13 November 2011

Nigeria: How Courts Issue Certificates Without Due Process

Government documents are finding their way into the hands of fraudsters because agencies and parastatals saddled with the responsibilities of issuing such documents do not follow the laid down rules and regulation. MICHAEL OCHE and KEHINDE AJOBIEWE write on how some unscrupulous court officials in Nigeria engage in the issuing of these relevant government documents without following due process.

Getting a court affidavit for a missing document normally require one going through the process of first securing police report, but investigation has shown that one does not need to go through such difficult process, thanks to the 'cooperative' nature of some 'court officials'.

Godfrey Chuks works with an Abuja based Information Technology firm. Last Friday, he went to the magistrate court in Suleja to process a declaration of age. However, what makes his visit to the court unique was that he was processing a declaration of age for his late father.

Chuks' father had died in the recent post election crises, and his insurance company required the next of kin to provide the declaration of age as part of document they needed to process his insurance policy.

When he inquired from an official at the gate the direction to the office where he could process the birth certificate, he responded by asking if he has a particular person that would help him? He replied in the negative. The officer then directed him to another male official sitting under a tree, a few metres away.

Chuks met the man under the tree attending to another client. He motions him to wait. After some minutes, he brought out a bunch of forms from his bag, gave one to Chuks to quickly complete and return with N500. Chuks disagrees with the price and decided to bargain; soon they arrived at a price of N300. Chuks quickly filled the form, omitting some of the information he could not provide.

Normally, the process requires the presence of the person whose age is being declared at the court, but within 20 minutes, Chuks already has an original declaration of age certificate, stamped with the seal of the commissioner for oaths.

While Chuks was charged N300, some clients paid about N500 to cover cost and service charge. Chuks' experience paints a picture of some of the shady deals taking place in the Nigerian judiciary which are in contrast to the good image it cut for itself.

Before now, court officials were not engaging in touting for the procurement of marriage certificates or other affidavit, but investigations have shown that some officials now do so full time. It is done openly despite its being illegal.

LEADERSHIP SUNDAY findings show that the officials indulging in the touting operate as syndicates reward officers at the gate who collude by directing prospective applicants to them.

But, unlike the activities of touts that led to many cases of fake certificates in the past, the ones handled by these crop of officials- as in Chuks' case, are nonetheless genuine. This explains the extra charge that go into their pockets for their services while they pay the statutory fees into the official coffers.

A similar scenario played out when our reporter visited Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC) Marriage Registry in Garki to get a declaration of age certificate for a supposed wedding.

On getting there, the reporter met with an 'official' to whom she narrated her need for the marriage certificate allegedly demanded by the church where the marriage is to take place as a pre-condition to join her and her husband in holy matrimony.

At first, the official demanded that the reporter meet with some of their own requirements which involve some cash.

According to him, "you have to pay N2,000, to the bank and N5,000 cash to our office for you to get your marriage certificate after 21 working days. In addition to this, you must come with two passport photographs each, one witness each and your birth certificates or declaration of birth".

The reporter appealed to the marriage registry 'official' to fast track the issuance of the declaration of marriage certificate in two days as demanded by her husband and because their wedding is billed for the third day, Saturday.

The official promptly responded by saying, "If you want it so urgent, you have to pay the sum of N11,000". This reporter pleaded with him to reduce the price but he refused, instead he referred her to his senior colleague, who corroborated the first official's story and repeated the same demand. After much pleading to reduce the price all he could say was, "that is the way we do it here, are you ready for it?" he asked, holding out a form for her to fill.

When the reporter also visited the serene environment of Garki Customary court for a birth and marriage certificates, she was told that they could only issue her a birth certificate. Sitting comfortably in her office, one of the officials of the court who appeared to be a lawyer, said, " we can only issue you a birth certificate, and as for the marriage certificate, you have to go to AMAC because that is the only place you can get that".

When asked what she needs to provide for a birth certificate, the official said, "you have to pay N100 only and just you here is our only requirement".

The civil marriage is very important as it is recognised by the laws of Nigeria and can on its own serve as proof of a marriage contract between two people.

This reporter eventually got the money ready the next day, and within 10 minutes she already has a declaration of age certificate, with a stamped original receipt. But what surprised her was that her father who was supposed to be present to verify her age was unavailable. She even had to sign on behalf of her father.

Leadership Sunday investigations also reveal that affidavit for missing documents are being issued with reckless abandon. Due process which requires police report is not being followed when these government documents are issued. And sometimes they fall into the hands of dubious characters who eventually use them to perpetrate fraud.

Speaking to LEADERSHIP SUNDAY, a legal practitioner, Barr. Barth Omozopia of Magnum chambers, said a police report must be presented before an affidavit can be issued for any stolen item.

In the case of getting a birth certificate or declaration of age, he said an older relative of the person who wants to get the certificate must be present to attest to the date of birth of the applicant.

"The older person could be the person's father, mother or uncle. He or she must be someone who knows when the applicant was born" he said.

Speaking further, he said, "It is necessary that due process must be followed in getting any of these documents. But it is not a punishable offence under the law when someone issues any of the documents without following due process. You know some of the court officials circumvent the process because they want to get some quick money from applicants. In doing so, they might not wait for the presence of family members while issuing a birth certificate or request for a police report while issuing an affidavit for stolen item."

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