The Nigerian National Honours are a set of orders and decorations conferred upon Nigerians and friends of the country every year in recognition of their landmark contributions and patriotism to the nation. However, recent honours awards seem to have deviated from the path of merit upon which the concept was originally conceived and executed. Following the recent release of the 2012 National Honours list, it appears that Nigerians now appear to see it as a huge, yearly joke not worthy of any serious person’s attention, talk less of aspiring to bag one.
“The old proverb still holds good, Thieves are never rogues among themselves.” Sancho in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote
As is the practice among other sovereign nations, Nigeria’s post-Independence leaders were quick to turn their attention to instituting a National Honours system in order to recognise and reward individuals for their outstanding achievements in the service of the new nation.
Consequently, the National Honours Act No 5 of 1964 made provision for the award of the following honours in descending order of importance: Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR) ; Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON); Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR); Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON); Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR); Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON); Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR); and Member of the Order of the Niger (MON).
Each year, the Special Duty Office (SDO), working under the supervision of the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), is saddled with the task of making a list of worthy awardees based very strictly on merit from nominations forwarded to it by a variety of sources, public and private.
Although efforts to get SDO officials to speak specifically on this year’s list failed, AEB gathered that it was drawn up by a special panel, rather than the usually Standing Committee, headed by a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Alfa Belgore. The SDO was reportedly embarrassed by last year’s Standing Committees’ performance following the shortage of medals at the 2011 award ceremony.
According to a source at the SDO who craved anonymity, “letters were sent out to institutions and state governors to nominate people for these prestigious awards. The list was eventually passed on to the SGF, who subsequently forwarded to the President for approval.
It was learnt that some state governors nominated themselves for this year’s awards.
Since they were instituted, many Nigerians and foreigners from all walks of life, high and low, have received these national honours. Well sought after for a sundry of reasons, the awards have however fell into disrepute since the return to civil rule, with some nominated recipients even rejecting it. For the second time in seven years, the renowned Nigerian author, Prof. Chinua Achebe, rejected the CFR award bestowed on him last year by the current federal administration.
While rejecting the National Honour in 2004, Achebe in a letter to then President Olusegun Obasanjo stated: “I write this letter with a very heavy heart. For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay.
I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.
“Forty three years ago, at the first anniversary of Nigeria’s independence I was given the first Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. In 1979, I received two further honors – the Nigerian National Order of Merit and the Order of the Federal Republic – and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award.
“I accepted all these honors fully aware that Nigeria was not perfect; but I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples. Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours List”.
And in rejecting the award last year, Achebe stated in a statement: “The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must therefore regretfully decline the offer again.”
Much like the iconic Achebe, the National Honours Awards appear to have fallen into a sorry pass with Nigerians for several reasons, notably that cronyism seems to have become the raison d’être for awarding them.
Critics say this year’s awardees were mainly drawn from the business community, the political class, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) members that is, and the civil service, leaving out ordinary Nigerians equally deserving of the honours. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) have described the list and the honours selection process as “a charade”
The labour unions said it would have made meaning to honour people like the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, the late Chief MKO Abiola; his late wife, Kudirat; late lawyer and foremost human rights crusader, Chief Gani Fawehinmi; late labour activist, Chima Ubani; and late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
The two groups condemned the selection of people who are currently being probed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), stressing that the honour should not be meant for the affluent alone.
Acting General Secretary, NLC, Mr. Chris Uyot, said the NLC believed that the ruling class was only taking care of themselves “in terms of giving awards to their colleagues, their partners, moneybags and the rest of them.”
He said: “The President should not depend on recommendations from party stalwarts and friends from the business community. He should use his discretion to ensure that the searchlight is beamed on other segments of the society rather than politicians and technocrats. Great Ubani, Gani Fawehinmi, MKO, Kudirat, Fela, and others did a lot for Nigeria.”
President, TUC, Peter Esele, said though the list also had some credible Nigerians who had contributed to the country’s growth, he observed: “Those people being investigated by the EFCC should not be given awards until they are cleared by the commission. The way we churn out these awards every year, it will reduce the importance attached to them.
“Honestly, I think they are becoming too many; this is not the situation in the United States where the President nominates about nine people and they are taken very seriously. You know that Nigerians are rated by the amount of money they have and not by the level of service rendered,” he said.
Also, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) through its National Publicity Secretary, Rotimi Fashaki, decried the honours’ list.
Fashakin said: “It is very unfortunate that the nation is being driven so precipitously. There is virtually no method to the madness.
The national honours scheme has become bastardised. Little wonder great Nigerians that have impacted positively on the nation’s image internationally are shunning these awards.”
National Secretary, CPC, Buba Galadima said: “It is most unfortunate that the PDP has bastardised the issue of national honours.
They made it a misplaced priority, just as every other thing under the sun that PDP had done.
“What we used to know or hear is that national honours are given to two categories of people, not on riches, not on offices held, but people who have creditably served their country and retired, and people who have served their country but are late.
“It is most unfortunate that PDP is leading this country to an irreversible situation, where what our children would best know is how to cut corners and be what you can be.”
Similarly, in a statement by its Publicity Secretary, Joe Igbokwe, the Lagos State chapter of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) said “a careful perusal of the latest names released for national honours shows that it contains businessmen who have no scruples, friends and associates of those in government, discredited contractors and acolytes of those in power, especially at the federal level and mainly Peoples Democratic party (PDP) party members who have done absolutely nothing other than living off the state.
“It is clearly regrettable that the government did not take into consideration recent expressions of disappointment of Nigerians with the award and make necessary amends in the current list. Rather, what we see is a mix of names of people whom Nigerians cannot place in the events that have shaped this country for good.”
Afenifere leader, Chief Reuben Fasoranti, said: “I am surprised that some individuals with questionable business deals made the list. To avoid this type of national embarrassment in future, the Presidency should constitute a committee of credible personalities to look into such list. If this had been done, the panel would have advised the President to drop some of the people who made the list. The moment our leaders drop the usual Nigerian factor, the better our society will be.”
Renowned constitutional lawyer, Itse Sagay, said “The national award system lost its credibility long ago. People don’t have confidence in it anymore. The award is given to undisciplined political class. They give the award to them, though there are few exceptions like Justice Eso.
“I wonder how they could give GCON to some people and give CFR to Justice Eso. Justice Eso is one of the greatest Nigerians God ever created. Why didn’t they give Eso the GCON which is the highest award? It shows how perverse and upside down our value system is. The award system is a joke; it is laughable.”
Lagos lawyer and rights activist, Bamidele Aturu, lamented that this year’s honours list was filled with friends and contractors of the government in power, describing it as “a shame.”
He stated: “With this, it shows that Nigeria belongs to the contractors. When they give awards, they give it to themselves; they feel the country belongs to them. To me, this award is meaningless. People just love title in this country. I don’t regard this award at all and if they give it to me, I will reject it. Journalists should stop reporting them.”
Former governor of old Kaduna State and Chairman, Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP), Balarabe Musa, said though some awardees deserved to be honoured, others were mere government associates, noting that the process had been corrupted by the government.
“People will no longer accept the award again because of the misuse of the honour. Many Nigerians will no longer value the award again due to its lost glory. The honour should not be based on political patronage but on how people make positive changes on the lives of the people or the country.”
In faulting this year’s list, Chairman, CNPP, Ogun State, Kabir Ashafa, said that national honours should be for citizens of outstanding achievements in the nation building process.
Ashafa said: “But what about those corps members who lost their lives during the 2011 general election on national duty?
“We do not honour heroes. We do not set good precedence for others. What a disincentive for those that have laid down their lives to salvage the country.”
He urged the President to review the selection process, stressing that the national honours awards “have been turned to chieftaincy titles, which people do not attach any value to any more because the process of selection does not conform with what the average Nigerian expects.”
Also, Yinka Odumakin, scribe of the Save Nigeria Group, said the list of the awardees shows that “President Jonathan does not give a damn about honour. The list is just a compilation of names of dishonourable people. There is no credibility in the award.
Social Critic, Dr. Junaidu Mohammed, said the awards were “unnecessary and irresponsible. This is not the time for such irresponsible indulgence,” adding that government’s priority should be how to end the crises threatening the country’s corporate existence.
“We should first get the country out of the situation it finds itself before such a jamboree. There is nothing wrong in honouring people but now, is definitely not the time. It makes us look like fools, which we are not”.
Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Abuja, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, said: “As far as we are concerned in the civil society community, we think that the process through which the government nominates and gives awards to individuals is not necessarily based on merit. It is not also on the bases of the contribution that the individuals had made to this country’’.
Also, a former Nigerian Envoy to Ivory Coast, Ambassador Ebenezer Olusanmokun, stated: “It is unfortunate that so many undeserving people have received the national honours. It now looks as if the award was designed for the politicians. I think there is a mismatch of failure and success, which calls for rigorous application of the criteria for these awards.
I believe this honour was meant for people that have made strong and lasting positive impact in the Nigerian society. But as it is today, people are criticizing the names that make the list because they see those names as not deserving such awards.”
And, a rights activist and lawyer, Benjamin Ogunmodede said what beats the imagination of Nigerians was the omission of many people who, having contributed to national development, ought to have made this year’s honours list.
Ogunmodede cited the case of Mr Umeh Usuah, an Abuja taxi driver who returned the N18million left in his car by a passenger he had taken to a hotel, stressing that Usuah’s honesty would have earned him national honours in other countries
He stated: “It is a shame, a very big shame that he did not make the list. Mr. Usuah, a father of 6, could have made away with that money and been a ‘big boy’ now. Rather he returned it. What did he get in return? To the best of my knowledge, he got a paltry N30,000 from the National Orientation Agency.”
“However, given that the problem did not start today, one cannot blame President Goodluck Jonathan although we expect him to restore credibility to the process.”
But an official at the SDO who pleaded anonymity said that Usuah was left out because nobody nominated him for the awards.
He disclosed that the office would consider him now since the driver’s deed had since been brought to its notice.
Others also decried the non-inclusion of a policewoman killed by rioters in Bauchi last year in the 2012 national honours list.
The brave and patriotic policewoman was first slaughtered by rioters who then attacked the corps members she was protecting.
The Presidency was forced to come to the defence of this year’s list following widespread condemnation that trailed its release.
Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, Dr. Doyin Okupe, however, called on those querying the list to mention any of the awardees not fit to be honoured.
Also, Second Republic presidential adviser, Alhaji Tanko Yakasai, commended the President for the list, especially for conferring the GCON award on business mogul, Chairman, Globacom, Mike Adenuga, stressing that this would spur other Nigerians to work harder in their chosen fields in order to be recognised.
He said: “The names on the list are those of prominent Nigerians who have been nominated by their various states and screened.
Most of them deserve to be honoured. If any of them have been indicted by one committee or the other, I think the courts are in the best position to decide their fate and I hope the recognition will spur them to greater accomplishments. I also hope it will encourage others to work harder to attain such heights.”
Similarly, International Coordinator, Global Educators for All Initiative, Raphael Ogar Oko, observed: “Well, I have heard people criticise the government on the names in the list. Yes, we truly have the right to express our feelings about the persons. However, we should not ignore the intention of the national honors award and only focus on the names. I am only very concerned about the message that the list may be sending to many of us.
“Instead of throwing away the baby with the bath water, I think that we should rather focus on strengthening the process and defining the mission of national honours award holders.
“Let us congratulate the selected persons and insist that they live up to the recognition as national citizens. Gradually, we shall make the national award better than what it is now. The intention of the award is a great idea but we need to be careful in our expression of the intention with the character of persons nominated. The honours should combine both character and career in the selection.”
However, , a civil servant in the SGF office who did not want his name in print charged the SDO to be more open and transparent in handling the assignment of drawing up the national honours list because “many Nigerians are beginning to question the process.”
He added: “The SDO “should also evolve ways of tracking, responding and compiling the list, rather than completely relying on input from state governments and selected institutions.”