Dr. or Professor? The Politics of Identity in Nigeria

by Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

I first became aware of the politics of titles when The Guardian ran into a hiccup over its refusal to use titles for certain Nigerian personalities. This was some twenty-five or so years ago. Until then, it wasn’t something I had thought about. Just about all the public personalities I had met or read about had titles, i.e. Dr. Tai Solarin, Chief Awolowo, Professor Awojobi, Chief MCK Ajuluchukwu, Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande, Chief MKO Abiola and many others. Lagos State had numerous Alhajis and Alhajas; Ilorin and Ibadan had countless number of Imam.

For a while, in my immediate surrounding were military officers. Whether a brigadier general, a major general or a lieutenant general, we simply addressed them as General XYZ. They all earned the right to such titles and the associated accolades. That was my thinking until the politics of titles came to the fore. Apparently, titles can be bought and sold, forged or rented, or even made up. I cannot recollect how the Guardian-Title affair was resolved; I however, remember that the paper got some heat for it. If Nigerians and other media outlets had supported the Guardian initiative, perhaps, things would not have been this bad.

It’s been twenty-five or so years since the Guardian initiative. But we are still at it. In the intervening years – and more so since I moved to the West – I have come to understand and appreciate the move more. I have also come to understand why, within the Nigerian context, titles matter. I have come to understand that not to “properly address” certain people with their earned, dashed, or forged title, could get one in trouble. Some Nigerians, it seems, do not like to be ordinary people. They have to be somebody. They have to be important, a very, very important person — whether or not they add value to the community they live in.

I am not sure how bad it was then, but today, Nigerians have become title-crazy to the point where some people now prefix their name with architect, accountant, engineer, movie-producer, surveyor, lawyer, music producer, nurse, etc, etc. It is as if their lives mean nothing without a prefix or a title appended to their names. It is as if to be a Mr., a Miss or a Mrs. is a curse. In fact, some highly placed women now prefer to be addressed as Dame or Lady XY or Z. A life without title, it seems, is now considered abhorrent, to be rejected.

The issue of title or no title recently became an issue in my own world. A few weeks ago, when I was approached to be a member of the Aaron Team of Negotiators, I was asked what my title was. I responded that I didn’t have a title, didn’t go by any title and also that I prefer to be called by my given names. I however, indicated that I have a doctorate (PhD) from Howard University. Except within academic circles, I rarely, if ever, append PhD to my name or prefix it with Dr. I was not going to play the title-politics.

My distaste for “title-title-title” was borne out of the fact that (a) as with religion, some people have the tendency to wear it on their sleeves; (b) some people use it as an instrument of oppression; (c) some people use it to separate themselves from others; (d) the use of titles does not make one any better than or more brilliant than others as some people are wont to think or behave; and (d) on the funny side, “na title we go chop?” Overall, I do not begrudge people who use titles in informal settings. It is an individual thing, a personal choice. It was not just for me.

Nonetheless, ever since the formation of the Aaron Team, I noticed that I have been variously referred to as Professor Abidde, Dr. Abidde, Dr./Professor Abidde, The Ijaw Environmental Activist, The Ijaw Activist, The Internet Warrior, The Nigerian Political Commentator, Mr. Abidde, or simply as Sabella Abidde. Most publications, however, refer to me as “Professor Sabella Ogbobode Abidde…a political commentator based in Washington DC.” One person with all these titles? But really, what am I? What’s the appropriate title?

When I brought this to the attention of friends and relations (in and outside of Nigeria), the collective answer was: “why bother so long as derogatory adjectives are not being used.” Also, with hundreds of media houses around the world basically repeating the same thing, who was I to call to clarify matters with?

Was there even a need for clarification? But really, am I Dr. Abidde or Professor Abidde? Or both. And what’s with all the titles that have been bestowed upon me? This was the lingering debate until a question was posed on the Ijaw Nation Forum (an exclusive and members only forum for Ijaw worldwide). The inquiry was posted on October 27, 2009 by one Feremondi Olali. It was simple enough: “Our brother and friend, Dr Sabella Abidde, is widely published in the Nigerian press as a professor. Just wish to know! Since Abidde, a known critic on titles, hasn’t refuted it, let me also formally address him as Professor Sabella Abidde.”

As part of my answer, I responded: “…the way academic titles are used in the United States, I have been told, are quite different from the way they are used in Nigeria. In all the institutions I have been affiliated with, if you have an MBA, MFA or JD for instance, and you are a university teacher, students may refer to you as Professor Olali or Dr. Olali. That may not be the case in Nigeria. I never went to university in Nigeria. Depending on the college/university, we have the assistant professors, the associate professors, and the senior or full professors. As a matter of habit, all are addressed as Professor, i.e. Professor Olali (even if you are an assistant professor or all you have is a master’s degree).”

I then went on to say: “…As an adjunct instructor of African politics in Oklahoma, I was referred to as Professor Abidde. When I was a PhD candidate and taught at the undergraduate level, I was referred to as Professor Abidde. When I became a SYLFF Fellow and a Teaching Associate, I was also referred to as Professor Abidde by my students. Even after I earned my PhD and continued to teach some students refer to me either as Professor Abidde or Dr. Abidde.” This, to my knowledge, was the common and acceptable practice in the six universities I have been associated with in the United States. What was Olali getting? What’s galling him? What’s his motive?

Feremondi Olali’s question, and my two-part answers, became the source of fierce debate on the Ijaw Nation Forum. For the sake of brevity, other conversations are not repeated here. The firestorm had not settled when he followed up with a lame stinger under the heading, Dr. Sebella’s disnoest response! (Dishonest is what I am assuming he meant). I have abridged, but not edited his response:

“…But before I go any further, let me say that it appears to me that you didn’t attempt to hoodwink the Nigerian public with the title ‘professor’ but nonetheless you enjoyed the (un)earned title and did nothing to correct the misrepresentation. I’ve seen Professor Wole Soyinka several times labouring to correct the impression that he is the first African Nobel Laureate. He would always reject it by saying that he is the first African Laureate in Literature.

Sebella, when you said you’re not in control of how the Nigerian papers address you, you seem to show a discrepancy in character. What if they describe you as a Nigerian-born fraudster in the US ? Would you reply or take them to court? Haven’t you in any time responded to media misrepresentation on you?

When you claim that your colleagues and students often called you professor, you further demonstrate dishonesty. Collgeues and students

call their friends and teachers everything under the sun, including atheist, black idiot, etc. Have you been called such? You know you’re not a professor, so why take pride in that or continue to identify with it. The concept ‘professor’ has universal/conventional meaning, whether in Africa, Europe, US or Asia . The criteria in these areas may not be same but they’re very identical-basic degree(s), number of publications, community/public work, years of mentorship etc etc…”

You may be thinking this is a debate about “much ado about nothing.” And in fact, this essay may also be much ado about nothing. You may be right on both counts. And may be not. But really, “Is Dr. Sabella Abidde a Professor, and was he dishonest in his response,” as Feremondi Olali accuses?

How ironic that for someone who has stayed away from the politics of titles, the same issue has now come to haunt him. Life!

Please spare me the headache: Call me Mister! Please call me Mister Sabella Ogbobode Abidde.

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1 comment

Ndu Ndu October 30, 2009 - 4:21 pm


Good piece! … I personally believe that Nigerians are most unproductive when they use titles to cover up for their inefficiencies. I was shocked the first time I read that Jack Welsh had a PhD; this was simply because he was almost always ‘Jack Welsh,’ not ‘Dr. Welch’ or whatever else.

I, of course, don’t advocate throwing away titles altogether especially considering that some titles bring credibility in certain situations. But the path of modesty should always be taken especially when we need to get together and get things done. Titles stratify (separate), create unnecessary classes and hence disconnects us as a people.

The Igbos (sorry am one of them) are most notorious for this clamor for titles. They have even started addressing pharmacists and lawyers as ‘Dr.’ in lieu of their respective Pharm d. and J.D. degrees. May God help Nigerians wake up and realize that the truest test of our achievement would be in how we (through the unity in our diversity) harness our skills to make Nigeria a better place for ourselves and for our children’s children.


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