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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 August 2007, 15:35 GMT 16:35 UK
Nigerians go crazy for a title
By Chris Ewokor
BBC Network Africa, Abuja

Nigerian chiefs from the oil rich Niger Delta area
In traditional society chiefs are highly revered
To be addressed as a Mr, Mrs or Ms in Nigerian social circles means you are a nobody. To be a mover or shaker you need to be a chief - or to at least hold a doctorate.

But some fear this craze for chieftaincy titles may be eroding what was once a highly revered position in traditional Nigerian society.

To be a traditional chief is like being a small god - it is seen as the peak of one's achievement in life.

A chief should be someone who is well-to-do financially and intellectually - and has contributed substantially to the development of the community.

Chieftaincy titles have practically been bastardised these days
Chief Reginald Ibe

"It's a recognition by your people," says Luke Ogedegbe, who became a chief in the southern Delta State in the 1990s.

He is known as Erhuvwu of Udu kingdom - "Goodness of the Udu kingdom" - and has found that his traditional title puts him in a "special class".

"You don't operate as an ordinary man anymore. As a matter of fact you are supposed to be in the upper bracket of society and that lifts you from the commoner," he explains.

Political clout

Many people say honorary titles these days can often be bought by giving a donation of about $10,000 to one's home area.

President Olusegun Obasanjo
Mr Obasanjo was made a chief after he stood down as military ruler

And some, like Alhaji Abbu Mohammed from northern Borno State, think prestige is not the only appeal.

He has inherited the title Yerima Kida of Biu Emirate, which literally means he is prince of the Kida area.

"Most of the people who seem to be crazy about titles are making up for some deficiencies or some inadequacies," he claims.

"The moment somebody is financially buoyant the next thing is to be chief because he has more money."

The Yerima Kida says many people use their titles for political gain.

"They brandish it, especially a politician because he wants to sell himself. In Nigerian politics we don't sell programmes, we sell people," he says.

Financial manager Reginald Ibe, a chief of the Igbo people in the south-east, echoes this disquiet.

"Chieftaincy titles have practically been bastardised these days," he says.

"Everybody wants to acquire one chieftaincy title or any other title. The number of honorary PhDs we have in this country is symptomatic of a people who have failed in so many aspects of life."


His title Onwa Netilora Omudo of Uzoagba means "bringer of peace and the moon that shines over Uzoagba" and was awarded in the 1990s in gratitude for jobs given to the unemployed in his home area in Imo State.

People even add things like Mr Engineer to their name, it's a kind of pomposity
Man in Abuja

Not a penny changed hands, he says.

"Now you even have armed robbers, corrupt politicians and all sorts of people being chiefs," Chief Ibe says.

"It costs a lot to acquire a title. These days, in all you could spend as much $200,000 to $250,000 - minimum to become a chief."

Many prominent Nigerians including serving and past political leaders hold one title or another - either traditional, educational, professional or religious.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was made chief shortly after he first stepped down from power when he was the military head of state in 1979. As chief he went on to lead a democratic administration two decades later.

President Umaru Yar'Adua holds, but rarely uses, his traditional title Matawalin Katsina - "custodian of wealth of Katsina" - given to him by the Emir of Katsina when he was governor.

And the trend for acquiring titles is not limited to the political elite.

"People even add things like Mr Engineer to their name, it's a kind of pomposity," a man in Abuja said, when I went to canvass opinion in the capital about Nigeria's title obsession.

One woman disputed whether it was solely a Nigerian phenomenon.

"In the world in general they respect people with titles. If you are a nobody, people tend to look down on you - place you in the back seats," she said.

However, Nigerians may have to realise that while a title may give your ego a boost and a step up the social ladder, the associated respect of old may no longer be guaranteed.

Your comments about the importance of traditional titles in Africa and whether they are still relevant.

The chieftancy madness that emanated from Nigeria seems to be catching up with Cameroonians also. Many young people are now caught in the web of sarcastically giving themselves titles which they do not merit. The whole thing is almost a charade and it impacts negatively on our culture.
Israel Ambe Ayongwa, Bamenda, Cameroon

Another traditional title that has lost its relevance is "Nana" in the Ashanti Clan og Ghana. Nana is used for grandparents who lead a life worthy of emulation. When an individual amasses wealth, they add "NANA" to their name without leading a life that a NANA should be.
Oscar Mensah, Nashville, TN United states

In the direct-rule administered "former" French colonies, chiefs were largely stripped out their political power. They still have no political power, but in the case of Western Cameroon, they are culturally relevant. They are respected as the guardians of our traditional values. Their meagre influence tends to erode with time.
kunta, Germantown MD

Well, I originally come from Ghana and the title chief cannot be bought. As a chief of a town in Ghana, you have to belong to a particular clan. Not everybody can be a chief. However, one can be a chief of development, for which you don't have to belong to a particular clan but someone who helps the town. These days you will see a foreign person in Ghana being made a chief of development in a small town. That is as far as it goes. For most traditional towns, a chief has to belong to a particular clan. Also Ghana is a little different, in that not many people will go around brandishing their title of chief. Many people don't even want to be made a chief because they know it comes with responsibilities.
Sam, Ottawa

In the past to become a chief or "Graad" as we called it. You have to have a rare talent to hold this position. But now days there are too many of them and not one of them can compare to the Graads of the past.
ahmed dolal, Buhodle, Northern Somalia

As a Sierra Leonean, I have been observing the trend at which people in my country place emphasis on traditional titles. Traditional titles in Sierra Leone have long been heredity. You must belong to a ruling family for you to have the hope of being called 'Komrabai', for example. It means Paramount Chief. Not withstanding the above, it has become a national phenomena of recent years to give traditional titles to even foreigners whom the Nation has acknowledged their greater contribution towards the people of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone has acknowledged the works of former British High Commossioner to Sierra Leonean, Peter Penford, and awarded him 'Komrabai' before leaving the country; former British Prime Minister was also given a title of paramount chief before leaving office on his last visit to the country. So while countries like Nigeria are beginning to reduce its value on traditional titles, is Sierra Leone taking it international or selling it for a price already paid to its citizens? My conclusion is that, Sierra Leoneans value traditional titles so high that they are only reserved for people like Tony Blair, Peter Penford, for their exemplary work to the nation as a whole, not to a mere lump sum amount given to traditional leaders waiting to put such amount to their pockets instead of benefiting the masses as a whole.
Alhaji Hasasan Jalloh, Bauchi, Nigeria.

Christopher Bwalya, Lusaka, Zambia

I am from the North West Province of Cameroon and in this region there is no such obsession with titles. Being a title holder in this area is a hereditary thing which is passed on by succession to all but in exceptional cases a male heir. On a personal note I don't even have a Bachelor's degree yet, but my Nigerian friends at college often call my name with titles like: Doctor & Professor?
Numvi Wallace, London

In my area in Cameroon, titles were formerly very much respected, because they were given to those who had done some remarkable things to the community as such these people were known as "Shey" but nowadays, anyone could have the title depending on your financial prowess or political backing and this makes it not respectful as before
Bongsha Steve, Yaounde, Cameroon

In our country, only in the village the chiefs are considered very relevant but when someone get to town and is a chief, there will be no impact at all even if this chief visits my own house, i will treat him just like any ordinary person. Traditional titles are slowly dying down and in our country they even join politics where they are even insulted.
Lameck Mazyopa, Lusaka,Zambia

The craze for titles has even crept into the church to the extent that some pastors take offence if their full titles(sacred & secular) are not mentioned in introducing them to the podium to deliver God's message. The chieftaincy title is now in a priestly garb.
Pastor John Neeman-Quarshie, Accra, Ghana

Actually, the BBC has generalized here. Having a forgettable title like "Chief of Nowhere-ville" in Nigeria means nothing at all. However, those who hold important titles still wield a phenomenal amount of power. Titles like the Ooni of Ife, Aareonokankafo of Yorubaland (formerly the very important MKO Abiola), Bobagunwa ilu Egba, Sultan of Sokoto, Saradauna, Alaafin of Oyo, etc are extremely important titles, and having such titles DOES bring a LOT of respect. When the Ife/Modakeke crisis in Nigeria seemed not to have a solution, who did we turn to for a lasting solution? A very important Chief, the Ooni of Ife!
Kwemah Addey, PA, USA

Traditional titles are highly respected in Ghana and are reserved for the Chiefs and Queen mothers. Unlike Nigeria, you do not find upper class people with titles such as Chief. Anyone with that title here is a traditional ruler. There are however some names such as Nii, Nana, Naa, etc. These names have the same meaning as some English names such as Prince, Princess, Lady, Earl. They are royal titles but at the same time could be used as the first names of people. As such, you are likely to find people with such names in Ghana either in the English version or the Ghanaian version.
Tom R. Brien-Mensah, Accra, Ghana

Before the civil war started in 1989, our traditional titles such as Chief, Zoe, and other titles were regarded very highly. But, from my personal opinion, I believed, the relevance of my country traditional titles is erroding and greatly attribute this to the war were there was no respecter of person.
David K. Akoi, Liberia

Africa before the coming-in of the whites was ruled by the traditional rulers who were highly respected. But the coming in of political rulers have made the traditional rulers to be irrelevant. In order for us to restore our traditional we need to teach our children and our future generation as to the way of living of our forefathers.
Kenneth Ngalamika, Lusaka Zambia

In Zambia traditional title are very important especially those that concern with rulers of a tribe or a clan. A chief (Mwata) is no simple man it can not be given to any one or can not sold or bought, whether you are educated or very rich you can not hold the title of the chief. it is by birth you can assume the title that is if you are in the line of rulers. This title can not be given even to the son or nephew of the chief unless you are enthroned as a ruler of a tribe or clan. no relative of a chief can be called a chief if is not enthroned. Zambian are proud people when it concerns traditional rulership.
chola chalwe, Ndola & Zambia

Am from Botswana. We have a house of chiefs which advices parliament on certain issues. In my country, a chief is born, raised in a chief family environment so that he/she gain experience of dealing with the society. You can't buy chief title in Botswana. A chief is born a chief, there is no element money involved in the title. Currently the titles are loosing their relevance because of development. Development came with all other things like fighting for recognition, corruption, etc. The most important thing is Respect which is the back born of a chief status. Development is now labelling the chief or traditional leaders responsibility to be undemocratic and full of oppression to the society. Currently, the traditional titles are associated with gender discrimination and corruption, nepotism, discrimination of poor people (only rich can buy the title) and tribalism (which promotes civil wars in Africa). Where chieftainship title can be bought is Un-African. We do not respect honorary titles like Sir, Dr. in Botswana. Thank
Tad Jibichibi, Wageningen City. Netherlands

There is nothing like a title in Mali, where people ignore them, About less than a fifth of pilgrims to the Hajj will be addressed as alhaj or hajja; no other traditional title. So I have been very impressed, during my 4-year stay in Nigeria, by the love of "leaders" for titles. Once the aid to a former (Nigerian) senate president hurriedly intervened and halted the speaker in a students' meeting, to every one's fear of the worst news, just to recall us the "Chief Senator" has many other titles omitted by the speaker while addressing "Chief, Senator"...etc
youssouf Ahmed Sidibe, Bamako, Mali

Traditional titles are not losing their relevance. What we need to know is the difference between traditional and honourary. Most titles given out today are mere honorary that does not hold any meaningful traditional or cultural relevance per say. They are more or less a social title conceived by traditional rulers. Among the Yorubas, we have a title of "Are ona kankanfo" This can only be conferred on a Yoruba male that have warrior attribute. It is a life titke and had only been conferred to 2 people in the last 100 years. Only when a qualified person emerged that it can be conferred. The last holder was M.K.O ABIOLA. Titles like "Amuludun" or "Iya Oge" are social and sometimes given to foreigners.
Taiwo Olateju, London

Traditional titles in Africa (as in most of the world) are not nearly as important as it used to be, say 100 years ago. Today it is losing relevancy as national governments start exercising many of the rights and obligations of the traditional chiefs (or similar title). Modern day chiefs do not hold a fraction of the power or authority that they once did and very soon the practice of chieftainship will become totally obsolete.
Benjamin Lubbe, Cape Town, South Africa

Yes, in Sudan they loss their relevance because it becomes as a politcal issue. So, to appoint you as a chief it needs supporting from the politicals parts. That is why they loss their relevance.
William Romano Ujika, Khartoum - SUDAN

Traditional titles in Tanzania have no any significance, since no one would care whether one is a chief or not! But that does not mean that struggle for honours is not there, it has turned into the political arena, where politicians play on the peaceful nature of Tanzanians to keep them in horrible poverty! Obsession for honours is rampant among politicians because it helps them to exploit the mass!
Meya mstaafu, Dar Es salaam-Tanzania

Traditional titles in Zambia are not bought. One can only be a Chief if he is appointed according to the rules that govern the appointment of chiefs in one,s tribe. However, Phd,s MBA,s are becoming too common and in some cases are fake. Thre is a Diploma desease here!
Chikomeni Banda, Lusaka, Zambia

I lived in Mozambique up to the age of 13 when I left in 1967. The Portuguese administration used chiefs or "regulos". The regulo--from Latin "regulus"--was an important and all powerful entity in his area and answerable to the colonial officers in the area. Serving under him were the assistant chiefs and deputy assistant chiefs. When the Marxist revolutionaries took over power from the Portuguese in 1975, the regulos were humiliated--some arrested and even killed after being accused of having been Portuguese agents or reactionaries. They were replaced by party activists or "grupos dinamisadores", who had no administrative skills whatsoever--their only skills been the use of the ak-47s. After the civil war 1993, the once Marxist Frelimo party and its regime have revived the regulo system because people respect chiefs. The one title in vogue in Mozambique now is "doutor" or doctor which people with some college or university education, without doctorates, calling themselves or being referred to as "doutores".
Francisco Moises, Victoria, BC, Canada

Initially, especially in the Eastern Nigeria, chieftancy was based on integrity and industry. Two major factors changed that. First, the British colonial indirect rule appointed people into chieftancy positions who had no right to it but were amenable to the colonial masters. Some of them became autocratic. Second, the military bought loyalty through the chiefs. That made having a title a lucrative projective. If the government stop the practice of buying blind loyalty through the traditional rulers; if the financial gain is removed, this madness will end.
EMMANUEL MBAM, Toronto, Canada

This situation is not unique in Nigeria. Cameroon for instance has seen a rise in this aspect. People who conventionally were regarded as commoners, now have titles such as Princes and chiefs just because they are rich. If you travel through the SW Province of Cameroon, you might come across a small village of 100 people with about 20 chiefs. That is how bad the situation is. As long as the real chiefs themselves are hungry for money, I do not see it ceasing any time soon.
Valery Nchako, Los Angeles, CA

I have lived in Nigeria since 1985 to 2002 and i am one of the chiefs in Ipetu Ijesha in Osun state. I and my husband (now late) where giving the title of Tobalashe and Adeolokun. To me as a Bulgarian national does not mean much but for the Nigerian is some form of achievement and position in the Nigerian class society. I wish it is more humanitarian that just a matter of prestige. But in general Nigerians like high sort of life. Thank you.
Yana Badejoko, London,UK

In my country, Sierra Leone, people rarely call you by your academic or traditional chieftaincy title. For example, I hold an academic doctorate in Sacred Theology, but I am called simply "Father Charles". Rarely am I called, "Doctor Charles", and I am not one bit worried about it. But down in Nigeria, my fellow Catholic priests want to be called, "Rev. Father Doctor...". I notice the Religious Sisters too want their full academic titles lined up before their names! And if they have two doctorates, they want to be called, "Rev. Doctor Doctor..." That sounds preposterous, if not strange, to me. But perhaps it's a culturally acceptable thing down there.
Edward Yomba Charles, Freetown

In Ghana although many of us hold titles such as Nii (Chief) Anege (Son of a King ) (Akwei) the royal house hold from which we come from. We accept that the peoples of Ghana voted for a Republic and therefore chose to use the title Mr. followed by our name. personally because I am proud of our clan and largely all Ghanains I chose to use my full name and title. Which are given by God and are not for sale even for $250,000 in this life time or the next. One of Colin Dexter's novels (Mores) states 'oh how the new rich to carry on' funny in deed but not in poor countries like Nigeria.
Nii Allottey Anege Akwei , SOAS, Univeristy of London, London UK

In Malawi, chieftainships have a very elusive role, although there is a law (Chiefs Act) recognizing the institution of chiefs. The chiefs act articulates the duties and levels of seniority for chiefs, with village headman being the lowest. The system is hereditary and follows custom more that written law, but it is integrated into the formal government administrative arrangements. Chieftaincy in Malawi belongs to a family rather than an individual. To secure the title, a family has to prove long history of stay and influence in a geographical location. It is not necessary to pay anyone, although political correctness - at all levels - often counts. The continued legitimacy of chieftaincy, derived from the fact that the common man derives his/her identity from chiefs. In the absence of a personal identification system and use of street addresses like it is custom in the West, a person's permanent address in Malawi is the name of the chief for the area, where she/he has family roots. Over-reliance on postal address for contacts in Malawi may have the consequence of loss of contact and facing unimaginable difficulty to retrace a person. Even politically, individuals relate more naturally to chiefs than to their elected representatives. In fact, as population grows, more and more chieftainships are being created. The contemporary consensus in Malawi is that chiefs are agents of government, especially for social mobilisation, and by extension it is political capital. Nothing about chiefs is new though. Most of it is a continuation of the colonial legacy, which proved to be politically convenient after independence. Chiefs of all levels were and still are instrumental in social mobilisation. Until personal tax was abolished in the early 90s, chiefs were instrumental in collecting the tax as well as tracing absconders. However, chieftainship is largely ambiguous system. The greatest dilemma about chieftaincy in Malawi is that chiefs exercise judicial, executive as well as legislative powers, whose influence and the loyalty generated in many instances transcends that of the formal legal or administrative machinery. There are many things I personally disagree with about chieftainships. But in the Malawian context not only does it give genuine stability to society, but it also preserves our social, cultural and historical inheritance as a nation. I also have opinions on how to improve the system, but that is a separate subject.
Chris Mzembe, Oslo, Norway (Malawian)

Traditional titles are important in other parts of Africa because people tend to know their ancestors and where, which village they come from. They also know their tribes and the language. They are losing their relevance because of the western culture which has really influence african Culture. Hence doing away with what belongs to them.
Frank Kabaso, Zambia

It is true that a title may give your ego a boost and a step up the social ladder. The issue of clamouring for titles is common in my country but with a certain class. That is among the old and precisely in the countryside or villages. Most of the youths show a nonchalant attitude towards the so-called traditional titles. The quest for academic titles like PhDs is common among the youths. Brandishing these academic and administrative titles are very common amongst our francophone counterparts. It is common to hear a francophone telling somebody to call him Dr or professeur, monsieur le Directeur etc unlike with the Anglophone counterparts.
Patrick, Bamenda- Cameroon


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