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UNTOLD STORY OF NATIONAL HONOURS CEREMONY

By NBF News
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One of the awaradees with President Goodluck Jonathan

The 2010/2011 national honours award ceremony may have come and gone, but its memory will linger. The event may not have come with all the pomp and ceremony expected of it, but its significance is not lost.

It's possible to blame the low-key nature of the national honours award ceremony to a number of things, but the threats posed by Boko Haram and other anti-state groups in recent times stands out.

Four days before the event, security agents cordoned off all major roads leading to the venue. Other roads around the venue were reduced to one lane. This affected residents of Abuja, who had one or two businesses to transact around the areas affected by this traffic arrangement.

Unlike previous ceremonies, where it was common for security personnel and awardees, their families and guests to have issues at the entrance of the venue, this time everyone was civil and orderly. All the awardees were transported in buses from Eagles Square to the venue of the event, the International Conference Centre (ICC). No award recipient, except President Goodluck Jonathan and governors, drove into the venue. The advantage of this was that the break-neck traffic that usually characterised past events were taken care of.

Also, the security check into the main hall was thorough, as all the guests had to show their invitation cards before they could be admitted into the hall. There were less shunting, pushing, shouting at each other. Also, for the first time, no one cried of missing phones of other valuables.

For State House correspondents, it was an excruciating experience, as they had to park their vehicles about three kilometers away from the venue and trekked. Though some jokingly said it was a form of exercise, it was not so exciting after all, with many of them adorning suits.

It was bad business for fake journalists, whose stock-in-trade is to besiege event venues to harass awardees and special guests for interviews, as a means to extorting money.

Another people hard hit were the commercial photographers and praise singers, who were barred from entering the venue. The closest they could get was the Radio Nigeria building main gate, which is opposite the ICC.

Movement to and fro the venue of the event was smooth, as there were less human and vehicular traffic. Security personnel didn't have problem of crowd control.

Into the hall proper, only the awardees and the special guests were seated for the occasion. The hall was half filled, but that did not reduced the significance of the event.

The snag in the event, however, was that despite the fact that the ushers were courteous and all over the hall, the programme of the event arrived late. The masters of ceremony, the trio of Ebere Young, Moji Makunjuola and Yusuf Addy,  though professionals in their own rights, appeared uncoordinated. Their situation was worsened when they could not announce the real date of birth for the Niger State governor, Alhaji Babangida Aliyu, in his citation. The governor, apparently, angry with that omission, shook his head. This shortcoming was, however, blamed on the organisers.

The excitement of the event was the citation on each of the awardees. Some of them were rather long and could have been abridged to save time.

For the first time, the sitting arrangement was according to the categories of the awardees, GCON, on the first row; followed by CFR, CON, OFR, OON, MFR, MON, FRM I and FRM II. Despite this orderly arrangement, the names were not followed in chronological order, as contained in the programme of event.

Professor Chinua Achebe, who rejected the award, had his name still listed as number 31 of CFR category in the programme of event.

For an event that was slated to kick off at 10 a.m. and end at 2 p.m., and with all the nation's security chiefs seated and knowing the security situation in the country, one would have expected that it would be rounded off on time but the master of ceremonies held everyone down till after 4 p.m.

For the first time in the history of the event, there was a podium for the TV and operators of still camera, who covered the event, even though it was a caricature of what is obtainable in similar events abroad. The podium did not, however, help the work of the cameramen, as they were all cramped together and seen complaining of being blocked from getting good shots. The cameramen's position also blocked the view of the guests, who wanted to catch a glimpse of what was happening at the centre stage or the high table.

The military band, with their slow highlife rendition, added to the boredom of the event that saw many dozing off, but for the short introduction of Gordons, one of Nigeria's stand up comedians, the event could have passed for a funeral ceremony.

Gordon's tried his best to enliven the event with his jokes, some of them dry, within the limited time on his hands. President Jonathan, by his expression, did not find his joke on JEGA being the president of Nigeria funny. How could Gordon had failed the question on who the President of Nigeria is? But he saved himself when he explained the acronym, JEGA, to mean not the INEC Chairman, but Jonathan Ebele Goodluck Azikiwe. But it was hard to draw out laughter from the President with that joke.

However, his joke on mentors giving out their daughters to godsons, like Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu marrying his mentor's daughter, Bianca; the Bauchi State governor, Isa Yuguda, marrying his mentor's daughter, the late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, was well received by all, including the governor himself.

For the awards proper, this year's was different, as President Goodluck Jonathan ensured that he had a handshake as well as decorated all the awardees with their medals, though the medals could not go round all the categories of the awardees.

At a point, President Jonathan became impatient with the organisers, who were not coordinated with the arrangement of the medals and certificates for the awardees. In fact, the president took a break for five minutes, during which Gordons was called in, a second time, to entertain the guests. It was during the break that the guests and awardees seized the opportunity to rush out for a quick bite at the executive hall within the venue or the visit the toilets. This resulted in some rowdy movement and distractions, but that was for a few moments.

Those who got the loudest ovation were the Governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole; Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Olu Jacobs, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Osita Iheme and Genevieve Nnaji.

When the Director General of Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Mr. Umaru Hamza, was called to be decorated with his OON award, he was greeted with Baba Suwe chants.

President Jonathan presented 355 distinguished Nigerians and foreign nationals with various national honours, bringing the total number of awardees so far to 3,924 since it began in 1963.

Following the criticism that trailed the award of Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), before now reserved for the vice president, Senate president, as head of the National Assembly and chief justice of the federation, as head of the judiciary, to business mogul, Alhaji Aliko Dangote. President Jonathan, for the first time, reacted, stating that a man who has employed over 12, 000 Nigerians and is planning to employ 22, 000 on completion of business concerns deserved to be given the highest honour in the land. He, however, revealed that he had 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.

Jonathan, explaining how those honoured made the list, said aside political office holders who get honoured by virtue of the office they occupy, others were awarded for their contributions to the peace, unity and development of the country.

The president, who commended foreigners, who invest in Nigeria for believing in the country, said the award was not just mere decoration but to remind Nigerians the role they need to play for the development of the country.

According to him, 'one thing I am aware of is that there have been criticisms of the National Award nominations and selection process. I have 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.

'National Honours are not merely decorative; they remind us of an important part of our responsibilities as citizens. We must always endeavour to do our best for our country, even as we realise with deep humility that all human beings are fallible, we must look forward with confidence and hope that our country through each and every one of us can indeed put its God-given endowment to the best possible use.

'Let me re-emphasise, again, how some of the people are selected because there are comments from very young people who are a bit confused about how people are selected for National Honours. As I have mentioned, even the most celebrated Nobel peace prize is being criticized; so definitely you will expect criticisms. But in Nigeria you have three awards, two are parallel, and we gave two today, the GCFR and GCON series and of course, the Nigerian National Merit Award.

'The Nigerian National Merit award is meant for scholars and not just scholars but scholars with distinction and the committee that will selects those who will receive that award are among the eggheads.

'The President plays almost no role in selecting who wins the merit award, because that is for academic division. The president plays the ceremonial position of just decorating or presenting the award to those scholars.

'But the National Honours criteria is different. It is based on what an individual has contributed to his community, his state, his country and how you have projected this country outside. It does not depend on how many certificates you have; it does not depend even on the size of certificate you have and it does not even depend on the status you have in the society, so I need to mention that.

'The traditional birth attendant that probably works in area where there is no doctor and successfully delivers hundreds of babies can be awarded and recognised by the president. So is a sportsman who is illiterate, but a good footballer, wrestler or a boxer and projects the image of this country globally and wins laurels and bring us to lime light could be recognized in these honours series.

'Also, in the case of the military, an officer, a corporal or even a private soldier could be given a medal that probably a colonel or general might not have for show of gallantry and that guided the National Honours.

'So, the position you occupy does not give an automatic award, except for some positions like the GCFR, which is given to anybody who becomes the president of this country or the GCON given to anybody who becomes the vice president or the head of the National Assembly or the head of the Judiciary. These are given by virtue of their positions, but others are given by virtue of what you have contributed to the society not necessarily because of the office you hold.

'For you to be recognised and honoured we will want to see what you have used that position to achieve for us. Do you use that office to destroy us or do you use it for the development of your domain? So also is a youth leader, a woman leader or an elder do you use that position to bring development and peace to your people at your community level, local government level, state level and the national level or use it to bring crisis or destruction to our people? This is what guides the selection of this award and that is why you see a mixed group of people being recognized.

'You can see today that we have recognised Aliko Dangote with the highest on the GCON series because we must recognise enterprise. This is a man who has been able to employ thousands of Nigerians as we heard it from the citation.

'Today, I am having the GCFR, the highest in the land, by virtue of the fact that I am the president of this country, but if I am not the president another person must be the President of Nigeria, but if Aliko did not have that business acumen to build that empire probably we wouldn't have had somebody to employ thousands of Nigerians. So, those who, by their innate abilities and creative energies, have been able to make impact in our society even deserve more honour than those of us holding political offices. So, we would continue to encourage enterprise, creativity and Nigerians who have excelled in whatever form.

'A welder, electrician or anybody, who by virtue of what you do, you've done it with much dedication and impacted society significantly can be honoured by the president.'

A breakdown of the awards shows one Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), 65 Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON), 37 Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CFR), 74 Officer of the Order Federal Republic (OFR), 69 Member of the Officer of the Order Federal Republic (MFR), 71 Order of the Niger (OON), 28 Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), two First Class Federal Republic Medal and three Second Class Federal Republic Medal.

Top on the list of the recipients were Alhaji Aliko Dangote (GCON), Speaker of House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, among the 38 CFR recipients. The nine governors of Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Cross River, Edo, Kaduna, Katsina, Niger, Rivers and Jigawa states and nine former governors were among the 65 recipients that got CON.

In his welcome address, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, stated that last year's event could not hold because of preparation for 2011 general elections. He attributed the large number of awardees to the cancellation of the 2010 event. He announced the shortage of medal, which he attributed to large number of recipients. He, however, assured that those who could not get their medals on the occasion will receive it in the next one week. He also noted that those honoured represent a few of many qualified Nigerians, who were rigourously screened. The criteria for the award include their leading contributions in their various field of endeavour and patriotism to the nation. He stated that the award is not an end in itself but a means to an end.

The former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and chairman of the award committee, Alfa Belgore, said the award was designed to help propel the recipient in the pursuit of higher ideas for the country and Africa in general. He urged them to use their position and new recognition to pursue peace and the transformation agenda of government.

Responding on behalf of the recipients, Dangote thanked President Jonathan for honour bestowed on all of the award recipients and promised that the award would be a propelling force for all of them to do more for the country.