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..Of national honours and national horrors

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By Chioms Gabriel
Penultimate Friday, the Federal Government inaugurated a new board for the Nigeria National Merit Awards, NNMA, with Professor Francis Idachaba as Chairman. The Board is saddled with the responsiblity of ensuring that the right people are nominated and honoured  by the Goodluck Jonathan administration which pursues  promotion of merit, hardwork and intellectuallism in the nation’s quest for sustainable development.

Established in 1979, the primary objective of NNMA according to Act 59 of 1979 was to confer the Nigerian National Order of Merit,NNOM, on Nigerians who through intellectual and academic attainments have contributed to national and global developments in the fields of science, technology, medicine, humanities, arts and other fields of human endeavours. At least, that was what the Secretary to the Federal Governnment said during the inauguration. It therefore means that Nigerians cannot buy this great honour and there would not be short-cuts and  easy ways in the dispensation of the  awards.

President Goodluck Jonathan presenting  a National Award to  a recipient
President Goodluck Jonathan presenting a National Award to a recipient

Nigeria as a copycat might have copied this from other countries which bestow similar honours on their citizens. Nigerian National Merit Awards might have been  fashioned after Britain’s Member of the Order of British Empire, MBE which  recognises distinguished service to the arts and sciences, public services outside the Civil Service and  work with charitable and welfare organisations of all kinds. In Britain, like I stated sometime in this column, the MBE is perceived as the humblest of honours unlike in Nigeria where our  National Honours could become something that people lobby for and  use  for settlement of political associates, cronies, and sychophants. These days, National Awards which ought to be awards  of distinction  could be bought by political cronies and those that merit it could also be dropped for political reasons. The depth of character unswayed by material attraction and superficial rewards which should be the most considered could become the least considered. Persons of low pedigree, political jobbers and crooks could be nominated for what ought to be a mark of distinction. This should be watched out for so that in future, only the visionary, the courageous and patriots  should get nominated and honoured. That way, this national embarrassment of turning down such awards by people in the mold of Gani Fawehinmi, Prof Chinua Achebe and Prof. Wole Soyinka would be avoided. We should build up to the point that credible Nigerians should no longer reject  national honours because such awards appear to be  going to every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Typically, many would give anything  to have such honours bestowed on them but the NNMA board should avoid a situation akin to what played out during the centenary awards where Nigerians raised their voices at awards given to perceived undeserving individuals.

We keep making the mistake of not drawing a line between national awards and presidential awards as both seem to be used interchangeably. Presidential awards should be awarded by a president to his friends, praise-singers and political allies while national  awards in the mold of NNMA belong to the nation and are given on its behalf, by the President, using the guidelines and criteria set by law.

According to the books, every nation has a system of recognising and rewarding the outstanding feats and achievements of its citizens. Such recognition and rewards place on record, public appreciation for the contributions of those citizens who have distinguished themselves in their services to the nation. These are also instruments for motivating the wider citizenry to strive for greater heights and to contribute more actively towards promoting the nation’s intellectual, creative and societal value systems.

The Nigerian Government, over the years,  instituted several categories of honours and awards that are conferred on Nigerians who have distinguished themselves in various fields of endeavour. A few weeks ago, Centenary Awards were given to many. The Nigerian National Merit Awards should therefore honour  Nigerians from all walks of life who have rendered special and outstanding services in their various callings, to the benefit and progress of the nation. The Act establishing NNMA empowers the President of the Federal Republic to make provisions for the award of honours and decorations.

Nominees are usually invited from different professional bodies and the final decision on the awards is however largely left to the discretion of the President, and the only criterion should be meritorious and distinguished service.

But  this selection process has been bastardized over the years. Undeserving elements have been nominated by some of these bodies for the awards and many of such nominees have been rewarded.

Last year, during the National Honours Awards, many personalities from  Nollywood, the Nigeria film industry,were given awards for their excellent performances that  gave the country positive projection beyond our national borders. Actors like Olu Jacobs, Kanayo. O. Kanayo, Chinedu Ikedieze, Patience Ozokwor and others were given well-deserved  awards that could hardly be questioned. But there are awards given to some people that do not deserve to be there in the first place. Such people believably have not made any significant contributions to national development to warrant being given any recognition at all, let alone the nation’s treasured awards. When incompetent personages make the list, and in some cases bag  the awards, the meaning of the national award is devalued.

In the past, some security personnel were given national  awards and many Nigerians questioned the justification for such, especially since Nigeria came under the siege  of Boko Haram insurgents who have taken some parts of the North hostage.

Everything appears wrong with it to these Nigerians. There have also  in the past been  situations in which some of the top level recipients of certain awards were arraigned for corruption and some even jailed for looting public funds entrusted in their custody. Whose role models are such holders of national  awards?  Are recipients of national awards or honours not  supposed to serve as role models in the society?

One should not therefore wonder why the  national awards in recent times have attracted serious criticisms especially on the account of the personality of individuals that were honoured and why  many eminent Nigerians who were nominated repeatedly rejected same.

For instance, renowned Nigerian literary icon, the late Professor Chinua Achebe rejected the offer of national honour by the Nigerian government citing then the chaos in his own state, Anambra  where he said a small clique of renegades, openly boasting of connections in high places, seemed determined to turn his homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. He flayed the  brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency. That was 2004.

In 2008, human rights lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN),  rejected the national award conferred on him  saying a government that “covertly and overtly encourages corruption has no honour in its arsenal of power to dispense honour”. Fawehinmi  rejected the honour because of what he described as government’s lacklustre fight against corruption and said  there was no hope in sight for the decadent socio-economic situation affecting the people in the country, emphasizing that Nigeria was not in the atmosphere for  national awards.

A member of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila in 2011 also rejected a national award   for similar reasons, citing misgovernance  and the proliferation of names of men of questionable integrity “and people who cannot be said to have merited the honours” as part of the reasons for turning down the award.

Nigeria can do without such embarrassment  from her citizens in future and the next NNMA is the time  to get it right.

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