Bayelsa’s identity theft, Douye Diri and our gene of fraud

THE Bayelsa State governorship election voided by the Supreme Court on Thursday last week has provoked a conversation on the metastasis of the cancer of identity theft in Nigeria and the country’s place in this malaise in the world. The most instructive of the several historical narratives of identity theft was one that happened in the 1540s. It was the story of one Martin Guerre, a 16th-century French Basque peasant, who lived in the village of Artigat in the French Pyrenees.

Born in a village called Hendaye in 1525, Guerre inherited his father’s wealth but faced several challenges, in spite of his prosperity. One challenge he faced was his sexual impotence and the fact that he could not consummate his relatively young marriage, a problem that was solved by a sorceress who was said to have helped him cast out this demon. Shortly after, his wife gave birth to a boy named Sanxi. Guerre’s most dominant challenge however was that he hated Artigat village. Suddenly, he decided to elope. To Spain, he fled, worked as a lackey in the palace of a Cardinal and got enlisted as a soldier. One day, on St. Lawrence’s day in 1557, he got shot in the leg, causing it to be amputated. While this was ongoing, his disappearance caused a lot of uproar in Artigat. Efforts were made to locate his whereabouts which became futile. Then the village and his wife, Bertrande, took his disappearance as a fait accompli.

One day, however, in the summer of 1556, some eight years after, a man who had similar features with the long-lost Guerre presented himself to Bertrande. She was excited and threw her arms open to him. Later revelations about him revealed that his real name was Arnaud du Tilh from the village of Sajas, in Gascony. He was a renowned actor who possessed a photographic brain. He had taken his time to learn every bit about the real Guerre. Though Bertrande saw in him shared replica features of her husband, there were some connects, mannerisms and manifestations that were off-keyed, especially Arnaud du Tilh’s thirst for Guerre’s material assets. When a soldier, passing through Artigat, who claimed he had seen Guerre’s leg amputated on St. Lawrence’s day in 1557, told Artigat villagers that the impostor couldn’t have been Guerre, the stage was set for a seismic revelation of the impostor’s true identity.

Persuaded of his real person, Arnaud du Tilh was dragged to court, which proceeded to the Toulouse Parliament. On the verge of an acquittal since Bertrande claimed he was indeed her husband due to the semblance of features, the real Martin Guerre showed up. Arnaud du Tilh was convicted and hanged by the state.

The Guerre story is one of the most long-lasting identity theft stories in world history. It spoke of how a person could live a lie as an identity for years undetected. On Thursday last week, though dissimilar due to the foggish motive behind it, the Nigerian Supreme Court established that Mr. Biobarakuma Degi-Eremieoyo, erstwhile Deputy Governorship candidate of Bayelsa State, was a miniature of Arnaud du Tilh, establishing a case of his enmeshment in serial identity theft issues that lasted for decades. The court voided both his and the governor-elect, David Lyon’s joint governorship candidature.

In the course of the trial, the Supreme Court found out that the name in Degi-Eremieoyo’s First School Leaving Certificate issued in 1976 was Degi, Biobragha; his WAEC/GCE, 1984 certificate bore the name Adegi Brokumo; his first degree bears Degi Biobarakuma Wangawa; the affidavit of Correction and Confirmation of Name he swore to on August 9, 2018 bore Biobarakuma Degi; another Affidavit of Regularisation of Name sworn to on September 18, 2018 bore Biobarakuma Wanagha Degi Erkmienyo; another one sworn to same day claimed that the alphabet “A” was inadvertently added to his surname, to read Biobarakuma Wanagba Adegi, but his 1984 WAEC/GCE certificate bore Adegi Biobakuma and not Biobakuma Wanagha Adegi, among other irregularities.

It may be argued on the superficial that these irregularities in Degi-Eremieoyo’s name might have resulted from an imprecise mind and not strictly a fraudulent intention. However, the most obvious insinuation that could arise from these irregular ding-dong claims is intent to defraud and subvert. In a country as ours that is brimming and riven by identity theft issues at the political and even social levels of the society, it may be too superfluous of anyone to excuse Degi-Eremieoyo’s imprecisions. The truth is, since the 1914 amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorates, stealing of identities, laying claim to false identities and flaunting of spruced-up identities, have become posters of our social interactions. Political barons have been major culprits of these concocted identities, resulting in charlatans occupying political positions that they were not qualified for. Since 1999, a horde of fakers of identities and personalities have gone in and out of Government Houses, political positions at all levels of government and appointments bearing fake identities, with dire consequences for us and our country in the estimation of the world.

On the financial plane for example, identity theft and financially related crimes are on the upswing. With viral use of Information and Communication Technology, many impostors are hoisting identities that are not theirs to swindle unsuspecting victims. Being a contact-based economy, sustained by who you know, the need to steal identities has become rife. With its brimming over-150 million internet users, a figure that is on the increase almost on a daily basis, a high percentage of who are subjected to internet related subversion of their identities so as to gain financial advantages off them, Nigeria’s cyberspace is a lush and lucrative ground for cybercriminals. On the same level is the rampant mode of online identity theft as well as a regime of social media impersonation. Big shots have had their identities cloned by fakers to gain advantages. Only last year in the United States, federal officials indicted 80 Nigerians for fraud and money laundering offences, amounts totaled $46 million or £38 million. The US attorney’s office for the Central District of California had filed a 145-page, 252-count indictment which named 80 suspects of involvement in this crime, with at least 77 of them identified as Nigerians. This and many others, as well as official abetment of these crimes, due to the endemic virus of corruption, have resulted in Transparency International herding Nigeria in the group of the most notoriously corrupt countries of the world.

Perhaps the most verdant and fertile ground for identity theft in Nigeria is the political landscape. Uncharted, uncensored and literally a no-man’s island, the political plane is apparently susceptible to this vice because Nigeria celebrates and glorifies achievements and is a country where certificates are glorified ahead of competence and capability. It also undoubtedly flourishes because there is no centralized data capturing system.

Beginning with the famous and notorious cases of Salisu Buhari, Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Evan(s) Enwerem at the outset of the Fourth Republic in 1999, identity theft crisis has since then been on the rise. While Buhari, erstwhile Speaker of the House of Representatives’ claim to the lower chamber was fraught with serial forgeries, he was ultimately removed as a result of the residual activist inclinations in Nigerians, accumulated since the days of the military. While he claimed to have attained the age of 36 years in 1999, the young man, representing Kano constituency, was actually born in 1970. His further claim to have graduated from the Canadian University of Toronto, with a degree in Business Administration, was catapulted by the university. Also, in a petition in 1999 by one Dr. Waliu Balogun, erstwhile Lagos State governor, Tinubu’s claim to have attended the Chicago State University, going by his INEC Form 001 at the time of contesting the Lagos State governorship poll, was shot down. His claim of having attended Government College, Ibadan, was also alleged to be false, as well as his age claim. While Tinubu claimed to have been born in 1952, Balogun submitted that this was gross discrepancy as he had earlier, in documents at the said Chicago university, claimed that he was born in 1954. Though Buhari was shown the gate, Tinubu weathered the storm of his litany of identity crises.

Several other political barons have followed suit, ranging from Dino Melaye, Ayo Fayose, Adams Oshiomhole, Gabriel Suswan, Presidents Goodluck Jonathan, Muhammadu Buhari, among other top political players. While President Olusegun Obasanjo had opened Jonathan’s Pandora’s box by his seemingly innocuous comment to wit, “Even Jonathan did not finish his PhD course but when it was presented, we stated that it does not matter but many people did not know because it was a PDP thing,” Buhari’s own became an object of intense judicial battle until a few months to the 2019 elections. The Daura-born president had been accused of not possessing a School Certificate even at the point of enlistment into the Nigerian Army.

Today, identity theft has become endemic in Nigeria. There is hardly any workplace that does not have one or two harvests of this vice. We have come to such a moral low that the vice has become pandemic, society just not bothered a hoot about it any longer. In those days, an accusation of someone being an impostor attracted a raging viper’s venom-like spit. Dr. Okechekwu Ikejiani, an ally of Nnamdi Azikiwe and a former Chairman of the Ibadan University College, had been impugned by the Tribune in a culled letter-to-the-editor opinion piece earlier published in the Daily Service of October 13, 1951.

In the letter, the writer, one Aina Adetokun, writing from Ekotedo, Ibadan, had castigated Ikejiani thus: “In fairness to Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, bearing one or two occasions in which he collected public money without rendering any accounts, he has been trying to make an honest living. He is on the whole earning his keep. One of the things that vitiate Dr. Azikiwe’s leadership is the type of noisy and dishonest colleagues who proclaim him ‘god of Africa’. And who are these disciples? One Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani, former Chairman of the Ibadan University College, returned to Nigeria about three years ago with a lot of fanfare. He claimed to have obtained a doctorate degree in medicine. It was later proved that the degree was a fake. Consequently the quack expert was kicked out of the university.” Ikejiani had sued the medium and the Supreme Court of Nigeria, the Ibadan Judicial Division, under Mr. Justice Miles Abbott, giving judgment on September 12, 1952, held that Dr. Ikejiani had been disparaged by the article and awarded him “the sum of 750 pounds in damages and 10 pounds for costs, plus 30 pounds for disbursements.”

Nigeria’s social and political spaces are riddled with identity fakers. Today, there are governors, advisers, president, ministers and all what-ought-nots who are embroiled in thievery. Rather than ostracize them, we egg them on by calling them “Excellencies” and other adulations. If an electoral candidate claims to possess a certificate before nomination and while filling same nomination form, decides to stick to his School Leaving Certificate, shouldn’t this be a red flag to the party nominating him? In a state in the South-West, a governor ostensibly doesn’t possess the certificates he earlier claimed to possess, regales himself with the prefix of “Prince Dr. Governor” and society moves on as if nothing is amiss.

The Supreme Court judgment which voided Degi-Eremieoyo and David Lyon’s joint governorship candidature is a step in the right direction as it may signal to subverters and supplanters that no matter how long it takes, identity thieves will not escape the hammer of justice. The only drawback in the judgment is that it seems to bring back, through the backdoor, Supreme Court’s own resolve not to apply the principle of the Rotimi Amaechi v Celestine Omehia decision which itself had been voided by Section 141 of the Electoral Act. There seems to be huge injustice in an election which gave Lyon/Degi-Eremieoyo 352,552 votes, as against Douye Diri’s 143,172, now having Diri sitting pretty on that governorship stool.

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