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Why Are Nigerians Obsessed With Titles?

If ever someone introduces himself to you as “Engr. Double Chief Sir,” you need not ask where he is from. In a world championship for titles, Nigerians would win all the medals. Why are we so obsessed with this absurd practice?

I’ve always found (many) Nigerians’ obsession with titles something of a curiosity. There are the flamboyant titles flaunted by men. It’s quite common to meet a Nigerian man who introduces himself as Chief Dr. Sir So So and So. The bearer of that string of titles apparently wants those who meet him to know that he, one, has what’s often called a traditional title; two, that he earned a medical degree or doctorate (or, quite often, bought one); and, three, that he’s a knight of the Catholic or Anglican Church. Then there are the female variants. One example: Dr. Alhaja Chief (Mrs.) This and That. The woman who adorns herself with those titles would want you to realize, a., that she earned or bought a doctorate; b., that she’s a Muslim who’s made the pilgrimage, at least once, to the Islamic holy site of Mecca; c., that she has—according to a favorite Nigerian word—“bagged” a so-called traditional title or several, and, d., that she’s married. It goes without saying that the woman’s husband boasts an even larger harvest of titles. Few Nigerian men would marry a woman who “out-titles” them!

I don’t know whether other Africans have a similar fascination with titles. If they do, I doubt that it’s to the same degree. Nigerians, I suspect, hold the world championship in the craze for titles.

Desperate hankering
Long ago, the Nigerian mania for titles took an inventive form. It’s common practice for Nigerian engineers to adopt the prefix Engineer (often shortened to Engr.) before their names. By contrast, I’ve never encountered one American-born engineer who asks to be addressed as Engineer. Nigerian architects, accountants, quantity surveyors and pharmacists have followed suit. Many a Nigerian architect hands out a business card with “Arc.” as a title. Many quantity surveyors use “Surv” while pharmacists go for Pharm.

I used to think that the desperate hankering after titles was part of a uniquely Nigerian cultural malaise. Then, arriving in the US more than twenty years ago, it struck me that many US-based Nigerians had brought with them this astonishing appetite for honorifics, including novel and patently absurd ones.

I stated at the outset that I find the race for titles curious. That was a big understatement. I often find myself cringing in embarrassment when somebody I consider enlightened hands me a business card that reads “Chief Dr. Sir” Baabaa Doodoo or “Pharm. Chief (Mrs.)” Too Much. It bespeaks, I think, a habit of self-aggrandisement. Something in me revolts at such ostentation, such vulgar self-exhibition.

You probably won’t hear Jay Z introducing himself as Chief. The American was given the title Sarkin Waka of Kwara.
You probably won’t hear Jay Z introducing himself as Chief. The American was given the title Sarkin Waka of Kwara.

From comical to absurd
Often, the title craze is plain ludicrous and comical. Last November, all the candidates in the governorship election in my home state of Anambra decided that they had to be “Dr.” Yet, only one of them, a medical doctor, had a legitimate claim to the prefix. One of the other candidates was a businessman whose formal education ended at the secondary school level. Not to worry; he and his campaign aides decided to print posters in which he was identified as “Dr.” As far as I know, no reporter questioned where he’d picked up the title.

Not that the man would have flinched had the question been posed. There’s a ready source of honorary doctorates for anybody with enough cash. Many of the sources are dubious, unaccredited “colleges” and “universities”. Some of these ostensible institutions have no physical addresses, but operate out of the homes or post office boxes of scam artists who cater to the desperate desire for honorary doctorates.

Where appropriate—as in an academic setting or scholarly conference—I’m not averse to addressing people as Dr. or Professor. Otherwise, as a rule, I address people as Mr., Mrs., or Miss, altogether avoiding the use of such affectations as Chief, Alhaji, Alhaja, and Sir. I don’t buy the argument that “Chief” has anything to do with tradition. Most of the so-called “traditional” titles do not have any pedigree to speak of.

Often, the so-called traditional rulers bestowing the titles are themselves fly-by-night creations of recent governments. What passes for chieftaincy titles are frequently new-fangled, inflated mimicries concocted by “traditional” rulers and used as bait to reel in cash from men and women who have too much money. In the Igbo-speaking part of Nigeria, the relentless pursuit of hollow titles has spawned an absurdity. Every title taker adds the number One to the end of his so-called title, apparently to establish primacy. It’s Ogbuokuku 1, Ogbuewu 1, or Ogbuefi 1. Yet, nobody ever settles for Ogbuefi 2, much less Ogbuefi 3!

D’banj was given the honourific title of Chief Oluoma 1 of Abayi Amaugwu, Abia State. He is also the Aare Makun of Shagamu.
D’banj was given the honourific title of Chief Oluoma 1 of Abayi Amaugwu, Abia State. He is also the Aare Makun of Shagamu.

On Nelson Mandela’s first visit to Nigeria, he accepted an honorary doctorate from a Nigerian university. Elsewhere in the world, recipients of such honors hardly ever affix “Dr.” to their names. Given Mandela’s mettle and self-assurance, I doubt that it would ever have occurred to him to proclaim himself as Dr. Mandela. But the Nigerian media seemed to believe that their country’s honorary degree had added something of defining substance to the identity of apartheid’s intrepid foe. Many Nigerian newspapers and magazines began to address the South African colossus as “Dr.” Nelson Mandela!

Often, I view the excessive devotion to titles as part and parcel of a culture that celebrates loudness, mistaking the gaudy for the golden, quantity for quality. The Nigerian president is “transformational”. Every Nigerian governor must be introduced as “His Excellency, the Executive Governor of …” The speaker of each of Nigeria’s 36 state legislators is identified as “The Right Honourable Speaker.” Every member of the Nigerian Senate is a “Distinguished Senator,” regardless of whether he or she has ever moved a motion, much less authored a bill. There’s no relation between the grandiloquent titles and performance. Or, more accurately, the grander the title, the more mediocre, it seems, the bearer.

Titled, well connected and wants you to know it
Titled, well connected and wants you to know it

Peacock society
Decades of frittering away hundreds of billions of dollars of our crude oil earnings seems to have transformed Nigeria into a peacock society. It’s a society where preening is admired, where it’s fine to exploit every opportunity to show you have fatter bank accounts than your fellows—or bigger, more expensive cars, or a longer relay of titles. Is it the case, one often wonders, that these purchasers of titles are afflicted by a deep emptiness within, perhaps a deficient sense of self-worth?

I can understand this strange fetish of titles among Nigerians who live in a country where wealth is the only value that counts. But what explains the presence of the same malady among Nigerians who reside in places like the US, the UK, Europe and Asia—societies where an individual’s impact can be established in other ways? Why does it not occur to these foreign-based hoarders of titles that it’s terribly odd, if not obscene, to shake another person’s hand and introduce yourself as “Chief Dr. Sir” or “Alhaja Pharm Mrs.”? And why don’t they realise what pitiful spectacles they make of themselves when they hand out business cards proclaiming themselves “High Chief Alhaji” or “Engr. Double Chief Sir”?

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