Written by Tayo Ogunbiyi
FG, Achebe And National Honours
Again, Professor Chinua Achebe, Nigerian world acclaimed literary genius, has rejected the offer of a national honour from the federal government. The first time that this illustrious son of Africa rejected such was seven years ago, under the administration of General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd). The Nigeria National Honours are a set of orders and decorations conferred upon Nigerians and friends of Nigeria every year. They were instituted by the Federal Government as a way of recognising deserving Nigerians and friends of Nigeria who have not only distinguished themselves in various fields of human endeavour, but have also made immense contributions to nation building in the country.
However, over the years, many people have come out to question the rationale for the selection of some of those on the honour list. Indeed, there have been arguments that the national honour is fast losing its worth as it has been contended in many quarters to have become another way of celebrating parochialism in the country.
Those who hold this view readily point to the political era in defence of their stand. According to them, in recent times, the honours have been conferred on personalities whose only known credential is taking up political positions. Nonetheless, those in support of the award have continued to flaunt names of notable and well respected Nigerians who have been bestowed with the honours as justification for its integrity.
However, the main aim of this piece is neither to commend nor condemn the institution of the national honours, but to scrutinise the rejection of the award by Professor Chinua Achebe as well as the response of the Federal Government.It is rather curious and remarkable that in a country where people cherish titles and are ready to do anything to grab as many as they could, we still have people who can openly reject national honours. In recent times, we have seen Nigerians bagging various honorary degrees and honours from very questionable sources. In most cases, the recipients of such titles and honours throw lavish parties to celebrate their latest acquisition, while pages of national newspapers are flooded with congratulatory messages from friends and well wishers. Our craze for honours, titles and awards have got to a level where recipients of some of these awards are said to have footed the bills for the organisation of such prizes. In fact, the rector of a state polytechnic was recently quoted as saying that his institution is not interested in giving out honorary degrees because of how such have been bastardised in the country.
It is in the midst of all this that one finds rather probing, the position of Professor Chinua Achebe. Nevertheless, what is of particular interest in this instance is the explanation offered by the professor for turning down the national honour. It is interesting to note that the professor is rejecting the honour on premises which could be said to be patriotic. Seven years ago, when he rejected the honour, the professor based his position on the poor state of affairs in the country. This time around, the professor is insisting that little has changed in the country between now and seven years ago, when he rejected the award.It is fascinating that in a country where praise singing and mediocrity have become a national pastime, we still have people who could sacrifice personal gains for the good of all. It is my candid opinion that the professor needs to be commended for taking such a position at this critical point in our sociopolitical history. Please, don’t get me wrong. Those who have decided to accept and celebrate the honours are entitled to do so and no doubt, some of them are patriotic and selfless Nigerians in their own rights. But I still believe that the professor really meant well for our dear country by deciding to use his rejection of the award to make us focus on things we have not done right rather than those we have done right.
I have had the privilege of reading some of the professor’s works years ago, as a secondary school student but it is rather alarming that today, most of the sociopolitical vices which he tried to call our attention to in some of those works are still very much with us. It is amusing that, as usual, government, rather than viewing the professor’s stance objectively, decided to tow the traditional line of trying to tell him how things are far better in the country today than they were seven years ago. I think the time has come for us, as a nation, to tow the path of honour and integrity.
Femi Anikulapo-Kuti, son of the late Afrobeat legend, Fela, in one of his classics, says truth don die in the country, literally meaning truth has died in the country. Why is it that our ears are deaf to the truth in this country? Why is it that we prefer to say that a ship is floating when it is actually sinking? Why is it that those in government across the country often see people with contrary opinions as stupid, crazy or just being mischievous? In the last six months, we have lost count of Nigerians who have lost their lives in needless circumstances. I hope we know what it means to lose a soul with its attendant emotional torture to those left behind. When a car is lost to an accident, it could be replaced, but when a life is lost, it is irreplaceable.In the last eight years, only God knows how many businesses have closed down in the country. A serving minister in the present administration once cried openly because of the state of a particular federal road in the country. Today, her tears are dried but the state of the road has continued to bring ceaseless tears to the faces of Nigerians who pass through it.
Today, most of our refineries are not working at optimal capacity meaning that we continue to import refined petroleum products into the country, while Nigerians, irrespective of class, continue to spend a large amount of money on diesel and petrol to power their generating sets.
After spending billions of naira on the power sector, government is yet to get things right. Getting qualitative education is gradually becoming a real challenge to the downtrodden and now that the masses are trying to devise means of surviving the current inflationary trend, government is planning to bring on board, yet another policy that is likely to compound their woes!
I think the ideal thing that the Federal Government should have done in the case of Chinua Achebe would have been to appreciate the professor’s position, agree that there are challenges in the country and briefly highlight what it has been doing to tackle some of those challenges. It is too pedestrian to tell the man to come to the country to see the changes that are taking place. We are all stakeholders in the polity. We love our fatherland and it is our daily desire that the country fully fulfil its potentials, therefore, nobody should pretend that he loves Nigerians more than some of us that continue to call the attention of our leaders to some of the perceived lapses in the system.
A few months ago, I wrote to complain about the state of the Lagos–Ibadan Expressway and few months later, Bi-Courtney, the concessionaire, moved in and today, the state of the road is fair. If those in government surround themselves with only people who say what they want to hear, then the polity is in serious danger. Men like Achebe are few in the country, they are not interested in feeding on the system as their main concern is for the good of all. In as much as the Federal Government has the unquestionable right to confer national honours on whoever it cares, it equally should be taken into consideration that prospective recipients have the right to accept or refuse.
•Tayo Ogunbiyi is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.