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The Abuse of Awards

So much dishonour in the honours. This is perhaps the best way to capture a burgeoning culture in Nigeria today by which an otherwise noble gesture of recognising good deeds has become a perfidious business venture. The highest bidders, who are often the worst enemies of the society, now get the highest recognition. Awards have therefore, become a thriving trade in which the most unscrupulous elements make the most.

This phenomenon was perhaps, brought to its nadir recently when the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) organised an award ceremony where " governors who are performing", "ministers who are performing ", banks of the year, etc were honoured. With those awards, the NUJ, the watchdog of the society, turned itself into a shameless praise-singer and a whole profession was made to look like a hustling band that would play whatever tune is dictated by any man with a heavy purse.

This mess has been with us for long and is not limited to the NUJ awards. At the first Education Summit of the Catholic Church in Nigeria recently held in Abuja, President Olusegun Obasanjo drew the attention of Nigerian universities and other institutions to their penchant for awarding honorary degrees to persons under 'questionable circumstances'.

He added that our universities ought 'to be embodiments of culture and excellence'. Using the ambience of an academic conference to address the inadequacies of our educational system, the President then stressed the need to 'distil from our ethnic values and culture those elements that are acceptable and work them into the system'. Indeed the President spoke the minds of right-thinking Nigerians who have become disenchanted with the nauseating culture of awarding prizes, degrees or certificates to persons of questionable character.

The social and moral significance of merit awards in society cannot be overemphasised. The tradition of recognising individuals and institutions who have achieved the extraordinary is almost as old as man. It is true that in some societies, brigands appropriated titles to themselves. This often happened in unstable societies or times of extremities like war. Such men were never really respected by society. The import of this is that such awards carried with them a moral burden which the honoree had to discharge for the benefit of mankind.

In the modern world, titles also became associated with honour and virtue, transparency and morality. Such awards, in the modern state, opened doors to the holders of such titles and presented them to the rest of the community as role models. In the last 20 odd years, however, the penchant of the Nigerian to give or receive awards has degenerated from a blind obsession to an insulting and disgraceful charade.

In spite of the general acknowledgement of and outcry against corruption, moral ineptitude, failure of institutions and the quality of life, the rate at which individuals and institutions indulge in chest-beating and ego-massaging in the name of awards has become ridiculous. Putting it bluntly, there is no correlation whatsoever between the culture of awarding prizes and the state of the country. Tragically, even media organisations and institutions have stealthily but steadily crept into this national morass. The recently organised award ceremony by the NUJ was a classic case of the debasement of the ethics of a profession. It must rank as one of the greatest injuries to journalism.

But the greatest culprit is the Federal Government of Nigeria itself. Every year, the Federal Government doles out national honours to citizens. National awards are considered a form of political patronage by the powers that be in Abuja. Cronies of men in power often dominate the national honours' list. There is a dissonance between the purport of the awards and the pervading spirit of dissatisfaction in the land. It is true that some deserving Nigerians have been honoured. These are citizens who have obviously made a mark in their respective fields of endeavour. However, the general feeling is that politicians have taken over the national honours' list. Standards have been compromised.

The real issue perhaps is our value system. The time-tested values of honour, honesty, dignity of labour, commitment to truth and service which not too long ago were the norm, have been eroded by a nihilistic, even philistine attitude to material acquisition. Wealth and power may be acquired without honour. Certificates are paraded by men and women who are profoundly ignorant. In some instances, the awardees have been alleged to pay a substantial amount of money for a title. Indeed some organisations send nominations to individuals and add that the process can only be completed if the nominee paid a processing fee, sometimes running into millions of naira. This makes a farce of awards.

Sadly, the culture of awarding traditional titles to decent persons in society has also become a casualty of the times. A title is a sign of recognition, an indication that the holder is an icon of sorts who may be depended upon for leadership and service. In almost all parts of the country, men and women of dubious character have been given chieftaincy titles which later became a source of embarrassment to the awarding body. Too many titled persons have been associated with chicanery and fraud. Without shame, such persons, some of whom are known criminals, gaudily display their ill-gotten wealth with the prefix 'chief' to their names.

The universities have become servants of the rich and powerful in awarding honorary degrees. Some universities actually search for persons who would donate money if awarded a degree. This is shameful. Universities should set the pace in recognising excellence. All over the civilised and decent world, honours are bestowed on persons who have excelled in different fields of endeavour. While some awards are field-specific, others are general. Some are life-time achievements while others target individuals and institutions that have made spectacular contributions to a particular endeavour in a particular year. The integrity of the award is guaranteed by the calibre of awardees.

Once the public perceives patronage or an attempt to play to the gallery, the award loses its prestige. It is even worse when media institutions which are supposed to discharge their functions faithfully and objectively as watchdogs of the realm choose to award prizes to the same political and business class that they are supposed to monitor. How would truth be safeguarded if the watchdog becomes a praise-singer? Recognition brings privileges. But it also carries with it a degree of responsibility. Any official recognition connotes high standards, moral probity, excellence and acceptability. In giving out awards, therefore, Nigerians and their institutions ought to respect the time-tested values of the society.

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