Opinion: Wanted: An alternative national honours system

President Jonathan presenting a national honours to Aliko Dangote in 2011

by Ayo Olukotun

President Jonathan presenting a national honours to Aliko Dangote in 2011

A few years back for example, a Ghanaian economist disgusted with his own country’s political abuse of the national honours award inaugurated a civil society version of the exercise which he called the “Heroes and Heroines Award of Ghana.”

A vigorous debate has trailed the recent award of national honours in different categories to 149 Nigerians. The 2012 honours awards are not significantly different from those of previous years recycling as they do several office holders, serving and retired, as well as politically-influential members of elite.

Critics of the award and they are legion say that the honours are politically-oriented, that they favour those with connections to the ruling party and contain many individuals who cannot be said to have offered the nation distinguished public service which is the criterion stipulated by the National Honours Act.  The government has defended itself by insisting that everyone on the list deserved the award and that contrary to opinions expressed by critics, thorough background checks were made in respect of the integrity records of the honourees.

From the point of view of a political system that does not aspire to excellence, new departures or indeed seek to inaugurate new, edifying values, the awards may not cause much offence. Rather, they reflect the worldview of the current political culture, its dominant values, its over-politicisation and its definition of the nation from the point of view of the advantages of its current managers. Interestingly, although the opposition has made political capital out of the deficiencies of the roll call, it is doubtful in the absence of a national restructuring of values if the list would have been significantly different had it been compiled by any of the current political parties jostling for power. As it’s well known, the political dialogue insofar as it connects government and the opposition tends to be a rather narrow one with the opposition operating within the same dominant culture and ethos as the ruling party but insisting that it could run a more efficient and transparent political system.

To extend the boundaries of that jaded political discourse, it would be nice if the opposition can be more specific concerning the kind of reforms it intends to initiate if it comes to power or in the alternative, and if its own limitations permit, seek to interrogate the dominant political ethos and decadent culture which throw up many absurdities including the severely defective annual national honours list. A few years back for example, a Ghanaian economist disgusted with his own country’s political abuse of the national honours award inaugurated a civil society version of the exercise which he called the “Heroes and Heroines Award of Ghana.” The idea of this critical project was to oppose to the political class version of national honours an alternative bottom-up definition not just of the nation but on what constitutes true honour. It will be helpful if the current debate in Nigeria can go beyond merely picking holes in the annual honours list to sketch forth an alternative vision and version of excellence or outstanding achievements. That would mean upturning for example current practices whereby the ruling class or more specifically the ruling party conceives of the exercise as no more than self-validating and self-celebrating occasions for its leading lights and their cronies.

True, there is an extant National Honours List Act that prescribes the format and governing regulations of the award with some categories of awards dependent on the holding of certain political offices. Even at that, however, a case can be made for serving politicians to exempt themselves from being honoured while in office leaving that task to their successors as it’s the practice in some other countries. To return to neighbouring Ghana, a former parliamentary minority leader, Alban Bagbin, once turned down the country’s national honours award because, to employ his words, “I’m just serving the nation by virtue of my position as Minority Leader.  This alone does not deserve a national award.” Such an edifying mindset reinforces the view that honour rings truer when it is conferred by other witnesses and when earned by distinguished service. A similar protest strain was registered here recently by the House of Representatives Minority Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila, who turned down a national honours award on the grounds that as a consistent critic of the annual bazaar, which one journalist has described as an alternative chieftaincy title conferment, he could not in all good conscience accept the honours on current terms.

Part of the problem is the desperate short-term mentality of the political elite manifesting in this case in their inability to trust that their successors would honour them since everything is politically determined and there is no room any longer for bi-partisanship or statesmanship.  One way of going around this within the current paradigm is to involve the opposition as well as reputable civil society activists in the nomination and selection process thus making the awards more national and less politicised than they currently are. Indeed, one of the dangers of extreme politicisation is that it engenders a backlash of extreme politicisation in which the baby is thrown away with the bath water.

Beyond that, however, is the need to shift the centre of gravity in respect of these awards by skewing them away from a conception of honour which confers glory on anyone or just anyone who is lucky enough to occupy political office even if they rigged their way to the office.  In our circumstances, it is galling if not a tragic pity that the nation is invited annually to celebrate a political class whose performance has been anything but distinguished. To put this point starkly: if so many Nigerian leaders are deserving of national honour on account of “distinguished public service” then why are we still in the mess that we are in today? Obviously, something somewhere does not add up. Considering also that an award is only as worthy as the authority bestowing it, our leaders should be more concerned about upgrading the national status in such ways that would lend meaning to honour bestowed by it. That is another way of saying that it is difficult to separate the awards as currently constituted from the national malaise in which several aspects of life as measured by international rankings are in decline; a malaise deepened by the collapse of integrity and time-honoured values and virtues.  The scenario of beholding influential citizens celebrating and clinking glasses while the nation is mourning its lack of progress is an incongruous one. A reformist political elite with a sense of urgency might well have considered the suspension of the award in a season of virtual national emergency such as we are currently in.

A fundamental restructuring of the awards should seek to wean it away from its top-heavy political nature laden with unsound conceptions of so-called federal character in order to make it genuinely national and socially-inclusive. This would mean for example that ordinary Nigerians who are making progress away from the headlines and prime television can be honoured for their contribution to national development even if such a framework would mean a revision of the enabling law governing the awards.  It would also include bringing on board the revised version of the awards, several Nigerians who have distinguished themselves in their professional callings and are thereby bringing honour to the country’s name abroad.  In other words, a refurbished national award system would not be business as usual but would take seriously the opportunity to institute a new value system and ethos which opposes to the current indolent syndrome of windfall gains through political office the benefits of distinction truly earned in meritorious service.

If we continue making these awards on the same familiar and controversial basis, however, their value will cascade further downhill until they become as cheap and as degraded as a virtually worthless currency.


Ayo Olukotun is Dean of the Faculty Social Sciences and Entrepreneurial Studies at Lead City University, Ibadan.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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