Lagos residents throng courts to acquire affidavits and other documents on a daily basis. Some engage legal practitioners while many undertake the process themselves. Those in the latter category often fall prey to agents/traders who loiter around court premises advertising affidavits with falsified government seals. To curb the falsification of affidavits, the Lagos state judiciary in 2017 introduced an official seal that was to be affixed on all court documents. Since the introduction, original affidavits issued in Lagos high court jurisdictions usually have the seal attached to them. But according to TheCable’s findings, many agents have perfected the falsification of the seal, thereby denying the government of much-needed revenue. This is a first-hand account by AYODELE OLUWAFEMI.
As soon as I alighted from the commercial bus, two affidavit traders hurriedly barricaded the door, vying for the attention of the passengers with chants of “get your affidavits with me, there is an affidavit here”. One of the traders who later identified himself as Dada approached me and asked, “oga, do you need an affidavit?” After responding affirmatively, he inquired about the purpose — and I identified myself as an undergraduate in need of an affidavit for the confirmation of names for admission clearance. Dada beckoned on me to follow him to the secretariat of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), which is opposite the high court, and I obliged. A few metres trek later, we stopped at an open space occupied by a typist inside the secretariat. Dada collected a plain sheet of paper from the middle-aged typist and indicated where I was to write the necessary information. I wrote the pseudonym — Ayomide Damilare Festus — and an imaginary house address. As soon as I returned the paper, he said the fee for the affidavit was N3,200, including N200 for the typist. After some negotiation, he settled for 2,500. Once I paid the amount, he instructed the typist to put my personal details on an A4 paper for the affidavit. After the typist was done, Dada said the next process was to get the official stamp. Despite attempting to accompany him, he insisted on going alone. After about 15 minutes, he returned with the affidavit bearing what looked like an official stamp and seal. With the business over, I proceeded to take my leave, and he said: “Oga, if you need any court document on land, marriage or divorce, you can call, I dey here.” GOVERNMENT SEAL INSIDE A SHOP During a second visit, I was approached by an affidavit trader identified as Godwin, who charged N2,000 to process the document, but I was eventually able to beat it down to N1,500. He took me to an internet cafe inside the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) — which is beside the court — for the printing of the affidavit. Once done, the next agenda was to obtain the seal and stamp at a shop in the shopping complex of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) training school. The shopping complex is opposite LASUTH and a few miles from the court. When I inquired why we were heading to the NPF shopping complex, and not the court, he assured me that it was normal practice. “Don’t worry, that is where we usually do it,” he said. At the shopping complex, he took me to Shop 08, where a fair-skinned woman attended to us. When informed of my need, she asked us to wait at the shop as she proceeded to obtain the stamp and seal elsewhere. But rather than head towards the court, she walked to a building directly opposite her shop. Barely 15 minutes later, she returned with the affidavit bearing a stamp and seal. After I collected the affidavit, I observed that the state government seal on it was different from the original affidavit I had earlier obtained from the court registry. AFFIDAVIT WITHOUT OFFICIAL SEAL At the Lagos high court, Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS) annex, I discovered that affidavits were issued without a government seal. And unlike the situation in Ikeja, the affidavit traders at the court in TBS were few and far between. After being approached by a trader who identified himself as Baba Taofeek, I introduced myself as an undergraduate student seeking an affidavit for university admission clearance. He charged N2000 for his service but we haggled and eventually settled for N1200. “I will not cheat you, I’m going to give you an original affidavit. Some people usually do fake affidavits,” he said, fuelling my hope of getting an original document. After printing the required information at a nearby internet cafe, we entered the court premises and he asked me to stay in the corridor while he entered the building to secure the stamp and official seal. I insisted on accompanying him inside but he said it was not necessary. Minutes later, he returned with the affidavit which bore a stamp but had no official seal, while he kept assuring me that I got the best deal from him. The absence of the official seal on the affidavit makes the document unacceptable for official use, says Adeola Adeyemi, a Lagos-based legal practitioner. Adeola said the presence of an original judicial seal authenticates the document, stressing that such a document can be verified in the court during official use. “The absence of seals and stamps in court documents like affidavits definitely makes the documents unacceptable for official use. Oftentimes, the public is directed to the courts for confirmation of documentation; one of such is an affidavit,” she said. “The applicant involved is required to get the oath of the commissioner on the document in order to authenticate such a document. After the signature of the commissioner of oath, the next thing should be the seal. “The stamp and seal authenticate the document. Without it, the document is not authentic. It means that the document cannot be accepted for official engagement. A receipt is usually issued for the official seal. There are instances where some people ignorantly patronise roadside traders for fake or unauthentic affidavits and other court documents. “When such documents are submitted for official use, it is most times brought back to the court for verification. If it does not emanate from the court, the verification will fail.” WITH JUST N500, I SECURED AN ORIGINAL AFFIDAVIT In a bid to acquire the original affidavit without the interference of affidavit traders, I spoke with a lawyer who educated me on the right process for procuring it at the Lagos high court, Ikeja. To obtain the document, we proceeded to the registry of the court, taking along an A4 paper bearing the printed text of the facts I deposed to. This time, I used my real name with the expectation of securing the original document. While at the registry, which is partly demarcated into two sections, I presented the affidavit to one of the commissioners for oaths. After confirming that the facts deposed to in the affidavits were correct, she signed it. I collected the signed affidavit and proceeded to the section of the room occupied by the cashiers. I handed the signed affidavit to the cashier and he demanded N500, which is the official amount stipulated by the Lagos state government. Subsequently, the cashier attached the official stamp of the Lagos state government. OFFENDERS RISK SEVEN YEARS IMPRISONMENT According to section 362 of the Criminal Law of Lagos state, a seal is said to be “counterfeit if it is made without lawful authority, and is in such a form as to resemble a genuine seal or mark, or in the case of a seal, in such a form as to be capable of producing impressions resembling those produced by a genuine seal”. Under the Criminal Law of Lagos state, forgers of government seals are liable to a seven-year imprisonment term. Section 365 (3) states that: “If the thing forged purports to be, or is intended by the offender to be understood to be or to be used as any of the following things — (t) the seal of a Court of record in Nigeria or any other country or the seal used at the Chambers of the Head of a Court or for stamping or sealing summons or orders; the offender commits a felony and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for seven (7) years.” To ascertain efforts in place to curb the activities of government seal forgers, TheCable reached out to the Lagos ministry of justice for comment via a letter addressed to Moyosore Onigbanjo, attorney-general of Lagos and commissioner for justice. No comment was received from the ministry or the commissioner in respect of the letter submitted on July 1, 2022. In a bid to determine the implication of seal forging on revenue generation, TheCable sent a freedom of information (FOI) request on the revenue generated by the Lagos judiciary from 2017 to 2021. On October 19, 2022, the FOI request was sent to the office of the chief registrar of the high court of Lagos — but as of the time of filing this report, TheCable was yet to get a response or acknowledgement.