Of National Honours, Politics and Value
BY REUBEN ABATI
“For First Time, Buhari Excludes Ex-Senate President, Saraki, from National Honours”. This was how the ThisDay newspaper of October 3, 2022, reported the story of the 2022 National Honours ceremony scheduled for October 11 at the State House in Abuja. Other newspapers also wrote the story from the Saraki angle. Before the ThisDay report, the media had reported that the Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) had raised alarm that there was a deliberate attempt to deny Senator Saraki his place in history by excluding him from the National Honours list. The CNG also pointed out that whereas Saraki served as 13th Senate President of the Federal Republic, and Chairman of the 8th National Assembly from 2015 -2019, three years later his portrait is not on display in the main gallery of the National Assembly. In the various reports in ThisDay newspaper, The Punch, The Cable, The Sun, Leadership, Blueprint and others, quoting the CNG and also, another group, the Arewa Think Tank (ATT), the suggestion was that Saraki is legitimately entitled to the second highest national honour in the land, namely the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), since the convention had been to honour certain categories of persons for having served in certain capacities.
It was even clearly stated that Saraki is being denied his entitlement because of his political rivalry with President Muhammadu Buhari. Saraki emerged as Nigeria’s Senate President in 2015, on the platform of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) under circumstances that suggested that he simply outsmarted the party hierarchy that did not want him. He turned out to be a Senate President from the ruling party with a mind of his own. Under his watch, the Senate passed about 201 bills, and claims the distinction of being far more productive than other National Assemblies since the return to civilian rule in 1999. Saraki refused to act as the ruling government’s rubber stamp. It was therefore a question of time before he ended up leaving the party. He returned to where he came from: the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and to say that his political fortunes have changed since then, especially in his native Kwara State is to state the obvious.
The way these things go, it was obvious that someone was deliberately pushing the Saraki side of the story to make a point. But what is the worth of a national honour in Nigeria? It is a nice chieftaincy title which comes with a medal, a certificate and a pin on your chest, to which anyone who has ever served Nigeria feels entitled. It doesn’t matter if you were a houseboy in the corridors of power, the thrill of the recognition is in itself the thing, and while the honour does not come with a salary or pension, you can get a seat, and a cup of coffee or tea at the state VIP lounge at the international airport whenever you are travelling and you can flaunt the suffix after your name to show that you are above the ordinary run. Those who want Saraki to be given a GCON have managed to establish that the National Honours List has been politicized. It has always been so. I also agree with them that there should be no pettiness in the award of national honours. Other former Senate Presidents got the GCON, there is no reason why Saraki should be denied his, going by convention. Should he, or any one decide to turn down the honour, it should be their prerogative to do so, and not that they have been chosen for deliberate humiliation for partisan reasons. Every human being craves respect, recognition and relevance, and if they are so deserving, they should be so honoured.
But the point needs to be made though that Senator Bukola Saraki is not undecorated, nor can a GCON make much difference to his pulse rate. In 2010, he got the CON award: Commander of the Order of the Niger, for his services as Governor of Kwara State. The CON is one of the top national honours usually reserved for Ministers, Governors and Justices of the Supreme Court. Within the established order, however, persons can be promoted from one level to the other. Saraki’s supporters want a GCON, the second highest honour in the land, for him. Perhaps because of the furore that the 2022 National Honours List that was in circulation in the last few days has generated and concerns raised by some stakeholders, the Federal Government has now disclaimed the list of 437 persons on display. A statement from the Federal Ministry of Special Duties and Intergovernmental Affairs stated yesterday, that whatever list that was in circulation was a fake list, and the government was yet to release any list to the public. In the light of this, it would be premature to condemn or endorse the list that has now been disowned. October 11, the scheduled date of the National Awards ceremony is barely a week away. It would be nice if the Federal Government can finalize the process and release the authentic list for public scrutiny and commentary. When the “authentic list” is then released, it would be our duty to compare and contrast, and seek to differentiate between what is fake and true, but before that is done, we can safely make the following observations.
Nigeria’s National Honour is a creation of the National Honours Act of 1964 with the following established categories: GCFR, GCON, CFR, CON, OFR, OON, MFR, MON and service medals – FSS, GSS, DSS, MSS, CMH and CM for service to the nation and individual distinction, to honour, celebrate, inspire, express appreciation and to promote bilateral relations/international friendship. But the big problem that has been observed with the National Honours Warrant is that it has been reduced to the level of an award of chieftaincy titles whereby anyone with any form of proximity to power is decorated with the highest honours of the land. In other jurisdictions, the Honours List is used to make a statement about values and contributions. In Nigeria, it got reduced to such a ridiculous level, it became an award for any Dick and Harry including concubines and housemaids. Even traditional rulers who are of no value to their own people are routinely decorated with national honours and not a few persons of shady persona go about adding national honours to their names., not to talk of Governors who in other societies would never be allowed to show up in decent company after their tenure of office. In Nigeria, you find all sorts on the National Honours List. The pattern needs to change.
The closest that the Buhari government has gone to getting things right was the refusal to turn the National Honours ritual into an annual jamboree. In 2018, the administration announced post-humous national honours for Chief MKO Abiola, and Chief Gani Fawehinmi and others. I shall come to that later. Also, when recently, the administration gave out National Honours in mid-September, I thought it struck the right notes by focusing strictly on athletes who did the country proud at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, United States and at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, UK. Nobody would question why Ese Brume, Tobi Amusan, Blessing Okorodudu, Favour Ofili and others got national awards. Their example shows commitment, hardwork, excellence, and patriotism. What rankles, and here is my point, is the usual tendency to turn Nigeria’s National Honours into the equivalent of souvenirs at a jollof rice and pepper soup party. It is not right that a Governor of a state whose only notable achievement is the erection of a few electricity poles in the state capital and the digging of a couple of boreholes in his mother’s village, gets a National Honour or that incompetent Service Chiefs who cannot provide security receive recognition as heroes, or that faceless and idle traditional rulers are given the national recognition they do not deserve. The emphasis should be truly on service, honour and values. When the Federal Government releases its “authentic list”, this is what we should look out for.
The Buhari administration has restrained itself before now from giving out national honours like a jamboree. But it seems it now wants to do so on October 11. Why now? Out of pressure? End-of-tenure blues? Whatever it is, a list of 437 honorees as has been suggested is unwieldy. Elsewhere, the number of persons to be awarded a category of honour annually is capped. We should introduce such a cap to confer more seriousness and dignity on the awards.
Before now, it had been argued that the National Honours Warrant of Nigeria does not accommodate the conferment of the national honour on the dead. In the now disclaimed 2022 list, there were a few post-humous indications – late Abba Kyari, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Professor Bala Usman and late Gambo Sawaba. Section 2 of the law says that the national honour must be received “in person at an investiture held for the purpose.” The Buhari administration broke the convention when it conferred the national honours of GCON and GCFR post-humously on the late Chief MKO Abiola and Chief Gani Fawehimni in 2018 respectively, citing Section 3 of the same law which grants the President “unqualified discretion” to grant National Honour as he may deem fit. Femi Falana, SAN defended the legality of post-humous national awards at the time in the public domain against the position of Justice Alfa Belgore, CJN, 2006 -2007, and Chairman of the National Honours Committee in 2016, who along with others, had raised the issue then. What is probably required is a simple review of the National Honours Act or an Executive Order to lay this matter to rest and thus remove whatever ambiguity may be attached to the interpretation of Sections 1-3 of the National Honours Act even when the action of the government appears to be in alignment with public expectations as in the 2018 cited cases. The word “expedient” in Section 3 of the enabling Act may be open to differing interpretations, especially as no one has deemed it necessary to seek judicial intervention.
The point, at the risk of repetition, is that the National Honours selection process, while a prerogative of the Executive arm of government, needs to be subjected to greater scrutiny in order to protect its integrity. We must ensure that whoever goes about with Nigeria’s national honour indeed deserves it. It is not only in Nigeria that the selection process attracts controversy. There have been similar arguments such as we have here in Jamaica, India, and Bahamas, and other places. There is nothing wrong in making the selection process more transparent and participatory. One obvious way to avoid unnecessary controversy is to make the list short and specific, and ensure the greater participation of the civil society. It also seems to me that the usual practice of relegating artistes and performers to the Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) and Member of the Federal Republic (MFR) categories is unacceptable. If indeed their names are on the list, the likes of Damini Ogulu (Burna Boy), Innocent Tuface Idibia, and Teniola Apata deserve a higher placement on the list than many others for having done more to place Nigeria positively on the global map, and for promoting happiness in the land.
As to the controversy about the list that is in circulation and the Federal Government’s disclaimer, a week to the awards ceremony, just a few questions would be in order: is the published date of October 11 also fake? Did the Federal Government send out letters of award/invitation or not? Is it possible for likely honorees to talk to the media and inform friends and family, if they are not sure that their names are on the list? Is it true as alleged that some people who are responsible for the continued closure of Nigerian universities, and the agony of Nigerian students are actually on the Honours List? Nigeria at 62: with all the problems that we have- is this the right time for celebration, or shame or reflection? It is not enough to blame “overzealous reporters whose aim is to break news even when such news is fake” as has been said. It won’t be too long before the truth is known.