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FRIDAY ESSAY: Achebe’s Refusal of Nigerian National “Honor” Award: Matters Arising

Posted by on 2005/01/02 | Views: 379 |

FRIDAY ESSAY: Achebe’s Refusal of Nigerian National “Honor” Award: Matters Arising

October 22, 2004







I had sworn before now never to add “Matters Arising” to the end of the title of any of my essays, but as I look at this Achebe Affair, I see nothing but “matters arising.” Never say never.


Let me explain.



On the One Hand……


On October 14, the Federal Government of Nigeria announced a list of 191 recipients of Nigeria’s National Honors, Prof. Chinua Achebe of “Things Fall Apart” included.


On October 15,  in an open letter,  Achebe promptly refused the award, citing the sorry situation of the country under Obasanjo, and in particular that of his home state Anambra, whose governor has been embroiled in local squabbles with Abuja-friendly political opponents of his.


In typical fashion, the Federal Government, through the cantankerous spokesperson Femi Fani-Kayode, quickly responded, faulting Achebe’s logic.


Naturally, opinions have ranged on all sides as to the propriety of Achebe’s move, and it has been most unfortunate that his refusal has gained more international currency that the original announcement of the award. 


My first assertion here is that Prof. Chinua Achebe has FULLY exercised his right to refuse ANY gift that he did not ask for, to refuse ANY GIFT that he was  not privately assured  that he would be receiving, even if he did not ask for it.  Only a slave can be forced to accept a gift that he says that he does not like and/or want  – and Prof. Achebe of “Things Fall Apart” is nobody’s slave.


It is the giver – that is the Nigerian Federal Government – has a greater fault here:  it should ask before it gives, particularly after the embarrassment last year when General Muhammadu Buhari, while still protesting the allegedly (and to my mind palpably) rigged victory of President Obasanjo of the PDP over his own presidential bid at the head of the ANPP ticket, was cynically given an award (the GCFR) that he claims that he had already received before in 1998/9 ! 


So the administration should for once learn from its past mistakes.



On the Other Hand…..


On the other hand, honestly I am quite uneasy about the reasons given by Prof. Chinua Achebe – essentially the economic state of the country and the particular miasma of his Anambra State, both of which he left at the feet of the PDP administration, and Obasanjo in particular.


Everybody of conscience would agree that an award from a Hitlerite regime should be refused.  But Obasanjo’s administration is no Hitlerite regime, as insensitive as it is to public pleadings, as self-righteous as it is in its “reform” policies, as wrong-headed as many of them are, are really not designed to kill Nigerians, but merely the result of stubborn people who have imbibed a foreign notion of “reform” and “liberalization” and “privatization” so tunnel-narrow that they turn every contrary advice into almost instant treason.


After all, according to Achebe himself, “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 honors – the Nigerian National Order of Merit and the Order of the Federal Republic – and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award.”  Except for the promise in which we were luxuriating in 1961,   1979 and 1999 were not exactly banner years for Nigeria for Achebe to have accepted the earlier awards.


After all, in Anambra, it was not Obasanjo that made Ngige call someone as young as his “little broda” (Uba)  his godfather.   It was not Obasanjo who forced Ngige to Okija shrine, or caused him to sign some documents.  It was not Obasanjo that slapped Ngige’s face.  If Obasanjo is to be blamed, it is because he has withdrawn Ngige’s security detail – which I guess is being ably provided by MASSOB?


Lord knows how I criticize this administration, but I would not refuse an award from it based simply on its palpable inability to move the nation forward.  I could refuse one if I felt that I had done nothing particular to deserve it (maybe someone “bribed” on my behalf,  or was bribing me with it), or had nothing since the last award (particularly since Achebe had received four national awards earlier), or that of all the gamut of awards (GCFR, GCON, OON, etc.), the one given to me was too lowly for me.  I could also refuse it if my suggestions to move the nation have been deliberately and flagrantly snubbed and ignored – as they have, with the world as my witness. 


Quite frankly, I have come to the firm conclusion that this administration and the ruling party are very well-meaning, but they are incompetent and yet unwilling to admit it, and make enemies of those who point their incompetence out.  Unfortunately, the opposing parties are equally incompetent, and so we ordinary Nigerians are stuck in the middle.



If I were Achebe….


This is being presumptuous, since not only have I not written a single novel not worth reading, I have not even written a single novel !  But if I were Prof. Achebe, I would either have not said ANYTHING at all with the announcement of the award – or simply confined myself to stating that there is nothing to celebrate in the present-day Nigeria.  I would then not show up at the award ceremony.  If I were to reject the award, it would have been based on stated personal reasons, that my PERSONAL ADVICE and that of too many others over how to move the nation forward  had been of rejected out of hand, or my personal intervention on how to resolve the crisis in Anambra State had been rebuffed with provable federal government collusion.  Absent any information about Prof. Achebe’s personal interventions in these regards, one is hard pressed to understand why Obasanjo should be blamed by one who could easily have access to him for either the situation of the country, or that of Anambra in particular.


I thus support Achebe’s right to refuse the award, but question the unclarified reasons for doing so.



Federal Government Responses to Criticism Most Unbecoming


Finally, there is something amateurish about how this administration responds to criticisms.  I term it the “Slam Rebuttal.”  Examples abound: Slamming FIFA for threatening to ban NFA because of heavy government interference against FIFA rules; slamming Transparency International (TI) for insisting (from data collected) that Nigeria was the third most corrupt country in the world, after Haiti and Bangladesh.  For example,  when Ojukwu loudly refused to be hoodwinked into a one-way-ticket plane flight to Abuja to answer for his support of MASSOB,   the SSS responded by writing that:




"It was in recognition of the delicate nature of the issue at hand that a senior member of the service invited Chief Ojukwu for dialogue. Chief Ojukwu was accorded all the courtesies and respect due to an elder statesman.  "He was even encouraged to come along with his lawyer and any other person he wishes to be present during the planned interaction. Apparently, Chief Ojukwu misunderstood the gesture and took fright, out of concern for his personal comfort which unfortunately is in consonant with his character over the years.




“…In consonant with his character over the years” – was that un-grammatical broadside necessary?


In response to Achebe’s refusal of the latest award, after some dodgy attempts at diplomacy, the old amateurish form returned:



Our doors are open to him and will continue to be open as we have nothing but the most profound respect and admiration for him. Yet despite this, it is also pertinent to note, as a general point, that no matter how distinguished and resourceful a person you are and no matter how brilliant and gifted an individual you are, if you feel that your country does not deserve to honour you, then we believe that you certainly do not deserve your country.  This is because the greatest honour that anyone can receive is that which is bestowed upon him not by a foreign land or foreign organisations, but by his own country. It is, therefore, unfortunate that up until today, some of our people are still of the view that the quest for foreign and international awards in places like Sweden and elsewhere are more important or are of more value than an award being given them by their own homeland.



The reference to Sweden is obviously in crude reminder of Achebe’s perennial nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which up till this minute continues to elude him, and which we sincerely hope will one day be his, like Wole Soyinka’s of 1986.


By the way, in 1958, Russian Boris Pasternak  (1890 – 1960) was forced by the Soviet Government to refuse the Nobel for Literature award, while in 1964, Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) voluntarily turned down the same prize on the grounds that “such honors could interfere with a writer’s responsibilities to his readers.”, the only one so far to do so.


It is unlikely that Prof. Achebe will join the Frenchman in that department.



A Personal Matter Arising…..


Let me end with some hopefully interesting tidbits.  First, take a look at these partial lists of National Honors awardees of the highest two honors of 1998 and 2000 (there were no 1999 honorees):



1998 National Honors Awardees


General Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR)
1. General A. A. Abubakar
2. Major General JTU Aguiyi Ironsi, OFR
3. General Yakubu Gowon, OFR
4. Major General Muhammadu Buhari, CFR
5. Alhaji Shehu Shagari
6. General I.B. Babangida
7. Chief E. O. Shonekan


General Commander of the Order of the Niger  (GCON)                                                   

1. V/ADM O. M. Akhigbe
2. AM. AM Daggash
3. Lt. General IR Bamaiyi
4. V/ADM J.O Ayinla
5. AM N
E Eduok

Alhaji I. A. Coomassie
7. Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais
8. Alhaji (Dr.) Gidado Idris, OON
9. Lt. General A. G. Mohammed
10. Lt. General S. Ibrahim
11. V/ADM D. O. Omatshola
12. AVM F Femi
13. Alhaji Muhammed Gambo Jimeta
14. Mr. L. A. A. Ejueyitchie, CFR
15. Alhaji Aliyu Mohammed
16. Alhaji Aminu Saleh
17. ADM A. Aikhomu
18. V/ADM P. S. Koshoni
19. V/ADM Mah Nyako
20. Air Marshal AC Dada
21. Chief S. A. Adewusi, CFR


etc. etc.



2000 National Honors Awardees



1. General Yakubu Gowon Plateau GCFR

2. Alhaji Shehu Shagari Sokoto GCFR




3. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar Adamawa GCON

4. Alhaji M. D. Yusuf Katsina GCON

5. Hon. CHief Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais Katsina GCON

6. Major-General Abdullahi Mohammed (rtd) Kwara GCON

7. Dr. Alex Ekwueme Anambra GCON



You will see have noticed some repetitions of names in the two lists, and some omissions.  Well, here is what happened.


In his 1999 “Budget of Realism” speech read on Friday, January 1, 1999, General Abdusalami Abubakar intoned as follows:





National Honours and Awards                                                                             


This year, government has decided to resuscitate the tradition of conferring National Honours and Awards which has been suspended since 1984. The National Honours and Awards is to honour deserving Nigerians, who have rendered special and outstanding services in their various fields of specialization to the benefit and progress of the nation. as a result of the long break, over 750 recipients will be honoured. The award will be conferred during the early part of the year. It is our hope that the revival of this tradition will motivate the nation's citizens to greater accomplishment




What?  Yes, 750 recipients, and all manners of people under the sun in Nigeria were given  awards!


So when Obasanjo became Head of State five months later (on May 29, 1999) one of his first few acts, to the chagrin of Abdusalami Abubakar, was to revoke all the awards, saying that they had been cheapened by their large number.  In fact, no new awards were given throughout the rest of 1999, and Obasanjo administration’s first national awards were not until in 2000.      


Now, if you compare the 2000 list with the 1998 list, Obasanjo dropped  General A. A. Abubakar,  Major General JTU Aguiyi Ironsi, OFR, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, CFR, General I.B. Babangida and Chief E. O. Shonekan from the 1998 GCFR category, but retained General Yakubu Gowon, OFR and Alhaji Shehu Shagari therein.  It was only last year (in 2003) that he added Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (refused) and General Ibrahim Babangida back on there,  and now Chief Sonekan is receiving his own.  Only  General Aguiyi-Ironsi (posthumously) and General Abdusalami Abubakar (who is unlikely to accept a GCFR from Obasanjo, or ever) have not been replaced.


Finally, let me end with a personal note here:  in that 1998 National Awards,  my father was awarded an OON  - see No. 134 in the OON list.


After the revocation disclosed above,  the incoming Obasanjo administration actually asked that the awardees be re-nominated, or better yet,  for them to re-apply if they wished to be considered.  My father was chagrined, stating that he would do neither, querying what kind of “honor” it is that that you have to apply for.  He also privately questioned whether Obasanjo really had any right to revoke the honors list of a predecessor. [He was National Economic Intelligence Committee Chair to both Abacha and to Abdusalami Abubakar 19994 – 1999].


My father’s name was not part of the revised 2000 list.  However, very strangely enough, on his 73rd birthday two years ago – and three years after the revocation, OBJ wrote a letter under presidential seal congratulating him, addressing him with “Dear Prof. Sam Aluko, OON.”     Apparently  this was OBJ’s best attempt to make up for his outburst for calling my father “senile” after his unfavorable comparison of Obasanjo-nomics with Abacha-nomics,                When my father showed me the said letter, I was at first livid and just shook my head.  Later on, after I had calmed down, all I could say was “This Obasanjo sha!” 


I thought that I would just let the world know that little tidbit – a minor matter arising from the past as I consider this Achebe “refusenik” affair.







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Comments (3)

Okfold(Sobe, Edo, Nigeria)says...

I want the meaning of female owan name Ekeke (Edo state)

Toluwalase Samuel Olufemi(Ijebu, Ogun, Nigeria)says...

Authority belongs to God, once He decrees it is final and binding

Ikponmwosa Osamede(Edo, Nigeria)says...

Your meaning of Osamede is wrong. Osamede means God has given me a crown