kingdom, returning only in 2005 to join the cabinet of then Governor Bukola Saraki in Kwara State at the age of 36.
Between 2005 and 2010 when he stepped down to run for office, the politician was commissioner at four different ministries, including Land and Housing, Works and Transport, Information and Home Affairs and Finance.
It was not immediately clear whether or not Mr Atunwa presented any NYSC document to authorities since 2005 when he was first appointed commissioner, 2011 when he became speaker and 2015 when he became member of the House of Representatives.
But to secure the PDP governorship ticket on October 1, he submitted a counterfeit NYSC discharge certificate and accompanied it with an affidavit, indicating he lied on oath, an offence that attracts up to 14 years in jail.
Mr Atunwa — who claimed he qualified for law practice in the United Kingdom after obtaining undergraduate and master’s degrees at separate universities in London — indicated in the nomination document he submitted at the PDP national secretariat in Abuja that he partook in the youth service scheme between 1995 and 1996.
The lawmaker, who is chair of the House Committee on Justice, then accompanied it with a notarised affidavit sworn at the Kwara State High Court in Ilorin on September 10. The document was attached to his PDP expression of interest form.
He signed the document despite a clause indicating he remained automatically disqualified as candidate if any statement or information he provided is found to be false, inaccurate, or mislead the party or its agents from making proper assessment of his competence to contest the governorship election under the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
It remains to be seen if the PDP will enforce its own rule and disqualify him as a result of this revelation. Governorship elections are scheduled to hold February 2019.
One could see at first glance that Mr. Atunwa’s so-called discharge certificate is fake.
For one, Mr Atunwa’s ‘certificate’ purportedly obtained in 1996 carried the signature of Walter Oki (brigadier general at the time). But Mr Oki was only made NYSC director-general in 2002. In 1996, Soyemi Sofoluwe (brigadier general) was director-general of the corps and signed all discharge and exemption certificates during the period. He was succeeded by S.M. Dule (brigadier general), who served as director-general between 1996 and 2000.
To further crosscheck the authenticity of Mr Atunwa’s ‘certificate’, PT compared his with original ones that bore the basics of the document, especially those from foreign university graduates.
At least three ministers who returned to Nigeria to serve after finishing from schools in the UK and the United States had similar call-up mark in their certificates, which usually carries the acronym of the institution, the state where the participant served, where the person was called up, the year of service and the serial number for the certificate.
For instance, Ibe Kachikwu, the minister of state for petroleum, has his NYSC certificate marked as NYSC/OY/FORN/82/7101. Mr Kachikwu was deployed for service in Oyo State (OY) on August 16, 1982, passing out a year later on August 15, 1983. He came back to Nigeria to serve after completing his doctorate in law at Harvard University (FORN) in December 1981.
Aisha Abubakar, the minister of state trade and industry, returned to Nigeria after concluding her masters in development studies at the University of Leeds. Her certificate is marked NYSC/LA/FRN/91/18170, indicating that she served in Lagos, after graduating from a foreign university.
Khadija Bukar Ibrahim, the minister of state foreign affairs, also schooled abroad. She attended Roehampton Institute for Higher Education, affiliated with the University of Surrey and finished in 1989. She enlisted in the NYSC on October 2, 1990 and passed out on October 1, 1991. Her certificate is marked NYSC/LA/FRN/90/28750, indicating that she served in Lagos (LA) after graduating from a foreign university (FRN) in 1990.
However, Mr. Atunwa’s certificate, rather than bear FRN or FORN (code for foreign graduates) has KWP (a code reserved for graduates of Kwara State Polytechnic) as identification mark. But the politician did not graduate from Kwara Polytechnic. He claimed he attended the University of East London for the first degree and the University of London for his master’s.
“This is the most audacious forgery since Premium Times began investigation into NYSC claims of senior government officials and politicians generally,” Liborous Oshoma, a Lagos-based legal practitioner, told PT on Sunday afternoon.
Oshoma said Atunwa appeared to have broken Nigerian law twice.
“Based on Section 13 (c) of the NYSC Act, even being in possession of a forged NYSC certificate is already a crime,” Mr Oshoma said. “And then we now have an affidavit that he swore to and walked himself into perjury, another criminal offence.”
“You could say Kemi Adeosun did not know some people gave her fake document, and Mr Shittu was being exuberant, but this particular case is very troubling,” the lawyer said. “He knew of those recent cases and still went on to do it.
“This is amongst the consequences of the president’s failure to act on time or act at all on the already uncovered cases. Since the former finance minister was able to escape from the country without prosecution and the communications minister remains in office despite being found not to be qualified for the job, this man could easily dismiss any legal ramifications of his action,” he added.
“Since it has now come to the fore that if you graduated before 30, either from a Nigerian university or abroad, you know you do not qualify for exemption and you must serve and if you forge your document you would be exposed, I would have expected that all those who schooled abroad would start investigating whether the NYSC document they were given was genuine or not. There is no hiding place anymore.”