Tuesday 15 November 2011

Nigeria: Compounding our National Awards with Shame and Disgrace

An instrument of patronage

The Nigerian National Honour Awards 2010/2011 season over the last couple of weeks became a hot topic with international dimensions that now requires a review because it brought to the fore some serious issues about Nigeria.

The first controversy that arose came from the House of Representatives Minority Leader Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila when he rejected the offer [1] of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (OFR).

In discussions that ensued on social media forums, many were quick to question his motives being a member of the opposition ACN party, that is powerful in the South-West of Nigeria, it is however sad that the political landscape of Nigeria is so tainted that politicians with seemingly altruistic ideals get lumped together with the political benchwarmers and jobbers that constitute the rent-seeking class of leeches inimical to progress in Nigeria.

However, it is sometimes important to separate the message from the messenger and sieve the message for the gems whilst discarding the dirt; at least that seems to be the only way to gain insight into the workings of Nigeria.

Mr Gbajamiabila in his letter of rejection opined that the awards process had been abused, the bill he sponsored to review the process did not get sufficient parliamentary time and that the awards should reflect incontrovertible meritorious service rather than it being used as a vehicle of presidential patronage. “This has reduced what otherwise was a well-intended and noble idea to a national joke.” He said, and many would agree.

Things still falling apart

Soon afterwards, the highly esteemed Chinua Achebe rejected the offer [2] of Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFR) which he had once rejected before in 2004. Uncharitably, one can say the government was lacking in imagination in offering the same title rejected 7 years before as if the awardee had not distinguished themselves the more since the first rejection.

Paying back the government in the hand he was dealt, Professor Achebe contended the issues he raised on his first rejection were still present, unaddressed and unresolved. His rejection lit up the international newswires as he is literally the foremost African literary luminary; known for especially for his 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart.

Again, on social media forums, the discussion was quite divided as some were livid with rage at the professor whilst others could recognise the views expressed by him but the most important reaction to his rejection [3] came from the Nigerian Presidency.

Having had their gift horse rejected, they proceeded to damn the man with praise making a clear inference that Professor Achebe was oblivious of the great changes that have taken place in Nigeria; citing the elections which in general appeared free and fair but in all fairness and honesty, those elections whilst appearing to be the best ever held did not mean they were the best that could be held. The government could not point to any other amazingly inspiring changes that could have persuaded the professor to reconsider his views. Meanwhile, one must note that the professor was already an OFR.

Records of degeneration

The Presidency might have been given the benefit of the doubt with regards to a Minority Leader or a Professor in exile but back in Nigeria was Professor Grace Alele-Williams who was the first female Vice Chancellor of a major university in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In her case, her rejection or rather consternation [4] was piqued by the fact that she was being awarded a national honour she had already received 10 years before; she was awarded an OFR.

It goes without saying that there will be a general consensus to honour Professor Alele-Williams again with a higher award and she did not mince her words excoriating the system that allowed for what one should term an unforgivable error.

In what should be Nigeria’s premier award scheme, one would have thought the best brains would apply all due diligence and meticulousness in selecting the awardees, researching their history and sounding them out before making public their decisions.

Professor Alele-Williams had the following to say, “This says a lot about record keeping in this country and it is disheartening to see the country we strove to build degenerate to such level.” And she then went on to, “enjoined Nigerians to collectively stand up to the cankerworm of corruption, which has eaten deep into the fabrics (sic) of the nation.”

Comparing what Professor Achebe abroad said about there being no change in the last 7 years and what Professor Alele-Williams in Nigeria said about degeneration measured over presumably 10 years or more, you might be persuaded more of the opinions of the professors about Nigeria than what appears to be the fallacy of the Presidency – but maybe that is just an opinion too.

A really dull speech

So, Monday the 14th of November was the day of the investiture in which 355 “esteemed” Nigerians - taking cognisance of Mr Gbajamiabila’s objections were – honoured.

President Goodluck Jonathan gave a long and almost rambling speech [5], @jongambrellAP live-tweeted the speech which included trivia like, “I am informed that since the inception of the Award Scheme in 1963, a total of 3,924 persons have received National Honours.”

I got so exasperated that I tweeted, “Who writes these President Goodluck Jonathan speeches? They are so uninspiringly pedestrian as a catalyst for terminal depression.” That got retweeted another 19 times indicating there was probably some agreement with that view.

Deviating from his prepared speech, the President from paragraph 24 of the published text took time to educate us in the nomination process noting that very young people were confused about the awards system and even dared compare the National Awards Committee with the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize whilst also differentiating the Nigerian National Honours Award from the Nigerian National Merit Award. The President should have kept to the script, in my humble opinion; a lacklustre prepared speech embellished with uncharismatic ad-libbing makes for an even duller presentation.

A kakistocracy of incompetence

As if that was not bad enough, the President ran out of medals [6] to present the awardees, some tweets suggested they were more than 50% short and like the professors and the legislator had said, there has been no improvement considering the same President was embarrassed last year for the lack of medals [7] to award some of the present awardees during the even more auspicious 50th Independence anniversary of Nigeria.

Though the Secretary to the Federal Government spared the President some embarrassment it was just as embarrassing that knowing there were so many recipients, not enough planning and preparation went into ensuring that the occasion was as auspicious for the awardees, not to talk of the international community present to witness another unpalatable narrative of Nigeria in transformation.

We cannot continue to excuse and tolerate the rank incompetence that permeates every sector of our society that the organisation of such a premier event honouring the best and most lauded of Nigerians in the eyes of the government be served with breath-taking cack-handedness that will sap even the most optimistic Nigerian of hope for progressive change, whilst adding grist to the mill of the critics, but the government and its organs are justifiably deserving of scorn and excoriation for this debacle and show of shame.

In the end, history appears to have already sided with Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila, Professor Chinua Achebe and Professor Grace Alele-Williams; we Nigerians are once again caught in the merciless iron grip of a heartless and unconscionable kakistocracy – a government indeed by the worst of men.


[1] House of Reps Gbajabiamila, Minority Leader rejects national award | Transparency for Nigeria

[2] Chinua Achebe rejects an honor from Nigeria - CSMonitor.com

[3] Achebe’s rejection of national honour regrettable | Nigerian Presidency

[4] National Mirror - National award: I’ve an OFR already –Alele-Williams

[5] President Jonathan’s address at the 2010/2011 National Honours Award investiture ceremony

[6] Insufficient Medals as President Jonathan Decorates Nigerians at National Awards - Nigeria Business News

[7] The Nation - Shortage of medals mars national award ceremony

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