'His/Her Excellency...' Our obsessions with titles and nobilities

Naija Enugu Some chiefs from Nigeria

Tue, 7 Nov 2017 Source: Bernard Asubonteng

In a conversation quite recently, a well-educated friend from Nigeria asked in a rhetorical way why many Africans/leaders so obsessed with titles and other “glittering generalities” such as “Do you know who I’m” or “I’m from this or that royal family.”

Like some of us, the Nigerian ‘brother’ wonders why in many African societies we hardly point to our accomplishments, as well as what is it that we intend to leave behind for our community or the generation yet unborn when we depart this earth rather than always display/boast of chains of academic degrees or one’s titles of nobility.

Don’t get it twisted; for this is not to say that one does not have to be proud of a hard-earned degree or hide one’s well-deserved academic degrees and other titles, whatever they may be. Many of us have university degrees and proud of them. Yet the fact is, majority of us as Africans are most likely the quickest to advertize the degrees and other titles we have than insisting on the quality of our work.

To a larger extent, it explains one of the raisons d'être some African writers often display their college degree(s) before or after their names even in non-academic body of writings such as common newspaper articles. In the world-class news outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, or the Wall Street Journal, hardly do the writers/contributors show off their titles/degrees. Perhaps for many of these self-confident writers, the most significant factor is the thoughtfulness or the caliber of their contributions as opposed to the exhibition of titles or nobility claims.

More so, the American sociopolitical culture deemphasizes titles and/or rejects any claim that entertains aristocratic pretenses invoking “noble/royal birth.” The Article I, Section 9, Sub 8 of the U.S. Constitution is self-explanatory regarding Americans’ disdain for the belief or for the institution of kingship/monarchy and all its appendages. The law forbids the United States or any of its territories from bestowing titles of nobility, especially, to the people “holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

Learning wisely from their revolutionary war for independence in the early 18th century, the founders of the United States democracy witnessed the perils and blatant arrogance inherent in the institution of monarchy. The American revolutionaries learned firsthand that kings/monarchs view power as non-negotiable which often produces people walking around as if they’re super-humans while arrogating to themselves titles or hints of nobility.

The colonial British monarchy hellishly gave the American independence fighters unforgettable nightmares during the era predating the country’s agitation for Independence. So after all the chips settled eventually and America gained its self-autonomy, the framers of the U.S. Constitution decided not to have anything to do with kings, queens, or titles of nobility within their infant nation.

To that end, the framers disavow the assumption that somehow there is a chosen group of mortal human beings who come directly from some more “special place” than the rest of the population. Thus, any suggestion close to the establishment of the kingdom or chieftaincy is antithetical to the American experience. Hence in the U.S. today, almost all Americans don’t care much about titles, and pretty much refrain from addressing their presidents, governors, or any high-ranking leader as “His/Her Excellency” and many other needlessly vague titles.

Switching gears back to Ghana or Africa, a careful look at our sociocultural architectures reveals a sizable bunch of people hide behind titles of all kinds, and in most cases boast of having royal lineage. It is not surprising that land guard activities, and the like, are widespread in Ghana. Because behind the veils of illegal mining or land guard conundrums are some “fat cats” in the society parading titles of nobility and own most of the lands in Ghana.

Ever wonder why many people in this country or in many parts of Africa are unusually obsessed with earned or unearned titles of all types? They have come to realize that in this part of the world people with titles of nobility, Majesty, Excellency, Doctor, PhD, MSc, and what have you, are nearly “untouchable.” For the most part, the gullible among us viewed them as if they are repository all ideas; many of their assumptions go uncontested. The general mentality is: “Who am I to question or challenge a doctor, prof., or a person of his/her high standing in this society?”

Clearly, many Africans and for that matter Ghanaians are easily fazed by titles instead of focusing on the title holder’s real accomplishment or competence. The latter point, on so many levels, tries to form the basis for why some African leaders come to power and start grabbing or granting endlessly empty titles for themselves.

For instance, many Ghanaian political literatures indicate the nation’s first head of state after independence went by the title Osagyefo (war savior) Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and “The Life President of the Republic of Ghana.”

Faraway Democratic Republic of Congo, then army Sergeant-Major Joseph Mobutu seized power in coup and added titles to his name that runs: Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Waza Banga, which means “The Powerful Warrior who moves from triumphs to triumphs while leaving behind trails of inferno.”

Then we have old grandpa Mugabe who has a sizable fair share of the title pie: “His Excellency, the President, First Secretary of the People’s Party, and Head of State” Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defense Force. The late dictator of Uganda went by the titles Field Marshal Dr. Idi Amin Dada, MC, DSO, and Conqueror of the British Empire.

Also, the recently-deposed Gambian clownish president had self-bestowed titles like “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa. The “Babili Mansa” is loosely translated as “He who defeats or overruns rivers of all sizes.” What did all these titles add to the sorry state of Gambian economy? Nothing save more misery.

It is meaningful to know the towering position and the most coveted title anyone can be granted is the title of the president of a country. Indeed, the title of president or prime minister has no parallels in terms of its preeminence and profound consequences to the wellbeing of every modern society. Throughout history people have risked and sacrificed their lives to become head of the government of their nations and thus earn the highest title of president or prime minister.

So it is mind-bogglingly funny that in most parts of Africa, including Ghana, once someone becomes president/prime minister, he/she starts accepting or grabbing meaningless titles such as “His Excellency this or that”—a title which ironically serves to cast murky shadow over the most enviable and consequential title of all: “Mr./Madam President or Prime Minister.”

Irrelevantly long titles never add anything of substance to one’s competence and a sense of humility aside from stoking the holder’s puffy egos. In other words, why not simply but elegantly refer to our leaders as Mr./Madam President or Prime Minister? In all cases, one’s quality of work and selfless care for humanity speak more potently than how many titles we show off everywhere we go.

Columnist: Bernard Asubonteng