Demeaning Centenary Awards

Mike Akpan

PRESIDENT Goodluck Ebele Jonathan is, perhaps, the luckiest head of state in recent history. During his tenure, he has presided over two very significant events in the history of Nigeria. In 2010 when Nigeria clocked 50 years as an independent country, he was on hand to preside over the golden jubilee celebrations. Again this year, when the country marked 100 years of amalgamation of the then Southern and Northern protectorates on January 1, 1914 by Britain, to form what is today known as Nigeria, Jonathan was also there either as the chief host or the presiding officer at most of the centenary activities. On Friday, February 28, he had the rare privilege of decorating seven living former Nigerian heads of state and presidents with centenary awards at a dinner he organized to round off the two-month celebration. Many Nigerians like me were thoroughly disappointed that the centenary award, which should have been a special recognition of unique contributions of Nigerians to the socio-cultural, economic and political development of the country in the last 100 years, was reduced to political patronage for Nigerian heads of state and presidents dead or alive. No wonder why all the living heads of state and presidents including even Muhammadu Buhari, a bitter critic of  President Jonathan, who had been avoiding any occasion that can bring the two together, jumped at the awards because of their perceived significance.

The centenary awards for former heads of state and presidents living or dead, came under two categories. Altogether, there were 13 categories but those for former heads of state and presidents dead or alive came under categories five and 12. In the fifth category under which pioneers of democratic transition were recognized, the recipients were Alhaji Shehu Shagari, first executive president of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, former military head of state, who voluntarily handed over political power to Shagari and whose government introduced the presidential system of democracy in Nigeria in 1979, and General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who also voluntarily handed over political power to Obasanjo in 1999. Also listed for award under this category were Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election annulled by General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, then Nigeria’s self-styled military president. Abiola died in detention fighting to reclaim his electoral mandate in 1998. The other beneficiary under that category of award was General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, who was also killed in detention in 1996 for opposing the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha. I have no quarrel whatsoever with the selection of the recipients.

But my quarrel is with some of the former heads of state and presidents who were decorated with centenary awards under category 12. The recipients were recognized for their outstanding promotion of unity, patriotism and national development. Listed under this category were General Yakubu Gowon, General Murtala Mohammed, Obasanjo, General Buhari, Babangida, Chief Ernest Shonekan, late General Sani Abacha, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and General Theophilus  Danjuma. In this pack, only Gowon, Obasanjo and Mohammed can be said to have deserved the award. For instance, Gowon is a known champion of national unity. The federal military government which he headed fought a 30-month civil war to stop the break-up of Nigeria and effectively handled the post-war challenges of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction that followed. Besides, his government introduced schemes designed to foster national unity among youths. They included the National Youth Service Corps scheme and the building of unity schools in each of the then 12 states. The two schemes, which have outlived his administration, are effective vehicles for promoting national unity among the youths.

In the case of Obasanjo, he led the army division that ended the civil war and also received the instrument of surrender by the Biafran team led by late General Philip Effiong. If he had mishandled the Biafran surrender, national reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction that followed at the end of the civil war would have been difficult to achieve by the Gowon administration. Besides, his government in 1978 made it conditional for all political parties registered to contest the 1979 general elections to have national spread. Accordingly, all the five political parties registered by the then Federal Electoral Commission, FEDECO, to sponsor  candidates for general elections that year were national parties with presence in all the states unlike in the past, when political parties were ethnic cleavages based in the former regions. Above all, he demonstrated a rare act of patriotism by resisting the heavy pressures mounted on him to prolong military rule beyond 1979.

Like Obasanjo, Mohammed also qualified for the centenary award by his exemplary leadership within the six months that his regime lasted. He was an epitome of discipline, low profile and punctuality at work. According to reports, he was always at his desk as early as 7.30 in the morning. Although he was patently corrupt as a military commander during the civil war, he decided to surrender all his acquisitions to the state when he became head of state. With this posture, he was morally qualified to wage war on corruption and indiscipline. He showed discipline by example and that was why his six-month tenure was very impactful in terms of war against corruption and indiscipline. In other words, Nigeria worked during his tenure.

Apart from the three mentioned above, Buhari, Babangida, Shonekan, Abacha and Yar’Adua deserved no centenary award whatsoever because there was nothing to identify them as outstanding promoters of unity, patriotism and national development during their tenures. For instance, for the 20 months that Buhari held sway as a military head of state, he was pre-occupied with the trial and jailing of politicians of the Second Republic mainly from the south and had no time to focus on national development. He is a religious fanatic and that was why he cared less for the sensitivity of Christians by picking Major-general Tunde Idiagbon, a fellow Moslem, as his deputy. His tenure was characterized with the promulgation of draconian laws that had retrospective effect. One of such draconian laws was Decree No. 4 which made the publication of truth an offence in as far as the publication injures the reputation of a public officer. His regime was known for implementation of discriminatory policies. A case in point was his government’s policy on hajj, which banned children from accompanying their parents going on religious pilgrimage. There were reports in the media that there was an exception to this rule when Idiagbon, then chief of staff, Supreme headquarters and his second in command, travelled to Mecca with an under-aged son. Again, in 1984, there was also an exception to the rule when his government changed the colour of all denominations of the Naira except the 50 kobo, to make it difficult for corrupt politicians to smuggle the money they had stolen back into the Nigerian economy through the country’s land and sea borders. He closed them for almost four months and directed that passengers entering Nigeria from air and seaports and their luggage should be subjected to strict security checks in a bid to forestall currency trafficking. Banks were allowed to exchange a maximum of N 5,000 of the new notes for individuals while the rest was to be deposited in banks. Regrettably, 53 suit cases belonging to the Emir of Gwandu were allowed into the country without any security check on the directives of his aide de camp.

Like Buhari, Babangida was also a wrong recipient of a centenary award for many reasons. First, he wasted the meager resources which should have been used to develop Nigeria on an eight-year political transition program that led the country to nowhere. Second, he threw Nigeria into an avoidable political crisis that shook it to its foundation by annulling a generally peaceful, free and fair presidential election held on June 12, 1993 in which Abiola, a candidate from south-west Nigeria, was coasting home to victory. Abiola later died in prison custody in 1998 fighting to reclaim his electoral mandate. Third, Babangida  raised corruption to an institutional level during his tenure. Settlement was the euphemism for corruption during his time. Fourth, he brought the Nigerian economy to its knees through his structural adjustment program, SAP, which was a vehicle for corruption.

In the case of Shonekan, it is difficult to rationalize how a man whom Babangida used to abort democracy in Nigeria should qualify for a centenary award as an outstanding promoter of unity, patriotism and national development. It is debatable whether the 82 days that he stayed in office as head of interim national government, ING, qualified him as a former head of state especially as a Lagos high court presided over by Justice Dolapo Akinsanya, declared the regime unconstitutional on November 10, 1993. Besides, Abaccha never recognized him as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Nigeria because he was not an elected chief executive of Nigeria or someone who shot himself into political power through a coup de tat. If Shonekan did not qualify to be recognized as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Nigeria, it is difficult to really place him among former heads of state and presidents. Moreover, there was nothing he did in terms of national development in 82 days before Abacha swept him away from power.

Abacha  ought not to have been considered at all for any national award because he was a kleptomaniac of the highest order. He converted the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, into a family bank and through that process stole trillions of Naira which he stashed away in various foreign accounts. Only recently, the United States government announced that it had seized $ 458 million of Abacha’s loot identified in various foreign accounts in Europe and America. Nigeria is yet to recover from the economic and political effects of the Abacha loot. For the nearly five years that he stayed in power, Abacha turned himself into a maximum ruler who, had no stomach for criticism or opposition. He was in the process of transmuting from a military head of state into a civilian dictator when death knocked at his door in June 1998. His tenure saw the emergence of the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, a pressure group that fought against continued military rule in Nigeria. Abacha responded to this development by putting in place a strike force whose mandate was to eliminate known or perceived opponents of his administration by gun or bomb attacks. Such a leader, whose regime brought international economic, political and diplomatic sanctions against Nigeria, should not have crossed the minds of the committee members saddled with the responsibility of combing for Nigerians within and outside the country who really merited the centenary awards for bringing glory to their fatherland.

Another wrong person for the centenary award was late President Yar’Adua, who bungled the opportunity he had to project himself as a patriot. Although he declared at the outset of his administration that he was going to operate as a servant-leader and be guided by the rule of law, he failed to live up to expectation when he travelled out to Saudi Arabia in November 2009 on medical vacation. For the 93 days he spent abroad, the country was almost brought to its knees because it was like a ship drifting in the high sea without a pilot. For reasons known to him and associates, he failed to comply with Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which required that he should transmit to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives respectively a written declaration that he was proceeding on medical vacation and that during that period, Jonathan, the vice-president, should discharge the functions of the president in an acting capacity. His failure to comply with that constitutional stipulation left Nigeria as a country without a leader. That dangerous situation was saved by the Senate which had to invoke the doctrine of necessity to enable Jonathan to perform the functions of the president in an acting president. These facts were lost on the Centenary award committee members. For this reason, the centenary awards had lost their significance. I commend Professor Wole Soyinka and the family of late Gani Fawehinmi for rejecting to be decorated with the centenary awards which had been reduced to a political patronage for the Toms, Dicks and Harrys.

— Mar. 24, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT

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