Of Akinkunmi, presidential steward and national honours

(By Francis Ehigiator)

As if to add an icing on the cake, the President not only showed his hand as a strong advocate of meritocracy but also his compassionate side by placing the flag designer on the salary of Special Assistant to the President, for life.  Now, who can fathom any reason why Pa Akinkunmi even in his old age would not be ready to die for his country?

As the Nigerian President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan handed out about 306 awards at the 2014 National Honours Award ceremony in Abuja, critical newspaper editorials and other comments have trailed the process of selection of recipients who are mainly Nigerians. Yet this year’s national honours award was significant in many respects. Unlike in the past when the list of awardees was dominated by politicians and cronies of the powers that be, President Jonathan appears to have reacted to criticisms by elevating merit and honest service to fatherland as the main criteria for receiving the national honours.  And to be fair to the President, he did promise at the previous year’s awards that his government would consciously and continually improve on the process of selection of award recipients. This is precisely what the President has just done with 2014 national honours award.

  Although politicians appear to still have good numbers on the award list, for obvious reasons, of course, this year’s national honours award is very remarkable because many of those whose names ought to be on the list were actually honoured. From pro-democracy and civil rights activists to opposition politicians; from wealthy and successful businessmen and women to an honest taxi driver and steadfast steward; from our gallant ambassadors in sports to trailblazing entertainers, an appreciative country under Jonathan said “thank you” to deserving citizens who had first brought honour and pride to our nation.  Mrs. Joe Okei-Odumakin who led the nationwide protest against the withdrawal of petroleum subsidy that nearly brought down Jonathan’s government, Chief John Odigie Oyegun, chairman of the All Progressives Congress, the main opposition working to upstage the PDP government, Kenneth Nnebue, the acclaimed founder of the money spinning entertainment industry, Nollywood, Blessing Okagbare, the sprint queen who has caused our national anthem to be heard on different podiums across the world, are among many other deserving awardees.

   The highlight of the event was unmistakably the honouring of three very distinguished citizens – in their own right.  The first in this category is 77 years old Pa Taiwo Akinkunmi who designed the Green-White-Green National Flag of Nigeria.  As a primary school boy in the former East-Central State, we were already conscious of the name Taiwo Akinkunmi courtesy of our social studies, as the designer of the Nigerian Flag. That was the era when there was pride in national service and our heroes past were really labouring. It is not surprising that the children of the 80s and 90s hardly know anything about the origin of the national flag, its designer and the symbolic meaning of its colours. It is, therefore, salutary and profoundly inspiring that Jonathan reminded us of an enduring part of our national history by honouring Pa Akinkunmi with the Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic, OFR. That past administrations had continually overlooked the man who gave us a national symbol for over five decades after independence is a strong comment on our reward system and the low premium we had placed on national service.

   As if to add an icing on the cake, the President not only showed his hand as a strong advocate of meritocracy but also his compassionate side by placing the flag designer on the salary of Special Assistant to the President, for life.  Now, who can fathom any reason why Pa Akinkunmi even in his old age would not be ready to die for his country?

   As with Pa Akinkunmi, President Jonathan clearly embodied the will of Nigerians by honouring a longstanding steward in the presidential villa, Mr. Onuh Isaac Michael. Michael, we are told, has served nine presidents and perhaps more than nine first ladies, right from former President Shehu Shagari. The story of the diligence and sacrifice of this steward who it was said does not catch more than four hours of sleep everyday just to commute from Nassarawa State where he could afford an accommodation to his duty post in Aso Villa, in the heart of the city, is moving.  The plight of the presidential steward before President Jonathan’s commendable intervention typifies the attitude of our “big men” and “big women” towards their domestic staff.  They are treated shabbily; stripped of any respect and insulted at will both by their employers and their children as if they are not part of humanity as they eke out a living.  There are some bosses who never care whether the man who could plunge them into a river has eaten once a day as long as the vehicle is moving.  It is indeed gladdening that President Jonathan recognised the pains the man that oversees the preparation of the dishes that titillate his palate and those of his royal guests go through on daily basis just to be at his duty post with a gift of a flat to be provided by the FCT minister.

     It is also good advertisement for the national honours award this year that a mere but dutiful traffic warden, Solomon Dauda, who does his job with animated passion and admirable spirit was spotted and honoured with the Member of the Order of the Niger, and a house for good measure as well. The recognition of this enigmatic officer will continually be a source of inspiration and encouragement to other citizens who might think that the services they provide and the effort they put in are unnoticed and inconsequential to national growth.

    But by far the most deserving of all the recipients of the national honours on the day was Citizen Imeh Usuah, a taxi driver who took pains to trace and return to his passenger N18 million that he forgot in his cab.  In a country that has been badly labelled to be replete with corrupt people, this taxi driver’s conduct is not only exemplary and edifying but also a refreshing reminder of the pristine values on which our country was erected by the founding fathers. As President Jonathan puts it: “Take Mr. Ime Usuah, the taxi driver, whose daily income was not more than N10,000, a passenger forgot N18 million in his taxi, and went away.  The man did not have Usuah’s name or his phone number. The honest Nigerian spirit in Usuah led him to go hunting for the owner of the money and he delivered it to him, intact.  This is how it should be.” Citizen Usuah is full value for his Member of the Order of the Federal Republic, MFR, and the house gift he received!

Ehigiator lives in Benin City.

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