The House of Representatives was on Thursday thrown into a rowdy session when some lawmakers kicked against the honour given former presidential candidate, Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential election, by President Muhammadu Buhari.
On Wednesday, Mr Buhari announced the conferment of the highest honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on Mr Abiola as a sign of honour. He also declared June 12, the day of the 1993 election, as new date for celebration of Democracy Day in Nigeria. Mr Abiola died in prison in 1998, where he was kept by the then military government since 1994. His then running mate, Babagana Kingibe, is also to get the second highest national honour, GCON, the president said.
In a move that sparked up the controversy, Nicholas Ossai (PDP, Delta) said Mr Buhari’s decision to announce the new public holiday on Wednesday rather than on May 29 was “with bad intent.”
He said only the National Assembly is empowered to set new dates for public holidays.
“Public holiday is derived from the National Assembly act and not from executive declaration,” the lawmaker said.
“This honour is to be given to the president or former presidents who are still alive.
“Two weeks ago, we celebrated our great feat as a nation our Democracy Day. The executive never thought it wise to declare it on that day. What is the difference between now and one week ago, it is an act of discrimination.
“What happens to the public funds used in celebrating Democracy Day weeks ago? They must be accounted for. Why didn’t the president announce it on that day?”
At this point, there were shouts of “sit down” from some of the lawmakers, leading to a rowdy session.
Some of the other lawmakers who also spoke on the issue said there is need to ensure the rule of law is abided with regarding the matter, while others spoke in favour of the president’s decision.
This led to a rowdy session for more than fifteen minutes.
After calling the lawmakers to order, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, said the public holidays act gives room for the president to fix public holidays.
“The national assembly has exercised its powers as provided in the constitution by enacting that act,” he said, adding: “But its section 2(2) gives the president powers to declare a new date for public holidays.”
Toby Okechukwu, (PDP, Enugu) said while Mr Buhari’s decision is commendable, the lawmakers must ensure the president is “doing what is within the framework of the law.”
“We must make sure that we set the correct actions to ensure it is sustainable and it is registered for what it is. We must ensure the rule of law is abided by,” he said.
Some of the lawmakers also argued that while the public holidays act empowers the president to fix a new public holiday, the act defines May 29 as date for celebration of Democracy Day.
They said the lawmakers have to amend the act and change the date before the new date of June 12 will be adopted
Following the dissenting views, rather than the House commending the president, the speaker said the matter will be suspended and referred to the House committee on justice to sort out the issues and report back to the lawmakers.
“There is a schedule in the act which leaves Democracy Day as May 29. So the issue to be resolved is to look at the presidential declaration and compare with the section of the act that states that June 12 is the Democracy Day. So I will freeze the motion, and refer the matter to the committee on rules and businesses,” he said.
President Buhari on Wednesday directed that effective 2019, Nigeria’s Democracy Day, marked every May 29 for the past 18 years, be shifted to June 12 to honour Mr Abiola.
Mr Abiola won the polls but he was never formally declared winner and was not sworn into office by the military government of Ibrahim Babangida.
Instead, he was imprisoned by another military dictator, Sani Abacha, while struggling to actualise his mandate. He died in prison in 1998.
Successive governments have brushed aside calls for Mr Abiola to be honoured and for the federal government to recognise June 12 as democracy day.
Apart from Messrs Abiola and Kingibe, also to receive a GCON is the late foremost pro-democracy activist, Gani Fawehinmi.
Mr Buhari’s move has been commended by several state governors and rights activists. The Abiola and Fawehinmi families have also commended the president. The move has, however, been criticised by some including the opposition party, PDP. Also, PREMIUM TIMES reported how a former chief justice of Nigeria, Alfa Belgore, described the post-humous award of national honours as illegal.