The legitimacy of issuing European-style titles of nobility by traditional leaders in modern Africa

The role of traditional leaders in modern Africa is complex and has many aspects. It is discussed by advocates of “traditionalists” and of “modernists.” The traditionalists regard Africa’s traditional chiefs and elders as the true representatives of their people, accessible, respected, and legitimate, and therefore essential to politics on the continent. “Modernists,” by contrast, view traditional authority as a gerontocratic, chauvinistic, authoritarian and increasingly irrelevant form of rule that is antithetical to democracy (C. Logan, working paper 93, Afro Barometer).

Togbe Osei III, 25th Togbe of Godenu, in a gathering with other traditional rulers (picture: royalgodenu.org)

In modern Africa the “traditionalists” represent the more popular view. An Afrobarometer survey of 36 African countries in 2014-15 found that 61% of people trusted local chiefs. Faith in ancient power structures has increased as people have grown more wary of modern and democratic institutions and politicians (The Economist, 19 December 2017); which is more or less the same as in West Europe. One reason is because the state in Africa is often absent. It is far more effective to ask a chief than a far-ocourt to rule in a case. Because the chief is local, his ruling may be better understood and accepted. Another reason may be that traditional leaders are seen as less corrupt, even though they tend to follow unwritten customs rather than written laws (The Economist, 19 December 2017).

These unwritten rules and customs, also called “customary law”, are defined as meaning the customs and practices traditionally observed among the indigenous African people of South Africa, which form part of the culture of those people (Bekker Seymour’s Customary Law in Southern Africa (1989) 11-13). Some African countries have definitions, whereas in other countries only descriptions can be applied and thus rules are more complex to derive. Allott says about the definitions: “Whether these definitions of customary law contribute anything by way of precision or facilitation of choice of laws is an open question.” (Allott New Essays in African Law 1970, 157).

Modern African Legal Systems

Most African legal systems consist of a complex combination of customary law, religious laws, received law (such as common law or civil law) and state legislation. In particular customary law can be hard to define in a set of rules as we know in continental Europe. The complexity becomes apparent when the application of different sources of law leads to different outcomes in specific legal cases. In Bhe v The Magistrate, Khayelitsha; Shibi v Sithole; South African Human Rights Commission v President of the Republic of South Africa, for example, the Constitutional Court declared customary rule of male primogeniture, which allows only an oldest male descendant or relative to succeed to the estate of a Black person, unconstitutional and invalid. It also declared unconstitutional and invalid, section 23(7) of the Black Administration Act which unfairly discriminates against women and others with regard to the administration and distribution of black deceased estates. The court imposed, as an interim measure, the provisions of the Intestate Succession Act on estates previously dealt with under the Black Administration Act. It also made special provision for estates relating to polygynous marriages and that estates previously administered in terms of the Black Administration Act must be administered by the Master of the High Court in terms of the Administration of Estates Act.. (J.C. Bekker and D.S. Koyana, The judicial and legislative reform of the customary law of succession, De Jure, 45 Volume 3 2012 pp 568).

In this context some traditional African leaders have started to issue ancient European titles of nobility to westerners in order to help their people fund health care and education. The question arises to what extend such titles can be regarded as legitimate, both from a historic and legal perspective. I will discuss two cases in this respect.

Case study: Ghana

On the internet, examples of European-style titles of nobility can be found that are issued by Togbe Osei III. of Godenu. For example: “The hereditary noble title of “Baron of Todome” has been conferred on November 13, 2016 by H.R.H. Togbe Osei III., by the Grace of God The Dufia of Gbi-Godenu in the Volta Region, Ghana, The Lion of Godenu, officially recognized, protected and guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Ghana.“. The passage fees are used to contribute to important local social projects.

Ghana has a mixed system of English common law and customary law. Article 11(3) of the 1992 Constitution defines customary law as the rules of law which by custom are applicable to particular communities. Customary law is now a question of law to be determined by the courts. In Muslim communities, the reference to customary law is a reference to Islamic law or the Sharia. Customary law is not codified. Under Sections 42 and 43 of the Ghana Chieftaincy Act, 1971 (Act 370), as amended by Chieftaincy (Amendment) Decree, 1973(NRCD 166), Chieftaincy (Amendment) (No. 2) Decree, 1973 (NRCD 226), Chieftaincy (Amendment) Law, 1982 (PNDCL25) and Chieftaincy (Amendment) Law, 1993 (PNDCL 307), the National House of Chiefs and/or a Regional House of Chiefs, can draft their declaration of customary law for approval and publication as a legislative instrument by the President after consultation with the Chief Justice (V. Essien, Researching Ghanaian Law, Hauser Global Law School Program, New York University School of Law, 2005).

I have not discovered in Ghana’s common law nor in Ghana’s customary law (as determined by the courts) a rule or basis that makes it possible to issue European-style titles of nobility. In particular, Ghana’s Constitution makes no mention of such a practice. Therefore, it seems to be the case that this practice has no legal basis. From a historical perspective, the mentioned practice has never occurred. Does this mean that such titles are not legitimate? More specifically, the question is: are there any objections regarding the issuance of western titles by Togbe Osei III and what is their value? I already addressed this question in my article about the former King Kigeli of Rwanda. That case involved a former head of state. In the Ghana-case it concernes a ruling traditional chief, as legally embedded in Ghana’s constitution.

It could be hard to embed a local nobility in Ghana’s regions, since there is no legal basis for it. Nobility can even be seen as unlawful. The President of the National House of Chiefs, the Agbogbomefia of the Ho Asogli State, Togbe Afede XIV, recently said one of the objectives of his administration would be to restore the nobility and reverence of the chieftaincy institution to enable it to effectively play its roles in society as expected (Ghanaweb, 2 February 2017, Do not meddle in politics. Togbe Afede tells chiefs). Issuing European-style titles may currently be the only safe way to bestow honours, since Ghana law is neutral about them in the same way as e.g. Italian law.

Like other major Western noble titles, baron is sometimes used to render certain titles in non-Western languages with their own traditions (e.g. the Indian equivalent Rao and the Székely equivalent primor, historically used among a specific population of Hungarians in Transsylvania). From a historic perspective these titles are unrelated and thus hard to compare. They are considered comparable in relative rank. Even in Western Europe the term Baron can hardly be compared among the different European countries or even among different regions within a country. Therefore, when using the title in public, the source of the title should be mentioned; although the word is the same, internationally it has a different meaning.

In my opinion, European-style titles and honours might be unconventional, but can be accepted. There is no authority to forbid the Togbe (literally meaning “grandfather”, the Ewe (1) reference for a chief) to style Europeans and Americans in a Europen manner. I think the Togbe simply wants to make his titles more attractive to westerners, which is understandable. Issuing original Ghanese-style titles to westerners would be unconventional  as well and could even be unlawful. On the other hand, at least one example exists that contradicts the latter suggestion. Therefore, it remains an open question to what extend it is legitimate to issue European titles. I tend to see them as legitimate, but only when used in proper circumstances as described below.

Advice

  • African leaders might not have enough insight regarding the intentions of westerners that want to be involved in charity in Africa in exchange a title of some kind. Frankly, these intentions are not important as long as the titles are bestowed upon worthy individuals and the passage fee is used for the good. However, not taking into account the character and behaviour of the recipients might lead to situations in which the issuer is disgraced. Low passage fees will contribute to attracting gold diggers. More importantly, it also designates low value.
  • Today’s internet facilities attract numerous title hunters that make ridiculous appearances on the internet, thus jeopardising the reputation of the honour- or award-issuer. Such persons also decrease the value of the titles that are awarded. It is not easy to spot such title and medal hunters from an African perspective. Therefore, African leaders, that choose to issue titles to fund their regional charities are advised to carefully select a western intermediary of high reputation to represent them in such matters. Appointing the first person who comes knocking on the door is unwise.
  • The use of the title should not lead to confusion and irritation with European title holders. Therefore, on social media (e.g. the “Awards” section on LinkedIn) mentioning the title should e.g. read as: Baron of Todome (13 November 2016), title issued by the Togbe Osei III, 25th Togbe of Godenu. Extravagant use of the title should be avoided: less is more.
  • I have a problem with use of the terms “King” and “Royal”, without any further explanation. In the context of antiquity and contemporary indigenous peoples, the title can refer to tribal kingship. Germanic kingship is cognate with Indo-European traditions of tribal rulership (c.f. Indic rājan, Gothic reiks, and Old Irish , etc.), but it differs from the modern use of the term “King” (head of a state). It needs to be explained that the terms “King” and “Royal” refer to tribal kingship. I suggest that this explanation is put on the website of the House of Godenu.
  • I also have a problem with creating all kinds of “Royal” institutions, without any real substance. Some representatives of African Houses have e.g. created non-accredited Royal Universities, Honorary Guards, a Hall of Fame, a Royal Society, a Royal Warrant Holder Society, a Royal Commission of Nobility and Royalty, a Royal College of Technology Foundation, a Royal General Register of All Arms and Bearings and other institutions that try to mimic those of reigning European monarchs. All these institutions are presented in a manner that immediately shows a lack of good taste. In my opinion, these institutions are – to put it in a diplomatic manner – not appropriate and therefore should be avoided. African chiefs have their own identity and should not try to become European because of possible commercial gain. The result of these creations without any substance will be that ancient historic African families are again disgraced by westerners. They will be regarded as fake and ridiculous by the public. An example of a genuine and modest presentation, with a focus on history, research and good intentions, is the website of the House of Rwanda. I suggest this website is used as an example.

Comments and different points of view regarding this article are most welcome.

References

(1) Ewe (Èʋe or Èʋegbe [èβeɡ͡be]) is a Niger–Congo language spoken in southeastern Ghana by approximately 6–7 million people as either the first or second language.

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Translating non-European titles into European equivalents

In 1961, King Kigeli was in Kinshasa to meet Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld when Dominique Mbonyumutwa, with the support of the Belgian government, led a coup d’état that took control of the Rwandan state. The monarchy’s rule was formally overthrown on 28 January 1961. The coup resulted in the 1961 referendum about the fate of the nation’s royal system. The King resided in the Unites States for the rest of his life.

In February 2007, during a discussion on a Google platform devoted to heraldry, the question of titles being awarded by former King Kigeli of Rwanda (1936-2016) was heavely dicussed. Following these discussions, the eminent Dr. Pier Felice degli Uberti, 15th Baron of Cartsburn, president of the International Commission on Orders of Chivalry, an academic body, issued an invitation on 19 February 2007 as follows:

I offer this possibility to those who have something to say against the idea of the King Kigeli to grant “honours” using name of “European nobiliary titles” (but I repeat they are not nobiliary titles but only honours): prepare a true study supported by due documentation, historical precedents, footnotes which quote precedent studies on the matter to be published in one of my reviews or better to participate in the next III International Colloquium of Genealogy organized by Institut International d’Etudes Généalogiques et d’Histoire des Families in San Marino from 28 September to 1 October 2007.

In the Economist of 3 October 2013 (Noble titles. Honours and offers. People still yearn for aristocratic titles, Some buy them), Pier Felice degli Uberti, is cited:

[Felice degli Uberti] finds Kigeli V’s trade in titles “very sad”. He has warned the ex-king that the titles do not form part of his historical tradition and should not be awarded. His majesty declined to comment but his secretary-general responded: “Who has the right to question his authorities but God and his countrymen?”

In the same article, the Economist further states that:

(..) titles can be issued for personal or political motives, as well as pecuniary ones. Prince Davit Bagrationi, pretender to the Georgian throne (vacant since 1801) has revived dormant orders. Some go to fellow-royals, such as the late King of Tonga, others to Georgian public figures.

In order to see if Felice degli Uberti raises fair objections, it might be interesting to find examples of non-European monarchies that copy the European system.

Japanese nobility

The Prussian courtier Ottmar von Mohl from 1887 to 1889 taught Western court etiquette to the members of the Imperial Household Ministry.

Ottmar von Mohl (1846 – 1922) was a German diplomat and government advisor in Meiji period Japan. He was recruited by the Meiji period Japanese government as a foreign advisor from 1887 to 1889. He and his wife, Wanda Countess von der Groeben, served with the Japanese Imperial Household Ministry in Tokyo, Japan to introduce European Court ceremonials and protocols to Japanese Emperor Meiji and his court. In his work Am japanischen Hofe – At the Japanese Court (Berlin, Reimer 1904), Von Mohl describes the way the European noble traditions were incorporated in the ancient, complex Japanese system (Takenobu, Yoshitaro (1863?-1930), The Japan yearbook; complete cyclopaedia of general information and statistics on Japan and Japanese territories), which in turn was based on the Chinese traditions. Von Mohl explains (pp. 70-71) that this mixture (see: Jacques Papinot: Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie du Japon illustré de 300 gravures, de plusieurs cartes, et suivi de 18 appendices, Tokyo et Yokohama/Shanghai/Hongkong/Singapore 1906 and (Earl Roy Miner, Robert E. Morrell & Hiroko Odagiri, The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature) resulted in a kind of Napoleontic nobility with ancient and “modern” titles:

Wie mir erklärt wurde, haben schon von altersher in Japan Rang- und Adelstitel bestanden, welche dem Vorbild in allen Dingen, China, entlehnt worden waren und mit chinesischen Buchstaben ausgedrückt wurden. Von den Europäern lernten sie nun die in England und Frankreich gebräuchlichen Titel Prince, Marquis, Comte, Vicomte, Baron kennen und übersetzten nun die chinesisch-japanische erbliche Rangklassifikation in diese Titel, deren Anerkennung bezw. Verleihung auf kaiserlichem Patente beruhte.

(…)

Die Japaner verbanden mit den europäischen Titeln ganz bestimmte geschichtliche Abstufungen und Anschauungen, und der Wunsch, diese den europäischen Titeln gleichwertig zu machen, veranlasste sie zur Annahme der uns geläufigen Bezeichnungen, was, ich läugne es nicht, auf Europäer zuerst einen komischen Eindruck machte. In neuerer Zeit sind die Kreierungen von Baronen, ja sogar von Marquis und Vicomtes, häufiger geworden, so dass eine Art napoleonischen Adels, eine Mischung von alten und neuen Familientiteln, in Japan entstanden ist.

Conclusions

In the case of Rwanda, the Royal Household officially states that (Guye Pennington, Guidance for Honors Publication):

Titles of nobility in the Kingdom of Rwanda historically consisted of the rank of Chief and Sub-Chief, but this was expanded by His Most Christian Majesty King Mutara III Rudahigwa. H.M. King Mutara III was in the process of revamping the honors system of Rwanda prior to his untimely death in 1959. As the fons honorum of the de jure Kingdom of Rwanda and an anointed King, His Most Christian Majesty King Kigeli V has the full legal right to create new traditions within his Kingdom and also finish the work previously began by his half-brother, Mutara III.

The example of Japan shows that such reforms are not uncommon. The choice of non-western monarchs (like e.g. the monarchs of Vietnam, Georgia, Ethiopia and Rwanda) to copy European nobility-traditions is sometimes criticized.

Nationaal Archief, Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Note the translated title of “Mesfin” to “Duke” of Harar. H.I.H. Prince (Le’ul) Pawlus Wossen Seged Makonnen, Duke of Harar (Mesfin Harar) was born at Addis Ababa on 21 August 1947. He was Imprisoned by the Dergue between 1974-1989 and is the Heir Presumptive since 17th January 1997. He is the son of Prince Makonnen Haile Selassie, Duke of Harar (baptismal name: Araya Yohannes; 16 October 1923 – 13 May 1957), who was the second son, and second youngest child, of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and Empress Menen Asfaw. He was made Mesfin (or Duke) of Harar in 1934.

The case of Rwanda differs from the Japanese situation. If the King had created honours and awards during his very brief period as king (1959 to 1961), there would not have been a problem. They might have been unconventional but, in my opinion, they would have been widely accepted. There is no authority to forbid the King to style his nobility in a Europen manner. I think the King simply wanted to make his titles more attractive to westerners. Given his situation, I cannot disagree with him. Issuing original Rwandan titles to Americans would by unconventional as well.

Interesting comments by Mr Christopher Buyers (FB 11-12 March 2017)

The date of creation by special dispensation of the Crown Council was 9th May 1934. Please see http://gallica.bnf.fr/…/f5.image.r=%22Duc%20de%20Harrar… The installation took place on 19th May 1934 at the Cathedral of Medhane-Alem, Dire-Dawa, 19th May 1934. Please see http://gallica.bnf.fr/…/f3.image.r=%22Duc%20de%20Harrar… [Note that Le Courrier d’Éthiopie should be quite reliable as it was printed in Harrar]. I don’t know if you realise that there were earlier creations, though for Europeans. Duc d’Entotto for the former Governor of Djibouti and sometime French Minister and Envoy to the court of Ethiopia, Comte (Leonce) Legarde by Menelik II.

(…)

Antoine Marie Joseph Léonce Lagarde (b. at Lempdes-sur-Allagnon, Haute-Loire, France, 10th October 1860; d. at l’Hôpital du Val de Grâce, Paris, France, 15th May 1936, bur. Lempdes), educ. LLB (1878), employed by the Holy Sea in Rome 1881-1882, Sec to Governor of Indo-China 1882-1883, Under-Sec of State for Marine & Colonies 1883, Special Cmsnr for the Delimitation of of the Obock Territory 1883-1884, Cdt of Obock 1884-1887, Governor of Obock and its dependencies 1887-1896, and of French Somaliland 1896-1899, Special Envoy and Minister Plenipotentiary to Menelik II 1896-1897, Ambassador to Ethiopia 1897-1907, Officer in Charge of Services to Sailors Killed or Prisoners of War 1907-1914, Dir of Special Mission for Naval Prisoners of War 1914-1918, Permanent Delegate for the Liquidation of Products and Prizes of the Sea 1920, retd 1929, Conductor of the French Negotiating Delegates at Geneva 1920, High Councillor to Ras Tafari Makkonen 1924-1930, General Delegate for Ethiopia at the League of Nations 1934. Author of “Le Comte Arakoff, nouvelle russe” (1880). Granted the papal title of Count Lagarde de Rouffeyroux by Pope Leo XIII in 1881 (after 25th August, apparently by purchase), and Duke of Entotto in March 1897 (on or before 28th March). Rcvd: GC of the Orders of Solomon, and the Star of Ethiopia, Cdr of the Order of the Legion of Honour of France, etc.

(…)

Colonel Nikolai Stepanovitch Leontiev (b. at Novogrudok, Grodno, 30th May 1862; d. at Paris, France, 4th July 1910, bur. there at Montmorency Cemetary, later transferred to Tikhvin Cemetery, St Petersburg, Russia), educ. Nikaievsky Military Sch, St Petersburg, Russia. Cmsnd as Ensign Imperial Life Guards Grodno Hussaars, prom Lieut, Leader Russiaan Overland Riding Expedition from Tiflis to India through Persia 1891, transferred Kuban Cossacks 1892, prom Capt on the Staff 1894, Leader Russian Geographical expedition to Ethiopia 1894-1895, Attached to Ethiopian Mission to St Petersburg 1895, Military Adviser to Menelik II during 1st Italo-Ethiopian War 1895-1896, Special Envoy from Emperor Menelik II to Rome Feb 1896. Invested by Menelik II with the title of Count at Wallo in April 1896. The patent of nobility was subsequently delivered in present of Negus Mikael of Wallo at Dese. Special Envoy from Emperor Menelik II to Istanbul Dec 1896, second for Prince Henri d’Orleans in his duel with the Count of Turin Vaucresson Aug 1897, Governor-General of Equatorial Provinces 1897-1899 & 1901-1902, Colonel of Regt of Senegalese Volunteer Rifles 1899, served in Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 with Kuban Cossacks, Caucasian Dvsn. Mbr Russian Geographical Soc, Academy of Sciences, Russian Red Cross Society, etc. Leontiev also received at some point the rank of Dejazmatch, probably when placed in charge of the Equatorial Provinces July 1897. Rcvd: GC of the Orders of Solomon, and the Star of Ethiopia (1895), Knt 4th class of the Order of St Vladimir, 4th class Cross of St George of Russia, etc.

(…)

There is no contemporary evidence for such title [Count of Abai], and there is no place in Ethiopia I can find called Abai. Rather it is the name of the father of an Ethiopian who was sent to study in Russia, Piotr Tekle-Hawariate Abai aka Petia Abissinetz. Some Russian writers confused Leontiev to be his father, then reconciled the obvious difference in supposed father’s name by assuming that Abai was Leontiev’s territorial title, and the whole thing appears to have spiralled out of control from there. As far as I can work out, 1) Leontiev was not conferred with the title of Count of Abai, 2) he was not Tekle’s father, 3) neither Tekle nor his actual father Abai received the title of Count, and 4) only one title of Count seems to have been conferred, i.e. Leontiev.

Important sources

  • Stefan Unterstein, website about the Japanese nobility
  • This post was inspired by the article “Granting of Orders and Titles by H.M. King Kigeli V of Rwanda, paper prepared by dr W.H. Jones, Sydney, Australia, BSc (Econ) London, MA, PGCertTESOL, EdD Macquarie, JP NSW, 16 March 2007”. This article was published by me on Nobility News. I have no copy of the original document.