How titles spoil our leaders: Pitfalls for JB to consider carefully

President Joyce Banda has been sworn in as the fourth president of the republic of Malawi. She is its first female president and the second one not titled “Doctor” at the time of attaining the office. That is not a bad thing considering that the two PhD holders were branded dictators almost immediately after being sworn in. Some quarters may want to disagree that Bingu Mutharika was a dictator from the start. May I refer these to the archives of our local newspapers? There were people who were voicing such sentiments but were not being taken seriously as things were running well at the time.

But entering the presidency without a PhD does not guarantee that you will not be called “Doctor” at some point. Malawi’s second President Bakili Muluzi, having no PhD, let alone Masters or Bachelors upon being sworn in, did not take long to become Dr. Muluzi. Nor did he have to make any effort. He simply made a VIP visit to the United States for a day or two, and returned with an honorary PhD from a backroom university.

Joyce Banda: People's leader

And that was when Muluzi started to feel smarter than the rest of Malawians. When he was later elected chairman of COMESA (the Common Market For East and Southern Africa), it was touted as an achievement bordering on the superhuman. One would think he had done something very heroic to obtain that chairmanship. His name became “Atcheya” meaning chairman. Yet that chairmanship is rotational. Theoretically, if you had an animal for president that year, and the turn for Malawi to assume the Chairmanship coincided with this creature’s reign, then that being, be it a monkey or a chicken, would become Chairman of COMESA.

Forgive me for my vulgar expression, it is only meant to emphasize that you do not have to do anything to be chairman of COMESA as long as you are president. But Alas, It was like Muluzi had conquered all the COMESA heads of state in a contest demanding astonishing intellectual capacity. To this day he is more popularly known as Atcheya. I can bet my last dime there is someone in Malawi who adores the man but does not know his real name.

You would think being addressed as “President” or “Your Excellency” is the highest respect a citizen can be accorded. You are wrong. Malawian Presidents have hitherto had an insatiable appetite for titles. President Banda, father and founder of the Malawi nation set that culture rolling about half a century ago. He entered the office holding a legitimate title as “Doctor”, being an accomplished surgeon. Yet he was not content to be called His Excellency the State President Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda.” No. That would not do for him. He had to add “Ngwazi” of “conqueror” to his name. He also called himself a Lion. He also made himself life President. I still remember how long it took me as a child to get to pronounce his name correctly and in full; His Excellency the Life President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda. Sometimes you even had to add “Lion of Malawi” to that long name.

Perhaps there is some benefit that presidents derive from such titles. It makes them feel immortal. Put yourself in their shoes for minute, if you will. How would you feel if women danced for you, men walked on their knees for you, all the time calling you “Conqueror”? Even an honorary PhD – if touted long enough – must start to feel like a huge achievement against insurmountable odds – odds that only a true superhero can overcome. And you must start to feel you have capabilities beyond the rest of the citizens. And that is a danger to the nation.

It is in this culture that our late president Bingu Wa Mutharika entered the presidency. He already had a PhD. Therefore an honorary PhD would not have improved the ring of his name. So he quietly sneaked into China and obtained an honorary Professorship instead.

Mutharika was, so to speak, the only professor I knew, who has never lectured in the university. The closest that he came to lecturing was way after he had already attained the title. At that time he gave what he termed a “public lecture” on the state of the Malawi economy. It was at on 20th July 2011 at the state residence. It was a disastrous adventure because as he was busy boasting his knowledge on various disjointed issues of varying degrees of importance, the nation was burning with riots. It took a smart move by some undisclosed person – probably security personnel – to switch off the electricity just to tell him that all was not well in the country.

Mutharika also emulated Dr. Banda, calling himself a conqueror as well. So he became His Excellency the State President Ngwazi Professor Bingu Wa Mutharika. And yes, by that time he was pampered enough he believed he had capabilities beyond comprehension.

Today Her Excellency Mrs Joyce Banda is in office with a short unpresumptuous name. She is obviously an astute woman, because I can tell she also has problems with the egoistic titles – at least for now. I challenge her to keep it that way. There are people out there who are itching to give her titles, I am sure. She should watch out for the likes of Chief Mmbelwa. He is the one who made Mutharika “conqueror.”

And the venerable chief is not alone either. Though the west will talk the loudest when our leaders go bad, their universities contribute by being so quick to bestow titles on African heads of state. And our leaders seem not to wonder why no US president or British prime minister has been addressed as Doctor or Professor. Why is the US leader not “His Excellency the State President of the sovereign republic of the United States of America “Conqueror” Professor Barak Obama?” he did conquer his opponents to become president, didn’t he? Are we to believe that only African presidents have performed those miracles deemed fit to warrant honorary titles? If our leaders are the most miraculous, why do we lag behind in development?

I have no doubt that the numerous accolades and honorary degrees they confer on our leaders – alongside our own imaginative titles such as conqueror and lion – have their adverse effects. Most of these effects are related to subsequent increase in ego, which in turn becomes a key to the contents of Pandora’s Box.

I am not saying our leaders must not accept the accolades they deserve. But in view of what these do to their self-esteems, perhaps it would do some good if these titles were not accumulated while in office. It would be nice to accept the honours, but not let them get to the head. Or better still; start using them when you get out of office. Even better, postpone the award to such a time as you are no longer in office. I AM JUST THINKING ALOUD.

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