Friday, 22nd September 2023

Goodbye to era of national awards without honours

By Editorial Board
09 June 2023   |   3:55 am
Former President Muhammadu Buhari’s last throw of the dice in office mirrors his tardy handling of governance in eight years. Without any known process or protocol, his blanket conferment of national awards on friends...

Former President Muhammadu Buhari

Former President Muhammadu Buhari’s last throw of the dice in office mirrors his tardy handling of governance in eight years. Without any known process or protocol, his blanket conferment of national awards on friends, staff, cronies, and in riotous manner, fall far below the line of decency, dignity and prestige expected of national honours.

It is most unfortunate that the erstwhile prestigious national honours award has become an exercise in nepotism, myopia, cronyism, and prebendalism. Every year, political office holders churn out the names of their friends, cronies, and benefactors for a national award, though some of them clearly lack credentials and character. On their own part, the rich, power brokers, con men, corrupt politicians, and wheeler-dealers in our midst excessively lobby and even bribe their way to receive the award as a status symbol.

Last month, ex-President Muhammadu Buhari conferred national honours on the then President-elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and his Vice President-elect, Kashim Shettima, former Minister of Women Affairs, Pallen Tallen, former Minister of Internal Affairs, Minister Rauf Adegbesola, and others. President Tinubu was conferred with the National Honours of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), while Vice-President Shettima was conferred with the Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON) – both of which are statutory and understandable.

Other awardees included 10 serving justices of the Supreme Court: Hon. Justice Chima C. Nweze, Justice Amina Adamu Augie, Justice Uwani Musa Abba-Aji, Justice John Inyang Okoro, Justice Lawal Garba, Justice Helen Ogunwumiju, Justice Adamu Jauro, Justice Tijjani Abubakar, and Justice Emmanuel Agim. It is not unlikely that the awardee justices would adjudicate in the election petitions respectively filed by the Labour Party and Peter Obi against Bola Tinubu, APC, INEC, and the one filed by Atiku Abubakar, PDP against Bola Tinubu, APC, and INEC if the election petitions reach the Supreme Court.

Among the awardees were INEC’s lawyers in the ongoing election petition, Dr Kemi Pinheiro (SAN), and Sunday Ameh (SAN). Whereas government spokesmen Festus Keyamo (SAN), Bayo Onanuga, and Dele Alake were given awards, no awards were given to the spokespersons of the Labour Party and the PDP – at least for balance. There were no awards for Peter Obi and Atiku Abubarkar and other members of the opposition.

It should be recalled that eight months ago, Buhari bestowed national honours awards on a whopping 450 persons, including Amb. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Ms Amina J. Mohammed.

Instituted by the National Honours Act No. 5 of 1964, the national honours award was originally aimed at rewarding Nigerians, irrespective of their language, tribe, culture, and political or socio-cultural leanings for their exceptional contributions and achievements in various fields. This could include outstanding contributions in areas such as science, arts, sports, literature, academia, public service, music, literary work, filmmaking, business, philanthropy, political leadership, social activism, community organisation, and so forth. The award could also be given to individuals, who have played a crucial role in bringing about positive change and progress in Nigeria.

But regrettably, over the years, the national honours award in Nigeria has become a national comedy and a complete embarrassment. The award has become discriminatory and is now used by the political party or government in power to reward their friends and party cronies for their support. For example, upon reviewing the 2023 National Honours Award list, it becomes evident that the awards have been given as rewards or parting gifts to friends and associates of ex-President Buhari, President Bola Tinubu, and the APC. It is incomprehensible that former political officeholders with blemished records and less than stellar performances would be so considered for national recognition. Is fraud and mediocrity now virtues in Nigeria to deserve national conferment?

There is no doubt that the Nigerian National Honours has lost its meaning and charm. Perhaps that explains why notable Nigerians with integrity, such as Prof. Chinua Achebe, Prof. Wole Soyinka, former Supreme Court Justice Niki Tobi, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), former Petroleum Minister Tam David West, and former Director of Military Intelligence Haliru Akilu, who were conferred national awards at various times in the past, rejected them based on strong principles. The world-acclaimed Nigerian literary giant and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie rejected the national honours award conferred on her eight months ago. Prof Chinua Achebe rejected the awards twice (in 2004 and 2011) on principle. In rejecting the award in 2011, Prof. Achebe said, “I have particularly observed 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.”

To create a system of national honours awards that minimises the potential for abuses, it is essential to establish a transparent, inclusive, and merit-based process. Clear criteria and guidelines for the selection of individuals to be honoured should be published to the public. There are many unsung heroes and heroines in Nigeria who ought to be conferred with the national honours awards, but their names are always excluded, probably because they have no godfathers in government to push their cases.

Besides, why restrict the awards to members of the elite and establishment? What about casual workers, artisans, farmers, bricklayers, taxi drivers, street sweepers, janitors, traffic wardens, shoemakers, market women, stay-at-home mothers, and other unsung heroes and heroines of our times? Why the refusal or reluctance to honour teachers or lecturers who taught everybody, including the politicians and public office holders?

Consequently, we urge the Tinubu-led administration to ensure that the evaluation processes leading to the 2024 National Honours Awards are transparent, with clear documentation of the selection criteria and the reasoning behind the decisions. We call for transparency and integrity in the processes of vetting and screening of candidates. The selection of candidates must not be left to the whims and caprices of a few state governors or political office holders. It is important that the government makes the selection criteria known to the public to allow inputs from willing members of the public. The public could be allowed to submit nominations for the awards. Prior to the award, a list of awardees along with a brief summary of their achievements should be published to the public to maintain transparency and accountability. These ensure that deserving individuals from all walks of life have an opportunity to be recognised.

To safeguard the national honours award from political interference, an autonomous body comprising respected individuals from various fields, such as academics, civil society, and the arts, may be created and entrusted with the responsibility of reviewing nominations and selecting awardees based on the established criteria. Members of the body should have integrity and be free from partisan interests and conflicts of interest. This helps prevent favouritism or manipulation for political gains.

In a country like ours in which the lowest common denominator of acceptable behaviour in public life has been falling over the years, the national honours ought to be conferred only on a few distinguished citizens, who would act as true role models for the Nigerian youth. Overloading the national honours’ list to favour friends of the government, promote party patronage or affiliation is, to say the least, a complete ridicule of the very purpose for which the National Honours Awards were originally set up.

When the President confers a national honours award on a citizen, he does so on behalf of the people of Nigeria. Therefore, if the selection criteria for the awards are bastardised or corrupted, then we are indirectly affirming that we are a people without honour and dignity.