Sometime in 1996, then Head of State, the late General Sani Abacha, was said to have been handed a list of nominees for National Honours, subject to the approval of the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) which he chaired. After going through the names, Abacha reportedly looked straight at the official who gave him the paper and remarked: “These are the Nigerians you think merit National Honours? More than half of the people on this list are crooks!”
That year, no Nigerian was bestowed a national honour and I really cannot recall if Abacha ever conferred any until he died.
Incidentally, before I joined government at the end of May 2007, one of the issues I had been very critical of on this page was the debasement of National Honours. Every year, especially since 1999, the story was the same with national honours given mostly to government officials to whom you could not credit with any achievement. This is usually capped with some other characters–who, in another country, would be in jail–being conferred national honours. There was also the issue of category. While respected people in the society who are known to have made (and who are still making) invaluable contributions are usually given what the Yoruba people would call “gba je n sinmi” (just take this and let me have peace), some unworthy people receive higher honours.
Given the way I had felt about the issue, it was understandable that I would pay serious attention to the first conferment of such honours by my late boss, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2008. What transpired was to a great extent a reflection of the degeneration of our society that we now see in all facets. To put it mildly, I saw a bastardised process reeking with corruption and cronyism and I decided to intervene. So on December 30, 2008, I sent my late boss this memo:
“According to Section 4 (1a) of the National Honours Act, Nigeria’s honours are to be awarded ‘for distinguished public service’. Over the years, however, the high regard and esteem with which the National Honours have been held has degenerated so much that today many Nigerians question its value and the integrity of the entire process. It is indeed worrisome that questionable names find their way into the Honours’ roll and no one is sure of the criteria for their selection. The most recent exercise was particularly abused as can be affirmed by…who was a member of the selection committee. I believe that the time has come for a comprehensive review of the process of selection; standards of the recipients vis-a-vis the quality of their contributions to national growth and development; number of beneficiaries and all other related matters.
“Given Your Excellency’s avowed commitment to upholding integrity in the public space, the value of the Honours need to be restored to encourage hard work and commitment to the nation, so that recipients can feel a genuine sense of self-worth and recognition from a grateful nation. As a first step, I recommend that Your Excellency should appoint a committee to totally review the National Honours Award Act as well as the selection procedures and make appropriate recommendations to government on how to restore its lost glory. Some credible and respected Nigerians are listed below for Your Excellency’s consideration as members of the committee…”
Although the late President did not work with my list of nominees for the exercise, he indeed constituted the Justice Alfa Belgore committee to examine the National Honours. I cannot now remember whether they completed their assignment before he died but if they did, I am yet to see any impact from their task given the current list of those to be honoured next week. It is still a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Aside the fact that you really cannot understand what qualifies some people, about 90 percent of those to be honoured have held, or are holding, certain public offices, some through rigging! In fact, going by this year’s list, it would seem that the main qualification is the appointive or elective office that the recipient currently occupies or had occupied in the past.
For instance, of the 11 persons in the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) category, seven are serving public officials, three are retired, with only one businessman to complete the list. Of the 25 Commander of the Order of Niger (CON), there are only three private persons while the remaining 22 people comprise serving and former ministers, current and former Governors as well as serving and former Senators. And down go the categories and the nominees such that the whole idea of national honour is today no different from the conferment of chieftaincy titles by traditional rulers.
But as it also happens every year, even when you question the rationale for some of the names, there are usually credible people on the list, accomplished men and women who add value to our society but whose achievements are degraded by the company of those they are lumped with. This fact also accounts for the rejection of the honours by some awardees who fear a possible association with those they feel should not be on the Honours’ List.
However, given that the problem did not start today, one cannot blame President Goodluck Jonathan although we will expect him to restore credibility to the process in the coming years. Instructively, last year, he did borrow from the book of Second Republic President Shehu Shagari by bestowing the second highest honour on industrialist Alhaji Aliko Dangote. This year, it is the turn of Dr. Mike Adenuga (Jrn) and even while we may deplore the politics of quota that seems to be so apparent, I believe it is a worthy recognition.
For me, what sets Adenuga apart is not because he is into several businesses hence a big employer of labour in a nation where we need people who can create wealth and generate employment. Adenuga is up there because of what he has been able to achieve with Globacom. Anybody familiar with the story of Nigeria’s telecoms industry cannot but salute his doggedness even when only few people gave him a chance at the beginning of his adventure. By stepping up to be bold and daring in the sector, he has been able to restore our national pride, especially given the shame that NITEL has become. But let’s recap the story first.
At the 2000 GSM licence auction, Adenuga’s company, Communications Investment Limited (CIL), had won the same frequency that Motophone had earlier been given and for which the Chagouris were then still in court. But Adenuga, (whose audacity actually helped to push up the price in the course of a globally monitored transparent bidding for which the Olusegun Obasanjo administration deserves eternal commendation), could not muster the requisite licence fee within the stipulated time of 14 days. At that period, international investors were not sure of the Nigerian market so Adenuga quite naturally had difficulty in putting together the requisite finances. Aside the South African MTN which took a big gamble that has today paid off for the company big time, another company called ECONET was cobbled together to secure a licence while NITEL was given a free one. With Adenuga edged out, ECONET in perpetual disarray and NITEL clueless as to what to do with its licence, MTN ran a virtual monopoly.
The story, however, changed when Globacom eventually entered the market after winning the bid for the second national operator licence in August 2002. Prior to that time, MTN that was making a kill had told Nigerians that it was impossible to do per second billing for subscribers. Adenuga put a lie to all that. Indeed, Globacom became the game changer in the industry with stiff competition which eventually proved that what some white South Africans can do, a black Nigerian can also do, if not better!
Between then and now, Adenuga has grown Globacom into a big national brand, a dominant player in the Nigerian market and the network of choice for many countries within the West African sub-region. He has also made invaluable contributions to the development of our football. And by using Nigerian actors and actresses for endorsement, Globacom has gradually helped to promote what has become our biggest cultural export to the world: Nollywood! Against the background of what Multichoice (or DSTV as most people know it) is doing in our country, one can only imagine a GSM market with only MTN running the show.
Regardless of how we may feel about Nigerian businessmen like Aliko Dangote and Adenuga, one thing stands to their credit: they are investors who plough all their resources into this economy, and even borrow from outside our shores to do so. That is a big risk under the kind of political system we run and people who can do that deserve not only our respect but also, indeed, our encouragement.
All said, there is no doubt that the national honour needs to be reviewed, for greater credibility. The Act should be revisited and the membership of the selection committee re-evaluated. The criteria for entitlement should be upgraded, so that the odour of un-holiness currently surrounding the processes (and even the actual award ceremony itself) should be eliminated. Unless these are done, the nation will not be able to use the Honours’ List to make a roll call of role models for national development as it is done in other climes.
The current abuse notwithstanding, I remain a firm believer in the essence of the conferment of national honours which is to celebrate the accomplishments of citizens who contribute, in one way or another, to the shaping of their society; men and women whose courage help them to overcome difficult obstacles in pursuit of noble goals. I hope that one day, our government will recognise the true meaning of national honours by making the right calls. For instance, I would have been delighted if the president had accommodated on the list for this year some of the Paralympics Gold medallists, especially the man who broke a World Record. By bestowing national honours on such distinguished athletes we challenge other Nigerians that they also could be heroes even in the simple but important things they do every day.