By Prince Singa Edward Zhattau…
The President was at it once again when he pronounced that “…after due consultations, the Federal Government has decided that henceforth, June 12th will be celebrated as Democracy Day. Therefore, Government has decided to award posthumously the highest honour of the land, GCFR to MKO Abiola, the presumed winner of the June 12th 1993 cancelled elections.” Immediately following this announcement, a senior citizen of the land in Alfa Belgore, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria was reported to have declared Buhari’s readiness to posthumously confer on Abiola the highest honour of Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic as illegal. According to multiple media sources, Belgore was of the view that national honour was not for the dead: “It is not done. It is for people living.” Thus going by Belgore’s opinion, MKO Abiola who had passed away since 1998 cannot be awarded the rank of the GCFR posthumously.
It is pertinent to note at this juncture that as a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, and also the Chairman of the Presidential Committee on National Honours 2016, Belgore is certainly one person who is familiar with the conferment of National Honours and matters connected therewith; in fact, it can hardly be faulted to suggest that Belgore is most eminently qualified to air his opinion on the legality or otherwise as it regards to the conferment of National Honours. Thus, one can understand the frenzy that has since been generated in the aftermath of Belgore’s legal opinion as to the legality or otherwise of Mr. Buhari’s pronouncement to confer MKO Abiola as GCFR posthumously.
Having said that, with due respect to Belgore, who is an erudite retired Supreme Court jurist, I beg to differ. The law governing the award of National Honours in Nigeria is the National Honours Act of 1963. Section 1 subsection (1) of that Act does not leave anybody in doubt as to the power of the President in awarding national honours; subsection (1) provides thus:
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“Subject to the provisions of subsections (4) and (6) of this section, the President may, by warrant, make provision for the award of titles of honour, decorations and dignities (in this Act collectively referred to as “honours”).”
The act further provides under section 1 subsection (4) as follows:
The power to make awards in pursuance of a warrant under this section, shall be exercisable by the President in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
In further recognition of the President’s power concerning the conferment of national honours, the Constitution while providing for the functions of the National Council of State under Section 6 (a) (ii) stated as follows :
(6) The Council shall have power to:
(a) advise the President in the exercise of his powers with respect to the:-
(iii) award of national honours
Worthy of re-iteration about the above constitutional provision is that the power of the National Council of State which has the President its Chairman, is advisory in nature.
Upon scurrying the entire provisions of the National Honours Act and the Subsidiary Legislation contained therein, one will not find stated anywhere that the honours cannot be conferred posthumously as it is being contended in some quarters. Perhaps, the express mention of posthumous conferment under paragraph (1) of article 3 of the Honours (Armed Forces) Warrant [L.N. 27 of 1966.] and the absence of an express provision for posthumous award in the Honours Warrant [L.N. 67 of 1964.] which deals generally with conferment of honours on deserving Nigerians and non – Nigerians might have informed the view that posthumous awards can only be conferred on deceased service men. A consideration of the relevant provision of the Honours (Armed Forces) Warrant is germane:
3 (1)The Niger Star may be awarded to any member of any of the armed forces for the most conspicuous bravery in the presence of the enemy, or for a pre-eminent act of valour or self sacrifice in the presence of the enemy, or for devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy, and may be awarded posthumously.
By the nature of their combatant duty which has been widely viewed to be akin to signing a death warrant upon being recruited or commissioned in any of the armed forces, one can easily appreciate the rationale for such an express provision for posthumous award of honour on deceased service men.
However, it does not mean that the absence of any such express provision as it regards posthumous award in the Honours Warrant, under which the MKO Abiola case is being considered automatically rules out the possibility of a posthumous conferment. Perhaps, those who share the view that an honour cannot be conferred posthumously might have not fully appreciated the combined effect of Article 3 paragraphs (2) and (3) of the Honours Warrant [L.N. 67 of 1964.] The relevant provisions are as follows:
(2) Subject to the next following paragraph of this article, a person shall be appointed to a particular rank of an Order when he receives from the President in person, at an investiture held for that purpose-
(a) the insignia appropriate for that rank, and
(b) an instrument under the hand of the President and the public seal of the Federation declaring him to be appointed to that rank.
The question that readily comes to mind after reading the above provision is that: “Can MKO Abiola who is now deceased receive from the President in person, at an investiture the highest honour of the GCFR?” The only rationale answer in light of the above provision is “No”. However, provisions of statutes such as the National Honours Act are not interpreted by isolationist method, for it is only by a holistic approach that we can properly construe statutes. It therefore becomes apposite to consider the provision of the “next following paragraph” as captured in paragraph (2) above, which is paragraph (3). It is provided thus:
If in the case of any person it appears to the President expedient to dispense with the requirements of paragraph (2) of this article, he may direct that that person shall be appointed to the rank in question in such manner as may be specified in the direction.
Both wordings of paragraphs (2) and (3) of article are firmly in favour of what President Buhari has done. First, the phrase, “subject to” as employed in paragraph (2) has been defined by the Black’s Law Dictionary to mean “Conditional or dependent on something.” The World Legal Dictionary explains the phrase as follows: “if one event is subject to another event then the holding of the first event depends on whether and how the second event happens”. It also means “depending on the stated thing happening.” By the foregoing, paragraph (3) takes precedence over paragraph (2) because the latter is subject to the former. The President has the luxury of employing the latitude he enjoys under paragraph (3) to award MKO Abiola 20 years after his death with the rank of GCFR. In exercising his discretionary power, the President can honour Abiola by proxy: through his family members, foundation or any other available suitable means.
Away from the legal argument, the opposition and its captive audience has yet again pulled out the dagger in preparedness to stab at whosoever that is in support of the President’s show of equanimity. Some people have raised the questions: Why will MKO be made a GCFR since he was not officially declared the winner of the election held on June 12th? Was Abiola not only a presumed winner? This is an erroneous view as there is nowhere in the National Honours Act that the rank of GCFR is made the exclusive preserve of those who have held the office of the President. President Shehu Shagari had in 1982 conferred the late sage, Obafemi Awolowo with the rank of GCFR. And were we to go by the true purpose and the real intention of the national honours, a few if there are any at all, could be more qualified than the late businessman, philanthropist, stabilizer and pan-Africanist – MKO Abiola. Perhaps, nothing sums up Abiola’s incontestable qualification for this award more than the words of Sani Zorro, a Member House of Representatives in his motion of 2017 which called for the posthumous conferment of the highest honour in the land on Abiola when he said the following of Abiola:
We remember him today as always, as a true and great son of Nigeria, who touched lives more than any other person in his lifetime, who contributed to the achievement of religious harmony by building bridges between faith organizations like nobody else, the humane boss, who employed Nigerians from all walks of life and treated them with affection and care as if they were members of his family, the man who championed the good cause of Africans [against] the exploitation and heinous crime of slavery meted to them.”
Even as a civilian, Abiola paid the supreme price as he laid down his life in defence of the ideal we all stand for – Democracy. Even service men would be green with envy at such supreme sacrifice. I ask again: Who could be more qualified than Abiola for the rank of GCFR? No doubt, that besides being conscientiously and conscionably right, the latest move by the Buhari led administration is as well a political masterstroke; but why should you whine simply because a man knows his onions? This sheer display of magnanimity by President Buhari regarding June 12 and its key actors: MKO Abiola, Baba Gana Kingibe and Gani Fawehinmi, is all the more soothing when considered against the backdrop that this is happening before the very eyes of those who had tormented Abiola in the past.
While the torch of democracy is being re-lit in our nation, others have chosen to mock the gracious gesture of President Buhari by re-echoing his overthrow of the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari at the dawn of 1984 – granted. But like the biblical Paul who was the most ferocious persecutor of Christians, only to later become the indisputable champion of the Christian gospel, Buhari’s faith in democracy has since grown by leaps and bounds. Little wonder he told the world in his Chatham House address in 2015 that:
“On a personal note, the phased end of the USSR was a turning point for me. It convinced me that change can be brought about without firing a single shot.”
Yet again, just like Paul who became forceful in his love for the gospel, so much so that he could not resist casting aspersion on Peter in the open (a disciple whom Jesus had referred to as the rock upon which his church would be built), President Buhari’s strong belief in nation building is somehow responsible for the seeming perpetual detention of a few persons who have succeeded in occasioning irreparable damage to the Nigerian state. Just like Buhari, I would have loved that these people are perpetually detained, but as admonished by Femi Falana in his welcoming of Buhari’s marking of June 12 as Democracy Day, the President should consider taking his foot off the pedal regarding the detention of those who have been ordered by the court to be released come June 12 as a fitting commemoration of the symbolic day.
President Buhari has given MKO Abiola his rightful place in the pantheon of the world’s greats, and by doing so, Buhari has equally written his own name in gold. History will surely be kind to this President for relieving the Nigerian state of the crunching burden of June 12 which was already weighing tenaciously on the nation’s back. The Posthumous awards in favour of MKO and Gani are right, both in law and in morality. May God continue to safeguard the unity of Nigeria! Amen!
RipplesNigeria… without borders, without fears
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