Why do African presidents love titles?


In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene, a former government minister and member of the opposition, returns to one of her favourite subjects: Africa’s love of titles.

I simply couldn’t resist it after the announcement from the Office of the Gambian President that another title was being added to the already absurd long list of titles held by the president. According to an official release, the Gambian leader will now be known formally as “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa”.

Babili Mansa, we are told, means Bridge Builder, or Conqueror of Rivers, in the Mandika language. Since the figurative building of bridges or making peace is not one of President Jammeh’s known characteristics, I take it that it is more the Conqueror of Rivers that the new title of Babili Mansa is meant to indicate.

The President of the Republic of the Gambia, Commander in Chief, Sheikh, Professor Alhaji Dr etc etc Yahya AJJ Jammeh might think he is treading new ground; but unfortunately, we have seen it all before.

The practice of acquiring a long list of titles started with our earliest presidents as soon as independence came.

That, after all, is how our traditional chiefs are addressed and the new presidents saw themselves as big chiefs – that probably explains why they couldn’t come to terms with term limits and wanted to be presidents for life.

Exactly why the title of “Dr” had to be an obligatory part of that list, I haven’t worked out.

Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence and our first president got himself suitably impressive titles, with the obligatory unearned “Dr” and with that started the practice.

He was addressed: Osagyefo, (a chief’s title, said to mean Redeemer) Dr Kwame Nkrumah – Life President of the Republic of Ghana. The Life President bit was aborted when he was overthrown in a coup d’etat.

The sergeant-major-turned-president of Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Mobutu, took the trend a scale higher. He became Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Waza Banga, meaning The Warrior who Goes from Conquest to Conquest Leaving Fire in his Wake.

Those of us of a certain age can recall that there used to be His Excellency the President, Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda-Life President of the Republic of Malawi. If you missed out a comma, you got into serious trouble.

Again, the Life President bit turned out to have been over-optimistic because he was forced out of State House before he died.

Then of course there was a certain embarrassment in Uganda; he had to be called: Field Marshall Dr Idi Amin Dada MC DSO CBE (Conqueror of the British Empire)-Life President of Uganda.

Once more, the Life President bit turned out to have been optimistic and he was chased out, much to the relief of everybody in 1979.

In Zimbabwe, state TV refers to: His Excellency, The President, Robert Gabriel Mugabe and Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.

But at social events, ministers often add: Patron of War Veterans, First Secretary of the Party and Chancellor of State Universities.

And even: Supreme Leader, First Citizen of the Nation, Honorary Black Belt and Professor of Diplomacy.

He remains in post at the age of 91 and continues to befuddle all his opponents.

The obsession with titles as I have pondered in previous columns, is not reserved for only our leaders, it seems to be an African disease. Or so I thought until a friend of mine pointed out to me recently that it is not unlikely that it is something that we inherited from the British colonialists.

Indeed who else has all these Sirs, Dukes, Duchess, Baroness, Viscounts, OBEs, CBEs etc etc? We have probably simply been trying to emulate them.

The official full title of the Head of State from which we got our independence is: Her Majesty, “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”.

Try matching that! The Bridge Builder or even Conqueror of Rivers doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

More from Elizabeth Ohene:

Britain’s speedy high-drama elections seen through Ghanaian eyes

Should Ghanaians be given a three-day-weekend to attend funerals?

Taking advantage of a crisis

Tolerating fufu made in a microwave

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