Honouring people to whom it is due is a time honoured African tradition. In most African societies, respect for disciplined elders and successful people who have made their mark in the society is non-negotiable, and this is demonstrated in more than one way. Not only are such people greeted with reverence, their views are highly respected while they are also oftentimes, unsolicitedly, honoured with meritorious titles. Their sterling qualities and positive contributions to societal development have earned many the coveted crowns as kings or traditional and honourary chieftaincy holders.
It is not only traditional communities that recognise and honour merit, excellence and greatness, our various religions do. In fact, every religious sect or faith be it indigenous or foreign, all have special titles they use in honouring their outstanding devoted and pious members. Apart from titles such as ‘’Aare Musulumi ‘’i.e. the President of Muslims and the “Adini’’ are honourary Muslim titles bestowed on distinguished Islamic faithfuls among the Yorubas. In the Christendom too, apart from the general titles of Bishop, Pastor, Evangelist and Prophets, titles such as Deacons and Deaconess, Lay Reader, Baba Ijo i.e. Church Father, Iya Ijo i.e. Church Mother and Elder are honourary religious titles bestowed on active church members in recognition of their selfless service in the house of God.
In the academia, various awards are given to recognise successful academic pursuits the apex of which is the title of Professor Emeritus. Some honourary doctorate degrees (honouris causa) are also annually dished out to eminent members of the public by universities in recognition of such people’s enviable achievements and contributions to societal development. Government too has various titles that it gives to deserving members of the public. In Nigeria, such titles include CFR, OFR, OON, MON, GCON and GCFR. Even each profession is not left out. Example could be cited of the law profession where the title of Senior Advocate is the ultimate honour that practising lawyers could get especially in Nigeria.
Good enough that human society is not an ungrateful one as it recognises excellence and virtues. However, unlike what obtains in the good old days, title holding of whatever kind and nature no longer command the enormous respect it used to. This is not unconnected with the monumental abuse the conferment of titles have been subjected. It is indeed an open secret that politicisation and monetisation of the award of titles had greatly cheapened the value of such titles that are conferred on every deserving and undeserving person that can afford to pay the price or fee demanded for them.
Title peddling is now a brisk business embarked upon by many a traditional ruler and worse off ivory towers. For them, it is a survival strategy, a goldmine. The story could even be told of a late Yoruba Oba whose chieftaincy peddling record is unrivalled as he was so magnanimous with dishing out titles to whoever cared for one so much so that he even encouraged would-be chiefs to suggest names of titles they will like to have, all for a fee. The folly of ‘Plc traditional rulers’ can even be condoned; however, most embarrassing and unpardonable is the doctorate peddling act of some little-known private universities in the US awarding honourary doctorate degree to some notorious Nigerians. For want of filthy lucre, Nigerian universities too have joined in that rat race by seeking out wealthy Nigerians sometimes of doubtful means for undeserved award.
The issue is not that it is wrong to recognise and honour those who deserve to be honoured. The polemic here is predicated on the arbitrary, unbridled and unethical award to undesirable elements in the society. If we would be fair and objective, people for whom honour, reference, deference and recognition are meant are people with sterling qualities and exemplary conduct. These are people who could serve as role models by virtue of their virtuous disposition, Godlike character, monumental achievements and invaluable contributions to community and national development, not rogues, morons, wastrels and people whose names are bywords and are themselves pariahs in their communities.
Some peoples complimentary or business cards are quite intimidating if only by virtue of contents. What with all the arrays of titles held painstakingly listed out for people’s consumption. You need to see the pea-cockish attitude or gesticulations of some of these vainglorious and self-conceited title maniacs when they are being introduced. Woe betides any master of ceremony that fails to address them properly. Many of them are stickler for precision and would not compromise being ordinarily introduced without an exhaustive mentioning of their log list of chieftaincy titles, doctorate awards and religious honours. Ironically, the impact of these Alhaji, Dr. Chief, Otunba, Barrister ‘Lagbaja’ or Bishop, Dr, Chief, Engineer ‘Tamedo’ is rarely felt in their home towns or communities. The only thing people know and recognise them for is their basketful of titles and capful of feathers.
As Ruth Brown rightly pointed out, “praise, like gold and diamond, owes its value to its scarcity”. It is sickening, irritating, mind-boggling and deplorable seeing every rat, dog and pig being bestowed with unworthy honour. Didn’t Jesus warn us in the Bible not to cast our pearls before swine? If it is not known to us yet, honouring people of shady characters and rich fools would go a long way to promote crime as youths of today, who will be leaders of tomorrow, having seen the power of money, would also want to buy, rather than earn respect and honour. Let all concerned desist from this craziness in vogue for mutual benefit.
NB: This article was first published by Daily Sketch on Monday, January 11, 1999.