Nigeria Matters

Chief Gani Fawehinmi and a Devalued Honours System

Considering the depths to which the institution of government in Nigeria has sunk and the reputational damage suffered as a consequence of its descent, it does seem strange that our governments continue to place great value on their stock of national honours. Every year, almost without fail and with religious zeal, the government goes through the ritual of compiling and circulating lists of recipients of its national honours. Quite what it expects the public to make of these lists, and quite what the public actually makes of these lists, is anyone’s guess.

My guess, which is as good as anyone else’s, is that the Nigerian public, pays scant attention to these lists viewing them as the output of a government with its priorities in the wrong order. For quite how governments which themselves bear the taint of dishonour find themselves able to honour others is itself a mystery? There is certainly something Orwellian about all of this. Peace means war; truth means lies; and honour means dishonour; in the terminology of today’s language.

And perhaps as a response to the general lack of interest on the part of the public in the national honours system, the government occasionally tries to spruce things up a bit, by including the names of well deserving and distinguished personalities in its lists in order to raise the profile of its awards. But quite why they bother to do so at all befuddles the mind.

Just a few years ago, the predecessor government to the present one, sought to raise the profile of its honours system and at the same time bask in the reflected glory of one of the nation’s true greats. It put forward for recognition the name of the accomplished and celebrated writer Professor Chinua Achebe. Quite clearly, in its mind it thought that it had a pulled off a successful coup. But it was to be badly mistaken in its calculations.

Anyone familiar with the mindset and pedigree of Professor Chinua Achebe would have known that any attempt to co-opt him into such a scheme was foolhardy at best. Such a stratagem was never going to seduce such a substantial man. Professor Achebe is not a frivolous man and neither is he given to the frivolities of others. And so it was with customary candour that he dismissed and disclaimed the award and the attempt to dishonour him by association.

That government’s attempt was to backfire in spectacular fashion; as the erudite professor transformed the charade into a debate and commentary about the abysmal state of the nation. It was a sad, but true indictment of that government’s administration of affairs. By its action the government of the day succeeded in scoring an own goal in sensational fashion. And as if to confirm the hollowness of its motives in honouring Professor Achebe, it, in the face of its embarrassment at his rejection, unleashed its attack dogs in an attempt to savage him. But it was on a hiding to nothing, as no one was fooled.

Now bearing in mind that saga you would have thought that an enduring lesson would have been gained in government circles. The lesson being: that there was no benefit to be had from the second kick of a donkey. The impact of the first kick should have been sufficient warning to it to steer clear from attempts to co-opt vicariously, those of independent mind and action and integrity in the nation, into its schemes. But clearly no lessons were learned.

This, perhaps, explains why someone in government thought it a good idea to nominate Chief Gani Fawehinmi for an award as part of this year’s honours list. It also seems rather strange that someone in the government would think that the gift of the lowly award of Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR) was an appropriate award to make to a man with such a rich background of service to the nation. It is astonishing.

Had the government taken the trouble to consult on the gift of its award to Chief Fawehinmi, it would have come to the conclusion and this without having spoken to a prophet or futurologist that he was going to turn the award down. And so he did, in keeping with the beam of his guiding light of principle, Chief Fawehinmi like Professor Achebe before him disclaimed the award and elevated the matter into a commentary about the state of Nigeria.

In actual fact, there ought to be nothing strange about governments honouring their deserving citizens with appropriate awards. In fact, such a practice should be encouraged. But when governments behave and operate in ways, which make them repellent to their people, its makes it difficult for the people to trust their motives. For instance, less deserving individuals with dubious backgrounds have received much higher awards than those originally earmarked for Professor Achebe and Chief Fawehinmi. How are we the people, or the intended recipients expected to react to this sort of situation? It is quite simply nonsense. Should it continue in this approach then its awards will remain as worthless as the paper upon which they are printed.

The individual reactions and responses of Professor Achebe and Chief Fawehinmi make clear the fact that it will take more than the veneer of spurious national honours to paper over the cracks on the mortar of the structure of our nation. Serious and urgent action is required to repair the damage and neglect of several years. And it is only when this work of reconstruction begins in earnest that giants like Professor Achebe and Chief Fawehinmi will be in a position to even begin to consider the acceptance of such awards.

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