Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dr. Bozizé and his ilk

Central African President François Bozizé has been known to boast that neither he nor any of his children -- including those who now serve as ministers in his government -- have ever set foot inside a university. This did not stop him from awarding himself an honorary doctorate from the University of Bangui last month. (From the pictures, it appears he was able to obtain the degree while retaining claim to this dubious distinction -- the ceremony was held out of doors.)

As someone who came of age, academic- and professionally-speaking, around the time people like Bozizé took power, I must admit to nostalgia, perhaps naive, for the intellectual African heads of state of old. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president, obtained a doctorate in anthropology from the London School of Economics, studying under none other than the originator of the ethnographic method, Bronislaw Malinowski, and wrote several well-received books published by actual presses (as opposed to vanity presses). Will Reno has argued that in the pre-independence and early independence years universities, perhaps especially Makerere and the University of Dar es Salaam, served as intellectual hotbeds for emerging leaders. In West Africa, Mali's Alpha Oumar Konaré had a full, international intellectual career before taking on the presidency.

But others, like Bozizé, prefer the easy route: the honorary doctorate. Consider Namibia's President Hifikepunye Pohamba, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of Namibia last year. Now, as the country debates the features of its new banknotes, the president is insisting that his portrait be graced with the title "Dr." Critics' reminder that, despite holding tens if not hundreds of honorary degrees, Nelson Mandela refuses to use the title (he reasons that he has not properly earned it), have so far not dissuaded Pohamba from his quest.

If I were an economist, I'd do a regression to see what correlates with 'real' and honorary doctorates, respectively -- something along the lines of the famous study showing that the number of diplomatic parking tickets a country racks up corresponds to its level of corruption. What can we say about the governing styles of those who studied for doctorates, as opposed to those who received honorary doctorates, as opposed to those who gave themselves doctorates?

In the case of Bozizé, his honorary doctorate is yet another punch landed squarely on the dreams many, if not most, Central Africans have that their country will become more meritocratic. Centrafrique Presse copes by taking a light tone: "The country is going really badly, but it's still necessary to entertain the people and joke a bit" ("Le pays va très mal mais il faut quand même divertir le peuple et rigoler un peu.") Maybe so. And maybe my harping on this point owes in part to jealousy as I struggle to crank out the never-ending pages of my dissertation. But I see shades of Emperor Bokassa's coronation in Bozizé's hooding, and I wonder what that comparison portends.