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Boss Mustapha and Silly, Ungrammatical Titular Vanity among Nigerian Politicians

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperog i New Secretary to the Government of the Federation Boss Mustapha struck at the c...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

New Secretary to the Government of the Federation Boss Mustapha struck at the core of the titular conceit of Nigerian politicians when he said last Thursday that he didn’t want to be burdened with silly honorific prefixes like “Your Excellency,” “Honorable,” etc., which he said were unconstitutional and unnecessary.

 “I will make a passionate appeal: I don’t know where you people get this ‘Your Excellency’ from,” he said. “Some of the nomenclatures are banana peels. I often hear people say ‘Executive Governor.’ I say look at the constitution; there is nothing like executive governor. It is governor of a state. I want to simply be addressed as SGF, please.”

Former Jigawa State governor Sule Lamido also famously rejected Nigeria’s exhibitionistic titular conventions for governors when he told journalists that he didn’t want to be addressed as “Your Excellency” or described as an “Executive Governor.” He said he wanted to be addressed simply as “Governor Sule Lamido.” I don’t know if this panned out during his governorship, but it’s refreshing that there are what one might call oases of sanity and titular modesty in Nigeria’s desert of inflated, title-crazed, oversized egos.

While it’s entirely defensible to contort, relexicalize, and resemanticize the English language—or any language, for that matter—to express  the unique socio-cultural thoughts and values of a people, Mustapha and Lamido are right to call attention to the abuse of titles in Nigeria. Today’s column lends a linguistic perspective to Mustapha’s and Lamido’s unease with superfluous, flamboyant, often misused and worthless, English titles.

“Your/His Excellency”: In Nigerian English, “Your Excellency” or “His Excellency” or “Her Excellency” is prefixed to the names of just about all self-important, high-ranking bureaucrats and their spouses. That’s why wives of presidents, vice presidents, governors, deputy governors, and even local government chairmen and vice chairmen are “Excellencies.”

 But in most countries, the “Excellency” title is used only for presidents, vice presidents, state governors, ambassadors, viceroys, Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops, English colonial governors, and the Governor General of Canada (who is still symbolically an English colonial governor because he is the representative of the Queen of England in Canada.)

 Although America’s first president used “His Excellency” as part of his titles of honor, the title has now fallen into disuse here. If you pay attention to American politics and culture, you will notice that Americans don’t address their president as “His Excellency” or “Your Excellency.” He is simply “Mr. President” (a female president would be called “Madam President”), and only “President” is prefixed to his name. (President is a lifetime title in the US, which means once you’re a president you will continue to earn the right to prefix “president” to your name.)

Unlike Nigerians, Americans don’t prefix “Her Excellency” to the names of their First Ladies. In fact, “First Lady” isn’t even a formal title of address. The president’s wife is addressed as, “Mrs. (First name) (Last name), First Lady of the United States of America” or “Mrs. (First name) (Last name), Wife of the Governor of (name of state)” or “Mrs. (First name) (Last name), First Lady of (name of state).”  Wives of the vice president and lieutenant governors (as Americans call their deputy governors) have no titles. They are typically addressed as, “Mrs. (First name) (husband’s last name), wife of the Vice President or “Mrs. (First name) (husband’s last name), wife of the Lieutenant Governor of (Name of State).”

Out of America’s 50 states, only about 13 (someone said it’s just 3) officially call their governors “His/Her Excellency” in official communication only. The rest call them “Honorable” in formal address. But only “Governor” is prefixed to their names in everyday conversations and news reports, as in, “Governor (First name) (Last name).” American ambassadors’ names are also prefixed with the title “the honorable,” not “His/Her/Your Excellency.”

Of course, no law of nature says we must mimic Americans, or that we can’t tweak their titles and make them ours, but the Nigerian formal address for governors is frankly exhausting in its titular vainglory: “Your Excellency, the Executive Governor of (name of state) Alhaji Chief Dr. (First name) (Middle name) (Last name).”

“Executive (fill in the blank)”: Presidents, governors, and local government chairmen/chairwomen in Nigeria are invariably “executive.” This is superfluous and needlessly egotistic. “Executive” is prefixed to the name of a position only when it is necessary to differentiate it from a “ceremonial” position. For instance, during Nigeria’s First Republic, there was a “ceremonial president” in the person of Nnamdi Azikiwe who had no substantive powers. Substantive powers resided with the Prime Minister.

So when Nigeria adopted the American presidential system in the Second Republic, it became necessary to prefix “executive” to the name of the president to show that, unlike in the First Republic when the president had no executive powers and when the Prime Minister who was head of government was a member of the legislature, the newly elected president had executive powers. In America, whose presidential system we have adopted, the president is never referred to as an “executive president” because it goes without saying that he is the head of the executive branch of government.

 And, of course, it is totally pointless to prefix “executive” to the names of governors, local government chairmen/chairwomen, etc. since we never had or have ceremonial governors or chairmen/chairwomen in the past or at present. Since governors and chairmen/chairwomen have executive powers in their spheres of influence as a matter of constitutional right, it’s a waste of words to prefix “executive” to their titles. It’s as pointless as saying “legislative senators” or “judicial judges.”

Vice presidents, deputy governors, or local government vice chairmen/chairwomen can’t logically prefix “executive” to their names because they don’t even have constitutional powers to take executive decisions unless their superiors delegate such responsibilities to them.

This also applies, to some extent, to such titles as “executive director,” “executive editor,” etc. The term “executive” is justified only if a company has subordinate directors who are not CEOs or if a newspaper has an honorary editor who exercises no real editorial decision-making powers. In American English “Executive Editor” and “Editor-in-Chief” are synonymous.

“Distinguished Senator”: I have heard people say this title is unique to Nigerian English. That’s not exactly true. American senators routinely refer to their colleagues as “distinguished senator” out of conversational courtesy—just like British lawyers call each other “learned friend” or “learned colleague.” “Distinguished” here denotes “illustrious,” “respectable,” or “gentlemanly.”  I am certain that the Nigerian use of “distinguished senator” owes lexical debt to America since, in any case, our democracy is modelled after theirs.

 However, only Nigerian senators capitalize the first letters in the expression, make it an honorific, and prefix it to their names, such as “Distinguished Senator (First name) (Last name).” In fact, “distinguished” has become a standalone title, as if the word were a noun. This would strike Americans as quaint and comical.

In American English, the phrase typically occurs this way: “I disagree with the distinguished senator from Georgia” or “The distinguished senator from Oregon made a great point,” etc. In other words, “distinguished senator” is just a phrase, not a title. “Distinguished Senator (First name) (Last name)” is a ridiculous as lawyers being addressed as “Learned Colleague (First name) (Last name).” US senators are addressed simply as “Senator (First name) (Last name).”

“Honorable”: Different countries have different conventions for this honorific. In Britain, from where we copied it, “honorable,” often rendered as “the Hon.,” is used with the first name for the children of viscounts, barons, and life peers and peeresses, and for the younger sons of earls. E.g. The Hon. William Adams.

It’s also prefixed to the names of certain high-level political appointees or elected representatives—such as members of parliament, ministers, commissioners, legislators, etc. The only difference is that in both the UK and the US, “the Honorable” is only used in writing—typically in official email or snail mail communication—and not in speech. In speech, government officials entitled to the honor of using the title are addressed simply as “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Ms.” Most importantly, the title is never used self-referentially, that is, people who are entitled to use it never refer to themselves by the title, such as is common in Nigeria where members of the House of Representatives, for example, introduce themselves as, “I am Honorable (First name) (Last name.)”

“Right Honorable”: I see that the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Nigeria styles himself “Right Honorable.” Well, in the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives does not use that title.  The formal title prefixed to the name of the Speaker is just “Honorable,” and he or she is formally addressed as “Mr. Speaker” or “Madam Speaker.”

“Right Honorable” is a uniquely British title and refers only to members of the Privy Council, a body of eminent serving and retired politicians that advises the British monarch. Members of Parliament who are appointed as cabinet ministers automatically become members of the Privy Council if they weren’t members before.  Members of Parliament who are not appointed to cabinet positions are not addressed as “Right Honorable.”; they are simply “Honorable.”

So in Nigeria we have an American-style Speaker with a British-style title, perhaps because “Right Honorable” sounds grand and intimidating. Technically, you can’t have a “Right Honorable” without a Privy Council, which we can’t have in Nigeria because we operate an American-style presidential system of government, not a British-style parliamentary system of government. To address someone who isn’t a member of any Privy Council a “Right Honorable” is honorific inflation.

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