By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
“It is not titles that honor men, but men honor the titles.” Nicolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (1531)
At the beginning of August 2022, President Muhammadu Buhari constituted a nine-member National Honours Nominations Committee with a four-year tenure. It is chaired by Alhaji Sidi Muhammad Bage, the senior judge who resigned from Nigeria’s Supreme Court in 2019 to become the Emir of Lafia in Nasarawa State. Minister for Special Duties and Inter-Governmental Affairs, George Akume, inaugurated the committee on 16 September with the mandate “to screen and select eminent Nigerians and friends of Nigeria, who have contributed to the development of the country.”
In what would have been a record of unprecedented efficiency in the annals of such committees, a list emerged a mere fortnight later of recipients of national honours. Among the recipients, it listed the Emir of Lafia, himself the newly inaugurated chair of the National Honours Committee, for one of the highest honours – Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR).
After initially repudiating that list, the government’s “authentic” list, when it finally came out, did not much differ from the repudiated one. However, it appears that the government had approved a national honours list at least six months earlier in April 2022 which suffered some last minute tinkering in October.
Indeed, over seven and a half years into his tenure, Muhammadu Buhari as president had only ever conferred national honours once on three Nigerians, two of whom were dead. That was on 12 June, 2018 when he honoured Moshood Abiola, the late winner of the presidential election annulled in June 1993; Babagana Kingibe, his running mate; and Gani Fawehinmi, the remarkable lawyer who made a vocation of lawyering in the public interest. No committee took part in that decision.
Prior to the inauguration of the Sidi Bage-led National Honours Committee, there had in fact been no committee in existence. So, how were these decisions made? To answer this, it is necessary to address four questions.
The first is the legal bases for national honours in Nigeria. Part 1(B)(6)(iii) of the third schedule to the 1999 Constitution empowers the National Council of State to “advise the President in the exercise of his powers with respect to the award of national honours.” In force since October 1963, the National Honours Act confers discretion on the President to “by warrant, make provision for the award of titles of honour, decorations and dignities.” As a matter of law, the president’s discretion on the award of national honours appears unlimited. He does not even need any committee to help him do it.
This leads to a second question relating to who should be eligible for the national honours. This is also arguably a matter of law. In the 2022 list, presidential intimates and serving public officers are the leading category among recipients. However, the Code of Conduct provisions in the 5th Schedule of the 1999 Constitution prohibit a serving public officer from accepting “benefits of any kind ….for anything done or omitted to be done by him in the discharge of his duties.” Does conferring national honours on serving public officers violate this constitutional prohibition? President Buhari clearly thinks not.
So, thirdly, what then are the governing criteria? The answer in one word is nothing. Among the things that the president should specify under the National Honours Warrant, the National Honours Act mandates him to provide “for the deprivation of an honour in a case where a recipient conducts himself in a manner which the President considers to be inconsistent with the honour.” This implies that the National Honours system must strive to be credible. It should not, to reprise John Steinbeck, be lavished on “the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat.”
But several previous recipients of Nigeria’s national honours, such as bankers Erastus Akingbola and Cecilia Ibru, and former Inspector-General of Police, Tafa Balogun, have kept the awards despite being the subjects of judicial verdicts for criminal malfeasance. To date, no president has made rules for lifting the national honour from those who bring it into disrepute. Like Hotel California, Nigeria’s national honours system seems “programmed to receive…. But you can never leave.”
This is why the issue of criteria on the basis of which people can get honoured matters. The assumption is that certain categories are reserved for people who have held certain positions. So, Heads of State, for instance, enjoy a monopoly of the very highest honour, Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR). In 1981, President Shehu Shagari made an exception to this and granted that honour to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the Opposition Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), affirming that high office does not itself alone confer honour or merit. His successors have failed to appreciate that point.
This leads naturally to a fourth question as to whether there is a process to ensure that the honours system is not brought into disrepute by being populated with too many undeserving people or by simply being transactionalised. When he chaired the National Honours Nominations Committee at the turn of the millennium, Alhaji Liman Ciroma proposed a set of reforms to make it more credible. Among other things, he recommended a cap on the maximum number of recipients of the national honour in any year to not more than one hundred persons; a gender diversity ratio reviewable every three years to ensure equal recognition of both men and women; a limit on the number of nominations proposed by the Presidency to not more than 25% of the maximum; a prohibition on honours for serving public officers; and a requirement for the publication of nominations for objections or comments at least 90 days before decision.
President Obasanjo did not find these deserving of implementation. Over two decades later, therefore, President Buhari’s national honours list in 2022 reads like a friends and family affair. The recipients include his spokesperson, his two closest nephews, and the closest members of his backroom. Surely, even a president is entitled to his favorites but being a presidential intimate does not require nor does it import honour.
Even if there were any criteria – there are none – they are not consistently applied. Among the recipients of the honours this time are Nigerians serving in leadership positions in various multilateral agencies including the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. Chile Eboe-Osuji, the Nigerian who led the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague as its president for three years until 2021 is missing.
So, Nigeria’s National Honours system is not exactly national and does not seem to much confer honour. Chinua Achebe rejected it in the past. On this occasion in 2022, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appears to have done so too; and the family of a late Chief of Army Staff is reported to have boycotted it altogether. Buhari only managed to pin it on Gani Fawehinmi long after he had died.
In response to the question “what is the worth of a national honour in Nigeria?,” columnist, Reuben Abati guffaws that “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.”
Current Majority Whip of Nigeria’s Senate, Orji Uzor Kalu, has for a long time appended the suffix, “MON” after his name. Most people assumed that it denoted that he was a recipient of the National Honour of “Member of the Order of the Niger.” It turns out, however, that he had never in fact been granted any such honour. According to Kalu, “his version of M.O.N. meant ‘Madu Oha Nile,’ that is the Igbo interpretation of ‘a man of the people.’ Under section 2(c) of the National Honours Act, this is an offence punishable with up to six months in prison. Instead, Orji Uzor Kalu is responsible for party discipline in Nigeria’s Senate. That says all there is to say really about Nigeria’s national honours system.
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org