Who are real heroes deserving recognition from the President?

President William Ruto during the 59th Jamhuri Day celebrations at Nyayo National Stadium on December 12, 2022. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

Jamhuri Day would not be the same without publication of the Presidential Awards. This year, some 482 individuals were honoured and not surprisingly the long list comprised the good, the bad and the ugly.

President William Ruto has maintained the tradition of giving top awards to the political and military class even if most of the former just entered office the other day with no track record of 'outstanding service to the nation'.

The minor awards were once more reserved for women and figures that we may not be too familiar with. But this list contains some outstanding citizens who have contributed greatly to the arts, media and community development. Just a shame that they are lumped together with counterfeits, cronies and dubious characters.

Awards are always a sensitive issue particularly so when feted characters today, betray the honour bestowed on them tomorrow. Think of the Nobel Peace Prize winners like Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar or Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who later waged armed conflict against their own citizens.

It makes you wonder about the wisdom of awarding people while they are still in office. Yet, bear in mind also that Wangari Maathai's Nobel Prize in 2004 brought honour to the country and global focus on the environment.

Yet, the granting of awards is a tricky business, as is the naming of streets, public buildings and sports stadiums. The late President Daniel arap Moi was such an advocate of education for all that every girls' high school felt obliged to change their name to Moi Girls in the 1980s.

Putting the Head of State's image on the nation's currency has been an accepted custom ever since the time of Caesar. It created the erroneous impression that the wealth of the nation belonged to whoever was at the helm and he could use it at his own pleasure.

Jesus shrewdly challenged that notion when he suggested to give to Caesar what is his - if indeed his image on a coin gave him ownership of the country's wealth.

Thankfully, former President Uhuru Kenyatta challenged that practice when the big five animals replaced the big four presidents on Kenya's coins but his dad's image still looms large on the paper denominations.

Naming buildings and monuments is always controversial, especially when there is no public participation in the exercise. For that reason, it is not uncommon for citizens to demand that they be allowed to choose their own heroes and heroines and not have unpopular figures imposed on them.

When despised regimes are overthrown, statues of their autocrats and dictators are generally toppled with them. This most recently happened all-round the globe during the 'Black Lives Matter" protests when historical monuments associated with slavery and racism bit the dust in many cities.

Coast residents have taken a less confrontational approach to express their displeasure at the naming of the recently constructed Waterfront Park after Mama Ngina without their input. The campaign has been managed by the Okoa Mombasa coalition who earlier led protests over the secret SGR contracts between the government and Chinese investors. Coastal people have no particular gripe with the former First Lady but they have their own heroes they would want to immortalise. The coalition already organised a local ballot to choose a suitable replacement to honour.

More recently, they petitioned newly elected County Assembly to change the name but were duly informed that the facility is under the management of the National Museums and as such the petition should be addressed to the National Assembly.

That appeared like a lame excuse and Mombasa Governor Abdulswamad Nassir did not gain much sympathy from backing off on the matter.

Murang'a County Assembly is currently debating a bill on the naming of streets, monuments and public buildings, based on the right of citizens to participate in the process. For believers, of course, what matters as Jesus said, is that our names be written in heaven.

However, while we still occupy this space on earth, citizens must be allowed to learn from the lives of past heroes and honour them in a fitting way.

The writer, Gabriel Dolan, Priest and Executive Director at Haki Yetu.