By Dapo Okubanjo
In politics, fishing expedition is a phrase used to describe an investigation that lacks a clear scope and defined purpose but is actually meant to tarnish an image or create a damaging impression. But some dictionaries also describe it as a ‘legal interrogation to discover information for a later proceeding’.
So when President Bola Tinubu’s legal team described efforts by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2023 Presidential election to get the President’s academic records from the Chicago State University (CSU) as a fishing expedition, it sounded odd to many Nigerians.
This is because of the context,which is the legal step taken by Allhaji Abubakar in the United States to gain some insight into the academic records as part of efforts to prove that President Tinubu was not qualified to contest in the 2023 Presidential election.
And in the process of seeking to block the move, the President’s counsel argued in the US court that Atiku was simply engaging in a fishing expedition, politically.
This may explain why the use of the words ‘severe and irreparable damage’ were used in an attempt to prevent the courts from acceding to the request.
But eventually the former Vice President had his way, documents including Tinubu’s academic records were ordered released to him followed by a deposition proceedings where the CSU registrar, Caleb Westberg was grilled for hours by Atiku’s lawyers.
So what’s next? And this is where the issue of fishing expedition or what another Tinubu lawyer calls a voyage of discovery comes in.
For people like former Presidential Spokesman Dr Reuben Abati, there is no single smoking gun in the deposition that the PDP Presidential candidate could latch on to and even if there was, it would be difficult for it to be used in the Supreme Court.
And listening to Atiku Abubakar in his much publicized press conference in the aftermath of the deposition, it was not clear if he believed he indeed had something to use for his appeal against the ruling of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT) which affirmed President Tinubu’s electoral victory.
If he did, it was not obvious from the text he read in the day or from his response to questions from the media even though he expressed a readiness to abide by the decision of the Supreme Court.
What Nigerians heard was a rallying cry by Atiku for a united opposition which could have been better before Peter Obi of Labour Party (LP) and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPC) dumped the PDP because it looked more like a case of shutting the barn door after the horse had bolted.
Or could it be a battle cry ahead of the next election cycle?
The other side of it which may give some credence to the position of Tinubu’s lawyers is the impression that was created by one of Atiku’s lawyers, Kalu Kalu that a case of forgery was established against the President in the course of the deposition proceedings.
Speaking in Abuja at the same press conference addressed by the former Vice President, Kalu said, “On the certificate issued or released by Chicago State University to the lawyers of Alhajji Atiku Abubakar. These are the documents; One, that Bola Ahmed Tinubu forged the certificate he presented to INEC.
“Two, that the qualified certificate from Southwest College to Chicago State University bears a female. That means that document does not belong to Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
This position is however not what the CSU registrar put forward at the deposition.
Westberg did not explicitly say that the certificate presented to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was a forgery and one of the President’s media aide, Temitope Ajayi, was indeed very quick to dismissed that claim.
He said: “We should be clear. In the deposition made by the Chicago State University, there was nowhere the University said the certificate presented to INEC by President Tinubu is fake.
“The University insisted under oath that President Tinubu graduated with honours and even at that, replacements for lost certificates are done by vendors not the University.”
And knowing that the outcome of the deposition may not be admissible as evidence in Atiku’s appeal at the apex court,one might be tempted to agree that what happened in America at the instance of the PDP Presidential candidate may be a fishing expedition, not legally speaking, but one that was designed to cause ‘severe and irreparable damage’, politically to the President.
Dapo Okubanjo, a journalist and public affairs analyst, writes from Abuja via firstname.lastname@example.org