A lot of mysteries seem to have shrouded the Nigeria National Merit Award, despite several applications from top notch academics in the country. ‎In de-mystifying the award, which often produce only two recipients, one in humanities and the other in sciences, the Chairman of the Board, Prof. Shekarau Yakubu Aku said it is beyond the submission of papers, and more on the uniqueness of the work submitted. He spoke with Kuni Tyessi

Last year, only two academics were found worthy of the award by the board; the same thing happened the previous year despite several applications. Is this now the norm?

It is not the number of applications that is important, but the merit of the work of those who have been nominated or those who have nominated themselves. We do not have a number we work with. We advertise for applications and nominations and each of these is processed and it is those that merit the award that are moved to the final stage.

If you look at our decree, it says it must be unique. You might have lots of papers to becoming a professor but if the work is not unique, you might not have the merit. The award is not for academics only, it is for everyone who has made contributions to national development. The awardees of last year are two. One is a professor in chemical engineering and the other is a fine artist and not in the academia.

Apart from the academia of what benefit is the award to Nigeria and Nigerians?

The award encourages people in research and this should particularly be relevant to the needs of the country. The last one did a lot of inventions and equipment for testing all sorts of things. He was a military man too. He invented things that are used in hospitals. His work was unique and he was able to cling the award.‎ We want deep uniqueness of these contributions to the country. Many of these people have placed Nigeria on the world map with their contributions and that is why we give them such opportunities.

Many Nigerians have placed the country on the world map and have retold the country’s story in new dimensions yet they have not been recognised by the board.‎ For instance the celebrated writer, Ms. Chimamanda Adichie is young and has contributed to the literary world through her fierce writings. Why has she not been recognised by the board?

I know the young lady you are talking about and I have read some of her works. The award is not made and given based on such. We advertise and call for nominations, usually within the period of three months. After the nominations close, we process them. If you didn’t apply and was not nominated by someone, there is no way we can process you. If we do it that way, it will be another thing entirely.

Many academics are unaware of the award. What is the board putting in place to ensure that it spreads its tentacles in order to increase participation?

It is not true that many academics are not aware of the awards. We advertise in the electronics and print media. So if somebody does not bother, that is a different issue. The truth is that many do not want to apply because the conditions are very stringent. So if you apply and don’t go beyond the first stage, you feel bad and the award is a proof that it is meant for very distinct people.

What are the processes and special attributes involved and needed for recognition by the board?

We make the advertisement and give a closing date for submission. We ask that the application be accompanied with evidence. They choose what their best evidence is and make submissions. We have four areas of awards. The first is in the humanities, which includes arts/culture and education, the second is in the sciences which includes all the pure and applied sciences like agriculture, etc. The third is in medicine and this includes the allied in areas such as pharmacy and nursing and then we have the engineering and technology which also covers building and architecture. Each of the areas is taken care of by a specialised committee.

The committee is drawn by assessors from the universities mainly and each committee has a membership of 10 persons. This means we are talking about 40 professors from universities all over the country. The nomination goes to the committee of assessors and they go through them. They have two or three meetings. For the first meeting, they get to go through the submissions and they share them among themselves. They all go through the works and then come back for the second meeting.

Sometimes, we use external assessors if we do not have specialists within the assessors. So once you go through this stage, which is the stage of the specialised committee, ‎their decision goes to the next stage which is the committee of chairmen of the committee, chaired by one of them who is usually referred to as the chairman of chairmen. The idea is to ensure that some committees are not too hard on applications and some are not too soft, so that there is a balance. Once it goes through that second stage of the committee of chairmen, it comes to the full board. The board then takes the decision and it forwards them to Mr. President who approves the awards.

The presidency usually requests for all the minutes of the meetings and the justifications, and even at the presidential level, the submissions are still cross-checked. It is when the president is satisfied with the nominations that he gives us the approval for the award. It is only at that stage that we can announce the names of the people who have passed the exercise.

Nigerians seem to play politics with everything; would you say that at some points, politics and god-fatherism influence the choice of recipients?

No god-fatherism and politics is involved in the choice of candidates. The assessors have no contact with the nominees and we try to make sure that nobody knows who the assessors are and we have done this since 1979 and we have had no problems of that nature. The secretariat is very strict on that. One of the assessors scored all the submissions 100 per cent in everything and the committee rejected it, citing that there is no way anyone can be perfect and we had to go and look for a separate assessor. That is how far we go.

What do you hope to achieve during your tenure as chairman of the board of NNMA?

There are a number of things one would have loved to achieve but whether we can do them is a different issue. We have developmental projects which we want to do. In the last one year, we have been able to just get money for the normal things. We have a lot of space we would have loved to develop which would even generate funds for us so that we don’t have to depend on what comes from government. But we can’t do it without money being put in. We tried to raise money from various organisations ‎and that hasn’t really worked up till now. Where we thought we will get a lot of support, we couldn’t get it.

What advice do you have for other academics that are aspiring to gain recognition by the board and to academics in Nigeria and Nigerians in the diaspora?

They should work hard and make sure their work is unique. It is not about publishing several papers but what makes them stand out, so that colleagues don’t ask challenging questions on what makes his/her work better than theirs. An outstanding work cannot be hidden anywhere.