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Judge delays order that Chicago State University provide documents at center of Nigerian presidential dispute

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CHICAGO (CBS) -- The international political dispute that placed Chicago State University in the middle of a bitter Nigerian presidential fight hit another roadblock on Thursday. 

In an emergency hearing, U.S. District Judge Nancy Maldonado agreed to stay an order requiring CSU to provide certain academic documents of one of its former students, Bola Tinubu, who has just been elected president of the African nation. 

That order by Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Gilbert would have required CSU to submit the documents by the end of Thursday. Judge Maldonado gave attorneys on both sides to file additional arguments by next Thursday. Tinubu's attorneys argued that Gilbert's decision needed to be reviewed by a district judge.  That request was granted by Maldonado.

Mindful of legal deadlines in Nigeria, Maldonado said she would rule as quickly as possible after that. "I will have a busy weekend," she said. 

"The issue is of process and rules. I'm a rule person; that's why I'm a judge. This case is quite involved. I am aware of the stakes. It's more important to me to get this right."

Rival Abubakar claims fraud

Tinubu's political rival, Atiku Abubakar, claims that documents showing that Tinubu graduated from Chicago State in 1979 are not authentic, and that is grounds to nullify Tinubu's election victory earlier this year.   

The university says it can confirm the president graduated from CSU. However, it cannot authenticate the diploma because it is a ceremonial document, not part of a student's official academic file. 

Abubakar finished second behind Tinubu in February's vote and has challenged the result in Nigeria's courts ever since. This legal skirmish in Chicago is part of that challenge, placing CSU at the center of an international political dispute. 

At the hearing on Thursday, CSU attorney Michael Hayes said the university wants clarity and is ready to provide the requested documents once the legal issues are resolved. 

"We don't have a dog in this fight," said Hayes, adding that the university has amassed significant legal fees and unwarranted bad public relations because of the political fight in a foreign land. 


Legal fight in Nigeria

Abubakar, a former Nigerian vice president, and the People's Democratic Party challenged the results with the country's Presidential Election Petition Court. That challenge was rejected, and Abubakar is appealing that ruling to the country's Supreme Court. Abubakar's attorneys argue that upcoming deadlines to file legal papers in that case place importance on this issue here in Chicago. 

Abubakar claims that Tinubu submitted a forged Chicago State diploma to the country's election commission before the vote, which should disqualify him.  

Both Maldonado and Gilbert acknowledged a tight time frame considering the legal challenges happening in Nigeria and ordered CSU to submit relevant documents this week. 

CSU's Hayes said it does not have a certified copy of Tinubu's diploma because it is not part of a student's official academic record. He said the university has a few dozen pages of forms, including transcripts, details of transfer credits, and an admission letter. 

What documents are at issue?

In his petition Atiku Abubakar wants:

  • An example of a CSU diploma issued in 1979.
  • Tinubu's diploma issued in 1979
  • Any example of a CSU diploma that "contains the same font, seal, signatures and wording" as Tinubu's diploma issued in June 1979.
  • CSU documents certified and produced by Jamar Orr, an associate general counsel at CSU at the time.

Abubakar also wants his lawyers to depose CSU officials about the authenticity of Tinumbu's academic documents.

They also want CSU officials to explain a letter from university Registrar Caleb Westberg confirming Tinumbu's graduation.  

Chicago State released the following statement:

As an educational institution, we are sometimes asked to provide information related to student records. A federal law known as FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) protects the privacy of student records and limits what an institution can release.

In August 2023, a request was made in U.S. federal court by a third party for the university to provide information related to educational records concerning Bola Tinubu, the President of Nigeria, and a former CSU student. The university can confirm Tinubu attended CSU and graduated in 1979 with a bachelor's degree. Federal law, however, prevents us from providing any further information without consent or unless allowed to do so via court order.

It is important to note that the university is not a party to the Nigerian legal proceedings that spurred this request. We are confident in the veracity and integrity of our records regarding Tinubu's completion of graduation requirements and degree certificate.

Our response to the request for Tinubu's academic records has been entirely consistent with our practices, policies and federal law. We would respond in exactly the same manner for any request for any student information by a third party.

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