Senior lawyers yesterday disagreed with a former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Alfa Belgore, that President Muhammadu Buhari broke the law by awarding Nigeria’s highest national honour to the late Chief Moshood Abiola and Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN).
Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), Professor of International Law at the University of Lagos, Prof. Akin Oyebode, rights activist Femi Falana and a former National Secretary of Labour Party, Kayode Ajulo, said the awards were in order.
President Buhari on Wednesday evening named Abiola, winner of 1993 presidential election that was annulled by former dictator Ibrahim Babangida, a holder of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), 20 years after his death in 1998.
Gani Fawehinmi, a rights advocate and icon of the June 12 struggle, who died in 2009 aged 71, was also posthumously conferred with the Grand Commander of Nigeria (GCON), while Democracy Day would be celebrated on June 12, rather than May 29, to further honour Abiola’s memory.
According to him, under the 1964 National Honours Act, only soldiers or other servicemen could be awarded posthumous medals for their bravery.
Section 3 of the law states the requirements for awarding national honours to a Nigerian as follows:
“The President shall by notice in the Federal Gazette signify his intention of appointing a person to a particular rank of an Order.
“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 the purpose- the insignia appropriate for that rank; and an instrument under the hand of the President and the public seal of the Federation declaring him to be appointed to that rank.
“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 a manner as may be specified in the direction.”
He said: “Was there injustice done on June 12? Yes, to both Nigerians and to Abiola, a very great injustice which almost destroyed this country. Is it therefore good that this injustice should be removed and justice done? The answer is yes. Has what Buhari done, not restored justice to the situation and poured balm into the hearts of those who were hurt? The answer is yes.
“So, why should we be looking for legal arguments to overturn justice that has been done? These are some of the things that I cannot understand about Nigerians.”
He implored critics to stop pouring “cold water on the happiness of the people on positive things that elevate this country. They want to pour cold water on it with very technical, narrow-minded and, I may even say evil arguments.
“Some people are even saying the awards were conferred with a political motive. Again, I ask, what is achieved by the conferment of the awards, is it a positive or negative thing? Is the act something to be happy about? Is it something that resolves a major problem and brings relief to the country? The answer is yes.
“So, what does it matter, even if there’s a political motive?
According to Sagay, the awards were “the right thing to do, it’s a big solution to a long-standing problem that has been festering. It brings relief and joy to the country. I think Buhari needs to be congratulated heartily and I so congratulate him.”
Oyebode observed that the conferment on the awards on Abiola and Gani were special cases. He cautioned Nigerians against trying to thwart that honour through legalism.
Oyebode said: “We should be clear that the awards are honorific in nature and should not be hamstrung by legal gymnastics. Agreed, awards are usually for the living but that Abiola case is a special one which should not be vitiated by crass legalism, more so as the enabling Act grants the President as the awarding authority a wide discretion on the matter.”
Falana, relying on the Act and Public Holidays Act, submitted that there was nothing illegal in what the President did.
Falana said: “With profound respect to the Honourable Justice Alfa Belgore, the National Honours Act has not prohibited or restricted the powers of the President to confer national honours on deserving Nigerian citizens, dead or alive.
“No doubt, paragraph 2 of the Honours Warrant made pursuant to the National Honours Act provides that ‘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 the purpose…’
“But paragraph 3 thereof has given the President the unqualified discretion “to dispense with the requirement of paragraph 2 in such manner as may be specified in the direction.
“Therefore, since the national awards conferred on Chief Abiola and Chief Fawehinmi cannot be received by them in person the President may permit their family members to receive same on their behalf.
“Furthermore, Section 2 (1) of the Public Holidays Act stipulates that in addition to the holidays mentioned in the Schedule to the Act, the President may appoint a special day to be kept as a public holiday either throughout Nigeria or in any part thereof.”
According to him, “It is crystal clear that the President is not required by law to seek and obtain the approval of the National Assembly before declaring a public holiday in the country.”
Falana argued that in view of the combined effect of the National Honours Act and the Public Holidays Act “the legal validity of the well deserved awards and the historic holiday has not been impugned in any manner whatsoever.”
Ajulo argued that “since S.3(3) of the Honours Warrant states that the procedure under S.3(2) may be dispensed only by the president where it becomes expedient, thus honouring MKO Abiola posthumous is dispensing with him having to collect his award in person under S.3(2) because its expedient for the president to do so under S.3(3) by reason of his death.
“In respect of this, it could be said that the act of the President to award the late MKO Abiola and late Chief Gani Fawehinmi is a laudable feat set to celebrate their struggles for the nation. And just like the National Anthem rightly puts; that the ‘labours of our heros past shall never be in vain.’ This the President has achieved.”