Heroes, Democracy, and the ‘PhD’ syndrome

Nearer home, the commonly accepted Nigerian public heroes – Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Tafawa Balewa and the Sarduana of Sokoto, were in their days viewed with suspicions by most people who were not from their region. Even within their region, they faced stiff opposition and challenges and were not universally adored as they are these days. 


Heroes, Democracy, and the ‘PhD’ syndrome By Jideofor Adibe,  

A nation that does not honour its heroes is not worth dying for –so goes the cliché.  This appears to be an obvious truth – or so it seems.  Identifying the public hero (or heroine) could however be problematic in a society sharply divided along ethnic, religious, social, political and class fault lines. In such a society, there are rarely living individuals or institutions that enjoy universal legitimacy such that one’s hero is often another’s villain. No one for instance doubts that a terrorist for Americans could be a freedom fighter for the Al Qaeda – just as a militant adored as a hero by his ethnic group in Nigeria could be regarded as a felon by other ethnic nationalities in the country.

Additionally, if we accept that free speech is the bedrock of democracy and that it is applicable not only to information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive but also for “those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any other sector of the population”, some important questions are raised: are sharp scrutiny of individuals regarded as heroes by some people contributions to the ‘market place of ideas’ (which, enrich democracy) or a manifestation of the ‘pull him down’ syndrome that tends to sharpen the discords in the society?

What is the boundary between genuine disagreement with a ‘hero’s way’ and the real ‘PhD’ syndrome that is often actuated by envy, malice or hidden agenda? While every nation eventually creates icons that appear, with the passage of time, to be generally accepted by the citizens, even the most iconic public figures faced stiff opposition in their journey to ‘immortalisation’.

Consider the following examples:  Mohammed Ali (born Cassius Clay) is today a hero to virtually everyone, including people who are against professional boxing. But this was not always so. In his heydays, Ali was regarded as cocky and boastful, and hence nicknamed ‘Louisville Lip’. Despite his unquestionable boxing ability, he was seen as a polarising figure, especially after he converted to Islam. It was even suspe

cted that some of his spectacular victories in the ring were fixed.  For instance when he knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round in their rematch for the World Heavyweight boxing title in May 1965, journalists quickly began talks of the ‘phantom punch’, claiming that the Nation of Islam (then known as the Black Muslims) intimidated Sonny Liston into submission. Even in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky, Ali was not especially liked – despite winning the Light Heavy weight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics and being a three-time World Heavy Weight boxing champion.

For instance in 1978, three years before Ali’s permanent retirement, attempts to rename Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard in his hometown was sharply resisted but eventually passed by the Board of Aldermen by a very narrow majority of 6–5. Earlier that year, a committee of the Jefferson County Public Schools considered renaming Central High School in his honour, but the motion failed to pass.

At any rate, in time, Muhammad Ali Boulevard—and Ali himself—came to be well accepted in his hometown such that on September 13, 1999, Ali was named “Kentucky Athlete of the Century” by the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. He was also in the same year crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC. Consider again Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, who successfully led his country through its greatest internal crisis, the American Civil War.

Though Lincoln has consistently been ranked by scholars as one of the greatest of all U.S. Presidents, he was not universally accepted as such during his presidency, even within his Republican Party. For instance while opponents of the war criticized Lincoln for refusing to compromise on the slavery issue, the Radical Republicans, an abolitionist faction of the Republican Party, constantly lampooned him for moving too slowly in abolishing slavery. He was also contemporaneously described and ridiculed as suffering from “melancholy” or clinical depression throughout his legal and political life.  

Nearer home, the commonly accepted Nigerian public heroes – Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Tafawa Balewa and the Sarduana of Sokoto, were in their days viewed with suspicions by most people who were not from their region. Even within their region, they faced stiff opposition and challenges and were not universally adored as they are these days. Thus while Zik had polarising quarrels with Professor Eyo Ita in the East, Awolowo had a long-running divisive feud with Ladoke  Akintola in the West while the Sarduana of Sokoto and Tafawa Balewa had stiff challenges – on ideological and ethnic grounds – from both Aminu Kano and J S Tarka respectively. 

What are the lessons from the above?

One, if the notion of human rights is necessarily anti-majoritarian in principle (i.e. the protection of the right of individuals to dissent from majority opinions), then dissenting from the majority’s anointed hero does not necessarily amount to one exhibiting the ‘PhD’ syndrome but an exercise of the right to dissent. Dissent, which is crucial in any spirit of enquiry and is often richly rewarded in academics and innovations, is a major contribution to the ‘market place of ideas’, which is itself the lifeline of democracy.  In this sense, those who are quick to accuse others of ‘PhD’ could be guilty of undermining democracy by stifling speech. 

In the same vein, threat of libel action has long been recognised as having a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech and explains why it is almost impossible for public officials to win libel actions in many jurisdictions such as the USA and the European Union.

Two, heroes are not people without faults, or people whose contributions were never contested in their time. Because democracy is necessarily rowdy and noisy – just like in any typical Nigerian marketplace- every ‘temporary’ public hero subjected to the ‘endless’ haggling of this marketplace of ideas eventually becomes a bore, with question marks hanging over the person’s signature achievement.

Three, it will seem that icons are eventually created (even if through agreement by exhaustion) based on the relevance of their specific actions or policies rather than on a balance sheet assessment of their successes and failures.

Who for instance will today question that Awolowo’s free education in the western region was visionary or that Lincoln’s stance on the abolition of slavery was truly progressive?  If, as they say, history will vindicate the just, how will history judge Obasanjo, Soludo, Sanusi, Nuhu Ribadu and other candidates for Nigeria’s public heroes and heroines?

Only time will tell.


Jideofor Adibe, PhD, LLM, is editor of the multidisciplinary journal African Renaissance, and publisher of the London-based Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd ( He is also the CEO of Holler Africa! (, a public relations and image management firm. He can be reached at