"Stealing a drum is easy, but finding a place to beat it is not." --Nigerian Proverb
The uproar which greeted the publication of this year's National Honours list has been very unfair to the majority of the those honoured. Most critics ignored the fact that many people on the list have eminently earned their recognition and rewards. A few are borderlines.
If you lowered the bar for who should be honoured in a nation of 160 million people, where values of hardwork, service and enterprise have been severely damaged, but are still basically standing, you will not lose sleep over their inclusion in the list.
If, on the other hand, you believe the bar should be raised so that a nation desperate for role models, genuine heroes and heroines and distinguished patriots should reclaim vast ground lost, you will keep them out.
It is those who have no business being on a list of rare Nigerians who deserve to be identified as honorable men and women who embody all our values in their lives and works that have drawn all the negative attention to the list. The list, like many before it, has failed to distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly, and the good have been unfairly besmeared.
Naturally, the Federal Government has defended its decisions on the list, including bestowing the second highest honour on Mr Mike Adenuga, a prominent Nigerian whose business of politics and politics of business has brought him under very close scrutiny of the nation.
The heavy presence of politicians, and a large number of people whose qualification, if one is charitable, can be described as unknown, and if one is not, as dubious, have also been roundly condemned. Others have questioned why distingnished jurist, Kayode Esho, should be given only the award of the Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR.
There are a few more "misplaced" recipients, and loud voices against the insulting number of women and young persons, as well as persons with disabilities. On the whole, this year's list appears to have attracted more condemnation than previous years, but President Jonathan will shrug this off as typical, a characteristic response from a nation which has been more critical of him than all his predecessors combined.
There will be some sympathy for President Jonathan's defence of his list as consistent with previous patterns and practice. Perhaps so, but this will render this otherwise useful mechanism for national celebration of service and excellence even more questionable in terms of its values.
The fact is that politicians at federal and state levels have long turned the national honours award into a major source of bestowing political patronage. The quality of the list has progressively deteriorated with every year, and it is doubtful if many of the recipients themselves now feel genuinely honoured when they look at the entire list and find the names and history of those they are honoured with.
In 2001,under the chairmanship of the late Malam Liman Chiroma, the nomination committee became worried by the seeming lack of rigorous criteria and the existence of strong political influence in the exercise which were obviously compromising the quality of the Awards, and recommended some far-reaching amendments to the process of selecting those deserving the honour. Among the recommendations made, these stand out:
*Awards should not exceed 100 in any one calendar year. This figure may be reviewed every four years;
*There should be a ratio of 60 men to 40 women in any one year. The ratio may be reviewed every three years.
*No public office holder, including President, Vice President, leaders of the Legislature and members of the Judiciary, Public Service or the military and para-military should receive a National Honour while occupying office. The Award is to be seen as recognition of unblemished service, not a trapping of office.
*Honours may be bestowed post-humously to deserving persons;
*The Presidency and Governors should not nominate more than one quarter of the Award recipients in any one year;
*All Honour Awards should be made only in recognition of excellent and unblemished service and transparent honesty. They should seek to reinforce our values of hardwork, enterprise and innovation, create role models, and should be inclusive and innovative;
*All nominations, except those made by Federal and state governments should be published at least three months before confirmation. Clearly spelt out guidelines which should assist professional groups, civil society and communities in making nominations should be published.
No person who has not consented to being nominated should have his or her name published.All other nominations outside those to be made by governments should be made by citizens and group.
*Awards should be withdrawn after establishing that recipients have fallen below clearly spelt-out criteria involving personal integrity, records of service or conviction for fraud or embezzlement;
*Awards should not bestow any other privilege on recipients;
*Service and professional group awards should be encouraged, but these should be guided by strict rules which should protect merit and integrity.
There were a few more of these recommendations, which, needless to say, were rejected. To be honest, even those who made them knew that they were merely a wish list. Looking back, one wishes it were possible for President Jonathan to re-visit them and stamp his authority on history as the President who reversed the corruption of one of the hallowed traditions of recognising and rewarding increasingly rarified values in our nation.
While he is at it, he could also stop the bastardisation of the awards of Honourary Degrees by our universities. He could re-visit the criteria for awarding the Academic Merit. And why not re-assess the qualification, experience and integrity of the people appointed to serve as ministers, special advisers and key officers in the public service?
He could ask where it is gospel that politics necessarily involves the sacrifice of excellence and experience, and encourages mediocrity and sycophancy as cherished qualities. He can ask how many of his ministers are qualified to head ministries made up of vastly experienced civil servants who would run circles around them the moment their incompetence or greed shows.
He could ask how many of his advisers are qualified to advise him on anything, and why the overall performance of his administration has made it the object of national and international derision. The answers, he may discover, are not beyond his reach. They are the very people he interacts with every day, people he trusts to deliver targets and services.
When Professor Chinua Achebe rejected the award of the third highest National Honour last year, the second time he did this, many people hoped that the Presidency will take a hard look at the manner this Award business is being handled. True, old man Achebe did not hold up his nose at the stench from his fellow Award winners. He did it against his country, saying it was not good enough to honour him.
There will be people in this year's list who will toil with the dilemma of accepting a deserved honour, or doing an Achebe. They should not. Many people on the list deserve their honour, and we congratulate them. The few who do not will grab it with both hands. It will not redeem them.
They and the government that gave them the award have done a great disservice to a nation desperate to find quality and respect in its leaders and citizens.