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How Jonathan Got His GCFR-Reuben Abati

November 16, 2011

Whoever came up with that explanation about how President Goodluck Jonathan got his GCFR – the highest national honour in the land a few days ago must be thoroughly disingenuous. It is as follows. The setting was the last meeting of the Council of State. Someone had proposed that the President should take the GCFR title. He already has the GCON.

Whoever came up with that explanation about how President Goodluck Jonathan got his GCFR – the highest national honour in the land a few days ago must be thoroughly disingenuous. It is as follows. The setting was the last meeting of the Council of State. Someone had proposed that the President should take the GCFR title. He already has the GCON.

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He reportedly demurred citing an extant law (possibly the National Honours Act No. 5 of 1964) which says only a sitting President can confer the title of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic or Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger on another. A former Chief Justice of the Federation, Alfa Belgore then advised that his was a special case in the sense that he, Jonathan, took over from a dead President. But so did Obasanjo in 1976.

 In 1983, Buhari deposed a sitting President. And so did Babangida in 1985. Abdulsalami Abubakar also succeeded a dead President. But everyone at the meeting, particularly the state Governors felt persuaded that Jonathan should take the GCFR. They then started begging the man. “Please Your Excellency”; “Please Sir, GCON is too small for you.” They begged. Oh, how they begged! Imagine all those big men begging one man to become a GCFR; and so, Dr. Jonathan, ever-so-humble, capitulated.

How could the President taking a GCFR title have created so much drama at a meeting of the Council of State? Why couldn’t such trifle wait?  All of a sudden, President Jonathan who in 30 days had clearly demonstrated that he is in charge and in power was no longer in charge. His award of a GCFR was signed by all former Heads of State, with General Gowon saying: “we signed it”. Under what authority was he and his colleagues acting? They have no such powers. And how many more actions would the President be persuaded to take due to overwhelming pressure, or expediency, but more because of his failure to obey his own moral intuition? The President is the highest authority in the Council of state and so, all that contrived histrionics notwithstanding, the truth is that President Jonathan after only 30 days in office has conferred upon himself the highest honour in the land.

The Council of State is, in a strict sense, an advisory body. It is a creation of the Third Schedule Part 1, Sections 5 and 6 of the 1999 Constitution. Section 6(a)(iii) defines the role of that Council in relation to the “award of national honour,” and nowhere is it stated that former Heads of state can constitute themselves into a superior authority conferring National Honours on a sitting President. Whatever General Gowon and co may have signed is therefore inappropriate, if not illegal. Arthur Schopenhauer is right: “Honour is on its objective side, other people’s opinion of what we are worth; on its subjective side, it is the respect we pay to this opinion.” (Position, 1851).This raises an inevitable moral question: should President Jonatahn award himself the highest honour in the land? The honour that he should seek is not an additional suffixation to his name but such general opinion which by the end of his tenure would advertise his deeds and achievements in office as truly deserving of honour and celebration and a place in the people’s hearts and memory. General Sani Abacha also had a GCFR. Does anyone today think that he truly deserved it? Every Inspector General of Police in recent times has had a National Honour while in office. If anyone is looking for a list of those who have damaged Nigeria in the last 50 years, the place to begin the search is the National Honours List.

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This is perhaps why most Nigerians are indifferent about the National Honours system. It does not change anyone’s opinion about the character of the title-holder. It does not attract a salary or a lifetime pension. It probably allows access to the VIP lounge at the country’s airports. But anyone with a couple of thousand Nairas can also use the VIP lounge. And what manner of man or woman is that who rather than pay a token sum for an hour of comfort, waiting to catch a flight, would insist on waving a medal? Still, we should not make light of it. The concept of honour is at the heart of society. Men from time immemorial have craved it. They would kill for it, if possible, go to war, and risk all. Honour is an intangible asset; it is about prestige and self-worth. But that prestige must be seen to have been earned, to have been worked for, such that it inspires the admiration of the community. Like Akintola Williams, CBE; I.K. Dairo, MBE. Each year when the Queen’s Honours’ List is announced in Great Britain, the award is taken seriously; it is an advertisement of the British value system: merit, achievement, international diplomacy. It is not every British Prime Minister that is on the Queen’s Honours list. It is not an entitlement list reserved for anyone and everyone in public position.

Here lies an instructive difference: the Nigerian National Honours list is driven by an entitlement mentality. The day Namadi Sambo became Vice President, he was automatically decorated with a GCON, the second highest honour. As soon as Senator David Mark became Senate President, he also got one of the country’s high honours. Every year, state Governors nominate their friends, family, contractors who donated money to their political campaigns, and traditional rulers who helped to deliver the votes. A few persons of substance show up on the list, but you really have to scratch your head to figure out why certain names have been considered worthy. Because of the emphasis on entitlement and patronage, the award ceremony is ever so bland; the citations say nothing significant.
A review of the National Honours Act and system is overdue. Nigeria must be probably the only country where people are given national honours for work not done, or in anticipation of what they would achieve. National honours should be reserved for those who through hardwork and extraordinary achievement have helped to raise the Nigerian profile and its place in the world. If this be the case, the highest honours in the land should be reserved for the Wole Soyinkas, the Kayode Esos, the Chinua Achebes, the Chukwudifu Oputas, the Dick Tigers, the Fela Kutis, the Margaret Ekpos, inventors, entrepreneurs, great promoters of the Nigerian dream, including the honest average Nigerian, but not politicians and their sponsors, not every civil servant who manages to get to a certain position, not coup plotters, not traditional rulers, not government contractors and certainly not similar rent collectors.

President Jonathan missed a good opportunity to raise the standard on the award of national honours by quickly promoting himself to the GCFR rank. This is reminiscent of the military era and the vaingloriousness of the political elite. When the late President Umaru Yar’Adua was decorated with the same GCFR on the day he assumed office, by the then outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo,  he had remarked that he would have preferred getting such high honour after his tour of duty as President. It was a useful point.

Once more, President Jonathan has failed to eschew the business-as-usual syndrome. I should not be surprised if in due course, the Council of Traditional Rulers unleash all kinds of chieftaincy title offers on him, including that notorious, eponymous one in Yorubaland: OTUNBA. He would of course, demur. But the Council of chiefs from this or that community will beg him. And beg him. And of course, he will accept. The moment may also soon arrive when some Nigerians will beg the President to run for office in 2011. And they will beg and beg. And of course, he will accept. That after all, is the story of how Jonathan got his GCFR.

Reuben Abati was the Guardian newspaper editorial board chair when he wrote this last year

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