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Opinions of Sunday, 24 January 2016

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

Ghanaian protocol – how do we address our former heads of state?

John Rawlings and John Kufuor both left office long ago yet Ghanaian protocol demands that we still address each of them as “His Excellency”. It is ridiculous! If they are no longer heads of state, why are they still “Excellences”?

In our country, such matters are taken very seriously. We had a problem with Mills who had a PhD, was a Professor and became President. People found it difficult to arraign all his titles and add to it “His Excellency”. Ghana became the only country in the world where the President was called a Professor something. But, in fact, it would have been best just to limit his title to “President” because that position surpasses any other title he may have attained. After all, there are thousands of PhD holders and Professors but only one President which title should have made him unique. But Ghanaians insisted on telling everybody that he was also a Professor. I do not remember how the situation was handled in the Second Republic when Busia, who had a PhD and was also a Professor, became Prime Minister. It seems “His Excellency” sits better with “President” than with “Prime Minister” especially since in Busia’s time, we also had a ceremonial President.

Our protocol conventions put Akufo-Addo in a somewhat ridiculous situation. He is seeking the presidency of the nation and has a running mate (Dr Bawumia) who has an academic degree that is higher than any he has. So, Akufo-Addo has to be “Nana” but that is a title that many Ghanaians will not rank higher than “Dr”. Besides, many non-Akan Ghanaians are not sure if “Nana” is a title or a name. In Ghana’s pecking order, the running mate is being addressed by a title that is higher than the one used for his boss. Some may argue that calling him “Presidential Candidate” surpasses that of “Dr” which puts Akufo-Addo on top of his running mate. The problem will be resolved if Akufo-Addo wins. He will then be addressed as “His Excellency, President Akufo-Addo” (they may drop the “Nana”) – a designation which, I suppose, will surpass his Vice’s “Alhaji Dr”. And when, Insha Allah, Bawumia takes over as President, he will get the full dose: His Excellency, President Alhaji Dr Muhamadu Bawumia… (If Ghanaians insist on British usage, “Dr” will not carry a dot.)

Many countries dispense with academic titles in the political arena. Thus we have President Jimmy Carter, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Chancellor Merkel, or Secretaries of State Kissinger and Rice. This is also the case with people in the public arena who have become household names. That is why we say George Soros (who has a PhD in Philosophy, LSE, 1954), Noam Chomsky or, recently, Thomas Piketty. It is also a convention, universally acknowledged, that Central Bank Governors (who are often Economics PhD holders) are referred to simply as “Governor” or “Reserved Board Chairperson”. Only in Ghana (and other African countries) are these conventions not followed. The reason has nothing to do with our trying to be unique. It is only that we get heady with such things.

If Members of Parliament, in reactions with each other on the floor of the House, address one another as “Honourable” why should the rest of us also be compelled to call them “Honourable” when we are not their parliamentary colleagues? And why is a minister who does not sit in Parliament because she never won an election be called “Honourable” by anybody? Is it not enough for us to identify her by the portfolio she holds?

In Ghana, people are addressed as “Dr” more as a mark of respect than as an indication that the person so addressed possesses context-relevant expertise. It has also come to denote the possession of profound knowledge that should instil awe in others. That is why some Ghanaians insist on being addressed as “Dr Dr” so they can distinguish themselves from those who have only one. Nkrumah, too, cherished his honorary doctorate title. At the height of his powers, his titles were legion. I love Nkrumah (to whom I owe all my free education in Ghana) but I think he drifted into the sphere of the ridiculous in this matter of honorifics. Perhaps he did it more for the political benefits than as self-aggrandizement. If we give the slightest chance to our present leaders, they will do a similar thing and build monuments to themselves. Today, we have an executive President who doubles as a ceremonial one. Why else will it be Mahama who cuts the sod for the start of every single project in the country, no matter how small? Does the President not have more important duties to attend to than travelling all the way to Senchi to “commission” an old, decrepit bridge that was only refurbished? Is it so that the glory will attach to him rather than to someone else?

Rawlings and Kofi Annan have not insisted on the use of their honorary doctorate titles. Rawlings’ case is the more surprising. The man is not exactly a shining example of humility. Perhaps he has enough titles to satisfy him. Is he not “His Excellency, Former President, Flt Lt (Rtd)”? What does he need an honorary doctorate title for? I don’t know if his wife, too, has an honorary doctorate title that she is not using. If this is so, it is a remarkable restraint on her part. Perhaps she is satisfied with the title of “Former First Lady” or is it “First Lady (Rtd)? It is a title she shares with only four or five others! Calling the President’s wife “First Lady” originated in the US where it has remained an unofficial title with no constitutionally mandated duties. But in Ghana, it is taken very seriously and, as usual, carried to ridiculous levels. The President’s wife has enormous powers to undo political contenders in the ruling party. The wife of the Vice President is called “Second Lady”. She has powers to “dress down” headmistresses who cannot seem to know how to cater for the needs of their schools! I don’t know if the wife of the Speaker of Parliament, third in line for the duties of the president, is called “Third Lady”! It is only in Africa that there can be an association whose membership is made up of the wives of heads of state – Association of African First Ladies.

Many Catholic priests in Ghana now spot PhDs. These days the priests apply for various private programmes that take them abroad. They come back with worldly goods like cars, motto cycles, and enough money to build private houses and cater for their girlfriends. Some of them also come back with a PhD in something.

The situation is worse in the numerous churches that have sprung up in the country and being led by self-proclaimed Apostles, Prophets, Reverend Drs, Bishops, Archbishops, and what have you. Yes, the harvest is plentiful in Ghana, but the Lord’s workers are even more plentiful and need to be identified and separated by their titles.

In our country, everybody wants some title or designation that is supposed to raise him above his fellow men. It is because of this that the Army insists that retired officers be addressed by their FORMER ranks with (Rtd) added to it. If the guy is no longer in the army, what is his military rank doing in his civilian life? This “retired” thing is carried on in other fields too. Retired judges are always addressed as such. And Justices, like Professors, retain their titles throughout their lives – and beyond that.

We are always finding accolades for people who are in the public eye. Anas Amereyaw has accumulated quite a few. He is an “Ace-investigative journalist”, “Award winning journalist”, “Celebrated journalist”, “Renowned journalist”, “World famous journalist” and a few others. Soon, he will also be “Veteran” journalist – another term endeared of Ghanaians. The qualifying time is some ten years!

All these titles are not part of our African systems of showing respect. We copied them from societies with different reverence systems. Because our culture values respect for authority and the elderly, we quickly copied these titles but made a mess of them. There is nothing wrong with imitating the best things from outside but when we fail to properly graft Western practices on to our traditional systems, the result is often a ridiculous mishmash. That is what we are seeing in Ghana today.

“Yes, Dr Minister…”


Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)