The story of my life’s journey provides instruction on the value of merit in the attainment of possibilities for individuals, groups and societies.
‘Gratitude is a noble instinct’ (G.B. Shaw), which I exhort and hereby explore to express profound gratitude to your Excellency for accepting the decision of the Board of the Nigerian National Merit Award to confer this Award of the Nigerian National Order of Merit 2018 on me. Similarly, I offer profuse appreciation to the Board itself for finding me deserving of the Award. I must say that I do not take the honour for granted at all, considering the number of nominees from among whom I was picked for the Award. It compels me to take a deep reflection on how I arrived at this point in life. Your Excellency, the story of my life’s journey provides instruction on the value of merit in the attainment of possibilities for individuals, groups and societies.
In the early years of the sixties, I gained admission into two missionary-run colleges in the then Kabba Division – today’s Kogi State. The fees of the institutions were simply beyond the means of my parents who were a peasant farmer and a food vendor. I had to wait till the following year when I passed the Common Entrance Examinations and gained admission into one of the Northern Nigerian government’s Provincial Secondary Schools, sited, equitably, in the Fourteen Provinces of the Northern Region. Even at that, the relatively small school fees of Thirteen pounds a year could only be paid after my father had sold his cocoa/coffee plantation and my mother the finest of her few clothes.
It was not until the third year when, by government policy, the Provincial colleges in the region became full-fledged Government colleges, that my parents were marginally able to sponsor my Secondary education with less hardship. This was because a policy had been enacted to make fees relatively favourable to the children of the poor – who paid fees as low as Three pounds – while the children of the well-to-do and civil servants paid up to Fifteen and Twenty pounds.
When it was time for me to go for the Higher School Certificate (H.S.C) programme, a family decision had to be taken for my sister to stay back for me to move on, with the expectation that on completion of my course, I would train my other siblings through school. My father, a non-literate intellectual with an unquenchable thirst for education for his children, was contemned and scorned by his peers for insisting on my further schooling, rather than throwing me into the labour market as they all did. As it turned out, the ECWA missionaries who owned the Titcombe College, Egbe, had a scholarship scheme for the best HSC student every term. This was how I was able to complete the remaining five terms without my parents paying a dime.
My undergraduate and graduate studies were financed through the Kwara State Government Scholarship and the University of Ilorin Staff Development Schemes. Two critical lessons emerge from this narrative.
One, that with good educational policies combined with merit, the children of the poor with humble and lowly parentage can rise to stand before the President to receive the Nigerian National Order of Merit, the highest honour and recognition for ‘academic and intellectual contributions made by citizens of Nigeria’.
Two, as government is clearly aware, education is the foundational tool for national development in a knowledge-driven world and deserves to be given priority attention. Happily, this government recently declared a state of emergency in the educational sector in the country so that education can regain its pride of place in the nation.
A combination of good Mission, Regional, State, and federal educational policies of the sixties and seventies opened access and opportunities to any qualified pupils and students to obtain sound education. Merit alone, a system of recognition and reward based on excellence and worthiness, shorn of all sentiment and prejudice, and run by a Board of eminent and seasoned intellectuals and scholars on behalf of the Federal Government, has produced the NNOM laureates seated here today. This has affirmed my conviction that merit is a veritable credo of governance. I thus propose that it is forever good to stick to what is just and right. Your Excellency, what remains is for our governments to adhere to the Merit principle as the objective condition for national transformation. As a humanist, I harbor Utopian ideals (in our stories that I tell) for my country for Meritocracy as an ideology of governance. A merit-based democracy will take the nation away from desperation and exasperation to renewed inspiration, aspiration and genuine national patriotism.
Since political independence, our governments have never suffered from policy deficiency. That explains the reason for establishing the Nigerian National Merit Award. That was also why the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies was erected – both institutions established nearly four decades ago – to hold sound, knowledge-based discourses to etch policies on the various aspects of nation building and national development. Your Excellency, what has been in deficit is the political will to deploy the requisite strategies for policy implementation for national reconstruction and transformation.
Your Excellency, with the Change philosophy of your government, added to your proverbial and nationwide personal reputation for integrity and commitment to national development, peace and national security, the time is now to utilize the merit inherent in these institutions and other similar institutions in this potentially great country, with the bubbling energies of its teaming youths, whose future depends on today’s envisioned governance. It is time for us to open an inclusive and participation space for the production, distribution and exchange of the nation’s mammoth endowments – material and ineffable – in order to take the nation to where it can, and should be, as the country on whose shoulders the destiny of the Africa continent rests.
On this pragmatic aspiration, Your Excellency, I accept, most humbly and with profound appreciation, this covetable honour, on behalf of the numerous other highly merit-driven innovators, creators and inventors in the service of our nation.
Finally, Your Excellency, permit me to dedicate this award to my family, the immediate as represented here by my wife and children, and to my larger family of teachers and mentors, living and deceased, as well as all my students who have crossed my path in the nearly five decades of my academic and intellectual journey – without whom I will not be here today.
Prof. Obafemi’s acceptance speech of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) Award 2018