“Diaspora Jamaicans renew call for Bob as National Hero” was the title of a lead story in the Gleaner of January 29, 2018 – an annually recurring theme with every approach of the February 6 anniversary of Bob Marley’s birth. And for good measure, the Gleaner of February 23, 2018 in another lead story reports that “Seaga (is) to get special honour for contribution to Jamaica”, courtesy of Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
Since former Prime Minister Edward Seaga is already the recipient of Jamaica’s second highest honour — Order of the Nation (ON) — it is reasonable to conclude that talk of any elevation must be contemplating the order of National Hero (NH). No doubt the Hon Louise Bennett’s name too will, in due course, resurface as an equally worthy candidate for this award.
What then does it take to become a Jamaican National Hero? The website of the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) informs us that “the order of National Hero may be conferred upon any person who was born in Jamaica or, at the time of his or her death, was a citizen of Jamaica, and rendered to Jamaica service of a most distinguished nature”. A telephone call to the JIS confirmed that this was the sum total of the criteria for the National Hero (NH) designation.
It would seem then that if you were not born in Jamaica the honour of NH could only be conferred upon you posthumously. Under normal circumstances this would, of course, immediately rule out Mr. Seaga, who was born overseas, but our redoubtable Prime Minister is not likely to allow himself to be dissuaded by such a minor impediment.
That condition being satisfied however, no one could successfully argue that all three of the named persons had not rendered “service of a most distinguished nature” to Jamaica. In fact, based solely on this criterion, I could think of scores of other Jamaicans who had or are excelling in their chosen careers and who, without more, could similarly qualify for the award of NH, but nobody is calling for them to be so elevated, and for good reasons.
In practice, the existing National Heroes of Jamaica are perceived to be representative of something more than the givers of distinguished service. The path taken by them is generally considered to be the one less travelled — fraught with risks, sacrifices of one type or another and the steadfast, single-minded pursuit of justice in the name of country and humanity. And that path was not altered by the prospect of imprisonment or early death. It was more or less consistent with the Wikepedia definition of hero – “a person who in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength, often sacrificing their own personal concerns for a greater good”.
The selection criteria for National Hero should at least include some of these qualities. Currently, it asks for no more than required for the Order of Jamaica. As it now stands, according to the JIS website, it seems infinitely easier to be named a National Hero than to be conferred with an Order of Merit (OM) which is inferior in rank. To be considered for an OM, the person must “have achieved eminent international distinction in the field of service, the arts, literature or any other endeavour” – a designation which perfectly describes Bob Marley and Miss Lou, both of whom have already been fittingly awarded this honour. In addition, the OM cannot be conferred on more than “two persons in any one year” unlike the NH which could be indiscriminately awarded to as many people as meet the fancy of a prime minister seeking to be new and different.
The Order of Excellence (equivalent to the ON, our second highest honour), requires only that it be conferred upon a foreign head of state. Absolutely no other qualification or reason required! It was recently conferred by our PM on the President of the Republic of Dominica much to the consternation of many Jamaicans who believe that he was undeserving in many ways as manifested in his racially inspired mistreatment of his Haitian neighbours and immigrants. And for his troubles, PM Holness was awarded the Order of Merit of Duarte, Sanchez and Mella in the rank of Grand Cross with Gold Breast Star by the visiting Dominican Republic president.
Is the ranking of this honour equivalent to that of the Jamaican ON and what rights and privileges will it bestow on the recipient? National honours are the embodiment of a national value system and should not be used as the personal asset of any single individual to return or curry favour, or be thrown around like confetti.
The need to meaningfully define the criteria for conferring national honours has never been more urgent. The definitions should first seek to reflect the comparative weight of the various rankings but should also include some ineligibility stipulation. However otherwise well accomplished, the powerful perpetrators of socially corrosive actions which intentionally or inadvertently promote garrisonization, gun culture and donmanship should be disqualified by definition.
As the architect of the Tivoli Gardens “state within a state”, Mr. ‘Fire for Fire and Blood for Blood’ Seaga, despite his impressive institution building credentials, would have already disqualified himself. But perhaps Mr. Holness is merely contemplating the creation of a new ranking for Mr. Seaga like “Father of the Nation” – the new buzz title. The Most Honourable Prime Minister should say more before moving further on this one.