President Goodluck Jonathan yesterday invested some Nigerians that his administration considers deserving, with Nigeria's national honours. Last week, when the Permanent Secretary (Special Duties) in the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Dr Henry Akpan, announced the names of 149 awardees for the honours in a press statement, it contained 11 nominees for Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR); 25 for Commander of the Niger (CON); 24 for Order of the Federal Republic (OFR); 38 for Order of the Niger (OON); 38 for Member of the Federal Republic (MFR); and 12 for Member of the Order of the Niger (MON). Like last year, Nigeria's second highest national honour, Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON) for 2012 went to a businessman.
Among this year's recipients are six serving Supreme Court judges; Inspector General of Police; governors of Benue, Delta, Ebonyi and Taraba states; seven senators; Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT); some serving and retired military officers; a motley group of civil servants, politicians, businessmen, and traditional and religious leaders.
Very often, the honours' list is not far from controversy. This year's is no exception. Few in the list deserve the honour; the rest either don't, or it is premature to give them one because they are yet to perform the service for which the award was meant.
It seems that the dominant criterion that qualifies one for an award is that one holds a public office. That is why, on the day of taking office, the president and vice president are conferred with the highest and second highest awards respectively, even if they are yet to put in a day's work. The question arises: Why should certain offices automatically qualify for national honours? To his credit, late President Umaru Musa Yar'adua objected when his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, conferred him with Grand commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on the day he took office, noting, sensibly, that it should have been deferred until his performance in office was evaluated by Nigerians. The awards committee appears to also consider loyalty to current administration rather than performance-based indicators as another criterion.
The cynicism that greeted the awards in recent years may have prompted Jonathan to pledge a cleanup. Yesterday, he asked the national honours committee to compile a list of individuals 'whose actions fail short of the conduct expected of national award honourees'. The awards could be retrieved, he said. It could also have been influenced by suggestions that some truly deserving Nigerians have turned down their nominations, disdaining to be on the same platform with those they believe have short-changed the nation. Jonathan's promised inquiry should begin with restructuring the criteria for awards and reconstituting the committee to make it less susceptible to political influence. The president sought, apparently without convincing anyone but himself, that both recipients of GCON in 2011 and this year merited it. Donations to party campaign funds cannot conceivably be a criterion; and the businesses they run should not be equated to being meritorious service to the nation, particularly when it is in the public domain that these were recently indicted over fraud.
Lumping the very deserving with those that do not merit the honours is dishonourable. It devalues the honour as much as it fails to inspire others (especially youths) to aspire to achieve great things that could earn them national recognition. If the prestige that should go with national awards is to be enhanced and preserved, the existing criteria need to be completely overhauled. National honours should, as a matter of policy, be sparingly given, and only to the genuinely deserving; otherwise, the honours stand the risk of losing relevance and value.
There have instances in the past and in recent times when national awardees were seen in handcuffs after leaving office and hauled into waiting security vehicles like common criminals, and charged with various offences against the state, including theft and embezzlement of public funds. It is the probability of such a situation occurring that should remind the authorities that national honours should be for services rendered, not for work in progress, or not done at all. Giving undeserving people the national honours amounts not only to a celebration of corruption; it is in itself corruption.
Honours list does not need to have hundreds of nominees in it; if the nation finds a handful of people truly deserving, the awards committee needs not pad it. Jonathan should follow-up his pledge to withdraw the honours to dubious persons. But it should not be used as a weapon to intimidate or score points on political rivals.