Monday, December 12, 2011

Perspective on Nigeria's 2011 National Honours Awards

National Honours are not merely decorative; they remind us of an important part of our responsibilities as citizens. We must always endeavour to do our best for our country, even as we realise with deep humility that all human beings are fallible, we must look forward with confidence and hope that our country through each and every one of us can indeed put its God-given endowment to the best possible use - President Goodluck Jonathan

It is no longer news that 355 Nigerians and foreigners were recipients at the 2010/2011 National Honours Award ceremony held at the International Conference Centre in Abuja on Monday, 14 November. What have lingered are the many controversies that have trailed the award. Several issues have emerged. They include the rejection of the honour by three of the nominees’ viz. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, Minority Leader in the House of Representatives and Prof. Chinua Achebe, a renowned novelist and Prof. (Mrs) Grace Alele Williams, a former University of Benin Vice Chancellor. There was also the criticism that the number of the recipients was too large; that some of the awardees were undeserving of the honour and that there was shortage of medals and certificates.

Every human endeavour is prone to censure. I do not believe that there should be an issue with someone rejecting the award; neither do I share the sentiments that the honourees are too many especially as they were for Year 2010 and 2011. Moreover, in 48 years of the awards, having been instituted in 1963, only 3,924 persons have been honoured in all the ten categories of the award out of a population of 167 million Nigerians, excluding foreign nationals. Out of this number, some people have been honoured more than once. Thus, it is a misnomer to say the number of the honourees was too large.

Contrary to the views expressed my many critics of the award, most of those who were honoured deserved being so recognised. The fact that someone’s name does not ring a bell when mentioned does not amount to the person being a nonentity. I however agree that the award should be performance based. Persons should not be given national honour simply because they occupy a high profile positions (be it religious, cultural, political, social or economic) in the society.

I found it indefensible the explanation offered by the Secretary to the Federal Government of Nigeria, Senator Pius Anyim that the shortage of medals and certificates was due to the large number of recipients. For goodness sake, SGF and his team of organisers have two years to prepare for the events! Production of 355 memorabilia is not a rocket science. The alibi that the National Honours Award was put off in 2010 due to preparations for the April 2011 elections also sounds incredible. The nation is not at war and as such election is not a justifiable reason for the inability to hold the Honours Award.

It has also come out very clearly that Nigerians know little or nothing about the award. There seems to be no sense of history on the origin, importance, benefits, responsibilities, requirements and processes of being conferred with the national honours. What necessitates the design of the national honours? How did we come about the names of the various categories? Why do we have nomenclature like Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger instead of Grand Commander of the Order of Nigeria? Won’t this be less confusing as there is another neighbouring country known as Niger? What sense is in Member of the Federal Republic for a Nigerian? Are we, other non-MFR-honourees, not a member of the federal republic as well? Shouldn’t such a title be conferred on nationalised foreigners?

It does seem that the President’s speech writer did not do his or her homework well on the etymology of the national honours as the President goofed in saying inter alia that “The position you occupy does not give an automatic award except for some positions like the GCFR which is given to anyone who becomes the President of this country or the GCON given to anybody who becomes the Vice President or the head of the National Assembly or the head of the Judiciary.” If the advertorial by a faceless group named “The ‘New Thinking , New Nation’ Initiative” in some newspapers on Friday, November 18, is to be believed, since inception of the National Honours, “over 80 Nigerians have been conferred with the honour of GCON, of which only five were second in command to the Presidents/ Heads of State” A quick perusal of some of the names of past beneficiaries of GCON revealed that many were former military chiefs, permanent secretaries and Ministers.

The advert also went on to say that even late Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was not a president was long ago conferred with the highest title of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR). I should want to know what benefits accrue to national honourees. Is there a cash reward attached to the award? Can I use it as collateral to obtain bank facility? Does it guarantee me free shopping at any supermarket of my choice or a business class seat in an airplane or free Medicare at public hospitals? There have been several past honourees who have abused their privileged positions; shouldn’t awardees convicted of crimes be stripped of their national honour? Is there really a code of conduct for recipients of national honours?

Lest I forget, hearty congratulations to the 2011 Honourees made up of one Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), 65 Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), 37 Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR), 74 Officer of the Order Federal Republic (OFR), 69 Member of the Officer of the Order Federal Republic (MFR), 71 Order of the Niger (OON), 28 Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), two First Class Federal Republic Medalist and three Second Class Federal Republic Medalist.

Even as we pontificate over the national honours, Nigerian newspapers are in a celebration mood having experienced a windfall in advert sales in the week of the conferment of the national honours. In a monitoring exercise carried out by a national newspaper, Thisday, six Nigerian newspapers recorded 726 pages of adverts from congratulatory messages alone between Monday, November 14 and Wednesday, November 16. The daily had on the day of the national award hit the newsstand with a package of 224 pages, the highest number of pages in a single edition of a newspaper in the nation’s media history.