By Chidi Omeje

It is no longer news that Nigeria’s senior football team, the Super Eagles, had a spectacular outing at the just concluded AFCON 24 held in Cote d’Ivoire. Even though they did not bring home the trophy, their superlative performance that saw them reach the finals was not lost on Nigerians.

The emotions, passions, high hopes, and dashed hopes that attended that tournament, which even culminated in the deaths of not less than five Nigerians, could be an interesting topic, but that is not the crux of this intervention.

Recall that upon returning to the country after the AFCON finals, the crest-fallen Super Eagles and their coaching crew promptly proceeded to Abuja for a presidential handshake. The presidential reception took place in the main executive conference room within the bowels of the Aso Rock Presidential Villa: They were received by President Bola Tinubu.

At the event, the visibly excited President was grinning from ear to ear, apparently reminiscing about the footballing heroics showcased at the tournament by the lads. He followed up with symbolic handshakes and posed for photographs with each member of the team. But President Tinubu did not stop with the broad smiles and handshakes. He had a lot of pleasant surprises for the team.

First, he decorated each player with the national award of Member of The Order of The Niger (MON). He then proceeded to announce the donation of a flat and a plot of land to each of them. To assure the Eagles that the land donation was not an audio donation, the FCT Minister, Nyesom Wike, immediately distributed forms for land allocation to each of the players at the yet-to-be disclosed location. It was then the turn of the Eagles to grin from ear to ear…

The above scenario was only ‘rinsed and repeated’ by President Tinubu. It didn’t start with him. In fact, such an impulsive gush of goodwill has always been our way of receiving and rewarding our sporting men and women whenever they come back home after a spectacular performance in a competition, especially a soccer tournament.

Make no mistake about it, Nigerians love the game of football. They are so passionate about it, especially when the national team is playing, that not a few would give up the ghost watching the game.

Apart from the frenzied passion it evokes in Nigerians, politicians have identified soccer as one thing that has the capacity to foster momentary unity among Nigerians of all divides. And so, the ritual of organising presidential receptions for and handsomely rewarding the athletes has long been ingrained in our consciousness. Let us also not forget that the national teams are religiously paid their appearance fees and match bonuses (in thousands of dollars), each time they are on national assignment. In fact, no sports minister or government of the day can withstand the backlash that will follow any delay in paying those humongous allowances. Why not; The Super Eagles, their junior teams, or female counterparts, it is believed, bring joy to Nigerians and foster momentary unity for the country.

Now, compare or contrast the above scenario with the fate of another set of patriots rendering different services to the country. Think of the members of the Nigerian Armed Forces, whose own brief is to defend Nigeria and Nigerians from external aggression and internal insurrection.

A noble profession that demands from the personnel the payment of the supreme sacrifice, if the need be, the military is not in the business of entertaining or providing momentary happiness; the troops are rather daily on the harm’s way taking bullets on our behalf.

As the country is currently assailed on all fronts by multiple security challenges, the troops of the Nigerian military have their boots on the ground, steel on the seas, and eyes in the sky, not only to ward off adversaries but to obliterate them. At the end of the day, they don’t come home with trophies or medals; they do more than that: they stay awake while we sleep, they take bullets on our behalf, and they keep at bay, those who want to destroy us. In spite of all these, the troops remain unappreciated, unrecognized, uncelebrated and unsung; there are no presidential handshakes, no special bonuses and no rewards…

A distraught soldier captured the irony most succinctly in his post on X after watching the recent Presidential reception of the Super Eagles; he wrote: “Even Ahmed Musa wey no kick ball once for AFCON follow collect flat, land, and MON. Wonderful times. Yet as a soldier, I stayed in the North East fighting Boko Haram for four years plus; I was shot and I am still carrying the bullet in me till date, not even a medal from the Army/Nigerian Government”.

Of course, the soldier’s lamentation stirred some emotions in Nigerians who read the post, but whether their condemnation of our reward system was enough to provoke a change of heart in high places is yet to be seen.

The point really is that, whether or not we appreciate their sacrifice or celebrate their gallantry, the Nigerian Armed Forces have continued to prove their worth as an indispensable symbol of national unity and strength. Their commitment to stamping out terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, and other violent crimes confronting the country and the sub-region is indubitable. Working in synergy with other security agencies, the military has been able to stop the very formidable international terrorist organizations like Boko Haram and ISWAP in their tracks, contain attacks on our maritime assets, and rein in every other violent crime in the country.

As a professional, hard-fighting, and globally respected force, the Nigerian military have restored democracies, brought peace to troubled lands, stabilized the West African sub-region, and promoted world peace through its excellent participation in peacekeeping and peace support operations across the world. It has continued to occupy its glorious position in the comity of global defence forces on account of its steadfastness, unwavering commitment, ruggedness, and sacrifice.

No matter how you look at it, the Nigerian military has done well, and the gallantry of its troops deserves far more than we are ready to acknowledge or celebrate.

But the anomaly in our reward system is found not only in presidential handshakes. It is now a part of our national character that speaks volumes about the values we prioritize. A story was told of a young lady who came out with First Class and as Best Graduating Student in Medicine and Surgery of a Nigerian university. In recognition of her academic feat, she was rewarded with a cash sum of N5,000 by the university. In the same month she graduated, a certain lady won the first prize of N100m in Big Brother Naija, a TV reality show. What did she do to win such a huge amount? She paraded almost naked on live television for ninety days, doing nothing other than eat ravenously, dance provocatively, and exchange lewed languages with her fellow housemates. Today, nobody remembers the brilliant doctor, but the nudist is still galivanting around as a celebrity with an armed policeman as her bodyguard. Now, if this is not painfully ironical, I don’t know what is.

It is therefore my contention that our dear country should, as a matter of urgency, review our reward system. How about standardizing our reward system such that any Nigerian who distinguishes himself or herself with conduct or accomplishment that brings honour to the country would be honored and celebrated?

How about recognizing and celebrating the gallantry, sacrifice, and exceptional heroic feats of our gallant troops? Can we begin today?

*Chidi Omeje is the Editor, Zagazola Media Network