There might be another reason, aside from corruption, why no Nigerian leader has won the Mo Ibrahim Prize: they have won so many other awards that the prize might be superfluous. This year alone, the First Lady, Aisha Buhari, has garnered two different awards designating her as the Personality of the Year. One came from the Silverbird media group and the other from Vanguard Newspaper. Last year, she was also given a “Most Supportive First Lady” award by The Sun newspaper.
Mrs. Buhari has come a long way from the neophyte phase where she wrote books on beauty therapy and using state resources to launch the same. When the history of Nigerian First Ladies is written, she will be listed alongside Stella Obasanjo, Maryam Babangida, Turai Yar’Adua and Patience Jonathan as among the outspoken, the independent, and the ones who refuse to confine themselves to “the other room.”
I am all for highlighting women’s achievements and successes but garlanding Mrs. Buhari, because she is the wife of the sitting President and has criticised her husband’s administration like an outsider would, is rather banal. Her reaction to the Vanguard award, delivered by her daughter, Halima, who attended the event in her place, does not portend there would be consistency to the role of critic she played. The same role for which the southern Nigerian media that has been treating her as a radical of sorts.
That said, the same awards ceremony that honoured Mrs. Buhari also honoured the Governors of the Year, Okezie Ikpeazu, Abia; Seriake Dickson, Bayelsa; Darius Ishaku, Taraba; Mohammed Abubakar, Bauchi and Umar Ganduje, Kano. There were also Lifetime Achievement Awards, Businessman of the Year award, and Banker of the Year. At the Silverbird event where Mrs. Buhari was given the Personality of the Year award, those who were similarly honoured were Dr. Ola Orekunrin-Brown for Extraordinary Business Achievement; Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike who got the Man of the Year award; the Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Godwin Emefiele, who got the Special Achievement Award, and the late Chief MKO Abiola and Senator Daisy Danjuma who got the Lifetime Achievement awards.
Those who were honoured were mostly either serving politicians or political appointees. The same pattern exists for previous years too, most “Man of the Year” awardees are either connected to government, or billionaires. I will sidestep the argument about whether media houses should be handing out awards to the same set of people they are supposed to act as a watchdog over and go on to ask why Nigerians outside this mini-circle do not make it to these lists every year.
Between 2004 and 2017, the Silverbird Personality of the Year had gone to Dora Akunyili, Nasir el-Rufai, Nuhu Ribadu, Lamido Sanusi, Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga, Adams Oshiomhole, Godswill Akpabio, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Babatunde Fashola, Peter Obi, Emmanuel Uduaghan, Willie Obiano, and now, Aisha Buhari. For Vanguard, from 2012, the Personality of the Year has been Rotimi Amaechi and Aig-Imokhuede, Emmanuel Uduaghan, Sule Lamido, Godswill Akpabio, Babatunde Fashola, Muhammadu Buhari, Goodluck Jonathan, and Godwin Emefiele.
Some politicians seem to be alive solely for recognition and awards, and it is almost to be taken for granted that they will be given one award or the other every year. One such person is the governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike. He was the Daily Independent Man of the Year 2016 and Political Icon of 2017; Silverbird Man of the year 2017; The Sun Governor of the Year for 2016 and 2017; New Telegraph Newspaper Man of the Year Award 2017; Leadership Newspaper Governor of the Year 2017. From the way he has been bombarded with awards, one would think he is Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum or Lee Kuan Yew.
As the former Governor of Delta State, Emmanuel Uduaghan, was similarly decorated. In 2013 alone, he was awarded Man of the Year by Vanguard, The Sun, Nigerian Pilot, and in 2014, Silverbird Man of the Year award. And that is not even counting the awards he was given by other organisations. This is not to argue that political leaders cannot merit awards and laurels but, what does it say about our country that the same coterie of people in politics, and public administration are recycled yearly for the same set of honours?
Ideally, the concept of “Person of the Year” comes from accenting the person who has influenced the society the most, for good or for bad, within a particular year. That is why, internationally, human, non-humans, and collective subjects have won the Person of the Year award. Winning the award does not necessarily mean one is virtuous, just that one changed the direction of society’s affairs one way or the other. In Nigeria, the cardinal criterion for awards conferral is much crasser; it is about access to power and resources. Given the elite’s vain predilection for egotism, most politicians seem to take the Man of the Year awards as a vote of confidence. There is very little in the nature of the ceremony where they are given the plaque that suggests otherwise.
If such awards are meant to celebrate people’s achievements, are there no scientists, community advocates and volunteers, youth corps members, teachers, police officers and soldiers, inventors, environmentalists, researchers, in Nigeria who should be equally deserving of these honours? In a country of almost 200 million people, why is the spirit of excellence limited to a set of people whose noble service to humanity never quite outlives their appointment to public offices? Limiting the reach of these honours is indirectly communicating that there are no other Nigerians that do over and above their daily share of stabilising the nation’s ark and thus deserve recognition. Nigeria has been fighting Boko Haram for years now. Is it possible that despite all the years of war, there are neither men nor women of the Nigerian Army who have valiantly fought terror and whose heroism can be held up as a celebration of the goodness of the Nigerian spirit?
In 2015, a shambolic fundamentalist, Ayoub El-Khazzani, intended to kill passengers on a train bound for Paris. Three childhood friends, at grave risk, stopped him. For their act of heroism, they have been decorated multiple times. They were honoured in France and back in their country, the United States of America. Capping their remarkable tale, Clint Eastwood has cast them in a movie about that day. Now and forever, wherever in the world that the film is watched, it will further the narrative of good saving the world from evil.
The same year in Nigeria, Hassan Mohammed Damagum, a 19-year-old pre-degree student of Yobe State University, went a step further than the three young Americans: he lost his life while trying to stop a fundamentalist suicide bomber who was going to blow up his neighbourhood. With nothing but his hands, he wrestled the suicide bomber to a fatal standstill. Heroism, bravery, and integrity have no higher illustration than the young man’s sacrifice. His story is not likely to make it to Nollywood neither was he considered worthy of “Man of the Year” awards that circulated among the Nigerian political clique. Dr. Stella Adadevoh, the Amazon who checked Ebola’s pandemic in Nigeria, was practically forgotten during the Lagos at 50 anniversary. The state initially failed to depict her image in its pantheon of heroes, until Nigerians on social media took it up. By the time the Lagos State Government tried to remedy their oversight, the point had been made: we do not honour bravery here.
All over Nigeria, there are people befitting of honours and it should be extended to them. Lately, Oshiomhole admonished the National Association of Nigerian Students over its penchant for bogus awards of excellence rather than meaningful civic engagement. It is an astute observation, a commentary on our society and the vain things that we hold dear.