Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The 2008 National Honour Awards

THE National Honour Awards were given two days ago to a total of 275 persons who, according to the Minister for Special Duties, Elder Godsday Orubebe, were said to have contributed 'immensely' to the unity and development of Nigeria. The latest batch of awardees reportedly brings the membership of 'this elite group' in the words of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, to 3,447 since the inception of the National Honour Awards in 1963.

To recognise, celebrate and publicly honour deserving persons for outstanding deeds - of courage, of ability, of ingenuity, etc in the wide range of human endeavours is indeed a worthy and time-honoured act in all nations of the world. No one would contest this. Besides, when persons are honoured with public acclaim, they are encouraged to do more in the public sphere. It also encourages other persons to emulate them.

But for a national award to retain its special value, the public - on whose behalf national awards are given, must be convinced that the right persons have been honoured, and that public interest has been well-served. Thus, the reason for giving each award must be incontestably obvious to most citizens in the nation. Going by this simple criterion, we think that for some years now, the award of Nigeria's national honour has gone to too few manifestly deserving persons and too many that are arguably so.

A nation, it is said, reveals itself - values, ethics and all - by the people it honours. Judging generally from the lists of awardees of the past few years, we regret to say that our nation is presented in poor light. In this connection, the rejection by Chief Gani Fawehinmi of the offer of an OFR this year is instructive. Without any doubt, there are many deserving persons on this year's national honours list, but still the list is dominated by persons who do not seem to be so deserving. What is the point in decorating so many traditional rulers and civil servants with national honours?

Every year, the national honours list tends to be too long, unwieldy and does not make consistent statements about 'honour' in the fullest and broadest sense of the word. The 2008 list of awardees is not in any way different. There does not appear to be clearly defined yardsticks which had been used to assess, across the board, individual achievement and integrity that clearly advances public interest. That a citizen has done very well for himself or herself in his chosen field does not, and should not, automatically qualify him or her for the nation's honour until it is obvious to all reasonable persons that he or she has translated his or her good fortune into some means to serve the common good.

In this class is Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, who has made 'immense' contributions to his profession and through it, to his country. Similarly, Pastor Enoch Adeboye has played an unquantifiable role in the spiritual upliftment of Nigerians, besides other contributions to society. Francis Cardinal Arinze has served God and man in a wide range of capacities at home and abroad. There are others too in this year's list whose presence helped to redeem the exercise.

Part of the problem every year is that the process of selecting awardees is cumbersome, with the consequence that genuinely deserving persons do not get a mention. Some members of Nigeria's contingent to the last Paralympics, for example, did not merely represent their country but brought glory to the fatherland. No one has considered them for national honour. The search for honourees every year must become more rigorous. When the Federal Government relies heavily on nominations by state governments in drawing up the National Honours list, the danger is that the exercise may be hobbled by local party politics. There should be a properly constituted search committee whose duty would be to look for deserving Nigerians in all walks of life, beyond those highly placed persons who get nominated on an annual basis.

Quite a number of national honour recipients this year were upgraded from one category to another. Can these 'promotions' be justified by new 'acts of greatness' in the public interest? Hardly ever. Indeed, what this proves is that neither well articulated criteria, nor rigorous consideration of personal qualities, personal achievements, illustriousness, etc. goes into the process that leads to the award of Nigeria's national honour. Put differently, it does not appear that the National Awards Committee were fully guided by, in the words of President Yar'Adua, "faithfulness to the principles of integrity and scrupulous adherence to the pursuit of excellence which underlie the national award scheme". If persons must however be upgraded, this could have been done administratively.

There is even some contradiction in the ranking of these awards vis-?-vis the beneficiaries. More careful attention should be paid to grading and classification.

A National honour in any category is the highest form of recognition that a people, as represented by their government can give for distinguished service in the interest of the Common Good. It must not be dispensed as a means of political patronage or reward for being close to the corridors of power, or loyalty to narrow causes. And there is no law that compels the Federal government to give out so many awards, every single year.

National honours should be given with "the greatest sense of responsibility and to persons who have shown towards society, the utmost sense of belonging and altruism." To identify such persons, the proposed research-oriented search committee should look beyond retired and serving public officers, and cover otherwise overlooked stakeholders and constituencies in society who are nevertheless contributing to the making of the Nigerian story. The true value of a national award, or indeed, any award, is the respect accorded -or denied - it by the larger citizenry.