Written by Anza Phillips & Ishaya Ibrahim Saturday, 26 November 2011
The 2010 and 2011 National Honours for 354 beneficiaries is generating dust and condemnation over the inclusion of many undeserving persons
President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday, November 14, conferred National Honours on 354 Nigerians. The award which was for 2010 and 2011 recorded the highest number of recipients. But it was also the most controversial since the introduction of the awards.
The first controversy that greeted this year’s award was the rejection of the award of Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR, by Chinua Achebe, a professor of English, for the second time in seven years. Achebe, in a terse statement, said his 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.”
For Achebe, the concerns he raised about Nigeria when he first rejected the award in 2004 remain unresolved, especially as poverty and violence have worsened the suffering of Nigerians. Achebe first rejected the award when it was offered to him by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo. At that time, Achebe said his decision was intended to serve as a “wake-up” call and he hoped that “change” would be achieved through that protest. The most scathing about the situation was in his home state of Anambra where he said a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn his homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom.
But Reuben Abati, senior special adviser to the president on media, said Achebe’s rejection of the award was surprising to Jonathan because things were no longer as they were. “The president continues to hold Professor Achebe in very high esteem in spite of his regrettable decision... and hopes he will find time to visit home soon and see for himself the progress being made by the Jonathan administration,” Abati said.
Apart from Achebe, Femi Gbajabiamila, minority leader of the House of Representatives and leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, caucus, also rejected his nomination for the award of Officer of the Federal Republic, OFR. Gbajabiamila said his rejection was on two grounds. First, he humbly acknowledged that he has not done enough to be awarded the Officer of the Federal Republic, OFR. In a memo addressed to President Jonathan, he said: “Whilst I believe with all modesty that I have done my best as a legislator and diligently carried out my responsibilities as the leader of the opposition in the legislative arm of government, I do not believe my best for now is sufficient or enough to have earned or otherwise made me deserving of a national honour as required under the enabling law or international best practices. Perhaps God willing, I may so deserve in the near future.”
His second reason for the rejection of the award was equally an indictment of the federal government. The lawmaker claimed that a national honours list has had many “rotten eggs” on it every other year and this has reduced what otherwise was a well intended and noble idea to a national joke. The lawmaker noted that national honours anywhere in the world are reserved exclusively for those who have distinguished themselves in their chosen fields of endeavour and that such distinctions have stood them apart and head and shoulders above their peers in contributing to the political, economic or social development of the country. He advised that the award criteria needed overhauling. He explained that against this background, he was going to dust up a bill he had sponsored during the sixth national assembly and present again in this seventh national assembly which seeks amongst other things, to reform the process by which national honours are awarded.
The investiture ceremony also re-opened the age-long battle for supremacy between the two chambers of the National Assembly. It had to do with the award category for the principal officers of the House of Representatives, as some ranking members in the House expressed disaffection over the award of Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR, to Aminu Tambuwal, the speaker as opposed to the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, GCON, conferred on David Mark, the President of the Senate in 2008. The aggrieved lawmakers questioned the criteria for the selection, “particularly when Tambuwal was honoured with the same rank of CFR, which was conferred on Ike Ekweremadu, the deputy senate president in a previous edition of the award.
Members of the House of Representatives were aggrieved because of the way the House has always been treated as though members are inferior to the senators in the upper chamber of the National Assembly. “The parliament is one and none of the two chambers is inferior or superior to the other. What is even the criterion for them to give GCON to the head of one arm and CFR to the head of the other arm of the parliament,?” a member who spoke on condition of anonymity told Newswatch.
The other point of controversy was the conferment of the highest award of Grand Commander of the Niger, GCON, on Aliko Dangote, a seasoned industrialist, and chairman, Dangote Group of Companies. This is because, before now this particular award was the exclusive preserve of heads of state.
Grace Alele-Williams, a professor of mathematics and Nigeria’s first female university vice chancellor also accused those who were in charge of the award for not been thorough. The 79-year-old academic was embarrassed that she was nominated for Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic years after she got the same award from the Obasanjo administration. She explained that if the country had kept good record, her next award after OFR should perhaps be CFR.
The controversies that greeted the awards clearly indicate that the prestigious national honours were loosing their pristine values. It was argued in some quarters also that the selection process leading to the award was flawed because contrary to the principles and spirit of the National Honours Act of 1964, which aimed at recognising hard work and selfless service to the country, men and women of questionable integrity were a substantial part of the beneficiaries over the years.
A classic example is the case of Olabode George, former chairman of the board of the Nigeria Ports Authority, NPA, who was rewarded with one of the country’s highest national honours-Commander of the Order of the Niger, CON, for his distinguished leadership role as South-West national vice-president of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP. But a few years later, the celebrated leader was convicted for embezzling funds meant for the NPA.
Other high profile recipients who ended up in jail after receiving the prestigious national honours include: Bello Lafiagi, former chairman of National Drugs Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, who was given the prestigious honour of Officer of the Federal Republic, OFR, and Tafa Balogun, former inspector-general of police who was also given the title of Commander of the Order of the Niger, CON. Lafiagi was later to be sentenced to four years imprisonment for criminal breach and fraud in 2010. On his part, Balogun was sentenced to a six- month jail term for similar offence in 2005.
Besides, the award has been turned to the prerogative of public office holders, irrespective of performance. Apart from the president and vice-president who get the title of Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic, GCFR and Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger, GCON, respectively by virtue of their positions, it is expected that other awardees should earn their honours. But ministers, legislators, governors, traditional rulers and service chiefs, some with questionable records of performance on their jobs make the list. Ibarahim Dan-Auta, a Kaduna-based lawyer, told Newswatch that at a time when Nigerians were feeling unsafe due to the prevailing atmosphere of insecurity in the country, the federal government was busy decorating the nation’s service chiefs with medals instead of sacking them.
So the rejection of the awards by Achebe and Gbajabiamila as well as the controversies that greeted it, did not come as a surprise because the award which was meant for exceptional performance and service to the country had gone the way of some phony elements over the years.
President Jonathan acknowledged these controversies. In his speech at the occasion, he said, he was aware of the criticisms of the National Award nominations and selection process, adding that he has since directed the appropriate departments to note the concerns that have been expressed and to take steps to ensure further improvement so that the National Honours award can continue to serve its purpose.
Among the recipients of the awards were the conferment of CFR on Ita Ekpeyong, Director- General, State Security Service, SSS; Mohammed Bello Adoke, Attorney-General and Minister of Justice; Air Marshal Muhammed Dikko Umar, Chief of the Air Staff, Vice Admiral Sa’ad Ibrahim, Chief of Naval Staff, Lt.-Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika ,Chief of Army Staff, Hafiz Ringim, Inspector-General of Police, Isa Bello Sali , Head of Civil Service of the Federation, Ambassador Ezekiel O. Oladeji, Director-General, Nigeria Intelligence Agency, NIA, Lt.-Gen. Jeremiah Timbut Useni, a former minister; Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bolaji Akinyemi, former Minister of Foreign Affairs; T. T. Princewill, Amanayabo of Kalabari Kingdom and Jim Ovia, former managing director of Zenith Bank.
Dangote, who spoke on behalf of the awardees, said it was a challenge for them to be good ambassadors of Nigeria both at home and abroad.
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