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Sunday, August 20, 2017

“It’s you who are”: Q and A on Contentious Grammar Rules

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

A professor from the English Department at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) said the comma in "Thank you, sir" is optional.  Is there any explanation for this? And does its omission carry any semantic implications?

He is wrong. Well, maybe it’s optional in Nigerian English (which is a problematic claim to make since Nigerian English isn’t formally codified), but it’s not in Standard English. “Thank you” is an example of what is called direct address in grammar, and direct address is ALWAYS set off by a comma. The rule, as a one grammarian put it, is: “Use commas to enclose nouns or pronouns or a noun phrase in direct address.”

To omit a comma in a direct address is sloppy, even uneducated. So it should be, “Happy birthday, son”; “I hate it, man”; “You are welcome, ladies and gentlemen”; “Goodbye, Adam”; and so on. The rule is the same even if the noun or pronoun that is being addressed appears at the beginning or middle of the sentence. Examples: “Sir, thank you for honoring my invitation.” “You, sir, are wonderful.”

Although texting and the fast-paced rhythm of internet communication are causing people, especially teenagers, to dispense with commas, it is still considered unconventional to omit commas in direct address. The major reason the omission of comma in direct address is looked disapprovingly upon by grammarians is that it can seem cause semantic miscues. There is a difference between “I hate her, man” and “I hate her man.” The former is an address directed to a “man” and the latter is not.

I came across this question while planning to test my students on grammar. All my search for the correct answer proved abortive. Here is the question: “It is you who........... (is, are, was) wrong. Kindly help with the answer and the explanation for the answer.

The correct answer is “are,” that is, “It is you who are wrong.” I know this sounds odd and unnatural. But here is why it is the correct answer. If we restate the sentence in its simplest form, it would be, “You are wrong.” “You is wrong” is clearly nonstandard. So is “You was wrong.” (Note that this is perfectly acceptable in a few nonstandard native English varieties such as African-American Vernacular English or Ebonics).

The “who” in the sentence is a relative pronoun whose antecedent is “you,” that is, “who” in the sentence refers to “you.” Now, the correct conjugation verb for the pronoun “you” is “are.” This rule doesn’t change even if “you” is used in a singular sense. That’s why we say, “You ARE a great guy,” not “You IS a great guy.”

It is the same rule with the pronoun “I.” So it is, “It is I who am wrong,” not “It is I who is wrong” because if you break the sentence down to its simplest form, it would be, “I am wrong,” not “I is wrong.”

Note, however, that I am talking here of the conventions of formal grammar. In informal, conversational English even native speakers routinely break this rule. You are unlikely to find an everyday native English speaker say “It is who are wrong” or “It is I who am wrong” unless they want to show off their mastery of “proper” English grammar.

But it’s good to be aware of the formal rule because in exam questions only the codified, formal rule would be considered correct.

Nigerian grammarians condemn 'welcome address' as wrong English and recommend 'an address of welcome' in its place, but my Google search shows that native speakers use the former more than the latter. Which one is correct?

Both expressions are grammatically correct. My own Google search also turned up more hits for “welcome address” than for “address of welcome.” Most of the people around me here in the United States say “welcome address.”

If you’re right that Nigerian grammarians frown upon “welcome address,” they’re probably misled into thinking that a noun can’t modify another noun. I find this sentiment to be widespread in Nigerian grammar circles. But it’s a misguided sentiment.

In a July 16, 2017 response to a question on whether nouns can qualify other nouns, I wrote the following:

“Well, it isn’t only adjectives that qualify nouns. Nouns can also sometimes qualify other nouns. Grammarians call such nouns ‘attributive nouns.’ They are also called ‘noun (pre)modifiers’ or ‘noun adjuncts.’ In the expression ‘paper plate,’ for example, ‘paper,’ which is a noun, qualifies ‘plate,’ another noun. In the expression ‘goat meat,’ goat modifies meat even though both words are nouns.

“All natural languages give users wide expressive latitudes. Some people prefer to use adjectives to modify nouns; others prefer attributive nouns to adjectives. Both are permissible. In some instances, however, stylistic choices are circumscribed by considerations of idiomaticity. By this I mean that some expressions are simply fixed and deviations from the fixed form sound unnatural. For instance, it’s more natural to say ‘finance minister’ than to say ‘financial minister,’ even though ‘finance’ and ‘minister’ are both nouns—and ‘financial minister’ isn’t grammatically wrong, just unidiomatic. But both ‘technological transfer’ and ‘technology transfer’ are acceptable and often used interchangeably, as are ‘agricultural transfer’ and ‘agriculture transfer’.”

My question is on the omission of the definite article before some singular common nouns and after 'as', e.g. 1. He is captain. 2. He is king. 3. He is elected as chairman. Are those sentences correct? If yes, why is it that the articles are omitted before the nouns: captain, king, and chairman?

Articles are tricky in the English language. That’s why I can’t do justice to your question in this limited space.  I will only say this for now:  “captain” and “king” should be preceded by either a definite article (i.e., “the”) or an indefinite article (i.e., “a” or “an”). So “he is a captain” would mean he is one of several captains, while “he is the captain” would mean he is the one and only person known by that title in a specific area. Same rule applies to “king.”

 In the third example, the sentence should be “he was elected chairman.” Chairman is not preceded by an article here because the sense is non-specific. Also note that I omitted “as” in the sentence. Other examples: “He was elected president.” “He was appointed commissioner,” etc.

When I watch American soaps, they seem to not care about tenses. Or maybe it’s something beyond me—I don’t know. For instance, a typical dialogue goes like this: “Daughter: 'dad, do you snore ‘cause I do. Dad: 'yeah you GET that from me'.” Should not the “get” be GOT? Could you clarify this for me, please?


Well, it's not true that Americans don't care about tenses. They do. The example of the use of present tense in the dialogue you cited is called the “historical present” in grammar. It's perfectly legitimate even in British English. It functions to make a past event seem more vivid, or to signal continuity between the past and the present. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

America’s South is Like Nigeria’s North and Vice Versa

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

It is all too easy to look at the United States and be led to suppose that it is impervious to internal divisions because it prefixes the adjective “united” to its name.

Many people think it is immune from the regional rivalries that we associate with our interminably feuding societies. Even though the regional divide in America is decidedly less contentious than ours, there are nonetheless strong, if subdued, provincial jealousies between the American North and the American South that have been bubbling to the surface in the last few years.

The more I get to know about this, the more I find parallels between America and Nigeria. The first indication I got of how the North and the South perceive each other as two separate nations within a country was when, in 2005, I informed an American friend I met at Columbia University in New York, sometime in 2003, that I was now in Louisiana.

He asked how I was adjusting to life in Louisiana. I told him I was still learning to come to terms with many culture shocks. His response took me by surprise. He said, “I understand how you feel. I also suffer from culture shocks each time I visit Louisiana.” He said he finds the people in Louisiana and the South “weird,” and that they all “talk funny.”

This didn’t make much sense to me. The notion of America I had come here with was of a country that had no noticeable internal differences. I had a concept of America as a country where sub-national identities were so fluid and so flexible that a New Yorker could go to Texas, for instance, and not only be a citizen, but stand the chance of being elected governor of the state, and vice versa. In short, I had thought that in America, there were no “natives” or, as we say it in Nigeria, no indigenes; only citizens.

Why would an American, a white American at that, speak so disdainfully of another part of his country, and even go so as far as to say that he experiences culture shocks when he visits it? I soon found out that he was echoing the mutual contempt and distrust in which Northerners and Southerners in the United States hold each other.

Sometime in 2005, a friend in Louisiana was watching a sports channel but suddenly turned off his TV because, “It’s just a bunch of northern teams! I have no time watching fu****g Yankees.”
That outburst also caught me off guard. First, I used to associate the word “Yankee” with Americans in general. In fact, non-Americans usually interchange “American” with “Yankee” without the slightest hint that they are wrong. At first, it didn’t make any sense to me for an American—again, a white American— to deride another American as a “fu****g Yankee.” I emphasize the racial identity of Americans because Blacks generally tend to be less enthusiastic about their American citizenship than Whites.

Well, I learned that day that “Yankee” actually refers only to an American Northerner. American Southerners don’t call themselves Yankees; in fact, some of them take serious exceptions to, sometimes outright umbrage at, being called Yankees. However, the Northerners proudly wear that label. The word usually associated with the South is “Dixie.”

But what states constitute the South and North of the United States? Well, this is a tricky question. There is no universally accepted delineation of the South and the North. It is a shifty identity. However, it is usual to define the South to include 16 states: Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Oklahoma.

The 19 states usually considered Northern states are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

In reality, however, such states as Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri, and Kansas don’t easily fit into the North/South divide. Citizens of these states sometimes identify themselves in mutually exclusive regional labels. I have, for instance, two friends from Maryland, and while one calls himself a Southerner, the other calls himself a Northerner. Similarly, people in southern Virginia call themselves Southerners, but it is not unusual for people in northern Virginia to regard themselves as Northerners.

The reason for this ambiguity is that, like in Nigeria, regional identity is not just a cold cartographic expression; it is also a socio-cultural, historical, and geo-political identity that sometimes mocks geography. Just like the Rivers Niger and Benue appear to be the dividing lines between the North and the South in Nigeria, the American North and South are divided by what is called the Mason-Dixon Line. It was, still is, the symbolic dividing line between the North and the South around Virginia and Pennsylvania before the American Civil War.

In many ways, it is like Rivers Niger and Benue in terms of symbolic significance. Such states as Benue, Taraba, etc., for instance, would be regarded as eastern by a cartographer’s unaided imagination, just like Kwara, Kogi and parts of Niger would be considered western. However, these states are both notionally and geo-politically in the North.

The equivalents of that in the United States are states like Maryland and Virginia, which are geographically in the North but are geo-politically in the South. In fact, Virginia used to be the political and military headquarters of the South during the American Civil War.

In many significant respects, the American South reminds me of Northern Nigeria (with a few obvious exceptions) while the American North reminds me of the Nigerian South. In size, the American South, like Northern Nigeria, is a geographical behemoth, while the North, also called New England states, is a comparatively small geographical space. (I have heard the joke several times here that a ranch in Texas is many times bigger than the state of Rhode Island).

Again, like Northern Nigeria, the American South is noticeably religious, culturally conservative, and emotionally attached to its socio-historical identity. The North, on the other hand, like the Nigerian South, is more urban, culturally liberal, and less attached to prefixed cultural values.

In the American South, the weather and the people tend to be warm—literally and figuratively. The North, on the other hand, is the opposite. Not only is the weather cold; the people are also cold.

Politically, the South is savvier than the North. It has produced more presidents than any region, including nine of the first 12 presidents of the United States.

However, after enmeshing itself in a four-year devastating Civil War, which pitted it against the North, it did not produce a president for nearly 100 years until 1976. The rest of the country was reluctant to trust a Southerner with the presidency of the country after the Civil War. This reminds me of the fate of the Igbos. And that is where the American South’s main difference with Northern Nigerian comes in.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Hello Bello: How “Bello” Became Nigeria’s Most Ecumenical Name

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: farooqkperogi

This article has been in the works for months. Each week I decide to work on it, something more pressing that invites my commentary comes up. But I have bucked all temptations to abandon it this week.

Few people realize that “Bello” is Nigeria’s most universal “ethnic” name. Fewer still give a thought to how that came to be. By “ethnic” name, I mean a name that isn’t derived from universal religions like Christianity or Islam, which most Nigerians profess and practice, and that isn’t a Western ethnic name introduced to us through colonialism.

Bello is a Nigerian Fulani name that has, over the years, lost its ethnic rootedness. It is the only name that is borne either as a first name or a last name in all Nigerian geo-cultural groups, except in the former Eastern Region, that is, Igboland and southern minorities, minus Edo State (who doesn’t know the Bello-Osagie family?).

If we go by Nigeria’s contemporary geo-political categories, it’s only in the southeast and in the south-south (with the exception of Edo) that you may not find a native Bello. (There are three Bellos among Nigeria’s current governors, and at least one of them has no drop of Fulani blood in him). Essentially, of Nigeria’s 36 states, only 10 states don’t have a native Bello. No other “ethnic” name even comes close to this onomastic cosmopolitanism. (Onomastics is the study of names).

Sometime in 2000, as Weekly Trust’s news editor, our editor-in-chief, Malam Kabiru Yusuf, asked me to represent him at a World Bank-organized workshop in Ibadan for Nigerian newspaper editors. During the week-long workshop, I encountered a particularly visceral Fulani-phobic Lagos-based newspaper editor whose last name was “Bello.” In the course of one of our discussions, I pointed out to him that it was strangely ironic that he hated the Fulani so much even though he bore their ethnic name as his last name.

He was infuriated. He called me “ignorant” and said I was one of “these Nigerians” who couldn’t tell “Muslim names” and “Hausa-Fulani names” apart. The only way I could react to his outburst was to let out the uncontrollable guffaw that welled up in me, which both angered and embarrassed him.
“Let me tell you, young man,” he said matter-of-factly, “Bello is a Muslim name.” He added: “It’s my surname because, although I’m a Christian, my grandfather was a Muslim and was known as Bello.”

“Take this from the son of an Arabic teacher who learned to read and write in Arabic before he started primary school,” I said wryly, “Bello is neither an Arabic name nor a Muslim name.”

I pointed out to him that, unlike many languages, Arabic has only three dominant vowels (and a few minor ones), and “e” and “o,” which appear in “Bello,” are NOT one of Arabic’s vowels. Basically, I told him, you can’t even write “Bello” in Arabic without orthographic improvisation, such as ajami (as improvised Arabic script in non-Arab languages is called), which may be unrecognizable to Arabs.

He didn’t believe me. So I left him to stew in his own ignorance. I was pleasantly shocked when, the following day, he called me aside and apologized. “You were right; I was wrong,” he said. “I asked an alfa [as Islamic scholars are called in Yorubaland and elsewhere] and he confirmed that Bello isn’t an Arabic or Muslim name.” I don’t know how he reconciles his phobia for Fulani people and his onomastic association with them. The last time I checked, he hadn’t changed his name.

I share this anecdote to illustrate the onomastic universality of “Bello” in Nigeria. Although it’s an ethnic Fulani name, it’s now impossible to accurately guess the ethnic origins of the bearers of the name. If someone tells me his name is Tanko or Danjuma, for instance, I can guess that he is either ethnically Hausa or culturally Hausa. If someone tells me they are Toyin, I can guess that they are either Yoruba or from one of the Yoruba-influenced cultures in Edo, Kogi and surrounding areas. An Okoro is most definitely either Igbo or from the immediate cultural environs of the Igbo. An Onoja is either Idoma or Igala, etc.

Not so for Bello. A Bello could be native to any one of 26 states in Nigeria—except Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Anambra, Abia, Imo, Ebonyi, and Enugu states. Most non-Fulani people who bear the name don’t even know it’s a Fulani name. And, although several Nigerians associate the name with Islam, many Christians and non-Muslims bear it, as my anecdote above shows.

So what does “Bello” mean and why has it become Nigeria’s most universal ethnic name? I asked several of my Fulani friends, and they are all united in saying that “Bello” is derived from the Fulfulde word for “helper.” The actual Fulfulde word is “ballo,” but it got corrupted to “Bello” over time, possibly first by Hausa speakers. Usman Dan Fodio famously named his son, who is the first (or second, if you consider Usman Dan Fodio as the first) Sultan of Sokoto “Ballo,” which later became “Bello.”

But it was probably Sir Ahmadu Bello’s choice to adopt Bello as his last name in honor of Sultan Muhammad Bello, his great grandfather, that helped extend the reach and appeal of the name beyond Nigeria’s northwest. (He used to be known as Ahmadu Rabah, after his natal town of Rabah near Sokoto).

In many parts of the North, particularly in Ilorin and environs, every Ahmadu or Ahmed used to be called “Bello,” leading southwest Yoruba people to derisively call every Ilorin man “a Bello.” It seems plausible that the proliferation of “Bello” in Yorubaland occurred by way of Ilorin alfas there.

Interestingly, non-Nigerian Fulani people (such as the Fulanis is Guinea, the only country where Fulanis enjoy a numerical majority) don’t recognize “Bello” as an authentic Fulani name. A Malian Fulani I met here in the US told me he didn’t know any Fulani in his country who bore that name. This didn’t surprise me because, as I stated earlier, “Bello” is the corruption of “Ballo.”

 That’s why non-Nigerian Fulanis, particularly in Mali, bear Ballo instead of Bello. There is, for instance, a young Malian basketballer by the name of Oumar Ballo who attracted the attention of the NBA because of his unusual height and frame. There is also a French footballer by the name of Fodé Ballo-Touré, who is obviously at least part Fulani.

But Bello is also a common last name in Italy, and it means “beautiful” or “handsome” in Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc.  Of course, this is just a lexical accident. There is no relationship between the Nigerian Fulani Bello and the Bello in Romance languages.

Well, in this open season on the Fulani in Nigeria (as a result of the unending ravages of violent Bororo cattle herders), it helps to realize that the country’s most ecumenical name owes debt to them.

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

“Reason why,” “all right/alright,” “letterheaded paper”: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

I wrote a letter to my boss and used the word “demand.” He got really angry. When I asked why, he said I sounded “entitled.” What’s wrong with saying you “demand” something? Isn’t it another way, a formal way, to say “ask for”?

Your boss was right to feel indignant. “Demand” has an undertone of nagging urgency and petulant entitlement that can cause offense. When you “demand” something, you imply that the other party has no option but to comply or face untoward consequences.  That’s rude, especially if what’s being asked for is not a right. “Request” is a better, more polite formal word to use when you are asking for a favor. Instead of saying, “I demand compensation for the extra hours I spent at work last week,” try “I request compensation for the extra hours I spent at work last week,” or, better yet, “I would appreciate it if you would be kind enough to approve my request for compensation for the extra hours I spent at work last week.”

Your question recalls an eerily similar incident that happened in 2000 in Kaduna at Media Trust, the parent company of this newspaper for which I was a reporter and later news editor. In the aftermath of the devastation and uncertainty that attended the Sharia riots in the city, a few Weekly Trust reporters and non-editorial staff members managed to go to work—at great personal risks. When the upheaval in the city subsided and normalcy returned, the staff members who braved the odds to make it to the office wrote to the management to ask for compensation for showing up at work when no one else did.

In their letter to the Editor-In-Chief, who is one of the most sensitive and proficient users of the English language that I know, the staff members wrote something along the lines of, “we demand that we be compensated for….” That was it. As I recall, the EIC was initially disposed to compensating the staff—even if they didn’t formally request the favor—but he was ticked off by the impertinence that the word “demand” conveyed and spurned their request, playfully calling them “demanders.” I supported him.

Don’t “demand” for a privilege when you can simply request it. My sense is that our proneness to “demand” for, instead of “requesting, things is a holdover from our undergraduate days where youthful hotheadedness caused us to always “demand” for things from the school authorities. I see it all the time in the news releases of NGO activists (most of whom were student union activists) where governments are often given impotent ultimatums and “demanded” to implement policy recommendations. That language has no place in polite society.

Is the phrase “the reason why” correct? Or should it just be “the reason”? Examples: Should I say “the reason why I left is…” or should it be “the reason I left is …” Thanks!!

Both phrases are correct. However, historically, conservative semantic purists, particularly in Britain, have dismissed "the reason why" as tautological and redundant since both “reason” and “why” denote causation. People who object to the expression often call it “causational overkill.” However, “reason why” is considered perfectly correct in contemporary British and American English. All modern dictionaries and usage guides in both the UK and the US accept “the reason why” as a legitimate usage.

The objections of conservative grammarians to its usage have been, for all practical purposes, blunted. For instance, two leading British grammarians, Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, in their book Longman Guide to English Usage, noted that “Only very conservative writers object to ‘the reason why’.”

In America, almost no grammarian objects to “the reason why.” In fact, “The Reason Why” is the title of a 2010 album by an American musical group called Little Big Town. And there is a classic American military history book titled, The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade.

Nevertheless, somewhat similar causational phrases like “the reason was because” and “the reason was due to” are met with strong objection in most usage guides across the Atlantic (that is, in both the UK and North America). So instead of writing, “The reason he failed was because he was ill,” it is advised that you write, “The reason he failed was that he was ill.”

 I must add, however, that this objection seems arbitrary and churlish to me. “Reason why” and “reason was because” both exemplify causational overkill. Why one is preferred to the other is beyond me. But as I've said in my previous writings, grammar, especially English grammar, isn’t always governed by logic. It’s sometimes just the product of the arbitrary “commandments” of snooty prescriptivist grammarians or the tyranny of popular usage.

For my thoughts on why some tautologies are socially favored and others are socially disfavored, see my two-part series titled, “Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (I)” (June 2, 2013 and “Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (II)” (June 9, 2013).

Is “letter-headed paper” Standard English? A faithful reader of your column told me he once read in your column many years ago that it is not. I searched the web to find the column but couldn’t find it. Can you write about it again for the benefit of people who started following your column only recently?

Sure. The usual word is “letterhead.” That’s what you find in most dictionaries. It’s often used as a noun, as in, “Print the recommendation on your company’s letterhead.” It is the short form of “letterheading” or “letter heading” (first attested in the 1800s), and it is so called because the name, address, and contact details of companies or people usually appear at the head, i.e., at the top, of the piece of paper.

I have never heard anyone in America say “letter-headed paper.” But I have found references to “letter-headed paper” in many British publications. So it’s obviously not nonstandard. Nor is it unique to Nigerian English speakers.

Interestingly, the adjectivization of letterhead to “letter-headed” (meaning “bearing a letterhead,” as in, “letter-headed paper”) started in American English, specifically in the Chicago Tribune, in the late nineteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. For some reason, most Americans no longer say “letter-headed paper”; only Brits and British English speakers like Nigerians do.

But “letterhead” is standard in both British English and American English. I personally prefer “letterhead” to “letter-headed paper.”

What is the difference between “alright” and “all right”? Or are they different spellings of the same word?

In both British English and American English “alright” is considered an uneducated approximation of “all right.” For instance, The Associated Press Stylebook, considered the “bible” of American journalism, forbids the use of “alright” in news copy. Many prestigious British English usage guides also object to its use in serious writing.

 However, some grammarians (who are, for now, in the minority) argue that “alright” is a legitimate word that is not necessarily an illiterate approximation of “all right.” They contend that it is in the category of words like “already,” “almost” and “altogether.” Just as “already” (as in, “he is already here”) is different from “all ready” (as in, “they are all ready to go”); “almost” (as in, “it is almost interesting,” meaning it is nearly interesting) from “all most” (as in, “it is all most interesting,” meaning all of it is interesting); and  “altogether” (as in, “it is altogether different,” where “altogether” means “completely”) from “all together” (as in, “they sang all together,” meaning they sang all at the same time), the two spellings “alright” and “all right” are needed to mark a distinction between, “The children are all (i.e., all of them are) right in their answers” and “The answers are alright (i.e., they’re OK).”  This makes sense to me.

But since “alright” is met with disapproval by most grammarians in all the dominant varieties of the English language, I’d advise that you avoid it at least in formal writing. I predict, however, that in the next few years “alright” will enjoy the same respectability and acceptance as “almost,” “altogether,” and “already.”

It truly throws me off when continental Africans declare that they “hail from” Washington DC, for instance. “Born in,” “hail from”? I need clarification.

"Hail from" can denote one of the following: 1. come from, 2. be native of, 3. be born in. That means you don’t necessarily have to be born in a place to hail from there, at least in American English. Recent immigrants “hail from” any part of America they are registered to vote. That means, in essence, that it's perfectly legitimate for naturalized African immigrants in, for instance, Washington D.C. to say they "hail from" that city whenever they are in America or are involved in America-specific conversations.

Of course, it would be absurd for them to say they hail from Washington D.C. when they are in Africa—or when they are outside the United States. But I’d much rather just say, “I am from Washington, DC.” “Hail from” sounds stilted and pretentious.

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Ango Abdullahi, Northern Nigerian Colonial Economy and Niger Delta Oil

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In my May 6, 2017 column titled “Top 8 Popular National Lies that Won’t Die in Nigeria,” I called attention to out-and-out historical lies that vast swathes of Nigerians treasure and reproduce intergenerationally, and that are, I said, almost “impossible to uproot.”

One of such lies, I pointed out, is the idea, popular among northern Nigerians, that the Northern Region’s resources financed oil exploration in the Niger Delta. I wrote: “Professor Ango Abdullahi actually repeated this lie recently. He said this, ironically, while exhorting Emir Sanusi II to ‘go and read history.’ The truth is that not a dime of northern Nigeria’s money contributed to oil exploration in the Niger Delta.

“When oil was discovered in commercial quantities in Oloibiri in 1956, Shell bore the financial burden for the exploration. Other Euro-American oil companies later joined in oil exploration. It wasn’t until 1973 that the Nigerian federal government acquired 30 percent shares in oil companies. By 1973, Northern Nigeria had ceased to exist….

“In any case, colonial records show that the biggest motivation for amalgamating northern and southern Nigeria was because northern Nigeria wasn’t financially self-sustaining and the British Imperial Government said it would never subsidize colonial administration anywhere in Africa. So Lord Lugard amalgamated the two regions and used the surplus from the south to sustain the north. It’s illogical to say that a region that wasn’t financially self-sustaining financed oil exploration in the Niger Delta.”

Of the eight historical lies I pointed out, this was the stickiest among historically challenged northerners. I use the term “historically challenged” advisedly because several northern Nigerian professional historians called or emailed me to confirm that what I wrote was a basic fact that every beginning undergraduate in Nigerian economic history knows. They wondered why someone of the stature of Professor Ango Abdullahi would ridicule himself by repeating discredited and falsifiable lies. I told one of them to write a guest column to educate our people on the economic history of the region. “I am not as brave as you are,” he said. But when did educating people with the facts become bravery?

I am a northerner with as much stake in the region as anybody else, but I am also a truth-seeking academic who isn’t held back from telling the truth by maudlin sentimentality or fear of emotive pushback from the vulgar herd. I go where the truth leads me, even if it is to facts that cause me personal discomfort. That’s how my dad raised me, and no amount of emotional blackmail will stop that.

Several of the readers who continue to angrily react to my column say I didn’t provide any proof for my assertions. So, here we go. In an 89-page report for the British Parliament titled, “Amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria, and Administration, 1912-1919,” Frederick D. Lugard clearly said two reasons informed his proposal to amalgamate the North and the South: finance and railways. On finance, he wrote:

“In 1906 a further step in amalgamation was effected in the South. Southern Nigeria and Lagos became one Administration under the title of the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. From this date the material prosperity of the South increase with astonishing rapidity. The liquor duties—increased from 3s. in 1901 to 3s. 6d. in 1905—stood at 5s. 6d. a gallon in 1912, and afforded an ever-increasing revenue, without any diminution in the quantity imported. They yielded a sum of £1,138,000 in 1913.

“The North, largely dependent on the annual grant from the Imperial Government, was barely able to balance its budget with the most parsimonious economy, and was starved of the necessary staff, and unable to find funds to house its officers properly. Its energies were concentrated upon the development of the Native Administration and the revenue resulting from direct taxation. Its distance from the coast (250 miles) rendered the expansion of trade difficult. Thus the anomaly was presented of a country with an aggregate revenue practically equal to its needs, but divided into two by an arbitrary line of latitude. One portion was dependent on a grant paid by the British taxpayer, which in the year before Amalgamation stood at £136,000, and had averaged £314,500 for the 11 years ending March, 1912” (p. 7; view the PDF of the entire report here).

Again, a 1935 report by colonial government statistician S.M. Jacob, titled The Taxation and Economics of Nigeria, gives a vivid account of the immense disparities in the revenues between the North and the South. It shows, for instance, that one of the reasons the North was financially disadvantaged was that agricultural produce from the region had less economic value in the international market than agricultural produce from the South.

There is also a 202-page record of the correspondence between colonial administrators in Nigeria and their home government in Britain on the necessity of amalgamating the North and the South. Copious references were made to the North’s economic disadvantage and to the economic lifeline the region needed from the South to survive. The record of the correspondence, which took place between May 15, 1913 and January 27, 1914, is held in the British National Archives, and can be accessed with the following reference number: CO 879/113/3.

But two things need to be made clear. First, the North’s economic disadvantage relative to the South wasn’t a consequence of the South’s superior work ethic—or the North’s laziness. It was because, being close to the coast, the South had (still has) ports, which brought foreign goods that attracted hefty tax revenue. It was, in fact, Lagos that almost singlehandedly gave the South its economic advantage. Lagos still accounts for more than half of Nigeria’s IGR.

Second, it also so happened that the cash crops that the colonialists introduced to the South—cocoa, palm oil, kernels, rubber—had more economic value in the international market than Northern Nigeria’s cash crops such as groundnuts and cotton. In terms of quantity, the North produced substantially more agricultural produce than the South but, by a twist of circumstances, the North’s crops didn’t have as much economic value as the South’s.

This isn’t something to be proud or ashamed of. We are talking here of naked colonial exploitation of our people for the benefit of Britain. It means, in effect, that the colonial conquerors exploited the South more thoroughly than they did the North. That’s neither a cause for pride nor a reason to be ashamed. In my undergraduate days, I recall getting a kick out of Lord Salisbury’s angry description of my part of northern Nigeria, that is, Borgu, as "a malarious African desert…not worth a war." As a starry-eyed Marxist then, I took delight in the knowledge that imperialists didn’t find my place worthy of economic exploitation.

Anyway, if the North wasn’t economically self-sustaining, how could it possibly finance oil exploration in the Niger Delta? That’s a wild leap of logic. Plus, it’s a well-known fact that it was Shell, not the Nigerian government, that bore full financial responsibility for oil exploration in the Niger Delta.

As George G. Frynas points out in his Oil in Nigeria: Conflict and Litigation between Oil Companies and Village Communities, Shell spent more than 6 million pounds of its own money between 1937 and 1953 before striking oil in Akata, near Eket, in non-commercial quantities. After spending some more millions, it found oil in commercial quantities in Oloibiri in 1956. Neither the Nigerian government nor the northern Nigerian government made any financial contribution to Shell’s exploration activities.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Legislative Immunity: What Angry Nigerians Are Getting Wrong

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

A lot of ignorant social media commentators are beating up on the Nigerian Senate for passing “Bill Number 8,” which grants legislative immunity to members of the National Assembly. One social media commentator cynically called it “legislative impunity,” and he was barracked by a band of nescient cheerleaders.  The truth is that legislative immunity, also called parliamentary immunity, exists in all modern democracies, as I’ll show shortly.

Contrary to what most people imagine it to be, legislative immunity doesn’t mean freedom from consequences for crimes committed while serving in the legislature. It merely means legislators can’t be sued for libel or slander for things they SAY when the legislative bodies they are members of are in session or when they are in committee meetings. They are not shielded from prosecution for other legal infractions they commit in and outside the National Assembly.

I’m surprised that this protection didn’t exist in our laws until now. There is no modern democracy in the world that doesn’t have it. In the UK, Canada, and other Westminster systems, it’s called “parliamentary immunity.” It protects members of parliament from being sued for libel or slander for things they say while the parliament is in session.

In France, it’s called parliamentary “irresponsibility.” Note that “irresponsibility” has a completely different meaning in French; it means freedom from consequences. French parliamentarians have freedom from legal responsibility for whatever they say in the course of their parliamentary duties.

Benin Republic, Nigeria’s western neighbor, enshrines parliamentary immunity for its lawmakers in its constitution. Article 90 of the country’s constitution says a legislator cannot be “followed, searched, arrested, detained or judged for opinions or votes issued by him during the exercise of his duties.”

In the United States, members of Congress, including state legislatures, also enjoy absolute privilege to say anything while Congress is in session without legal consequences. I can go on with more examples, but the point I want to call attention to is that legislative immunity isn’t some outlandish or uniquely Nigerian contrivance. It is part and parcel of the architecture of modern liberal democracy.

Although it’s subject to abuse (which is why Germany, for instance, makes exceptions for “defamatory insults”), legislative immunity allows legislators to debate robustly and investigate the executive unburdened by the dread of frivolous litigations or executive harassment and intimidation. It can also be used to subvert tyranny. Helen Suzman, a white anti-apartheid South African parliamentarian, used the cover of legislative immunity to call attention to the horrors of racially motivated violence against blacks, which the press was forbidden from reporting.

Babachir David Lawal’s grass-cutting scandal, to give just one Nigerian example, was brought to light by the Senator Shehu Sani-led “Senate Ad hoc Committee on Mounting Humanitarian Crisis in the Northeast.” If Lawal was halfway smart, he could have exploited the lack of legislative immunity for senators and sued the senate committee members for “libel” (even when nothing libelous was said against him) and stalled their investigations with what lawyers like to call vexatious litigations.

In the United States, legislative immunity also extends to everyone who appears before Congress— or any congressional committee—to provide oral testimony during a hearing. So, for instance, a contractor or government official invited to testify against Lawal could not be sued for libel—or fired from his job— for whatever he said against Lawal— or anybody— during his testimony while the Senate committee was in session.

This is intended to guarantee uninhibited flow of information in legislative, investigative, oversight, confirmation, ratification, and field hearings. That’s why American scholar George G. Galloway described congressional hearings as a “goldmine of information for all the public problems of the United States.” It can be for Nigeria, too.

Legislative immunity falls under the broad rubric of absolute privilege in English and American law. Absolute privilege guarantees certain government officials immunity from legal consequences for actions they took or things they said in the course of their official duties. Police officers, for example, enjoy absolute privilege in the course of their official duties. If they, for instance, accuse someone of theft and it turns out that they were wrong, they can’t be sued for libel. Judges also enjoy absolute privilege, as do lawyers and witnesses who argue and testify while the court is in session.

There is also an ancillary component of absolute privilege in English and American law that I am not sure the Nigerian version of legislative immunity has addressed. It is called “qualified privilege,” which is often extended exclusively to news reporters. It means reporters can also not be sued for reporting exactly what people with absolute privilege (including legislative immunity) say in the course of their official duties. Helen Suzman used her parliamentary privilege to allow South African reporters to report on issues the law forbade them from reporting.

“Qualified” here means limited or restricted, and implies that should reporters add to or intentionally contort a statement that someone with absolute privilege makes, they are not immune from the legal consequences of their reportorial indiscretion.

As people who are familiar with this column know, I am not a fan of the National Assembly. In an August 1, 2015 article titled “Urgent Need for ‘Braintashi’ in the National Assembly,” for instance, I wrote:

“From the outside looking in, the vast majority of National Assembly members come across as brain-dead, monomaniacally mercantile knuckleheads who have no business being in the business of lawmaking. This is, frankly, a regrettable thing to say because there are a few truly honorable, clear-headed men and women in the National Assembly. But it’s difficult to ignore the huge joke that the National Assembly has become.

“If National Assembly members are not exchanging fisticuffs over inanities—like hyperactive, ill-bred high-school kids—they are arguing interminably over unearned perks and over who chairs cushy, ‘juicy’ committees or leadership  positions. If they are doing none of the above, they are luxuriating in sybaritic lavishness….

“Perhaps the lowest water mark yet in the show of brainlessness by the National Assembly happened a few days ago when 5 senators and 20 members of the House of Representatives constituted themselves into an ad hoc committee of bodyguards around Mrs. Toyin Saraki when she was invited by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to answer questions over allegations of corruption against her….

“Although I am being facetious when I say the National Assembly needs an overabundant supply of ‘braintashi,’ I am truly concerned that the National Assembly is fast earning notoriety as the place where brains die, as the graveyard of commonsense.”

Nonetheless, it is also true that the National Assembly has become the convenient bogeyman of the disgustingly contemptible and vile hypocrites called “Buharists” whose favorite pastime now is to blame the Buhari-inspired dysfunctions in the country on the National Assembly—and to instinctively criticize everything the National Assembly does while turning a blind eye to the spectacular “ungovernance” of the presidency.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

“English Graduate” or “Graduate of English,” Ngugi’s Grammar, “Iconoclastic Oba,” and Other Usage Q and A

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I am a Kenyan and a regular reader of your Facebook page as well as your blogs. I'd like you to answer my query in your Question and Answer Column and if you must not, please answer me by email.

Reading through Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong'o's short story, 'A Meeting in the Dark', I came across the following sentence: 'Indeed they were all there- all except she whom he wanted'.

I thought that 'except' in this context is a preposition and therefore it should be followed by the objective 'her' and not the subjective 'she'? That is to say that, according to me, the pronoun should be the subject of the sentence and not the other way round.

In any case, is it not the object of the verb 'wanted'?

You are correct, in my opinion. "Except" is both a preposition and a conjunction. It's a preposition if it's followed immediately by either a noun or a pronoun, and it's a conjunction if it's followed by a clause or an adverbial phrase. In the example you quoted, "except" is followed by "she," which is a pronoun. That means "except" functions as a preposition in the sentence.

Now, in grammar, when a preposition precedes a pronoun, the pronoun is always in the objective case, such as "her," "him," "them," "whom," "us," "me,"etc. Based on this, you're right that the "she" in the sentence should have been "her," more so that "whom" is correctly in the objective case.

But I can see why the sentence is little tricky. “They” is a subjective pronoun, with which “she” shares positional similarities, that is, the sentence could as well have read: “They were all there. Only she wasn’t there.” That would justify leaving “she” in the subjective case in the sentence. I am not sure many grammarians will quibble over the correctness of the placement of “she” in Ngugi’s sentence.

I certainly won't judge Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong'o. I think he has earned the right to break the rules of English grammar any way he likes, more so that he makes no pretenses about his antipathy toward the English language!

What is the difference between “English literature” and “literature in English” and between “English graduate” and “graduate of English”?

In everyday usage, there is no difference. But certain specialists like to insist that “English literature” is literature originally written in English about England and, by extension, all English-speaking countries, including postcolonial English-speaking countries like Nigeria. “Literature in English,” on the other hand, is literature about non-English-speaking countries, originally written in languages other than English, but translated into English.

As you can see, this is a problematic distinction. Where does one place, for instance, literature originally written in, say, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, etc. about Britain, or in Yoruba (such as D.O. Fagunwa’s Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀, which Wole Soyinka translated as The Forest of A Thousand Daemons) about Nigeria, or in Spanish about the US, or in French about Canada, or in Hindi about India, etc. but later translated into English? Maybe it’s “literature in English” since the language of such literature wasn’t originally written in English. But it’s about places that are part of the “English-speaking” world. That’s a definitional ambiguity.

Other people narrowly define “English literature” as literature exclusively about England, and “literature in English” as all other literature written in English. I don’t agree with that distinction.

An “English graduate” and a “graduate of English” mean the same thing. But some pedants insist that since English isn’t just a language but also a demonym (to refer to someone from England), an “English graduate” could be understood to mean a graduate from England, who might not have even studied English—similar to saying a “Scottish graduate,” “an Irish graduate,” “a Welsh graduate,” “a Hausa graduate,” etc.

So it is thought that saying “a graduate of English” rather than "an English graduate" eliminates ambiguity between the language and the demonym. This sounds logical but, in reality, no one assumes that “an English graduate” means anything other than someone who studied English. If reference to England is desired, people just say “a graduate from England.” Wherever “graduate” and “English” appear in the same sentence, people automatically associate it with the study of the language.

Former Edo State governor Adams Oshiomhole once got in trouble with Edo people for characterizing the late Oba of Benin as “iconoclastic.” Why is “iconoclastic” a bad word? Or is it?

The former governor’s critics were being a little too literal. It is true that the original meaning of “iconoclasm” isn’t particularly flattering. It means the destruction of icons (or images), often for religious reasons. For instance, Islam forbids visual representations of the prophet of Islam, which causes some Muslims to destroy all images that purport to represent him. Christianity also had its own period of iconoclasm inspired by the biblical injunction against worshiping "graven images."

So an iconoclast is one who practices iconoclasm. I can see how Bini people might find that offensive.

Over the years, however, iconoclasm’s meaning has mutated from the literal to the metaphoric realm. It now means upending established traditions. Now, generally, it is used with a tone of approval to mean shaking up old, decaying conventions in order to inaugurate freshness and vitality. So an iconoclastic person is a radical reformist, an agent of positive change. The word is almost never used in a negative sense in modern usage.

I am not sure I would describe any traditional ruler as being “iconoclastic,” though. That’s way too generous. Oshiomhole’s problem wasn’t that he was insulting to the Oba. He was not. He was rather exaggeratedly kind to a symbol of stagnant tradition and convention. In other words, he used the wrong word.

I would like to know the actual "concord and verb agreement" that must go with this sentence: “May God grant him paradise” Or should it be, “May God grants him paradise.”

It should be, “May God grant him paradise.” Here is why. “May” is a modal verb, and modal verbs (other examples are “must,” “will,” “would,” “shall,” “should,” “may,” “might,” “can,” “could,” and “might”) don’t follow subject-verb agreement rules.

In our lesson plan at school, the school wrote "Key Vocabulary Words." I am of the opinion that vocabulary simply means word. Isn’t “vocabulary word” a tautology? This has really generated a lot of controversy in my school. What's your view on this?

It’s entirely logical to characterize “vocabulary words” as tautological. But remember that a usage isn’t wrong simply because it is tautological. Tautologies were never considered bad in English until the 17th century when grammarians began to frown at and demonize them. That’s why there are a lot of tautologies in Shakespeare’s works. (Read my August 9, 2015 column titled “Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today‘s Standards.”)

In spite of all the efforts of 17th century English grammarians, there are still many tautologies in English that are idiomatic and acceptable. Examples are “close proximity,” “over and over again,” “reason why,” etc.

I admit that “vocabulary word” does sound tautological, but it is usual and standard, especially among native English speakers. I, too, don’t like the sound of it and would never use it, but it is socially acceptable.

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fiery Kenyan Politician Miguna Miguna has Captured Nigeria’s Imagination

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Nigerian cyberspace is being lit up by a wildly viral video of Kenyan politician Miguna Miguna brutally taking down his political opponents in a televised debate that took place in early July. There is probably no Nigerian on social media who hasn’t watched the nearly two-minute video. It’s being shared on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and everywhere else Nigerians congregate online. I’ve probably watched it a million times myself! It’s my new comic relief and guilty pleasure.

The video captures a moment during a debate between four contenders for the position of governor of the county of Nairobi. The contenders are Evans Kidero, the current governor of Nairobi who was CEO of Mumias Sugar Company for eight years; Mike Sonko who is the current senator of Nairobi; Peter Kenneth, a former presidential candidate who is currently an Assistant Minister; and the tautonymous Miguna Miguna, who is an author, columnist, activist, and former presidential adviser.

For people who haven’t seen the video, below is a transcript of Miguna’s ferociously forthright squelcher of his opponents that has got people talking and laughing:

 “Cartels are central to the problems of Nairobi, and the three colleagues of mine, actually, are part of the cartels that I want to deal with [laughter from the audience]. I will tell you who the cartels are. The cartels are people who have made money through shady business deals.

“My friend Evans Kidero has made his billions through shady deals. There’s no industry he has, but he has become a billionaire, having been an employee throughout his life, because he has looted every institution he has joined [rapturous laughter from the audience]. Mumias [Sugar Company] has collapsed, and Nairobi is not a going concern anymore, according to the auditor-general.

“My friend [Mike] Sonko is looting every land in Nairobi [laughter from the audience]. He has a criminal record from Mombasa where he was jailed because of fraud, forgery, and drug dealing. Then he ran away from jail. So he is a cartel because he has a criminal record [laughter from the audience]. And, right now, he’s grabbed many pieces of land and then stages a PR show, a PR stunt, where he videotapes and pretends he’s come to rescue.

 “My friend Peter Kenneth bankrupted Kenya Re [roaring from the audience]. He basically looted a public institution to death [more laughter from audience]. And when he was in Gatanga, he never promoted a motion in parliament, never sponsored a bill, never chaired a committee of parliament. Then, he is saying we need a manager. Nairobi needs a leader, not a manager [laughter from audience]. I will hire managers to deal with different sectors—competent, ethical managers.

 “And these three [pointing to his opponents] represent the worst of our country. Where you make money in shady deals, and because of those money—that money— that you’ve made, and because you can give handouts, you’re considered a manager. A manager of corruption is not a leader!”

Why have Miguna’s no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle rhetorical punches against his opponents resonated well with Nigerians and caused Kenyan politics to reverberate in Nigeria? It is apparent that Nigerians who are excitedly sharing the video exult in a vicarious satisfaction that a bold, brash, brilliant, and brutally frank activist-politician had the gumption to mercilessly tear the already tattered reputations of crooked career politicians to shreds.

Nigerians see uncanny parallels between the politicians Miguna so brilliantly characterized in the clip and their own politicians at home who, unlike their Kenyan counterparts, are shielded from critical scrutiny, who have never had to face opponents in televised debates, who are defiantly corrupt, conceited, and unaccountable because their positions are handed to them on a silver platter.

The intense popularity of the clip on Nigerian cyberspace is also a clear demonstration of Nigerians’ thirst for a robust, untrammeled institutionalization of a culture of public political debates before elections. It’s embarrassing that in spite of Nigeria’s claim to sophistication and leadership of the African continent, contenders to political offices don’t participate in debates as a matter of routine. That’s why we are always taken aback by the piteous quality of characters that our elections throw up.

For instance, Andy Uba, a school certificate failure who has forged every higher education certificate that there is, is a senator and is angling to become the next governor of Anambra. Muhammed Kazaure Gudaji, a barely educated clown who has no business in politics and governance, is a member of the House of Representatives. The examples are legion.

 These characters ascended to positions of political authority because their constituents never had a chance to even know who they were, what they knew, etc. A public debate prior to elections would have exposed them. Of course, it won’t guarantee that they won’t win because a multiplicity of factors account for why people win and lose in elections, but people would at least know what they were getting. The current system is akin to what the English call buying a pig in a poke, that is, getting something without an informed awareness of its true worth and form beforehand.

Nigeria needs an independent, non-partisan commission to organize debates before every electoral contest so that voters can have a sense of the character and background of the people who will make policies that will affect their lives.

Another interesting fact about Miguna that registered in the consciousness of Nigerians is that he is an independent candidate. A Kenyan TV station, in fact, called him “Kenya's only 'true independent'” candidate for office because other candidates became “independent” only after they lost the nomination of their parties. Nigeria, too, is ripe for independent candidacy. Political parties aren’t a sine qua non to run for office in a democracy. It’s a crying shame that Kenya allows independent candidacy but Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, does not.

The Nairobi governorship election will take place on August 8. Miguna may well lose, given the odds against him, but he and his supporters can at least find comfort in the knowledge that his forthright, hard-tackle rhetorical kicks against careerist politicians has captured the imagination of Kenya’s bumbling big brother, Nigeria.


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