National Garlands for the Worthy

In an environment like Nigeria where merit and excellence are often not sufficiently recognised, the danger of moral atrophy and loss of faith are inevitably birthed. No country or society can be lifted meaningfully or journey safely in such a Philistinic scenario.

In effect, no society can live without her dreamers and achievers. National awards represent a sober effort to recognise and fete merit and human excellence. The personalities singled out for these awards supposedly represent men and women that logged onto this truth and as a consequence astonishingly upscale their profiles in the Nigerian story.

Their trajectories traverse different arenas of human endeavour. The national award recipients lay no claims to sainthood or any special Solomonic wisdom. Nevertheless, it could hardly be denied that their passion for excellence and commitment to service singled them out for recognition and made them ready models for emulation by many.

At times when there is a palpable decline of faith in the nation’s common destiny, their sheer energy, sincerity and imagination represent beacons of hope. Like adroit alchemists, they wove a delicate balance between the ethics of service, faith, art, governance, responsibility and conviction. From this philosophical footing, they derived a flight plan that has put them in the arena of prestige, recognition and accolade.

It’s against this compelling background that President Muhammadu Buhari spoke to Nigerians last week in Abuja, at the sedate International Conference Centre (ICC), the venue for the 2022 National Honours Awards ceremony.

“Citizens who contribute to national development deserve to be encouraged and appreciated.

“It is based on this premise that I reconstituted the National Honours Award Committee, Chaired by His Royal Highness, Justice Sidi Bage Muhammad I, (rtd), the Emir of Lafia, a distinguished retired Justice of the Supreme Court and other patriotic Nigerians as members to recommend suitable Nigerians and our friends for appropriate recognition.

“The committee has done a patriotic duty by diligently going through over 5,000 submissions and coming up with these recommendations. The patriotic Nigerians and our friends being honoured today, have distinguished themselves in various ways for the purpose of recreating a new Nigeria of our dreams through respect for the rule of law, transparency and accountability in the management of scarce resources,” Buhari reportedly explained.

The president clarified that the screening and selection of nominees followed established broad criteria, in accordance with the National Honours Act CAP.N43 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.

The final list turned in by the National Honours Award Committee was of course by no means perfect. It is perceived to have excluded several deserving folks. It also included fellows who shouldn’t have been listed.

The National Honours Awards are Order of the Federal Republic, consisting of Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR), Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR), Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), and Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR).

Also, in the Order of the Niger, are Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) and Federal Republic Medal (FRM).

The GCFR and GCON are customarily reserved and bestowed on former Presidents and Vice Presidents of Nigeria, including former military Heads of State and Chiefs of General Staff. The GCON is also customarily bestowed on the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and the President of the Nigerian Senate during their first year in office, while the CON is customarily bestowed on Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

The 2022 awardees’ list includes politicians, public officers, security officials, diplomats, members of the academia, businessmen, traditional rulers, religious leaders and legal practitioners, among others.

The six awardees conferred with GCON are Senate President Ahmad Ibrahim Lawan; Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola; immediate past CJN, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad; former Minister of Finance and currently, the Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala; former Minister of Environment and currently UN Deputy Secretary General, Ms Amina J. Mohammed and former President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Prof. Tijani Muhammad-Bande.

Prince Nduka Obaigbena, Chairman of THISDAY/ARISE Media Group, whose bold, innovative interventions created a major tectonic shift and set new standards in Nigeria’s media sector, received the CON award.

Also honoured are the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila; Deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege; Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha; Head of the Civil Service of the Federation (HoCSF), Dr. Folashade Yemi-Esan; former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Yakubu Dogara; late Chief of Staff to President Buhari, Mallam Abba Kyari (posthumous) and former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, among others.

Others are the 19th Emir of Zazzau, His Highness Ahmed Nuhu Bamalli and Registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), Prof. Is-haq Oloyede, among others.

The seven foreigners conferred with honour are as follows: Pierre Vandebeeck, late George Stavros Coumantaros (posthumous), Deepak Singhal, Dr. Attia A. Nasreddin, Chief Nabil A. Saleh (JP), Faysal M. El-Khalil and Ronald Chagoury.

Perhaps bringing a different flavour to last week’s awards was the recognition of some citizens that took actions which reaffirmed the place of sincere, committed human actions in incepting inspiring difference in the national journey and growth of society.

For example, President Buhari conferred Imam Abdullahi Abubakar, an Islamic leader, with the MFR award. Imam Abdullahi Abubakar, 86, hid over 262 Christians in his mosque and saved them from outright massacre when suspected bandits attacked 10 communities in Yelwa Gindi Akwati Village in Barkin Ladi Local Government Area of Plateau State, in June 2018.

The president also conferred National Honours on an airport cleaner, Ms. Josephine Agu, who returned $12,200 found in a toilet at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos State, and a bank security guard, Ogbanago Muhammed Ibrahim, who found and returned $10,000.

Although the president told the recipients of the National Honours that the awards are not merely decorative, but a reminder of an important part of their responsibility, as citizens, to always endeavour to do their best for the country.

The event did not come and go without criticisms as some stakeholders felt it was purely decorative for some undeserving recipients. A Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong condemned it, describing the conferment of national honours on Adamu Adamu and Mohammed Bello – ministers of education and the Federal Capital Territory, respectively – is ‘scandalous’ and injurious to Nigeria’s image.

Effiong said while the president reserves the right to give such awards to anyone, decorating ‘questionable’ characters or underperforming public officers with national honours makes a mockery of the awards.

According to him, Nigerian university students have been out of school for eight months over the failure of Adamu’s ministry to resolve the lingering strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).

Effiong said if he were in the shoes of the Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, he would turn down the GCON award conferred on her because “it does not send the right message.”

According to Olanrewaju Osho, a 2023 aspirant for the FCT senatorial seat, the way the country’s national honour awards are given has always been “questionable”.

“We have not actually established the criteria, in an honest and transparent form, that we are using as a yardstick or benchmark to select those we want to give honours…

“So, as a result of that, the politicians are the ones in control. Can you, for example, think of a national honour system that is not under the administration of politicians, or public servants that are backing them or working closely with them?” he queried.

Despite the growing criticisms that greeted the awards, the ceremony is still celebrated by those who believe that good work deserves accolades.