The former chief justice of Nigeria, Justice Alfa Belgore has questioned the legality of the conferment of the posthumous national honours of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election in Nigeria, Moshhod Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
It would be recalled that President Muhammadu Buhari had on Wednesday announced the conferment of Nigeria’s highest national honour of GCFR on Abiola who is presumed to have won which was annulled by then military president, General Ibrahim Babangida.
Buhari also announced the conferment of Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON) on both Abiola’s running mate in the election, Mr. Babagan Kingibe and the arrowhead in the struggle for the revalidation of the election, late Chief Gani Fawehinmi.
Belgore, who was the CJN from 2006 to 2007, said the national honours could not be awarded posthumously, much less the GCFR, which is the highest honour in the land.
“It is not done. It is for people living. The only thing they could do is to name a place after him, but national honours award, no,” he said.
Belgore, who was chairman of the 2016 national honours committee, also said he “was not consulted” by the Buhari administration before the decision was taken.
He said under the 1964 National Honours Act, only soldiers or other servicemen could be awarded posthumous medals for their bravery.
But human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), faulted Belgore saying the former CJN in taking the position, did not refer to any section of the National Honours Act, or any law violated by the president.
“The Honourable Justice Alfa Belgore, a retired CJN, was reported to have questioned the legality of the decision of President Buhari to confer posthumous awards on Chief MKO Abiola and Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN).
“Curiously, his lordship did not refer to any section of the National Honours Act or any other law that has been violated by the president. In like manner, some persons have alleged that the June 12 holiday declared by the president is illegal on the grounds that the approval of the National Assembly was not sought and obtained.
“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,” he said.
Falana also argued that 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.
“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.
“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,” he added.
A public affairs commentator, Mr. Liborous Oshoma, said even though the law is silent on whether or not the honours could be awarded posthumously, the sub-section three that says the president could exercise discretion by awarding it to someone who is not president has rendered his action valid.
“A section said the person receiving the award must be present, then the following section said the president may confer the honour on someone even if the person is not president, as long as the president deemed the awardees appropriate for such honour. That suffices in my opinion,” he said.
A Lagos-based lawyer from Lagos, Mrs. Lillian Eronini, disagreed, saying the president flouted the law in conferring national honours posthumously.
“Even though it is important to honour the memory of Abiola, the way the president went about it is illegal.
“Of course, we know the president did this to get votes from the Southwest people who are very passionate about June 12,” said Eronini.
Similarly, another legal practitioner, Mr. Chris Uche, said Buhari stretched the aspect of the law that allows a president to give national honours to individuals in their absence.
“The section is not flexible enough to accommodate posthumous award on the dead.
“It would be stretching the law to say because someone who is not present could be awarded then it means a dead person could be awarded; it was more about a person who is alive but unable to make it to the ceremony,” he said.
Uche said he recognised the “nobility of Buhari’s intention” towards Abiola and Fawehinmi, but said it must be done “within the confines of the law.”
With Premium Times and THisDay reports