Honour and the centenary – Thisday

By The Citizen

Like the annual national honours, some of the awardees do not merit it 

It was celebration time in Abuja last week as the federal government for one whole week rolled out the drums to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the amalgamation of the northern and the southern protectorates which ushered in Nigeria. And as part of the ceremony, 100 people were honoured at a ceremony last Friday night with former Nigerian leaders topping the list.

Among the leaders who were on hand to receive their awards were former President Olusegun Obasanjo and former heads of state, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) and General Ibrahim Babangida. Others were former head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, head of the defunct Interim National Government (ING), Chief Ernest Shonekan and former Defence Minister, Lt. General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma. The late General Sani Abacha, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar'Adua and General Murtala Mohammed got the post-humours award. Among the foreigners honoured were Frederick Lugard, the colonial administrator who presided over the amalgamation; Flora Shaw, Lugard’s mistress and later wife, who reportedly supplied the name Nigeria; and the Queen of England.

For sure, every nation has a system of recognising, rewarding and encouraging citizens who have demonstrated excellence in their various fields and promoted national development. In this vein, the idea of bestowing honour to mark the centenary of the nation is understandable. It could be persuasively argued that the awards were designed to show appreciation for the lives and achievements of those men and women whose power, talent or moral example helped to shape our country for the better in the last 100 years.

The idea is that such an honour would inspire the present and the coming generations to individual greatness and greater service to the country. But some of the names on the list have continued to rankle, raising a rather critical question: Do some of the honourees represent the kind of people we would, in all honesty, project for the coming generation of Nigerians as worthy of emulation?

While remembering our heroes past and rewarding those who are still alive and are making significant contributions to our nation is a noble ideal, the criteria for coming up with a shortlist ought to have been better. If all the people who have ruled the country in the past deserved to be recognised and rewarded, are we then to assume that they have made a success of the nation given Nigeria's huge resources and the missed opportunities? From all indications, the process that went into the selection of the 100 men and women was not different from that of the annual National Honours award. In as much as we acknowledge that some of the names on the list were deserving of the honour conferred on them by virtue of their contributions to our nation, lumping such people together with some others whose memories evoke nothing but national opprobrium, was nothing but a great disservice. Although the ceremony has come and gone, there are still lessons that must be learned, if only to avoid the same mistakes in the future. When people who have genuinely contributed to leadership, scholarship, and wealth creation are lumped with those who just, either by an accident of history or after staging a coup, occupied certain positions which they used to betray public trust, it is nothing but a denigration of the public memory and achievements of those who made significant sacrifices and contributions to national development.

It was therefore little surprise that some people declined the honour. But the problem perhaps is the inability of the selection committee to wean itself of some of the criteria for the national honours. At the end, like everything Nigerian, the selection in most instances was tied down to geography, federal character and ethnicity. This is very unfortunate, as these are not the criteria that should be privileged if our country’s second century is to be significantly different from the checkered first.