The investigation confirms a long-existing fraud in the Nigerian courts’ affidavit-issuing system.
It was a Monday morning in May. By then, the judiciary workers’ nationwide strike had kept courts across the country shut for five weeks. So, it was reasonable to expect the courts’ gates to be closed.
However, at the High Court premises in Kubwa, a satellite town of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, such an expectation was far from reality.
Touts, photographers, and court officials were seen loitering around the premises. They surged towards whoever came in their direction scrambling to win the attention of the visitors. There was also free movement in and out of the court premises.
After observing the activities around the court on May 10, our reporter, the next day, inserted himself in the curious scenes playing out around the premises that were supposed to be closed.
”You are welcome sir,” they chorused, as they swarmed towards our reporter. They asked if he needed an affidavit.
This reporter randomly chose to talk to one of them, a tall, dark, slender man, who appeared to be a tout acting for an official.
“I want to get an affidavit,” our reporter told the man.
Now at the centre of what he had seen unfold many times the previous day, our reporter was led by the man to a woman seated in a car parked beside a tree providing a shield for a group of people.
A fee of N1,000 was agreed with the woman. She asked if our correspondent had obtained a police report, but did not wait for an answer before saying it was not necessary.
After getting our correspondent’s details, a man assisting her helped in completing the form. The form was completed and stamped in the woman’s car.
But just before the deal ended, there was one more crucial thing to do. The man informed our reporter that he would have to backdate the affidavit.
Writing the true date on the affidavit would give the document away as having been “illegally” issued during the strike when court was officially closed, he explained.
Our reporter agreed. Although the day was May 11, the affidavit was backdated to April 1. The fee of N1,000 was paid before the affidavit was handed over to our reporter.
PREMIUM TIMES similarly visited the Sharia Court of Appeal, in the Bwari Area Council of the FCT, where officials were seen in the court premises despite the ongoing court workers’ strike.
At the court, our reporter also witnessed the officials issuing affidavits in the middle of the ongoing strike. As was the case at Kubwa, no proof for the claims of the deponents is ever requested.
Our reporter paid N1,000 for the affidavits. This transaction took place in an office on the court premises on May 11. The date that was written on the affidavit was backdated to April 1, 2021, to make it appear that it was issued before the strike began on April 6.
Affidavit traders take over
Courts across the country have been officially closed for over seven weeks because of the ongoing strike embarked upon by workers who are members of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN). The workers shut down the courts on April 6 in agitation for financial independence of the judiciary. There are ongoing talks to end the strike which is in its eighth week.
But despite the court closure, corrupt court officials in connivance with touts are illegally issuing affidavits at high fees, findings by our correspondent have revealed.
Our correspondent monitored the activities of the affidavit touts for months in Abuja and Nasarawa State. Findings of the exercise reveal how officials, and their agents hide this fraud by backdating the affidavits issued to deponents during the strike.
The Oaths Act requires a person who needs an affidavit to appear before a commissioner of oath in the registry of a court, a judge, or a lawyer that has been appointed as a notary public by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).
As the courts’ doors are shut because of the ongoing strike, the option available to prospective deponents is to approach a notary public.
But instead of going to the official channels, many Nigerians pick up their affidavits practically from anywhere especially around court premises without appearing before any designated official, our reporter’s findings revealed.
“Those court officials involved are mischievous and desperate. I have warned them against it because their jobs are at stake,” Jimoh Musa, who is the National Treasurer of JUSUN and top official of the Nasarawa State High Court, said when our reporter’s findings were shared with him.
The scam thrives on the impatience of many Nigerians who dislike going through the relatively long process of getting the crucial document.
In many cases, police reports that are required for certain affidavits to be obtained are bypassed, and through that, the deponents can get away with false claims in the court documents without any fear of repercussion.
Despite these, the affidavits that are issued through these fraudulent channels can hardly be distinguished from those that emanate from the official sources.
Giving an insight into how it is possible for the documents to pass the authenticity test, Mr Musa said, “For an ordinary person to issue affidavits with the oath stamps, means there is a connivance with the officers in charge for oath.”
Mr Musa, who has worked in the court environment for years, said further, “it can mean that the officials involved continue to have access to the stamp despite the court closure.
“This means such a person has been in that business a long time ago,” he added.
Affidavit fraud predates strike
The Wuse Zone 2 Magistrates’ Court is one court location of the FCT judiciary where fraudulent hawking of affidavits thrived long before the JUSUN strike began.
Our reporter visited the court in March, and what played out was a repeat of the same pattern that our correspondent saw at different courts over the period of the investigation.
Just a few metres away from the court premises, at least six men rushed to him, asking if our reporter wanted an affidavit. Our reporter said he needed an affidavit for his lost identity card.
One of them who won our reporter’s attention explained that the fee for the affidavit was N500.
In a bid to make the official channel look cumbersome, he said “you will have to go to the bank and make payment. You will then bring the receipt here.”
“But if you want it fast, I will do it for you for N2,000,” he quickly added.
He also brought in another person whom he said would provide a police report. After much haggling, a total fee of N4,000 was agreed for the issuance of the affidavit.
After taking the information meant to be captured in the affidavit, he went away and returned shortly with the document typed and stamped. The affidavit bore the date it was issued, since the courts were officially open, and our reporter did not request a backdating.
It was also found out that on many occasions, even when the right sources are approached for an affidavit, no attempt is made to ascertain any of the facts presented by deponents.
Like it happened in other places, officials also help the deponents to bypass the police or take additional fees to help to procure the police report which the “client” would never get to see.
Our reporter also had a bumpy ride to the High Court in Mararaba, a part of Nasarawa State close to the FCT, and obtained an affidavit for a purported loss of an identity card with N1,000. No question or police report was requested before it was issued to our reporter.
Our reporter also confirmed during the ongoing strike that some notaries public, lawyers who are qualified to authenticate statements of oath, also use touts to issue affidavits without any form of verification of deponents’ claims.
The touts were seen openly hawking affidavit around the magistrate’s court in Ebute Metta, Lagos State. Our reporter obtained an affidavit signed by a notary public for a purported loss of a SIM card from one of the touts around the court during the ongoing judiciary workers’ strike.
Interviews with other Nigerians also showed that the fraud in the affidavit system is widespread across the country.
For instance, one respondent, Ibironke Shokunbi, a 28-year-old Lagos-based customer care service agent, said she picked an affidavit for a banking purpose from “a roadside businessman opposite Shoprite Ikeja” in Lagos in 2017.
She was told police report was not necessary even though the affidavit had to do with the correction of her name.
Affidavit, a statement of truth coming out of falsehood?
An affidavit is a statement sworn to as the truth. Ironically, however, it often emanates from fraudulent sources
Findings show that authorities are aware of the age-long existence of fraudulent affidavit business around court premises but appear to be helpless or simply turn a blind eye.
For instance, the Lagos State judiciary warned in a March 2019 Facebook post, “Do not patronise individuals around the High Court to swear an affidavit.”
The Chief Registrar of the Nasarawa State High Court, Sanni Ahmed, did not deny that such fraudulent affidavits bearing the name of the court are being issued during the strike.
But he said the court management had often warned “Nigerians who want to swear affidavits to visit the court registries, not any person they said is in charge of holding any affidavits form.”
Mr Ahmed, who is the court’s accounting officer and assists the Chief Judge in discharging other administrative duties, said affidavits emanating from illegal sources are “not authentic”.
“I am telling you that the proper process and procedure for securing them are not followed, because it is not from the designated officials,” he added.
The absence of a decisive action taken by authorities to curb the fraud is at variance with the sensitive and highly important purposes affidavits are used for.
Affidavits can either be used as evidence in court or for other non-court proceedings, legal experts said.
The ones used for court proceedings are usually not problematic. The ones used outside the courtrooms are those prone to fraud, even though they are deployed for life-changing purposes such as complete change of identities like name of persons, date of birth, marriage status, among others.
Other purposes affidavits are used for outside the courtrooms include, loss of vital documents, such as educational certificates, among others.
Window for making quick money
There are no fixed fees for affidavits across Nigerian courts. The management of various courts decides the fees to impose for affidavits of different types.
For instance, a 2019 report by this newspaper revealed that the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, charges N10 for declaration-of-age affidavit and N300 for affidavits needed for court proceedings.
In Ondo State, fees for all types of affidavit were in April pegged at N300.
Lagos State judiciary announced a fixed fee of N500 for affidavits issued by its courts in a Facebook post in 2019.
It previously reported that the Court of Appeal also charges N300 for affidavits. But with additional N157 bank charges, a deponent will pay N457 at the end of the day.
The FCT judiciary also charges N500 as fee for affidavit and N200 for the court’s seal to be affixed to the document, making a total of N700.
The seal was introduced in June 2019 as a requirement that must be affixed to any document issued by the court in the FCT.
The Chief Registrar of the High Court of Nasarawa, Mr Ahmed, told our reporter that the “whole process” of issuing an affidavit by the courts in the state costs N700.
But despite the relatively cheap rates for affidavit in different courts, many Nigerians, even when the courts are fully open, prefer to get it from touts at higher fees.
For a process that costs not more than N700 officially, many Nigerians willingly pay between N1,000 to N4,000 to private pockets.
The value they get for paying more is that the touts and their official collaborators help them to bypass checks and the need for a police report.
Mr Ahmed, the chief registrar of Nasarawa State High Court, said the court management had been told about the involvement of some staff members in the racket. He said the matter had been reported but could not tell if any action was taken.
“Actually, we have reported to the State Security Service (SSS) and the Criminal Investigation Department of the police. We receive reports that some of our staff members are into this racket. They take it as a business, they collect high amounts, despite that the whole process costs just about N700 – the affidavit is N500 and the seal is N200.”
It’s criminal, revenue loss
Fees collected for oath-taking/affidavit constitute a fraction of government revenue.
They formed a series of sub-heads in the Kogi State government’s anticipated internally generated revenue for year 2018.
But under the fraudulent scheme confirmed by PREMIUM TIMES, no receipt is issued for the fees paid by deponents, an indication that the revenues that ought to accrue to the government from the issuance of affidavits are diverted into private pockets.
“For such affidavits obtained in that way, no receipt is issued. It is fraudulent because you cannot account for that affidavit. Money is supposed to be remitted to the government, so the persons obtaining the affidavits are supposed to be issued receipts that come with numbers. But that does not happen in this case,” Mr Musa said.
Corroborating our reporter’s findings, the experienced court official said, “If you notice, what they are issuing is a backdated affidavit because they cannot use the current date since the courts are on strike.
“If you find out you will notice they are backdating it to read April or any time before the strike. Such is a fraudulent affidavit.”
The National Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the body of Nigerian lawyers, Rapulu Nduka, also spoke on the criminality of the issuance of court affidavits during the ongoing court strike.
“I am sure that when the affidavits are stamped, they would be backdating those court documents.
”It is wrong, criminal, it is terrible that someone would engage in such activities,” he said.
Money paid to touts and their official agents for issuance of affidavits is also a bribe, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ozekhome, said.
“Consumer protection also means that consumers have to protect themselves by resisting demands for bribery,” he said.
He advised that Nigerians should report any incident of demand for unofficial fees for an affidavit to the Chief Judge of the court.
Mr Nduka, the NBA national officer, also said it was a breach of procedure to obtain a court-issued affidavit without appearing before the designated commissioner for oath.
“Affidavit should be sworn before a designated court official or commissioner for oath. If it is not done before a commissioner for oath, then it is not authentic,” he said.
On his part, Jiti Ogunye, a public interest lawyer based in Lagos, said “it is appropriate for the court officials to ask for some preliminary records the person should bring to confirm that it is the deponent’s age.”
Mr Ogunye pointed out how the current system makes it easy for civil servants to obtain affidavits to shorten their age with the ultimate goal of elongating their service period.
“Another example is where people want to enlist in the military, and they yank off about five to six years from their age to qualify for recruitment. Same with the police force. And footballers also do the same.
“So, we have such a problem. Therefore, there should be some preliminary records before one can secure affidavits,” Mr Ogunye added.
Those making false claims in their affidavits are probably not aware that they are committing the offence of perjury, which is willfully telling an untruth or making a misrepresentation under oath. Perjury is criminalised in Nigeria through the Penal Code which is applicable to the northern states and the Criminal Code which applies to the southern states.
Mr Ogunye said there was the need to put in place a measure to check “the prevalence of people using such a declaration to alter their public service age because they want to spend more time in public service.”
Police officers speak
The head of the legal department of the FCT police command, James Idachaba, also said bypassing the police might discredit the affidavit.
“As a matter of fact, obtaining a police report before deposing to affidavits is for being sure of the authenticity of what the affidavits is expected to achieve,” he said.
A former head of the legal department at the police force headquarters, David Igbodo, said it was important to report stolen documents to the police before deposing to an affidavit about it.
“If a person loses a document, the first thing he/she should do is to report such development to the police. If you are travelling on the road and they attack you, they stole your passport, I.D card, money, and other valuable things, you will have to report to the police. Then you go to the court to depose to affidavits.”
Need for technology
Technology experts have suggested the need for the government to improve and ensure adequate data systems that could help curtail records falsification which the current affidavit system allows.
A tech expert and social commentator, Olanrewaju Oyedeji, criticised the lack of a centralised data system in the country.
“You will see a case in which someone can declare different ages at different times and he/she will have valid documents. This will then make you begin to think of why does the system allow that?
“The issue is that we lack a centralised or coordinated system for citizens’ information,” he said.
The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) maintains the database of biometric information of Nigerians and other residents. But its database is not currently accessible by other public institutions.
“I think we need to build a formidable database for our citizens to capture their age from birth and have it in a centralised system.
“If you want to alter an age, it should reflect on the central system, that way, it becomes harder to commit such an offence because the system is coordinated from a central database,” Mr Oyedeji said.
Officials keep mum
PREMIUM TIMES made efforts to check if the Federal Ministry of Justice’s justice administration policy encompasses measures to curb fraud in the affidavit-issuing system in the country.
But both Umar Gwandu, the spokesperson for justice minister Abubakar Malami, and the justice ministry’s head of press unit, Modupe Ogundoro, declined to speak on the issue.
They both said the matter was outside the scope of their briefs.
The Director, Information, National Judiciary Council (NJC), Soji Oye, also said he could not comment on the matter.
Although the NJC plays the role of making general judicial policies for the entire Nigerian judiciary, Mr Oye said the council “is not responsible for court officials” who are involved in the affidavit fraud, but the heads of various courts.
Unlike the Chief Registrar of Nasarawa State High Court who talked to our reporter on the matter, the Chief Registrar of the FHigh Court, Mustapha Adamu, whose office is currently closed due to the ongoing JUSUN strike, did not respond to multiple calls and text message enquiries.
Foreign countries accept affidavits with additional proofs
Our reporter confirmed that affidavits issued by Nigerian courts are accepted by foreign countries in visa-related matters only as supporting documents in visa-related matters.
The Republic of Ireland’s Department of Justice confirmed this in a reply to our reporter’s e-mail enquiry.
The reply, signed by Conor O’Riordan, reads, “It’s important to note that the submission of supporting documentation does not guarantee that an application will be successful. The onus of proof as to the genuineness of the relationship rests on the applicant and their sponsor. A Visa Officer considers each application on its merits and may request additional information or documentation.”
The Canadian visa desk in Nigeria also said in a reply to our reporter’s e-mail enquiry that “all documents submitted by applicants from their home countries, including affidavits and court orders are duly considered to ensure applicants meet all the eligibility requirements for permanent or temporary residence.”
“This is the case no matter what country the documents come from,” the reply added.