President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to confer national honours to State House layabouts, political hucksters and unknown underachievers debases the honour system and squanders the prestige of the presidency.
A national honour system should recognise and celebrate national heroes, those who have shown extraordinary grace or courage in great difficulties. Conferring awards on the multitudes devalues the nature of the achievements that should be singled out for recognition. And to give State honours to party hacks, consorts of the powerful and ‘friends of friends’ of the President, debases the meaning of achievement. It is the accomplishments of the honorees that should count, not the achievements of those that they know.
National honours should mean that the recipient stands apart from the crowd. They should exalt the best that the nation aspires to be.
They should go to those who unambiguously do the nation proud: It’s soldiers when they put themselves in harm’s way to secure our safety; innovators; geniuses; the best entrepreneurs; ordinary folks that do extraordinary things; the compassionate who rise to assist when disasters strike; those who work where others won’t and all who work without hope of reward; who give to charity when there are no crowds to cheer them on and those who toil in obscurity to better the country.
Dr Fred Kambuni’s surgical team, the doctors who separated the conjoined twins, Blessing and Favour, at the Kenyatta National Hospital late last year tick the boxes as Kenyans on Twitter reminded Mr Kenyatta and that disgraceful Honours and Awards Committee that filled the honours’ list with abusive bloggers and consorts of the powerful.
Dr Rene Daniel Haller — after whom Haller Park in Mombasa is named — the Swiss agronomist who rehabilitated the exhausted quarries of Nyali into places of life and beauty, is another.
As are Ms Florence Kamaitha of Padheaven and Ms Salma Uledi and her Al-Subra group – and others like them — who keep 900,000 poor girls in school by making or distributing reusable sanitary pads.
To that list we might add the scientists who laboured for years to produce disease-resistant coffee varieties. Or Kofi Annan, who showed extraordinary leadership “for the benefit of the country” in 2008 as the law says a recipient should.
Peter Warutere and Sarah Elderkin, who investigated and wrote exposes of the Goldenberg scam in the early 1990s, did Kenya an immeasurable service by revealing the full extent the scandal.
Who now remembers Mr David Munyakei, the man who first blew the whistle on Goldenberg only to die in penury and obscurity, surviving on NGO pittances and hounded by government everywhere he went? Where is Lupita Nyong’o or Boniface Mwangi? Pray, what does the ‘githeri man’ inspire a little girl toiling in the Moyale heat to aim for?
A national honours’ system has an immense lighthouse effect. Used properly, it offers the country, especially its youth, high ideals to strive for.
Used to give accolades to sycophants and scoundrels, as it has been, it signals that Kenya values all who debase those ideals.
By making what is patently debauched actually praiseworthy, it deforms national values.
It should come as no surprise that in an East African survey two years ago, a majority of Kenyan youth said that it does not matter how one gets to be rich so long as one does and that the people they admired most were wealthy criminals and violent politicians.
Why should we expect them to cultivate enduring values when they can see on national television that they will never get recognition if they stay on that path?
An honour system should inspire as well as motivate. A Briton will give up a castle for a knighthood.
The Nobel Prize carries a generous cash reward but most laureates would give up the cash for the recognition.
The Olympics are the ultimate honour sports: Athletes compete for the glory not the reward. Honour, in short, is its own reward. To honour the underserving — as our State honours now do — rewards mediocrity and confers presidential prestige on the lacklustre. That hurts everyone.
When people of modest achievement are rewarded, they often grow vain and ever more expansive in their averageness. In such a State, the talented and the committed slip into cynicism and apathy.
The State honours system is so abused that few Kenyans now attach value to national honours. Generally, only fussy bureaucrats and self-important Cabinet Secretaries bother to embroider their letterheads and names with the alphabet soup of EGH, EBS, MBS, OGW, HSC and other increasingly meaningless letter combinations.
It is a problem a Nigerian would recognise. There, as here, the national honour system is so degraded that few Nigerians take it seriously. In recent years, as the Action Congress of Nigeria lamented awhile back, the awardees are usually “a potpourri of businessmen that have no scruples, friends and associates of those in government… who have done absolutely nothing than living off the State.” Though the awards were intended to be “a badge of honour” they have been so “bastardised” that most “Nigerians see it as badge of dishonour.” This is a problem many Kenyans would recognise.
Unfortunately, cheapening national honours for partisan ends is a continent-wide epidemic. Some years back in Ghana, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), took on President John A. Kufuor’s government for his profligacy with national honours. First, he gave them too freely to too many people, much like Mr Kenyatta. Secondly, he — again like Mr Kenyatta — used them to reward his “cronies”, who, it appeared were “being recognised for their mediocre and partisan stance” towards the ruling party rather than for achievement.
Had the honour system worked as originally intended in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, or elsewhere, it would have created a pool of stand-out role models.
To receive the Queen’s honours in the UK, for example, is a singular recognition just as to lose those honours is an abiding shame. Honorees in Kenya never seem to lose the honours no matter what acts of criminal greed and State pillaging they subsequently get involved in.
In the UK, over the last ten years, a few recipients of the Queen’s honours have had to forfeit them, typically for convictions related to dishonour or misconduct.
The former CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Frederick Anderson Goodwin, was stripped of his knighthood for his role in the Bank’s tribulations in 2008.
The famous jockey, Lester Piggott, one of the greatest jockeys of all time, lost his OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for tax fraud.
Prof George Castledine, a professor of nursing at Birmingham City University, lost his knighthood for engaging in “sexually and financially motivated” misconduct.
But people have also been stripped of lesser honours for other misconducts: “for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice”; “for fraud for issuing a misleading stock prospectus”; “for conspiracy to make corrupt payments”; “for conviction for false accounting” and “for making indecent images of children.” In short, people have lost honours in the UK for conduct that would never have stopped them from receiving the highest honours in Kenya.
Therein lies the problem with the Kenya honour system. The threshold for recognition is too low to be meaningful and the trigger for forfeiture is so high it is virtually irrelevant.
In truth, the system can neither confer honour nor withdraw it. A system that classifies without standards classifies nothing.
In the UK, honorees will forfeit the honour if they bring the honour into disrepute. This generally means those who have been convicted of criminal offences that carry a jail-term of three or more months or those who have been struck off by their professional bodies for reasons relevant to the honour.
The truth is that the Jamhuri Day parade of the undeserving queuing up for national honours does the country no favours and damages the presidency by leveraging the prestige of his office in support of the undeserving.
It is time to scrap the system or to design it anew, stiffening the vetting so that not every politically-connected lounger can slip through.
Mr Maina is a constitutional lawyer
This article first appeared on the Daily Nation newspaper.