In Nigeria and elsewhere, celebrations, awards, and prize giving announce the end of the year. Here, they are deeply woven into the fabric of social and political life, as end-of-year awards, ranging from honorary doctorates conferred annually by each of our multiplying universities, on both the deserving and richly undeserving; through “Best governor of the year”, “Best company of the year”, “Best minister of the year” awards to “Man of the year”. Preliminarily, let us observe that we have yet to catch up on the change made for gender reasons, in other countries from “Man of the Year” to “Pe Jrson of the Year”, but that is a topic for another day.
As this columnist waded through the papers the other day, I noticed a curious addition to the riot of awards usually made at year’s end. The PUNCH, (December 15, 2015) published an advert by the Arewa Youth Forum congratulating the Founder of the Synagogue Church of all Nations, Pastor T.B. Joshua, for clinching the esteemed award of “Yoruba Man of the Year 2015”. Reportedly made by the “Egbe Omo Oodua Parapo” embracing 35 pan-Yoruba groups across the globe, Joshua is said to have emerged winner from among 500 nominees. Obviously, if other ethnic associations follow this example, then, the country would have lengthened its list of awards by such titles as “Hausa Man of the Year”, “Igbo Man of the Year”, and “Okun Man of the Year”. It did not seem to have mattered that very little is known of the body that made the award to Joshua, who is currently facing prosecution related to the collapse of a section of his church attended by several deaths. We were also not told who the previous beneficiaries of the award were, nor were the criteria for making the award spelt out. But no matter; since glasses are being clinked anyway, to celebrate the latest addition to our ever expanding list of awards, and awardees.
Awards of every stripe have of course been with us for many years. In a book published earlier this year, Executive Director of the International Press Centre, Lanre Arogundade, lamented the frequency with which “beat associations” of journalists dish out awards to the companies and individuals whose activities they report on. According to Arogundade: “In 2012, the National Association of Energy Correspondents named Chevron Nigeria Limited as the Best Community Development Company of the Year. The same year, a so-called League of Airport and Aviation Correspondents conferred “an award of excellence” on then Aviation Minister, Princess Stella Oduah, (later sacked from the cabinet over allegations of irregular purchase of bulletproof cars) and decorated Dana Air, later involved in a crash, the “Most Customer-Friendly Airline in Nigeria.”
These costly mistakes have not prevented journalists from giving more awards. Only on Wednesday, The Pilot newspaper, in an elaborate ceremony, conferred on the Governor of Gombe State, Ibrahim Dankwambo, the Best Governor of the Year award for 2015, in a syndrome replicated across the media with a few honourable exceptions. Time there was, when the nation was edified by an intellectual summit entitled, “The Guardian Distinguished Lecture Series”, usually featuring a well-known speaker of international prominence. Regrettably however, and in keeping with the crass philistinism of the times, such endeavours have dwindled and are fast being replaced by proliferating Man of the Year rackets. Journalists are not the only guilty ones. Our universities have reduced the hallowed tradition of conferring honorary doctorates to grating bazaars in which the sacred portals of learning have been turned in to a vegetable sellers’ market filled with noises of haggling. Without intending to put any university on the spot, this columnist finds it hard to justify the award made this year by the Federal University of Technology, Owerri of honorary doctorates to Chief Bamanga Tukur, a former Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party and the late Senator Uche Chukwumerije, among others.
To be sure, the names are well-known in Nigerian public life. There are still active controversies however, concerning their legacies, and a university should have been alive to those controversies. But FUTO, which is still one of our good universities, is not alone in making such awards in circumstances where they can be easily controverted. Were we to take a census of honorary doctorates awarded by our universities in the last decade, perhaps only 30 per cent will survive the test of scrutiny. Whether they know it or not, universities make statements about how seriously they take themselves and what values they stand for, by their choice of recipients of honorary doctorates. Run quickly through the list of those honoured with doctorates by the University of Oxford, this year, and you will find that the six names are eminent individuals from engineering, medicine, history, literature and music. Professor Richard Evans, for example, one of the honorees, is currently Regus Professor of History Emeritus and President of Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge. He is best known for his magnificent book on the German Reich. The list also includes Dame Hilary Mantel, influential novelist who has authored 14 books, two of which won recently, the Man Booker Prize. Others in that list are of similarly high calibre befitting of a university such as Oxford.
The point to be made is that our universities, and other institutions making these awards, cannot expect to be respected for as long as they cheapen their value, or hand them out to the highest bidders. For awards of distinction to be meaningful, they must be value setting, as well as pointing the direction in which society, generally, ought to be heading. If they are given to controversial figures, a pall of doubt and moral uncertainty rests upon the institution giving these awards. It is for this reason that universities in the western world withdraw awards of honorary doctorates earlier made to eminent personalities when their moral blemishes are uncovered. A good example is American standup comedian and actor, Bill Cosby, concerning which over a dozen American universities withdrew honorary degrees awarded to him, following controversies bordering on serial rape cases. The universities concerned were making a point, namely that they could not afford to devalue the worth of their honorary degrees by allowing demystified celebrities to go around parading their names. This columnist is not aware of any such public reprimand or self-protective moral posture on the part of our emergent industry of award givers.
To sanitise the system of corrupt awards, individuals who value their honour should make a point of turning them down when they are offered to them. For examples, Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, and the late Prof. Chinua Achebe publicly repudiated national honours offered to them under the Jonathan administration. That apart, our professional associations should take a close hard look at those of their members who are making fast bucks by selling awards to public figures ready to part with some cash.
Furthermore, as a last resort, we should consider passing legislation that will tackle frivolous awards by spelling out penalty for giving or receiving them. That at least will be more productive than seeking to gag Nigeria’s vibrant social media.