Following the unexpected news that I was among those to be conferred with the 2022 National Honours Award, many felicitated with me, while a very few egged me on to reject the offer. Someone commented on the social media before I received the award: “Why is the bishop collecting the award in a country where hunger, insecurity, killing is the order of the day; who will tell the government the truth?” After I received the award someone queried: “If you had rejected this, even politely, would you not have made a huge statement that you are on the side of the people?”

If those Nigerians urging that the awards be declined should be logical with their sentiments to the end, it means that they will equally reject the national budget presented recently by the President and refuse to accept the benefits flowing from the financial entitlements for their respective States or refuse to use federal facilities or infrastructure simply because they perceive that the government has not done well. To reject the national award based on the issues of injustice, insecurity, lack of essential amenities, etc., is for me like distancing myself from project Nigeria no matter how deficient or defective it may be, and cursing the darkness instead of lighting a candle. For selfish and sentimental reasons we cannot throw away the baby with the bath water, as some disgruntled Nigerians would like us to do. No matter how bad our country may be, I will stay here by the grace of God, work in it, and identify closely with those who suffer, while doing my spiritual and pastoral best to challenge the system that breeds corruption and bad governance.

It is to be noted that the Nigerian National Honours were instituted in the National Honours Act No. 5 of 1964, to be conferred every year upon Nigerians and friends of Nigeria, “To appreciate their loyalty and patriotism to the country. To reward the selfless service the individuals have rendered. To further encourage the people recognized, to do more excellent work and meritorious services for the nation.” The awards are often conferred on the recipients by the Federal Government of Nigeria following a rigorous screening by the National Awards Committee and a very careful security background check by the State Security Service.

My understanding is that this is Nigeria’s award (not the President’s) to deserving citizens, not because they are the best Nigerians, but that they are seen as people who have contributed in some modest ways to the development and progress of the country, and so, perceived to be models for present and future generations.

In the past, there were a few people who turned down the awards. Their motivation or reasons, no matter how cogent, should not be taken in isolation but to be considered in context. Their grievances against the authorities vary in dimension and severity and also depend on their definition and peculiar understanding of patriotism.

In hindsight, this is not the first time an award of this nature is being conferred on a member of the higher clerical rank of the Catholic Church in Nigeria. Late Dominic Cardinal Ekandem, Late Archbishop Gabriel Ganaka, Late Archbishop Brian Usanga, received awards from various governments, as well as Francis Cardinal Arinze, Anthony Cardinal Okogie and John Cardinal Onaiyekan.In receiving this award, therefore, I have no inhibitions as to the greater good it portends for boosting my dialogue and reconciliation efforts and programmes. I do so to honour the poor and the marginalized I encounter every day in the society and especially, to lift the morale of those of my grassroots constituency.

The trajectory of the story of my life is full of surprises. This award is, no doubt, one of them. As a matter of fact, I am yet to decipher who actually submitted my name for consideration. Nonetheless, I am sure, it will put me in a better stead to further project the message of peace, dialogue and reconciliation which our country desperately needs and which I have been preaching over the years, especially when I was Bishop of Jalingo, Archbishop of Jos and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria as well as when until recently I was the President of the Reunion of the Episcopal Conferences of West Africa.

The award is not for my personal glory but it will certainly provide an opportunity on the platform of the “honoured” to speak to those authorities I can reach in favour of those trampled upon and the voiceless. In any case, the best award for me still remains the Catholic priesthood which the Lord called me to over forty years ago.

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