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When Nigeria inaugurated a new president last year, it marked two milestones in the country's history. It was the first time power had 'peacefully' passed from an elected head of state to another who was elected albeit in a very flawed process. It also marked the first time Nigeria has a head of state who has a university degree. Yar'Adua, one of only three Nigerian rulers without a military background, has a Masters degree in Chemistry. Nobody will contest the fact that you do not need a university degree to be a good leader but it is still strange that a country like Nigeria, with its many universities and millions of degree holders in all manner of subjects, has never had a leader with a university degree until now.
But in Ghana, we have had a bounty of degree holders as heads of state. Even if Nkrumah relied on his 'veranda boys' to bring home the votes, he himself had a degree and had even started his doctoral thesis in the USA. Busia was a professor of Sociology and Culture; Limman had a doctoral title. Our present head of state may sound drawling in his speech but he has a British university degree. It is only our military rulers who never had degrees. Anytime Ghanaians had the chance to freely elect a leader, they always chose one who had a university degree. The only exception was Rawlings who transformed himself from a military to a civilian ruler in an election he really should not have participated in after 11 years of imposing himself on us.
Whether degree holders do better than their non-degree counterparts as heads of state is an empirical question. The evidence so far doesn't give any pointer. Ghana and Africa have been misruled both by people with the highest academic qualifications and by those who didn't complete primary school. Houphouet-Boigny hanged on until death forced him to hand over to someone else. Good old Robert Mugabe has several degrees and we now know what has become of his once prosperous country. Kwame Nkrumah, a man who revelled in his honorary doctorate title, would have certainly ruled Ghana until his death, if he had not been overthrown.
No, degrees don't necessarily make good leaders but today, it is difficult to become president without having some formal university level academic qualification. Like in other spheres of life, people with distinctive leadership qualities are born rather than made but there are also various training grounds to acquire or home in on such skills. In the democracies with strong party traditions running back several decennia, if not centuries, most young people start early to gain political experience when they join the youth wings of the parties and go through an apprenticeship to become the leaders of tomorrow. But in Ghana, coups and counter coups have broken the democratic experiment several times to make sure that no proper party traditions have evolved. The Danquah-Nkrumah traditions are weak and not really ones that can give tutelage to young people to become future leaders nourished on the beliefs and practices of their ideological forbears. Instead, poverty, but also greed and hubris, have ensured that the ideology of personal gain has become paramount in the quest for political office.
Our love of titles
We adore titles in Ghana. Everybody goes everywhere with the titles they have acquired even if those titles have nothing to do with the particular issues at stake. That is why one Atta Mills, who is seeking the presidency of the republic, is called 'Professor' with every mention of his name even though his professorship has absolutely nothing to do with the post he is aiming at which could as well be occupied by someone with a middle school leaving certificate. Mr Mills is, indeed, a professor, but that belongs to academia, not the space in the public realm he is trying to fill. We refer to people so much by their titles that we often forget what they did to earn those titles. Nobody in Ghana today remembers what Limman studied to get his PhD. Even when he was head of state, not many people knew. But he has always been called 'Dr Limman'. We call our ministers and parliamentarians 'Honourable' even though we are all aware of the fact that our politicians, judging by their activities, are among the most dishonourable people in the society. We learned some of these things from the British but we have far outdone them in these practices. British parliamentarians call each other 'Right Honourable' on the floor of the house but drop that terminology once they leave the precincts of Westminster Palace. Gordon Brown, the prime minister, has a PhD in History but no one is referring to him as 'Prime Minister Dr Gordon Brown' just as no one says 'Secretary of State Professor Dr Condoleeza Rice' or 'German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel' even though the lady wrote her doctoral thesis in Quantum Chemistry which is a difficult mathematically based subject straddling the borders of Physics and Chemistry but miles away from the political arena! In Ghana (or worse still Nigeria), they would surely find a means of calling them all of those titles, and adding a bit more.
We have carried the practice to some ludicrous heights. In the run-up to the recent NPP elections, the press was struggling to call each of the 18 contestants by their titles. The result was a motley array of designations on a single list of people seeking the same post: Dr, Honourable, Nana, Professor, and those with nothing had to make do with just simply Mr. Even on Ghana Home Page, which is not in any way an academic forum, you see writers informing their readers that they have authored twelve books or that they have the very unique distinction of possessing two first degrees! It is only Ghanaians (and Nigerians) who can concoct the tautology of preceding their names with ‘Dr’ and still add the abbreviations PhD, M.A., B.A., Dip, Cert., or something else after those names.
Our obsession with adding titles to people's names may be rooted in our tradition of respect for the elderly and those in authority who, in turn, expect such fawning obeisance from their underlings and may take umbrage if it is not accorded them. This, together with our first-past-the post winner takes all electoral system, may also lie behind our inability to elect young people to high office. At 54, Paa Nduom (oh sorry, Dr Nduom) is the youngest of the presidential aspirants. (The constitution sets the minimum age of the president at 40!) Akufo Addo and Atta Mills are in their 60s. We are still to shed our belief that old age is a storehouse of wisdom and, by extension, good leadership.
The way forward?
We should respect our public officials but there is no need for us in Ghana to call them 'Dr' or 'Professor' or 'Honourable' AT ALL TIMES. Dropping these appellations or limiting them to the contexts in which they are relevant may not be the defining factor of our still nascent democracy but it can help narrow the conceptual gap between the ruler and the ruled and further us along the path of democracy we are trying to chart. The media, especially, will have to show the way, and the rest of society will follow.
It will be a herculean task. The Guardian, a Nigerian quality daily that started publishing in the early 80s, adopted a policy of referring to every man it wrote about as ‘Mr’. It called it the ‘Simply Mr’ policy. It run this policy for some three years and then dropped it. The pressures from the society were too much and this laudable policy was abandoned! The light was vanquished by the darkness. That is the way we are in Ghana too.
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