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Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Fake London Economist Article About Real Buhari Problems

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

A critical article about the Muhammadu Buhari presidency purportedly written by the (London) Economist has been trending on Nigerian space these past few weeks. I actually first read it in May this year, and knew it wasn’t written by the London Economist after reading the very first paragraph. As someone who has a heightened sensitivity to comparative English usage, the style and idiomatic rhythm of the first paragraph struck me as distinctively Nigerian.

Subsequent paragraphs were peppered with the typical errors and turns of phrase of Nigerian English. This led me to investigate the article’s source. It turned out that although the writer strained really hard to mimic what David Bradley, publisher of the Atlantic, once called the Economist’s “tight and engaging prose,” it was written by a Nigerian.

It was first published on a website called the Nigerian-Economist.com on April 23, 2017. But, for some reason, the site is no longer available, although the article, which the site’s owner(s) shared on Facebook on April 25, 2017, can still be found on the site’s now inactive Facebook page. It was also republished on April 23, 2017 on Nairaland, a popular Nigerian-themed online discussion site.

But a self-described Nigerian economist by the name of Olajide Oyadeyi appears to have plagiarized the article on his LinkedIn page, leading two commenters on his page to alert him to the “fact” that “his” article was being wrongly attributed to the Economist. “Bros they are circulating your article online claiming that it was culled from The Economist newsmagazine,” wrote one Nur Habib. But Oyadeyi published the article on his LinkedIn page on May 20, 2017, almost a month after it first appeared on Nigerian-Economist.com.

Anyway, quibbles over the authorship of the article are less important than the content, most of which I found to be accurate and thoughtful. If you missed the article, read it here:

The Unprecedented Level of Patience Shown to Buhari
Nigerians have never shown such level of patience and tolerance towards any of their past leaders for his record and strange policies as that shown to their current leader, Muhammadu Buhari– a former military dictator now self-confessed democrat who said he came to fight corruption.

Buhari, 75, is being plagued with failures across every single sector in the economy, the like as has never been seen before. Less than a year into office, the economy plummeted into recession, an economy which had till then grown at an average rate of 7% in previous years (2011-2014). The nation’s currency lost 70% of its value, unemployment rose from 6.5 to 26% , commodity prices tripled across many quarters and the state-regulated premium motor spirit prices were hiked by 67% without practically anybody batting an eye.

There have been stern opposition to his policies however and to his very personality as well, notably in the South East and South- South regions in the country as they are called, where he both received less than 5% of the votes cast at the last Presidential election and where he has always been sternly unpopular for his history of bigotry against the people, perceived incompetence and dictatorial tendencies. But in many other regions across the country the people have rather resolved to suffer patiently, drawing up excuses for him at will, blaming everyone including his hundreds of political appointees, anything and anybody but never the man himself.

Buhari’s party, the APC, promised Nigerians unprecedented swiping changes in government and the eviction of all corrupt individuals.

One possible explanation for this could be his party’s hope narrative in the 2015 General election where citizens were promised an unprecedented crackdown on corruption and the abolition of all government waste by a man whose financial worth they declared to have been less than N30million ($150,000 then), a historical low for a former top official in the country and most especially a former leader.

In a country plagued by acute corruption problems and with the unremitted crude oil revenue scandal of 2014 still fresh in the people’s minds, many were eager for an abrupt change, the like as never been seen before. He was seen an army general, already experienced in government, with a great strength of will, tough to take on the nation’s cabal of hardened criminals. He promised to appoint only technocrats to head the country’s departments and to see out the lingering Boko Haram insurgency from the warfront. For a nation lacking basic amenities such as power supply in spite of its huge energy resources and with the lingering insurgency crises, the choice seemed easy to many- the general with integrity was the man for the country.

Talk was cheap then but now reality has taken its course. His earliest opponents pointed out to his track record and not to his speech, noting that the last time Nigeria fell into dismal failure, currency woes and commodity shortages was when he had seized power as a military general in 1983 and stating that the facts of that record contradicted the poems of his image brokers.

Many however just wanted “change” as it was then called and so voted the General and sat to wait for the sung promises. But from the onset of his government, the course was as his critics had predefined: Incompetency, bigotry and dictatorial tendencies plaguing the country….

He breached the Central Bank’s 2007 Act of Independence, telling it to suspend forex disbursements to steel importers and other manufacturing sectors in a bid to defend the Naira, a disastrous action which kick-started a spiral of recession.

He took 3 months to appoint his Chief of Staff, 6 months to appoint a cabinet and now 23 months and yet counting to appoint heads of agencies and board members he was so eager to fire upon his assumption into office and rose import duties on the most basic of commodities in a bid to raise government revenue.

And as for the corruption fight, the facts on ground do not show any one at all. Apart from a few officials harassed or imprisoned without court order, the country is yet to witness the first victim of the said campaign at the court stands.

Government waste is on the rise, officials publicly caught in graft acts were swiftly excused, the 2016 Budget year passed without implementation and most worrisome, the Central Bank’s foreign reserves were being shared among unknown Bureau De Change operators at variable rates at the detriment of critical manufacturing, business and banking sectors.

The government continues to praise itself but the people seem to be increasingly tired of the paraded self-righteousness. The President’s recent illness was greeted with cheers by many.
Many are just tired of the government. But the remarkable level of patience shown so far has been unprecedented and many a times the general reactions towards acts of constitutional violations was one of calmness or insensitivity.


If the Change narrative of the 2015 election and the songs of man of integrity are to account for this, then Nigerians may have just certified themselves on the world map as a nation easy to fool with propaganda. An adult should be judged on his track record not on his tongue.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

English Mumpsimuses, a Senator’s Tweet, and Lesson in Tenses

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

I didn’t intend to write a sequel to last week’s column on the Senator Shehu Sani tweet that invited sarcastic, ill-natured grammar trolling from a paid agent of Governor Nasiru El-Rufai. But the social media circus that my column elicited necessitated this follow-up. There are lots of people who genuinely want to learn about the appropriate uses of tenses but who are bewildered by the cacophony of social media hooey masquerading as expert opinion on this issue. This column is for them.

But I need to mention right off the bat that Senator Sani is far and away the most imaginative user of the English language in the current Nigerian Senate. His puns, witticisms, and humorous yet thoughtful metaphors have enlivened an otherwise dull political climate. His speeches on the floor of the Senate have made by far the most memorable quotes in the life of this republic. So no one can deny that Senator Sani is a masterful and proficient user of the English language. The minor grammar slips in his social media status updates, which we are all liable to make, in no way detract from his facility with the language. 

And just so I am not misunderstood, I actually wholly align with the sentiments encapsulated in the senator’s tweet and decry the infantile pettiness of his critic who suggested that because he transposed tenses in his tweet he should take an elementary school competency test.

With that out of the way, it helps to realize that this isn’t political punditry; it’s bare-bones, technicist analysis of grammar and usage, which isn’t amenable to the interpretive liberties of political punditry. Several of the people who are “defending” the senator’s tense-challenged tweet are general-interest commentators on social and traditional media who imagine that everything is subject to pontifical dialogic brawl. As psychologist Abraham Maslow once pointed out, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail."

Their hammer is punditry and they see every issue as a “perspective,” as an “opinion.” That bespeaks cognitive unsophistication. I am both a political commentator and a language enthusiast, and have learned to separate political commentary from my language and grammar interventions.

English Mumpsimuses
The political-commentators-turned-overnight-grammar-mavens who are nonetheless mistaken in their defense of a demonstrably wrong grammar usage but who persist in their error out of vanity and a need to nurse their hurt egos fit in nicely to a group I once characterized as “English mumpsimuses” in my April 9, 2017 article titled, “English,Indigenous Language Instruction, and National Development.”

What is, or who is a, mumpsimus? Well, there are two senses of the term in linguistics and general usage. Mumpsimus is defined as “adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, memorization, practice, belief, etc., out of habit or obstinacy….” It is also defined as “an error to which one clings after it has been thoroughly exposed.” A person who is wedded to, or who persists in, mumpsimus (that is, pigheaded insistence on clinging to an error after it has been shown to be an error) is also called a mumpsimus.

The term came to mean stubborn resistance to correction because an old, uneducated monk in the 16th century mispronounced the Latin word “sumpsimus” as “mumpsimus” during a religious observance. When he was corrected, he refused to take correction and intentionally persisted in his error out of prideful stubbornness.

There are many mumpsimuses in Nigerian cyberspace who defend, and persist in, provably wrong usage. They deny the admissibility of correction and, when they can’t sustain their defense with the resources of logic and evidence, claim that English isn’t their native language, or that they are “creative” people who are taking liberties with the rules, who are bending the rules.

Well, to bend the rules, you first have to know the rules. Dalai Lama XIV echoed this sentiment when he said, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” Pablo Picasso said it even better: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” You can’t betray unfamiliarity with the basic rules of grammar and claim to be “creatively” bending them when you are called out.

Someone even called the rules of grammar “false rules”! Since language, every language, is inherently rule-governed, the notion that time-honored grammar rules, which are organic to the language, are “false” has to rank as the most comical defense of bad grammar I’ve encountered. No language is arbitrary or anarchic. Of course, rules change. That is what makes languages endure. A stagnant, inflexible language sooner or later withers and dies.

But changes to the rules of language don’t take place overnight— and certainly not because some mumpsimus petulantly wills it into being on social media. Language change is usually a gradual, complicated, osmotic, even imperceptible, process.  For example, tautologies (such as “most unkindest”) and double negatives (such as “I don’t want nobody”) were perfectly permissible during Shakespearean times, but have been stigmatized in the language since the 1700s, and are now considered solecistic. (For more on this, read my August 9, 2015 article titled “Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today‘s Standards.”) On the other hand, many expressions and usage patterns that were frowned upon generations ago are now accepted and socially privileged.

However, every language consciously or unconsciously polices boundaries of what is considered correct and acceptable usage at particular times either through curricular tyranny or through social and symbolic pressures. Plus, some rules hardly change in language. One of them is tense, especially the present tense. You don’t get to choose when to use the present, past, and future tenses. 

The fact that even otherwise educated and proficient users of the language can defend an incontrovertibly ungrammatical use of tense and fancy themselves as doing anything other than embarrassing themselves shows that it won’t hurt to occasionally bone up on basic grammar lessons like the meaning, uses, and functions of tenses.

That’s what I intend to do today for the benefit of people who want to learn. I will use the senator’s tweet as an example to instantiate the rules.

Tenses in English
There are primarily three tenses in English: present, past, and future tenses. I will only discuss the present tense because there is no space to discuss all of them and because only the present tense is relevant to this intervention.

 The present tense has four sub-categories, and they are “simple present,” “present continuous,” “present perfect,” and “present perfect continuous.”

The simple present expresses habitual actions that are not bound by time. Example: “Our economy grows.” Here, the sense is that this growth is not limited by time. That’s why saying “our economy grows by 1.4%” can only mean that our economy grows by 1.4% in perpetuity. That’s logically and factually impossible since the no country’s economy grows at the same rate forever. In fact, the Nigerian economy grew by 0.72 percent in the second quarter and shrank in previous quarters. The simple present tense also expresses general, enduring truths such as, “our economy grows when we have leaders who have a clue.”

The present continuous tense expresses actions that are occurring now, and typically combines a verb to be (such as “am,” “is,” and “are”) and the “ing” forms of action verbs. Example: “Our economy IS GROWING.”

The present perfect tense expresses actions that show a continuity between the past and the present or that show actions that began in the past but are not finished yet.” Example: “Our economy has grown 1.4 percent.” It means the growth started at some point in the immediate past but still subsists now because we are still in the same timeframe. That’s what Senator Sani should have written if we were still in the third quarter when he tweeted.

A defender of Senator Sani on Facebook wrote: “AS Aruwa should understand that the Distinguished Senator was right for using the simple present tense ‘Grows’ instead of ‘Grew’. The economy grows by 1.4 percent means it is still on that growth number. If it eventually changes to 2%. [sic] We will be reporting 1.4% as complete Past [sic] tense.”

People with little understanding of English grammar were persuaded by this grammatically impoverished defense. First, as I showed earlier, the name for the tense that describes actions that started in the past but with effect that continues in the present, which is what the defender describes, is “present perfect tense,” not “simple present tense.” Second, it is ungrammatical to use the morphological inflection of the simple present tense, that is, “grows,” to indicate the present perfect tense. The present perfect tense is correctly indicated with the linking verb “has” or “have” and the past participial inflection of action verbs, such as “grown.”


In last week’s column, I said “grew” was the appropriate verb to use because the third quarter ended in September, and the data for the fourth quarter would be different from the preceding one. In other words, the third quarter has no continuity with the fourth, just like the second had no continuity with the third. That makes it a simple past tense, also called a preterite. This isn’t a different “perspective.” It’s a basic rule. You either know it or you don’t.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Nobody in the North Says He’s “Born to Rule”

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

 Every once in a while, discredited urban legends get rehabilitated, infused with a new life, and recirculated to unsuspecting people. That is what is happening to the falsehood that northerners, and specifically Sokoto State, proclaim divine rights to the rulership of Nigeria. I wrote an article to falsify this myth on January 10, 2015. But the renewed circulation of the myth on social media in the past few weeks has caused many people to request that I republish the article. So here you go. It has been edited for space.

Some myths and urban legends just never die. They endure denials, resist succumbing to the truth, are impervious to reason, enjoy intergenerational perpetuation, and continually subsist on the rank ignorance that they cultivate and circulate. One such myth in Nigeria’s political discourse is the notion that northerners are so cocksure that the right to exclusively rule Nigeria in perpetuity is their manifest destiny that they have fossilized this sentiment in a license-plate slogan, which is putatively “born to rule.”


Popular narratives in Nigeria’s south have coalesced around the notion that this purported “born-to-rule” license-plate slogan belongs to Sokoto State, the cultural and symbolic epicenter of the Muslim north.

The persistence of this narrative caused me to wonder in what kinds of social circles this myth still enjoys credibility since most of the people who peddle it on the Nigerian social media sphere are really young people with very little, if any, cultural and social capital. So I searched “born to rule Sokoto Nigeria” on Google to see what comes up. I found scores of historical and contemporary references to the claim that Sokoto State’s officially sanctioned license-plate catch phrase is “Born to rule.” I found the claim in books, newspaper articles, Internet discussion forums, and so on.

I found a particularly egregious one in an opinion column by an overweeningly self-important man by the name of Ochereome Nnanna who claimed in a June 2, 2014 article in Vanguard titled “North’s lovers and deceivers” that “Sokoto State actually has ‘Born To Rule’ as its state slogan, just as we have ‘Centre of Excellence’ as the motto of Lagos State.” Notice he said “actually.” Talk of arrogance in ignorance. 

Several websites, including Wikipedia, identify Sokoto State’s slogan as “Seat of the Caliphate.” If the man has never seen a car with a Sokoto State license plate all his life, a simple Google search would have been enough to cure his insularity and provincialism. I guess he didn’t want pesky facts to get in the way of a good bigoted narrative.

But it gets even more interesting. People who discover that Sokoto State’s license-plate slogan is actually not “Born to Rule” have taken to twisting the facts to give comfort to the prejudices that they had carefully nursed for years. They say Sokoto State used to have “Born to Rule” as its state slogan but changed it in the wake of mass outrage from other Nigerians. For instance, a certain Dr. Obi Iheduru wrote on a Nigerian Internet discussion group that “The offensive state license-plate motto ‘BORN TO RULE’ was for Sokoto state…. It has since been replaced with some uninspiring inscription after objections were raised by Nigerians from several walks of life.”

First, this is a transparent lie. Second, notice that the man couldn’t even mention the putative “uninspiring inscription” that has replaced the alleged initial “Born to Rule” slogan. Yet the author of these claims appends “Ph.D.” to his name and makes assertions with the certitude of an expert on the subject. Anybody who bothers to find out will know that at no point in its history has Sokoto State ever had “Born to Rule” as its state slogan.

This is easy to verify since license-plate state slogans started only in the late 1990s in Nigeria.  Sokoto State’s official license-plate catchphrase from the beginning was and still is “Cibiyar daular usmaniyya,” which is Hausa for the nucleus or the navel of the Usman Danfodio caliphate. The English version of the slogan has been rendered as “Seat of the Caliphate,” which I think is a great idiomatic translation.

How did this ludicrously odd, easily challengeable urban legend take roots in Nigerian political discourse for so long? But, first, how did it start? A lot of people don’t realize that it started from a widely sold Nigerian current affairs pamphlet that, among other bits of information, listed states in Nigeria and their number-plate slogans. The author of the pamphlet apparently didn’t know what “Cibiyar daular usmaniyya” meant, decided against asking any Hausa speaker for help, and chose to translate the phrase into English as “Born to Rule.” And southern Nigerians who have never seen a Sokoto State license-plate number assumed that the author was right. That’s how the falsehood was inscribed in the popular consciousness of southern Nigerians. Now, it has acquired a life of its own and is almost impossible to kill.

I thought it should be obvious to any moderately intelligent person that no person who is arrogant enough to think that he is destined to rule others in perpetuity would proclaim this so loudly and even go so far as to rigidify it on a number-plate for the world to see. But this shouldn’t surprise me. A large number of Nigerians also believe that America calls itself “God’s own country” when it does not. (See my March 12, 2011 article titled “Is America ‘God’s own country’?”

Well, the “born-to-rule” urban legend is getting a new lease of life because of the passions of the politics of the moment, but it behooves those of us who earn a living by educating people to offer a robust and systematic rebuttal to this farcical lie. It won’t kill it, but it will at least offer a counter narrative for people who seek the truth.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

“Economy Grows by 1.4 %”: Grammar Q and A on a Senator’s Tweet

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

Question:
Senator Shehu Sani wrote the following on Twitter: “Good news that our economy grows by 1.4%; only that the masses will ask what does that mean.” Someone called A.S. Aruwa responded thus: “Extinguished senator, I thought it was “grew”? Don’t you think you should also take the Primary 4 competency test?” Many people on Facebook and Twitter are almost evenly divided on whether or not Senator Sani is correct. Can you wade in and settle this grammatical dispute for us?

Answer:
Only a person with insufficient knowledge of English grammar would defend the senator’s tweet as grammatically correct. In English grammar, the present tense expresses habitual action, that is, something that happens all the time. It is grammatically indefensible to say “our economy grows by 1.4%” because the growth the senator describes isn’t habitual. I looked at the statistics of Nigeria’s economic growth in the last few years and found wildly variable rates, and it is entirely conceivable that next year’s growth would be different from this year’s.

Since Nigeria’s economic growth clearly doesn’t follow a predictable, invariable pattern, it’s obvious that the senator meant to write “our economy GREW by 1.4 percent.” I won’t judge him, though, because social media platforms are notorious graveyards of grammatical correctness and completeness. 

As a consequence of the dizzying pace of social media communication, the smallness and inconvenience of the devices on which most social media interactions occur, the informality of social media platforms, and the need for lexical economy, especially on Twitter, even careful writers and grammar mavens commit avoidable errors. I’m not immune from occasional social-media-induced errors of carelessness, too. For instance, on a Facebook status update, I once wrote “jerked up petrol prices” when I meant to write “jacked up petrol prices,” among many silly errors I habitually make when I write in haste.

So I’ve learned to not judge people’s grammar on the basis of what they write on social media. I am writing on this only because scores of people have asked for my intervention and because I think it’s an opportune moment to teach a basic grammar lesson. It is not by any means intended to ridicule Senator Sani.

“Historical present”: Present tense for past events
Note that although I said the present tense only expresses habitual action, there is something called the “historical present” in grammar, which upends this rule. The historical present is the use of the present tense to express actions that happened in the past. It’s mostly used in creative fiction. But it’s also used in informal conversational English, especially in American English.

On April 22, 2010, for instance, a reader asked me the following question: “When I watch American soaps, they seem to care less 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?”

And this was my response: “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's intended to make a past event more vivid, or to signal continuity between the past and the present. In conversational English, it's particularly used with such ‘verbs of communication’ as ‘get’ (as in, ‘OK, I get it: you’re a genius!’), ‘forget’ (as in, ‘I forget his name’), ‘tell’ (as in, ‘your dad tells me you want to talk to me’). Other verbs of communication that are expressed in the historical present in speech are ‘write’ and ‘say.’ 

“I agree with you, though, that Americans tend to use the historical present more often than the British do. Of course, the historical present is rarely used in Nigerian English, except by our creative writers who deploy it in their fictional narratives. In the hypothetical dialogue you cited, however, it would be perfectly legitimate to replace ‘get’ with ‘got.’ In fact, in formal contexts, ‘got’ would be especially appropriate.”

I want to add that for the historical present to be effective and acceptable, it should be consistent. If I am describing my childhood, for example, using the historical present, that is, using the present tense to narrate past events in order to lend them vividness, I cannot slip in and out of the present and past tenses. I should consistently use the present tense.

In feature writing the historical present is also permissible, even encouraged. That’s why you find attributions like:

 “I love what I do here,” Danjuma says.

In the above quote and attribution, it’s obvious that Danjuma doesn’t always say “I love what I do here.” He probably only said it once to a reporter at some time in the past, but the attribution, that is, “says,” is in the present tense. That’s perfectly acceptable in feature writing. It gives intensity and color to narrative writing. In straight, hard-news writing, however, the attribution would be in the past tense, that is, it would be “Danjuma said.”

I tell my students that I will only penalize their use of the historical present in feature writing if they are not consistent with it. If they write “Smith says” in one place and “Williams said” in another, I would assume that they are either incompetent or careless users of tenses and penalize them for it.

Not historical present, but headlinese
Although the historical present is justified in creative fiction, feature writing, and conversational English, Senator Sani’s use of “grows” in his tweet isn’t an instance of the use of the historical present. His tweet was informed by news stories with headlines that approximate this: “Nigeria's economy grows 1.4 percent in Q3: data.”

So, apparently, the senator’s tweet was only echoing the news headlines of the day. That means it should correctly have been written in the past tense since the senator isn’t a news reporter. Here is what I mean.

You see, every profession has its distinctive style of English usage. For instance, the turgid, tautological language of lawyers is called “legalese.” The stilted, pretentiously formal language of government bureaucrats is called “bureaucratese” or “officialese.” Corporate executives speak and write “corporatese.” Medical doctors write and speak “medicalese.” And so on and so forth.

Well, journalists also write and speak journalese, and there is a branch of journalese called “headlinese” (or headline English), which is the grammatical and expressive style that is unique to news headlines and which would be ungrammatical in non-journalistic contexts.

For instance, headline writers almost always use the present tense to describe past events in order to give them an appearance of recency. That’s why you read headlines like “Boko Haram kills 20 people in Maiduguri” even when the killings took place a day earlier, or why you read headlines like “American economy grows 10 percent in third quarter” even when we are reading the news of the growth in the fourth quarter, which should make it a past event.

If you pay close attention to journalistic writing, you’d notice that although headlines about past events are often written in the present tense, the main story is always written in the past tense. A headline’s job is to call attention to a story, to grab the reader by the jugular, and the psychology of news consumption shows that readers are less likely to read a story if, from the headline, it comes across as a bygone event. In a way, you might call the present tense in news headlines as a reportorial marketing gimmick.

Now, there is no reason why someone who isn’t casting a news headline should use the present tense to describe a past event. In other words, leave headlinese to journalists. Every truly educated journalist knows that the present tense in news headlines is ungrammatical, but we insist on using it because news is a commodity that must be sold in the market, and we know readers gravitate more to news that is fresh and vivid than to news that is stale and dull.

Interestingly, for some reason, Nigerian English speakers have been seduced by headlinese in ways other speakers of the English language aren’t. For example, in headlinese, we dispense with articles (such as “a,” “an,” and “the”) and conjunctions (such as “and” and “but”) in order to save headline space in print journalism. So the idiom “in the soup” became “in soup” in news headlines. Over time, however, Nigerian English speakers stopped saying “he is in the soup”; they now say “he is in soup” as if they are casting newspaper headlines.

Headlinese also has a fondness for monosyllabic alternatives to polysyllabic words and for the abbreviation of long words in order to conserve space. That’s why “slay” is preferred to “murder,” “nab” is preferred to “arrest,” “cop” is preferred to “police,” “biz man” is used instead of “business man,” “gov” instead of “governor” or “governorship” (Nigerian headline writers have invented “guber” as a short form of “gubernatorial”), and so on.

Journalese and headlinese have a long tradition. However, when someone uses them in contexts that are not journalistic it is legitimate to describe them as having committed a grammatical error.

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Politics of Grammar Column

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Remember Enoch Opeyemi Who Claimed to have Solved the Riemann Hypothesis?

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Two years ago, a certain Dr. Enoch Opeyemi who teaches mathematics at the Federal University in Oye-Ekiti suckered the Nigerian and British media into believing that he had solved the 156-year-old Riemann Hypothesis and would earn the $1 million prize for this "feat" from the US-based Clay Mathematics Institute.

In my November 21, 2015 column titled, “'Mathematical' Enoch Opeyemi and the Making of Another Nigerian Intellectual 419er,” I pointed out that Opeyemi’s claims didn’t stand up to scrutiny. “The moment I read about Dr. Enoch Opeyemi's claim to have solved the 156-year-old Riemann Hypothesis in the Vanguard of November 15, 2015, I didn't need to read a second opinion to know it was suspect at best and fraudulent at worst,” I wrote.

Certain credulous Nigerians attacked me for this. The more reasonable ones among them said since the Clay Mathematics Institute said it would reward any claim to have solved the hypothesis only if such a claim is published in a reputable mathematical journal and remains unchallenged in the mathematical scholarly community for two years, I should wait two years before pronouncing Opeyemi a delusional scammer.

Well, I have waited two years. I checked the website of the Clay Mathematics Institute, and the Riemann Hypothesis that Opeyemi claimed to have solved two years ago is still listed as “unsolved.” So, clearly, Opeyemi fooled the Nigerian and British media who in turn fooled the world. Some of us who saw through the chicanery and pointed it out were called cynical, negative, hypercritical, and even accused of being jealous of a high-achieving Nigerian scholar.

When Opeyemi’s claims invited a critical mass of scrutiny from sundry scholars and commentators, he chose to grant a TV interview to a popular Nigerian pastor by the name of Sunday Adelaja. During the interview, Opeyemi made even more ridiculous claims that, frankly, call his very sanity into question.

A Yale University PhD student in mathematics, for instance, was particularly clinical in tearing Opeyemi’s claims to shreds. In his attempt to undermine the Yale University PhD student during the TV interview, Opeyemi said PhD students don't publish in scholarly outlets until they have defended their doctoral dissertations, and that his challenger wasn’t worthy of any attention.

It takes unusual ignorance for a person who supposedly has a PhD to make that kind of outrageously fallacious claim. In many PhD programs in the US students are not allowed to graduate until they have published in well-regarded academic journals. This is especially true of the hard sciences.

It also turned out that Opeyemi plagiarized a paper on the Riemann Hypothesis and uploaded it onto his academia.edu page. (It isn’t clear if it was the plagiarized paper he presented as his “solution” to the Riemann Hypothesis). When Adelaja asked him about this, his defense was that the plagiarized paper on his academia.edu page was uploaded by someone who hacked into his account! But the plagiarized paper had been on his academia.edu page months before he attracted attention to himself through his false, ridiculous claims.

I am dredging up this issue for two related reasons. One, we tend to be amnesic, and because we’re amnesic we continually fall victim to the same cheap scam tactics. To rejig the memories of people who forgot about this issue, here is an abridged version of my November 21, 2015 column:

Now, Opeyemi’s only evidence for claiming to have solved the Riemann Hypothesis was that he presented a paper on the puzzle at the International Conference on Mathematics and Computer Science in Vienna, Austria.

Well, it has turned out that the conference itself may be a borderline scam operation. An August 20, 2011 blog post titled “Fake Paper Accepted by Nina Ringo's Vienna Conference” revealed that a scientist by the name of Mohammad Homayoun who was suspicious of the genuineness of the International Conference on Mathematics and Computer Science (ICMC) decided to test his suspicion by submitting a fake, worthless, nonsensical paper to the conference to see if it would be accepted or rejected.

The researcher’s hunch was accurate: the ICMC in Vienna appears to be an elaborate, money-making scholarly scam. His paper was accepted even though it was intentionally nonsensical. “The conference claims that submissions/papers are reviewed/refereed BUT they are not,” the researcher wrote. “A fake paper was submitted for evaluation to intercomp2011@gmail.com on Sun, Jan 2, 2011. The notification of acceptance was received on Sun, Jan 9, 2011.” That’s just one week of “peer review.”

But even if the conference were genuine, and it could very well be, you can't prove something as momentous as a 156-year-old mathematical problem with a mere conference presentation. In the rituals of knowledge production in academe, for any claim to be taken seriously, it has to be published in a well-regarded, peer-reviewed outlet, such as a journal. This is elementary knowledge…

 My sense is that Dr. Opeyemi genuinely fancies himself as having solved this mathematical puzzle, and his self-construal of his intellectual machismo got a boost when his paper got accepted for presentation at a conference in Vienna, Austria. In the now rampant xenophilic academic culture in Nigeria that uncritically valorizes the foreign, for one's paper to be accepted at an "international" (read: white) academic conference is seen as an endorsement of one's peerless scholarly prowess. 

Never mind that many of these “international” conferences and journals are actually fraudulent.
When naive xenophilia seamlessly commingles with the kind of mortifyingly cringe-worthy credulity that pervades the Nigerian media landscape AND the progressive dearth and death of basic fact-checking in even international media outlets like the BBC, you end up with embarrassing stories like this.

This is not the first time this has happened. In July 2011, another Nigerian academic by the name of Michael Atovigba claimed to have solved the same Riemann Hypothesis. The ever so gullible Nigerian media believed and celebrated him. The reason Atovigba convinced himself that he had solved the mathematical puzzle that Opeyemi now also claims to have solved was that his paper (which has only seven references, four of which are from Wikipedia!) was found “worthy” of publication in an "international" journal, which turned out to be a notoriously worthless, predatory, bait-and-switch Pakistan-based journal that masquerades as a UK journal….

Atovigba told the (Nigerian) Guardian that he would get his $1 million reward from the Clay Mathematics Institute now that he had published his “proof” in a “reputable international journal.” Four years after, another deluded Nigerian “scientist” claims to have proved the same hypothesis for which Atovigba is still expecting his $1 million, and the media’s legendary amnesia ensures that these clowns continue to expose Nigeria and Nigerians to international ridicule. Incredible!


What is even more incredible is that a Nigerian BBC correspondent’s story on Opeyemi, inspired by Vanguard’s initial reporting (which was itself instigated by Opeyemi himself), has caused the British media to perpetrate Opeyemi’s misrepresentation. Now, the British media’s uncritical echoing of Opeyemi’s initial lie is invoked as evidence to lend credibility to his claims to a non-existent feat. It has become one labyrinthine network of tortuous, self-reinforcing falsehoods. Only Philip Emeagwali’s carefully packaged fraud outrivals this.  

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Social Class Prejudice in Nigerian Teacher Competency Tests

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

The results of the teacher competency test in Kaduna State—and in several Nigerian states in previous years—give literal materiality to Oscar Wilde’s satiric epigram about how “everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.”

The samples Kaduna State governor Nasiru El-Rufai made public on social media may be unrepresentative. They probably merely serve to hyperbolize the egregiousness of the teachers’ incompetence and to win the governor public support.

 But I cannot in good conscience defend the continued employment of teachers I would never allow to teach even my enemies’ kids, much less my own kids. That’s my own irreducibly minimum personal morality test on the issue.

But it’s also true that the sacking of the incompetent teachers merely scratches the surface of a problem that is considerably high and deep. For one, the remuneration for primary school teachers is now among the worst in the country. When my dad was a primary school Arabic and Islamic Studies teacher in the 1970s and 1980s, his salary was sufficient to sustain a fairly comfortable lower middle-class lifestyle for us. He was even able to save enough to start building a 4-bedroom house until Buhari and Idiagbon struck in 1983, and things went downhill from there.

Today, public primary school teachers aren’t just poorly paid; they are usually owed salaries for months on end. As the English saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. I’d add that if you pay nothing, you get nothing.  As I pointed out in my August 6, 2016 column titled “Nigeria as a Perverse Anarchist Paradise,” “When I grew up in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s, private primary schools were few and far between, and the existing ones at the time had a need to boldly inscribe on their signposts that they were ‘government approved’ to legitimize their existence. Even so, private primary schools were almost completely absent in rural Nigeria.

“During my last visit to Nigeria, the only primary schools that were in session in the whole of Kwara State (and this is true of most other states) were private primary schools. Government primary schools were closed because teachers were on strike to protest months of unpaid salaries. Several people told me even if teachers weren’t on strike people with even a little means have learned to not send their children to government primary schools because government schools have become the graveyards of learning and creativity.”

So if El-Rufai won’t increase teacher pay, his reform would be mere superficial window-dressing because the half-wits he is weeding out now will most definitely be replaced by people who won’t be different from them. He would have my full support if he were to say, “I will triple teacher pay and insist that only the most qualified are recruited.”

Of course, this should be replicated at all levels of education—and even beyond—for it to be meaningful. Limiting it to only primary school teachers would not just be callous grandstanding; it would be exhibitionistic trampling on the weak and the helpless.

For starters, if the governor is sincere, the people who set and graded the competency exams should also be fired. They, too, have no business being judges of anyone’s competence. From inexcusably poor grammar, to inept and fuzzily worded questions, to questionable grading (for example, a teacher lost points for not prefixing “Malam” to El-Rufai’s name!), they are nearly as incompetent as the people they are causing to (justifiably) lose their jobs.

And I can bet my boots that if a governance competency test were conducted for Nigeria’s leaders—from the very top to the bottom—most of them would fail, but their fiercest defenders would be the very people they routinely oppress and dehumanize. It’s the same twisted mentality that explains why poor, petty thieves are burned alive by other poor people but wealthy politicians who feed off the misery of the poor are celebrated and defended by the poor.

As someone whose intellectual and ideological temperaments are irrevocably and unapologetically pro-poor, I hate for people to lose their jobs, but you can’t have uneducated and uneducable adults "educating" poor people’s children and thereby ensuring an invidious intergenerational perpetuation of a vicious cycle of poverty.

Education is the greatest social leveler. There are very few Nigerians who come from moneyed or aristocratic dynasties.  Access to decent basic public education was the propeller for many people’s social rise. That access is now being denied to the children of the poor. They are condemned to be taught by “teachers” who are incapable of learning or who are too poorly paid to bother with teaching, in schools that aren’t even fit for animals, and under the watch of political leaders who don’t spare a thought for decent public education because their own children are either abroad or in the best Nigerian private schools.

 That means the children of the poor can’t escape the poverty trap that many of us children of poor parents escaped through access to decent public education.

In a bizarre way, nonetheless, several (certainly not all) of the people who celebrate the competency tests for primary school teachers and those who condemn them are unified by a common contempt for the poor: several who celebrate the tests do so only because the tests target a weak, poor segment of the society, and those who decry them do so because they’re not personally affected by the poor quality of teachers at public primary schools since their own kids are either abroad or in private primary schools.

But overhauling public primary school education through incentivizing teaching and then recruiting the best is crucial to securing our future. I hope that is Governor El-Rufai’s ultimate goal.

Fake Lai Mohammed Quote on Nigerian Social Media
When fake, satiric quotes attributed to you are indistinguishable from your real, everyday utterances, you know you’re the very proverb for untruthfulness. A quote trending on Nigerian WhatsApp groups— and that is now spilling over to Facebook and Twitter—credits Information Minister Lai Mohammed with having said, "PMB's government has spent almost N2 trillion on infrastructural projects. But you can't see it because of the huge size of these projects."

It would have been insanely rib-tickling if it were true, but Lai Mohammed actually never said that. Search the sentence on Google and you won’t find a record of it anywhere. The meme suspiciously never mentions when and where Lai allegedly made the statement. That was a dead giveaway for me. But I honestly don’t blame people who were suckered into believing its authenticity. I, too, was almost had, and it’s precisely because Lai had told fibs in the past that compete with that quote in incredulity.

A transparently compulsive liar who perpetually says he has never lied in his life (a claim even saints can’t and won’t make), who barefacedly tells the basest, most audacious lies without the slightest pang of compunction, and who has come to embody mendacity at its vilest is capable of telling any kind of lie. I think that’s why people are primed to believe the worst of Lai Mohammed. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Moslem,” “Journey Mercies,” “Stay blessed”: Q and A on Nigerian Religious English and More

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

Is it “Moslem” or “Muslim”? Are the expressions “remain blessed” or “stay blessed” uniquely Nigerian? Can “guys” be used to refer to both men and women? Is “majorly” a legitimate word? You will find answers to these and many other questions in this week’s edition of my Q and A series.


Question:
A Muslim friend of mine took offence when I spelled Muslim as “Moslem.” I told him Moslem is the accepted English spelling and that Muslim is the Arabic rendition. Since I am speaking or writing English I thought I should use the accepted English spelling. Can you help me educate my friend?

Answer:
Your friend may be a little too thin-skinned for his own good if he takes offense at the mere (mis)spelling of a word, but his objection to the spelling of “Muslim” as “Moslem” has basis in modern English. Most modern dictionaries and style guides now prefer “Muslim” to “Moslem.”  The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, says “Muslim is the preferred spelling for a ‘follower of Islam’….The archaic term Muhammadan (or Mohammedan) …should be avoided.”

The 2017 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, America’s most prestigious journalistic style guide, also writes: “Muslims [is] the preferred term to describe adherents of Islam.” Finally, in their book Longman Guide to English Usage, Professors Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, two of Britain’s most celebrated grammarians, wrote: “The adherents of Islam are now usually referred to as Muslims, rather than the older form Moslems.”

So, in essence, many educated native speakers of the English language no longer spell Muslim as “Moslem.” This change is a response to the preference of Muslims. Related spellings that have changed over the years are Qur’an (instead of the now archaic “Koran”) and Muhammad (instead of “Mohammed” or the older, more archaic “Mahomet”). The changes are also a response to the preferences of Muslims, although many Muslims still spell Muhammad as “Mohammed” even in the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam.

Question:
I have a question for your column. "Stay blessed" and "remain blessed," are these Nigerian expressions? What are about "journey mercies"?

Answer:
“Stay blessed” or “remain blessed” (sometimes incorrectly written as “stay bless” or “remain bless”) are not exactly uniquely Nigerian English expressions, but Nigerians use them way more frequently than native English speakers do. These expressions, which are often used to sign off letters and emails, are scarcely used by the general populations in America and Britain. Only very religious, compulsively churchgoing people in America, and perhaps Britain, use them. The general populations in America and Britain end their emails with expressions like “kind regards,” “best,” “best wishes,” “take care,” etc.

The expression “I wish you journey mercies” is also church lingo in America. The general population says “I wish you a safe trip” or just “have a safe trip.” Before writing this response, I asked a number of Americans if they would understand me if I said “journey mercies” to them. Of the 10 or so people I asked, only one had any clue what the expression meant, and that one person is a churchgoer who said she would never use the expression in everyday settings.

But Nigerians are overtly, some would say overly, religious people, and this reflects in their language use.

Question:
I have two questions. First, is there a word like "majorly"? I have been unable to find it in any of the dictionaries available to me. Second, does one move the adoption of the minutes of a meeting or move for the adoption?

Answer:
Yes, “majorly” is a legitimate word. It means extremely, mainly, chiefly, etc. Examples of the word’s usage in my dictionary are: “majorly successful," "I feel majorly better," "he is majorly interested in butterflies." The reason you don’t find the word in basic dictionaries is that it’s a relatively recent word. It was formed first as a slang term in the US and Canada in the 1980s, but it’s now used and accepted across all the major varieties of English. In fact, Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest-surviving and most prestigious dictionary in the English language, has an entry for the word.

 To answer your second question, one moves a motion for the adoption of the minutes of a meeting.

Question:
I’m a student in Nigeria. I often hear my colleagues use “guys” to refer to for both genders. My question is: is the word conventionally accepted for both genders in America?

Answer:
The straightforward answer is yes. The singular form of the word, that is, “guy,” is an informal term reserved only for a man, as in, “He is a really great guy.” But the plural form of the word, that is, “guys,” can be, and is often, used to refer to men alone, women alone, and men and women combined. Women here in America frequently say “let’s get going, guys!” when they address an all-female company. And it is conventional to refer to a mix-gender company as “guys.”

My students and I actually discussed this issue extensively two weeks ago during a class on gendered language in the news media. At least two things came out from the discussion. First, “guys” has not always been used to refer to both men and women; its use as gender-neutral plural is a relatively recent semantic evolution. Second, the use of “guys” to refer to people of either gender first took roots in northern United States before it crossed over to the South. One of my students said her parents told her one of the definitive shibboleths (that is, a manner of speaking that marks people out) of Yankees (as people from the American south call their northern compatriots) was their tendency to use “guys” where southerners would say “you all” (often pronounced “y’all”).

But it’s important to note that in modern informal English, in both America and Britain, it’s now wholly legitimate to use “guys” to refer to either gender. This sense of the word has already been captured even in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Question:
What grammatical rules are responsible for the hyphenation or non-hyphenation of some compound nouns /words/expressions such as: backbone, back-breaking, birthmark, birthplace, blood-red, etc.?

Answer:
Hyphens perform many functions in written English, but for reasons of space and time I will touch on only a few of them.

 First, hyphens are joiners; they help form new words by joining words that are traditionally different into a single word. For example, what used to be “electronic mail” up until the 1980s became “e-mail” in the 1990s, and “email” in most dictionaries in the later part of the 2000s. Similarly, the words “proof” and “read” were hyphenated to form “proof-read.” Now, there is no hyphen in the word: it’s correctly spelled “proofread.”

It helps to note, though, that unlike other punctuation marks, there are no standard, universal rules for hyphenating words. Different style guides have different rules about hyphenation. In general, however, hyphenation is used to avoid ambiguity. For example, the hyphen helps us differentiate between the words “recover” and “re-cover.” While “recover” can mean recoup, recuperate, or get back (as in, “he recovered from his illness”), “re-cover” means to cover again (as in, “he re-covered the table after the wind blew the tablecloth away”).

Second, the hyphen is used to avoid what the Associated Press Stylebook calls “duplicated vowels” such as “anti-intellectual” and “pre-empt,” or tripled consonants such as “shell-like.” However, some words with duplicated vowels, such as “cooperate” and “coordinate” are not hyphenated by many style guides and dictionaries.

Third, in forming what grammarians call compound modifiers, hyphens are indispensable. Compound modifiers are two or more words that act like an adjective and appear before a noun. Examples: the good-for-nothing governor of my state, little-known heroes, etc.

Question:
On the bodies of tankers carrying fuel in Nigeria, we often see the inscriptions “Highly Inflammable” or “Highly flammable.” Which one is correct?

Answer:
I’ve answered this question before. Here is what I wrote: “Both expressions are correct. Flammable and inflammable mean one and the same thing. You can use one in place of the other. Many people mistake inflammable to be the antonym of flammable. They are wrong. The proper antonym of flammable is ‘non-flammable.’ Other alternatives are ‘fireproof’ and ‘incombustible.’”

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Ghost of PDP is Haunting Buhari’s Government

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

Karl Marx famously started the Communist Manifesto with the following ominous words: “A spectre [i.e., a ghost] is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” When I think about the Buhari government’s enduringly monomaniacal obsession with PDP, I can’t help recalling Marx and saying, “A spectre is haunting Buhari’s government—the spectre of PDP.” Only that it’s a PDP it defeated in an unprecedented electoral upset in 2015.
Buhari said he would take personal responsibility for the actions and inactions of his government, now his officials blame PDP for everything that is wrong the government
Right from its inception to now, the Buhari government has spent its every waking moment quaking in its boots in debilitating dread of the ghost of PDP. The last few weeks have seen a particularly unexampled uptick in the evocation of PDP to explain away government’s incompetence and dishonesty. Let’s recapture a few of them.

On October 25, 2017, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity Malam Garba Shehu said, in spite of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, that PDP was responsible for reinstating and promoting alleged pension fraudster Abdulrasheed Maina. “[S]ome influential officials loyal to the previous government may have been the invisible hand in the latest scandal that saw the return of Maina to the public service, despite being on the EFCC’s wanted list,” he said in press statement.

Well, now that a leaked memo from the Head of Service of the Federation, which hasn’t been disclaimed, has revealed that President Buhari was aware of, and actually signed off on, Maina’s recall and promotion, who might these “influential officials loyal to the previous government” whose “invisible hand” actuated the Maina scandal be? Perhaps, Malami, Dambazzau, or even Buhari himself?

On October 28, 2017, Colonel Hameed Ali, a Buhari confidant and Comptroller General of Nigerian Customs service, said, “Today, with all sense of responsibility, I want to say that we have 50 per cent of PDP in our government. How can we move forward with this load?...Today, we have members of the PDP calling the shots.”

On October 31, 2017, Personal Assistant to the President on Social Media by the name of Lauretta Onochie said PDP isn’t just 50 percent of the present government; it’s actually omnipresent and omnipotent. “That brings me to those in this government who are here to serve themselves [that] colonel Hameed Ali… called PDP. They said that there is about 50 percent of them in this government, but I say no they are more than 50 percent. They are everywhere; they are in the presidency, they are in the National Assembly, you can find them in the judiciary, they are in the law enforcement agencies…”

On November 2, 2017, Imo State governor Rochas Okorocha, who is the sole APC governor in the southeast, said, “It is not that 50 per cent of PDP are running this government alone, but that PDP members are holding major plum jobs in the country which, if it were PDP government, they won’t have allowed. They are getting fattened as a result and ready to fight us.”

And on November 3, 2017, Femi Adesina, the president’s Senior Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, implied that PDP is the reason Buhari goes to London for medical treatment. “The question is, ‘What did they do with that money? Why didn’t they fix our hospitals in all those years that we had boom?’” he said during an appearance on an AIT news show called “Focus Nigeria.”

It makes you wonder if PDP is also responsible for the Buhari administration’s inability or unwillingness to equip Aso Rock clinic with basic medical equipment more than two years after being in power and after budgeting billions of naira for it.

On October 9, Mrs. Buhari had cause to lament the appalling state of Aso Rock Clinic. “Few weeks ago I was sick as well,” she said. “They advised me to take a first flight to London. I refused to go. I said I must be treated in Nigeria because there is a budget for an assigned clinic to take care of us. If the budget was N100 million, we need to know the way the budget is spent…. There are lots of constructions going on in that clinic but there is no single syringe there.”

Mrs. Buhari’s fulmination came in the wake of her daughter’s Twitter outrage a week earlier. Why didn’t anyone tell them that they were barking up the wrong tree? They should have been told to complain to the ghost of PDP, which is apparently still dictating the direction of the current government.

As the reader can see, the opinions of key players in this government appear to coalesce around the consensus that PDP is still in power and is responsible for all the actions and inactions of the current government.

It is entirely in the realm of plausibility that the Buhari government spokespeople and officials will find a way to spin the latest $1.4 million military contract scam involving, according to TheCable of November 8, “Mansur Dan-Ali,… minister of defence, Danjuma Nanfo, the immediate past permanent secretary in the ministry, and LYM Hassan, a brigadier-general and coordinator of peacekeeping” and link it to the PDP.

At this rate, PDP may even be accused of metaphysically inhabiting in Buhari’s very body since he is, in many cases, directly or indirectly involved in several of the scandals PDP is blamed for!
None of what I’ve written is intended to make light of PDP’s disastrous 16-year rule. PDP was unquestionably a monster of depravity when it held sway, but APC is not any better. Plus, it’s in power now and has all the legal instruments it needs to summarily dislodge, if it so desires, the faintest vestige of PDP wherever it exists.

In fact, even the PDP itself expected to be dislocated, isolated, and contained as soon as it lost power. Senator Silas Zwingina notably said in the run-up to presidential election in 2015 that it was imperative to stop Buhari from winning because he would send crooked PDP politicians like him to jail. “As you know, there is no way you will hold office in Nigeria and go scot free if the authorities want to get you,” he said. “Buhari is determined to send people to jail and even APC governors are not comfortable with him, and that’s why many of them are not following his campaign team.”

More than two years on, Buhari hasn’t only embraced the very people who dreaded him, his officials now say those same people are the engine of his government. What stops the government from removing all the PDP members it says still constitute the bulk of its personnel and are responsible for its underachievement? Of course, everyone knows the answer: “PDP” is merely a bogeyman, a deceptive rhetorical crutch that functions to deflect attention from the government’s failures, incompetence, and unpreparedness to govern.

 An English proverb says a bad workman blames his tools. We can rephrase that to: an incompetent, unprepared government blames the ghosts of the opponents it has vanquished.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Boss Mustapha and Silly, Ungrammatical Titular Vanity among Nigerian Politicians

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

New Secretary to the Government of the Federation Boss Mustapha struck at the core of the titular conceit of Nigerian politicians when he said last Thursday that he didn’t want to be burdened with silly honorific prefixes like “Your Excellency,” “Honorable,” etc., which he said were unconstitutional and unnecessary.

 “I will make a passionate appeal: I don’t know where you people get this ‘Your Excellency’ from,” he said. “Some of the nomenclatures are banana peels. I often hear people say ‘Executive Governor.’ I say look at the constitution; there is nothing like executive governor. It is governor of a state. I want to simply be addressed as SGF, please.”

Former Jigawa State governor Sule Lamido also famously rejected Nigeria’s exhibitionistic titular conventions for governors when he told journalists that he didn’t want to be addressed as “Your Excellency” or described as an “Executive Governor.” He said he wanted to be addressed simply as “Governor Sule Lamido.” I don’t know if this panned out during his governorship, but it’s refreshing that there are what one might call oases of sanity and titular modesty in Nigeria’s desert of inflated, title-crazed, oversized egos.

While it’s entirely defensible to contort, relexicalize, and resemanticize the English language—or any language, for that matter—to express  the unique socio-cultural thoughts and values of a people, Mustapha and Lamido are right to call attention to the abuse of titles in Nigeria. Today’s column lends a linguistic perspective to Mustapha’s and Lamido’s unease with superfluous, flamboyant, often misused and worthless, English titles.

“Your/His Excellency”: In Nigerian English, “Your Excellency” or “His Excellency” or “Her Excellency” is prefixed to the names of just about all self-important, high-ranking bureaucrats and their spouses. That’s why wives of presidents, vice presidents, governors, deputy governors, and even local government chairmen and vice chairmen are “Excellencies.”

 But in most countries, the “Excellency” title is used only for presidents, vice presidents, state governors, ambassadors, viceroys, Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops, English colonial governors, and the Governor General of Canada (who is still symbolically an English colonial governor because he is the representative of the Queen of England in Canada.)

 Although America’s first president used “His Excellency” as part of his titles of honor, the title has now fallen into disuse here. If you pay attention to American politics and culture, you will notice that Americans don’t address their president as “His Excellency” or “Your Excellency.” He is simply “Mr. President” (a female president would be called “Madam President”), and only “President” is prefixed to his name. (President is a lifetime title in the US, which means once you’re a president you will continue to earn the right to prefix “president” to your name.)

Unlike Nigerians, Americans don’t prefix “Her Excellency” to the names of their First Ladies. In fact, “First Lady” isn’t even a formal title of address. The president’s wife is addressed as, “Mrs. (First name) (Last name), First Lady of the United States of America” or “Mrs. (First name) (Last name), Wife of the Governor of (name of state)” or “Mrs. (First name) (Last name), First Lady of (name of state).”  Wives of the vice president and lieutenant governors (as Americans call their deputy governors) have no titles. They are typically addressed as, “Mrs. (First name) (husband’s last name), wife of the Vice President or “Mrs. (First name) (husband’s last name), wife of the Lieutenant Governor of (Name of State).”

Out of America’s 50 states, only about 13 (someone said it’s just 3) officially call their governors “His/Her Excellency” in official communication only. The rest call them “Honorable” in formal address. But only “Governor” is prefixed to their names in everyday conversations and news reports, as in, “Governor (First name) (Last name).” American ambassadors’ names are also prefixed with the title “the honorable,” not “His/Her/Your Excellency.”

Of course, no law of nature says we must mimic Americans, or that we can’t tweak their titles and make them ours, but the Nigerian formal address for governors is frankly exhausting in its titular vainglory: “Your Excellency, the Executive Governor of (name of state) Alhaji Chief Dr. (First name) (Middle name) (Last name).”

“Executive (fill in the blank)”: Presidents, governors, and local government chairmen/chairwomen in Nigeria are invariably “executive.” This is superfluous and needlessly egotistic. “Executive” is prefixed to the name of a position only when it is necessary to differentiate it from a “ceremonial” position. For instance, during Nigeria’s First Republic, there was a “ceremonial president” in the person of Nnamdi Azikiwe who had no substantive powers. Substantive powers resided with the Prime Minister.

So when Nigeria adopted the American presidential system in the Second Republic, it became necessary to prefix “executive” to the name of the president to show that, unlike in the First Republic when the president had no executive powers and when the Prime Minister who was head of government was a member of the legislature, the newly elected president had executive powers. In America, whose presidential system we have adopted, the president is never referred to as an “executive president” because it goes without saying that he is the head of the executive branch of government.

 And, of course, it is totally pointless to prefix “executive” to the names of governors, local government chairmen/chairwomen, etc. since we never had or have ceremonial governors or chairmen/chairwomen in the past or at present. Since governors and chairmen/chairwomen have executive powers in their spheres of influence as a matter of constitutional right, it’s a waste of words to prefix “executive” to their titles. It’s as pointless as saying “legislative senators” or “judicial judges.”

Vice presidents, deputy governors, or local government vice chairmen/chairwomen can’t logically prefix “executive” to their names because they don’t even have constitutional powers to take executive decisions unless their superiors delegate such responsibilities to them.

This also applies, to some extent, to such titles as “executive director,” “executive editor,” etc. The term “executive” is justified only if a company has subordinate directors who are not CEOs or if a newspaper has an honorary editor who exercises no real editorial decision-making powers. In American English “Executive Editor” and “Editor-in-Chief” are synonymous.

“Distinguished Senator”: I have heard people say this title is unique to Nigerian English. That’s not exactly true. American senators routinely refer to their colleagues as “distinguished senator” out of conversational courtesy—just like British lawyers call each other “learned friend” or “learned colleague.” “Distinguished” here denotes “illustrious,” “respectable,” or “gentlemanly.”  I am certain that the Nigerian use of “distinguished senator” owes lexical debt to America since, in any case, our democracy is modelled after theirs.

 However, only Nigerian senators capitalize the first letters in the expression, make it an honorific, and prefix it to their names, such as “Distinguished Senator (First name) (Last name).” In fact, “distinguished” has become a standalone title, as if the word were a noun. This would strike Americans as quaint and comical.

In American English, the phrase typically occurs this way: “I disagree with the distinguished senator from Georgia” or “The distinguished senator from Oregon made a great point,” etc. In other words, “distinguished senator” is just a phrase, not a title. “Distinguished Senator (First name) (Last name)” is a ridiculous as lawyers being addressed as “Learned Colleague (First name) (Last name).” US senators are addressed simply as “Senator (First name) (Last name).”

“Honorable”: Different countries have different conventions for this honorific. In Britain, from where we copied it, “honorable,” often rendered as “the Hon.,” is used with the first name for the children of viscounts, barons, and life peers and peeresses, and for the younger sons of earls. E.g. The Hon. William Adams.

It’s also prefixed to the names of certain high-level political appointees or elected representatives—such as members of parliament, ministers, commissioners, legislators, etc. The only difference is that in both the UK and the US, “the Honorable” is only used in writing—typically in official email or snail mail communication—and not in speech. In speech, government officials entitled to the honor of using the title are addressed simply as “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Ms.” Most importantly, the title is never used self-referentially, that is, people who are entitled to use it never refer to themselves by the title, such as is common in Nigeria where members of the House of Representatives, for example, introduce themselves as, “I am Honorable (First name) (Last name.)”

“Right Honorable”: I see that the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Nigeria styles himself “Right Honorable.” Well, in the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives does not use that title.  The formal title prefixed to the name of the Speaker is just “Honorable,” and he or she is formally addressed as “Mr. Speaker” or “Madam Speaker.”

“Right Honorable” is a uniquely British title and refers only to members of the Privy Council, a body of eminent serving and retired politicians that advises the British monarch. Members of Parliament who are appointed as cabinet ministers automatically become members of the Privy Council if they weren’t members before.  Members of Parliament who are not appointed to cabinet positions are not addressed as “Right Honorable.”; they are simply “Honorable.”

So in Nigeria we have an American-style Speaker with a British-style title, perhaps because “Right Honorable” sounds grand and intimidating. Technically, you can’t have a “Right Honorable” without a Privy Council, which we can’t have in Nigeria because we operate an American-style presidential system of government, not a British-style parliamentary system of government. To address someone who isn’t a member of any Privy Council a “Right Honorable” is honorific inflation.

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