Why we must reform the National Honours in Nigeria, By Chidi Odinkalu

Chidi Odinkalu, Chair, National Human Rights Commission
Chidi Odinkalu, Chair, National Human Rights Commission

“The process of the award itself should be regulated by both law and good sense. In Nigeria, both seem to have collapsed”

“We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat.” John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962).

Nigeria’s National Honours list and process is beset with a credibility crisis that could be terminal. Disregarding Machiavelli, those who administer it appear to think that titles honour people when in reality it is the people that honour titles.

Increasingly, therefore, Nigerians of true distinction and dignity wish not to be associated with it. Some have even taken the extraordinary step of publicly renouncing or denouncing it in recent times. Such public disavowal of faith in the possibility of virtue in our country and its public life must give the custodians of our constitutional values cause for worry. They are also compelling reasons for radical reform of the National Honours process.

There are good reasons why a country may wish to formally recognize and honour its citizens who make signal contributions to promotion of the public good. Such recognition could help forge common memories of nation building, inspire others to seek to transcendence in public service and establish traditions of virtuous public service for others to follow.

The process of the award itself should be regulated by both law and good sense. In Nigeria, both seem to have collapsed and the National Honours Roll is now widely viewed as advertising this collapse.

Enacted in 1963, the National Honours Act itself requires that Nigeria’s National Honours should be awarded by the President “for distinguished public service.” It empowers the President to provide “for the deprivation of an honour in a case where a recipient conducts himself in a manner which the President considers to be inconsistent with the honour.”

Some recipients of the National Honours have been convicted of serious offences of character and others have brought it into disrepute through questionable conduct. Yet, the National Honours roll has become somewhat like Hotel California – programmed to receive but you can never leave! This must change.

The publication of the latest installment of Nigeria’s National Honours list has hardened the perception that the National Honours process has become a political bazaar of sorts. Far from promoting it, the manner and content of the National Honours list undermines the pursuit of distinction in public service. This does incalculable injustice to those Nigerians that have indeed earned the recognition conferred by the National Honours, damages our national brand and diminishes the currency of honour as a virtue in our public life.

There are many things wrong with the National Honours list. Take the 2012 list: it is mostly reserved for serving public officers and their friends or nominees; it recognizes only 15 women out of 149 (a mere 10%) and no young, ordinary or disabled Nigerian. As a national register of honour and with no disrespect meant or intended to any of those contained in it, this is a squalid advertisement for distinction in public service.

The steps that can be taken to return credibility to the National Honours process hide in plain sight. First, the eligibility criteria should be widely publicized and periodically reviewed. The criteria, as well as nominees, should be electronically accessible. Second, the public should have a major role in nominations and government should diminish its control over who gets honoured.

Third, serving public officers of any rank should not be eligible for the awards. Those who deserve it will be considered after they have left public office. Indeed, the Code of Conduct provisions in the 5th Schedule of the Constitution prohibit serving public officers from accepting “benefits of any kind ….for anything done or omitted to be done by him in the discharge of his duties.” Surely, this applies to National Honours.

Fourth, there must be room for public objections to nominations. This means that a shortlist of nominations should be published with sufficient time to enable members of the public file objections or complaints and the process for adjudicating such objections should be clear, transparent and expeditious.

Fifth, there must be an expeditious process for depriving un-deserving recipients – such as Tafa Balogun, Erastus Akingbola, and Cecilia Ibru – of their awards.

One decade ago, the National Honours nominations committee headed by the late Alhaji Liman Ciroma tabled for consideration proposals for reform of the National Honours process. Among other things, it recommended a cap on the maximum number of recipients of the National Honour in any year to not more than one hundred persons; a gender diversity ratio reviewable every three years to ensure equal recognition of both men and women; a limitation on the number of nominations proposed by the Presidency to not more than 25% of the maximum; a prohibition on honours for serving public officers; and a requirement for the publication of nominations for objections or comments at least 90 days before decision. These were eminently sensible and honorable proposal.

Nothing came of them.

Instead, the National Honours process seems to have been captured by the same agents of allocation that have done such damage to our national life. This is not a fate. Changing it, however, requires leadership at the highest levels of Nigeria’s national life to recognize that the recognition of true distinction in public service cannot be shish-kebabed among a narrow political tribe nor offered up merely as a reward for time served in public office.

Odinkalu Chairs the Board of the National Human Rights Commission

2 thoughts on “Why we must reform the National Honours in Nigeria, By Chidi Odinkalu

  1. Another excellent piece from an excellent mind. Faultless, non partisan and straight to the point. Thumbs, Chidi.

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