Last week, ex-President Muhammadu Buhari drove one more nail in the coffin of national values that strong and mighty men have battled to bury forever. The fight to degrade values in Nigeria is not fought in the political plane only. It rages in every aspect of life and business where might is threatening to subdue right so that a tiny but powerful minority will continue its overlordship over the majority. This is not about the ex-President’s support for the charade that was the national elections of 2023. It is also not about the last-minute frenzy of securing more loans to thrust the country deeper into debt, neither is it about the removal of the so-called fuel subsidy regime. Rather, it is how all these channel a comparatively innocuous ceremony that he presided over last week, on the eve of his departure.

Last week, Buhari performed the annual hollow ritual of conferring national awards to people who qualify as prophets without honour. The award of national honours became a hollow ritual from the point our rulers began to deploy it as an instrument of nepotism and party patronage. No one knows the criteria for these honours, except that they are expected to be citizens (and non-citizens) who have made serious contributions to the development of the nation. Like every other policy that his administration corrupted, the ex-President will live with a dishonourable mention as the one who liberally spread nepotistic awards to his relations, friends and cronies, in addition to the usual suspects – politicians who stayed silent or helped in ruining the nation.

I hasten to add that quite a good number of productive and selfless Nigerians do get these honours, which they richly deserve. Oftentimes, they are placed first on the roll, perhaps as a veneer to hide the ignoble that populate the list. So, when, as happened last week, one sees the name of Chief Emeka Anyaoku as the Number One recipient, one is expected to go away satisfied that the government is on to a good thing. This subterfuge has never removed controversy and angst over the awards.

The rulers are, however, not fazed that controversy continually trails their list every year. Last year, Chimamanda Adichie followed in Chinua Achebe’s footsteps by rejecting her award. This year, netizens are laying into comedian AY for not only accepting but also justifying his acceptance of an award.

The hollowness of this ritual was exposed in 2011 with two significant rejections of national awards from the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. The headliner was world celebrated novelist, the late Chinua Achebe, who rejected his Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) award. Less celebrated but equally significant was a young legislator from Lagos State who was minority leader in the House of Representatives. His name? Femi Gbajabiamila, the same person currently rounding off his service as Speaker of the House. The Jonathan presidency gave Gbaja (as he is known in Lagos) the Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR) award. In his letter of rejection to President Jonathan, Gbaja disputed the criteria for honouring people with national awards. Such awards, he argued, ought to go to those who make concrete contributions and should not be doled out as “presidential favours.”

However, as Gbaja moved further up the political ladder and his party became the ruling party, his objection faded into a distant echo. His party and the President they sponsored continued and extended the “tradition” of bypassing nation builders to honour political jobbers and hangers on. This attitude makes it difficult to count Gbajabiamila among the voices of conscience that have rejected the awards because of continual misrule of the country and the opacity surrounding selection of recipients. Significantly, he is the first and only politician to date to have rejected an award. But he has since made up for it by accepting a higher honour.

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We must be grateful that the voices of conscience continue to be loud and strident since the dawn of the Fourth Republic in 1999. Achebe rejected the awards from President Olusegun Obasanjo and again from the Jonathan presidency. Chief Gani Fawehinmi rejected the offer from Umaru Yar’Adua’s presidency, citing the same reason – the continued misrule of the country. Adichie rejected Buhari’s award in 2022. Every President we have had since 1999 has had a lone voice speaking against the hollow ritual that is the national honours awards.

Achebe framed the argument against accepting awards from rulers ruining the country they were elected to put right. His 2004 argument used his native Anambra as peg to point to the continuing impunity that passes for governance.

“For some time now,” he wrote, “I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay.

“I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.”

“Forty-three years ago, at the first anniversary of Nigeria’s independence, I was given the first Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. In 1979, I received two further honours – the Nigerian National Order of Merit and the Order of the Federal Republic – and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award. I accepted all these honours fully aware that Nigeria was not perfect; but I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples. Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours List.”

In 2011, Achebe equally rejected the CFR award a second time because “the reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me.”

The conflicts and controversies on these awards dramatize the continuing contest between right and wrong, good and evil, and between privilege and merit. In a real sense, this is a battle for both the soul of the nation and its material resources. It is difficult, if not impossible, to win the  battle for the soul of the nation until its material resources are entrusted in the hands of people of conscience. The mistake that the powerbrokers make is to imagine that the national resources they annex can buy the conscience of the nation. What money buys is silence and complicity, not conscience, which is the truth that sleeps uneasy in the soul of the complicit but constantly burns with fervor in the breast of the majority without power and influence.

This is why we must thank ex-President Buhari for taking the country “from top to bottom” and leaving his successor with an empty shell. The national resources have been depleted, our country has fallen deeper into debt, jobs for the young are nowhere to be found and, for those who work, the national minimum wage can no longer buy fuel that lasts the car owner for a week.

In this miasma, what will save the Tinubu presidency is a return to the values that uplift a nation, the values of good over bad, light over darkness, and merit over privilege. The first national honours he must confer must come from his selection of a team that will help him plot a way out of the economic and political darkness that envelop the land. Otherwise, he will be toeing the line of his predecessor to take Nigeria from the bottom that he met it to the deeper depths.