Saturday, 16 February 2008

Nigeria: Abusing the Honours System

Honoured for service

A few years ago, my father was honoured with a chieftaincy title by the king of our hometown, when I heard of the news, I was certainly pleased for him knowing that he had been conferred this honour by reason of his work and commitment towards development of our town.

Of his generation, he stood out as one who gathered the people, engaged his peers and encouraged the powerful to raise the profile of the town. Titles like these are primarily the means by which clans and tribes are able to honour leaders in their communities.

The electrification project, the building of the cathedral, the refurbishment of the primary school, the building of the secondary school, the mentoring of the younger generation – they were hallmarks of his service – work of over 40 years rewarded by a grateful people and their king.

The patriot that he is, I am definitely not and if he bore his traditional title in formal address, I would not begrudge him.

Dishonouring honour

However, I worry about the way titles and honours get dished out by whim or caprice by any traditional leader of the hut, hamlet, village, great city, tribal land or kingdom.

Everyone gets conferred with a chieftaincy title such that we are probably running out of people to give modernistic irrelevant but trendy titles that the pets might begin to feature in these ceremonies.

Ologini of Gbokiti (Cat of Tumbler) or Ajaoba of Meranyii (King’s Dog of catch the goat) – The imaginary places could easily be your homestead.

People go out of their way to flatter and aggrandise themselves before traditional leaders who in turn are captivated and entranced by the show of wealth that could be used to buttress wanton excess in the throne-room.

Honours by the basketful

This all for the sake of being addressed as chief with the most prized title being Otunba (Right-hand man of the king).

I remember when Gbenga Daniel, the governor of my home state, Ogun State ran for election in 2003, he had already bagged about 50 chieftaincy titles from literally every named habitation in Ogun State and more from other states.

He is formally addressed as Otunba Gbenga Daniel; his wife currently holds the fanciful title of Yeye Aare Ajibosin of Owu kingdom and is addressed as Yeye Olufunke Daniel. Yeye being synonym for mother in Yoruba.

Honours from anywhere

You then have people who seethe with religious addiction and superstitious stupidity whilst in the bondage of subjectivity that gives more credence to evil than good conferred with church or mosque titles.

Reverend, Canon, Venerable, Imam we know, but how would one handle titles which have become the formal style of introduction as Deacon, Senior Assistant Evangelist, Prophet, Apostle, Pastor, Senior Prophetess, Mother-in-Israel or Iya Adinni to mention a few?

This has become the raison d’ĂȘtre of the Nigerian elite, you are nothing if you are not titled, even if the title is conferred by some backwater king who has a wicker stool for a throne and nothing more than loin cloth to retain his decency.

Bastardisation of Nigerian honours

A more recent development grates me, after the hairdresser hair-singe of Madam Etteh the erstwhile Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, the new 38-year old Speaker was conferred with the national civic honour of Commander of the Federal Republic.

Members of the House have taken umbrage about the class of honour and remonstrated that as the fourth citizen of the country he should have received a higher honour because of his status and especially where the Chief Justice of the Federation who is lower in the order of precedence (seventh) has received a higher honour.

I am afraid; this clearly shows that our representatives are clueless about how honours systems work. This is not some conferment that comes by reason of office; it should come by reason of having a track record. News of those honoured.

Two Ts short of a citation

Mr. Dimeji Bankole, the Speaker, who has not yet been subsumed into the chieftaincy morass of Yoruba culture happens to be the son of a high-chief in Egbaland who goes by the chieftaincy title of Seriki Jagunmolu of Egbaland so. some of those titles might be on the way. I would not be surprised if people are not already needling some backwater king to make him Chief Chatterbox of Backwaterland.

It would go without saying that Mr. Bankole’s political base stems from the influence his father exercises and the failed political forays into seeking popular electoral office; it could well be that coming from the same city as the last President (Olusegun Obasanjo) is a coincidence.

I am not convinced that Mr. Bankole has the track record or body of work in service of Nigeria to be conferred a national honour at all, we only have to see what the Chief Justice of the Federation brings to the table.

Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, was called to the bar at The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn on the 20th of July 1965 and he enrolled at the Nigerian Law School on the 22nd of July 1966 (I have records of all lawyers registered in Nigeria up until mid-1990 since I worked on publishing a Legal Desk Book for 1991), he became a High Court judge in 1976 and was appointed to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in 1992, then became Chief Justice in 2007.

I think this citation would read for minutes and would attract deserving applause without having to consider the fact that he has been elevated to the post of Chief Justice.

The embarrassing thing about Mr. Speaker’s national honour would have been the way the citation would have been blown up and filled in to justify the act after just 4 months of being Speaker in a term that should last 4 years, although he has been a representative since 2003 - the key fascinating fact would really be his age, for which many clapped; everything else is par for the course.

Honour should come after service

However, one only has to see examples of the United Kingdom where Tony Blair was Prime Minister for 10 years and quite visibly a world leader for most of that time – he was not conferred with honours during his term and having left office he might not be conferred with honours for another year or so.

This does not mean he does not deserve honouring; at least a knighthood, but the case in Nigeria might well be compared with giving a Nobel Prize in some science to someone we anticipate would come up with a ground-breaking idea because he is a scientist rather than because of the work that has been done that has served humanity.

In the end, if people are honoured long before they should be with honours way beyond what recognition they should get, the whole exercise is cheapened and it is made it worthless in the face of many other Nigerians who have no political influence but are even worthier of great honour.

The honour should not have been conferred at all, at least not at this time; but until we have objective representatives who are not caught up in the tide of emotion, we can expect such idiocy to grab the headlines.

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