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.
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.