"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Sunday, February 18, 2018

African Words in America’s Gullah English Dialect (I)

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

Last week I identified some notable African onomastic (onomastics is the science of personal names) influences among the Gullah people. This week I’ll highlight a few African lexical influences in the Gullah English dialect. But before I do that, I’d like to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that Clarence Thomas, the only black person in the US Supreme Court and the second black person to ever be appointed to the US Supreme Court after Thurgood Marshall, spoke Gullah as a child—and still speaks it whenever he so desires.

In 2000, according to the New York Times on December 14, 2000, he told a 16-year-old high school student that his remarkable reticence in the Supreme Court and elsewhere has roots that go back to his childhood. As a child, he said, he was taunted by his peers and teachers for speaking his Gullah English dialect (which he said was more popularly known as Geechee in Savanah, Georgia, where he grew up) or for allowing Gullah influences to creep into his standard spoken English.

“When I was 16, I was sitting as the only black kid in my class, and I had grown up speaking a kind of a dialect. It's called Geechee. Some people call it Gullah now, and people praise it now,” he said. “But they used to make fun of us back then. It's not standard English. When I transferred to an all-white school at your age, I was self-conscious, like we all are…. And the problem was that I would correct myself midsentence. I was trying to speak standard English. I was thinking in standard English but speaking another language. So I learned that — I just started developing the habit of listening…. I didn't ask questions in college or law school. And I found that I could learn better just listening.”

Perhaps he meant to say he thought in Gullah and tried to translate his thoughts into Standard English and couldn’t help the episodic, involuntary intrusions of Gullah.

Michelle Obama is also said to be descended from Gullah ancestors on her paternal side, although neither she nor her parents speak, or ever spoke, Gullah because their forebears left the Sea Islands many generations ago. It was her great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, according to some accounts, who spoke Gullah.
I can’t possibly write about the hundreds of African words that have survived in the Gullah language when Dr. Lorenzo Turner recorded them in the 1930s and 1940s, so I list only a sample here.

1. “Agogo.” Many Yoruba speakers recognize this word as the name for a bell or a bell-shaped metal musical instrument in their language. In Gullah, it means a cowbell, that is, a bell hung around the neck of a cow to make finding it easy. In modern times agogo is also used in Yoruba and other languages, such as Baatonum, to mean a clock, which is decidedly a semantic extension that derives from the notion of a bell as a time marker.

2. “Amin.” Gullah people intersperse their supplications with “amin” instead of the English “amen.” Amin is, of course, the Arabic version of the Hebrew “amen,” which has been exported to and domesticated in English. It means “so be it” in both Hebrew and Arabic. The Gullah use the Arabic version of the word during their (Christian) prayers because that was the version passed on to them by their West African Muslim ancestors.

3. “Bakra.” This Gullah word for “white man” is derived from “mbakara,” the Annang/Efik/Ibibio word for white man. (Annang, Efik, and Ibibio are mutually intelligible dialects of the same language in Nigeria’s deep south.) Turner said Igbo people also use “mbakara” to mean “white man.” That’s not entirely accurate. The Igbo word for white man is “ocha,” but it is conceivable that because Igbo, Annang, Efik, and Ibibio people are geographic and cultural cousins, Igbos understood—and even used—mbakara to mean white people in the 1930s when Turner conducted research for his book. Interestingly, many black people in the Caribbean Islands also use some version of “mbakara”—such as buckra, bacra, and buckaroo—to refer to white people. In some Texas and California communities in the United States, buckaroo and bucheroo are also used to mean a “cowboy.”

4. “Be the groun.” This is an agricultural register in the Gullah dialect. It means to get the ground ready for farming, where “be” means “to clean, to remove debris.” Turner discovered that in Wolof, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal, the Gambia, and parts of Mauritania, “bei” means to “cultivate, to prepare ground for planting.”

Because of the phonetic and orthographic similarities between the Wolof “bei,” which is rendered as “be” in Gullah, and the English “be,” the expression “be the groun” used to be thought of as an incompetent attempt to speak Standard English. Thanks to Turner, we now know that the expression has its own Wolof-inflected syntactic and sematic logic independent of Standard English.

5. “Bidibidi.” This means “small bird” or “small chicken” in Gullah. It is derived, according to Turner, from Kongo, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Angola (from where about 39 percent of Gullah people came, as I pointed out two weeks ago) and the Congo, where it also means small bird or small chicken. White linguists who studied Gullah had dismissed this word as “baby talk” for “small bird” because of the phonetic—and accidental semantic—affinities between “biddy” (the informal English word for small bird or fowl) and bidibidi.

6. “Da” or “dada.” In Gullah, “da” and “dada” are used interchangeably to mean “mother, nurse, an elderly woman.” Turner found parallels for these words in Ewe (spoken in Togo, Ghana, and Benin Republic) where “da” and “dada” mean mother or elder sister. Notice that in Igbo “ada” means “eldest daughter.”

7. “Done for fat.” Earlier researchers had thought this Gullah expression meant “excessively fat.” They thought the “done for” in the expression was an intensifier for “fat,” which they said merely suggested that the Gullah people meant fat people were “done for,” that is, doomed to die. But Lorenzo Turner’s painstaking research shows us that “done for” is actually the phonetic Anglicization of “danfa,” which is the Vai word for fat. Vai is a Niger-Congo language of the Mande branch spoken by a little over 100,000 people in what is now Liberia and Sierra Leone. So, basically, the Gullah people combined the Vai and the English words for the same condition— for emphasis. It should actually have been correctly written as “danfa fat.”

8. “Dede.” This means “correct, exact, exactly” in Gullah. Turner compared it with the Yoruba “dede” and the Hausa daidai (which he wrote as “deidei”), which also mean “correct, exact, exactly.” In Kongo, dedede also means “similarity, correspondence.” In my language, Baatonu, like in Yoruba, dede means “correct, exact, exactly.”

9. Fulfulde counting system. One of the discoveries that pleasantly shocked me is the realization that the Gullah people still retain several Fulani numerals in their English dialect. In Gullah (as in Fulfulde with only slight variations in accent and spelling), one is go, two is didi, five is je, six is jego, seven is jedidi, eight is jetati, nine is jenai, ten is sapo, eleven is sapo go, twelve is sapo didi, thirteen is sapo tati, fourteen is sapo nai, fifteen is sapo je, sixteen is sapo jego, seventeen is sapo jedidi, eighteen is sapo jetati, nineteen is sapo jenai, etc.

The Gullah people who shared this counting system with Turner in the 1930s had no clue from which African language they inherited this counting system. My sense is that it was passed down to them from some of their Senegambian Fulani ancestors. Note that I wrote these words exactly as Turner wrote them. When I searched online Fulfulde dictionaries, I found slight variations in the modern spellings of these numerals, but it’s remarkable, nonetheless, that the Fulfulde counting system has survived among the Gullah after more than 300 years of separation from its original source.

10. A reverse influence: In a chapter of my book, Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World, I discussed the African heritage of common English words and expressions, which entered the language through so-called African American Vernacular English (AMVE). I pointed out that some expressions/words started out as African-derived Gullah dialectal expressions, made their way to demotic African-American speech, and then to global conversational English through what I called "pop-cultured-induced linguistic osmosis." At other times, certain conventional colloquial (American English) expressions (such as "my bad," "to bad-mouth someone," "do your own thing," etc.) began life as calque formations from West African languages in African-American English before mutating to mainstream English. This is also true of many everyday words like "tote," "jitters," "phony," etc.

From reading Turner’s book, I’ve discovered African-derived English words like “yam” (from the Mandingo yam or yambi, the Ga (Ghana) yamu), tote (meaning to carry), etc. entered English by way of Gullah.

To be concluded next week

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Superstitions and the Thieving, Moneyvorous Snake in Benue

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

A Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) clerk by the name of Philomina Chieshe reportedly told auditors recently that the 36 million naira realized from the sale of JAMB scratch cards couldn’t be accounted for because a sneaky “spiritual snake” had mysteriously swallowed up all the money. Now the lady is the object of all sorts of jokes. I am sorry to burst a few bubbles here.

First, the money wasn’t missing in the life of the Buhari administration. Most people didn’t go beyond the story’s headline and just jumped to conclusions based on their preconceptions. The money was actually missing, according to reports, between 2006 and 2007. It’s just now being discovered after current JAMB registrar Professor Ishaq Oloyede ordered a comprehensive audit of the finances of the organization.

Second, and most importantly, most Nigerians believe in the sort of metaphysical nonsense that conduced to the JAMB clerk’s moneyvorous “spiritual snake” explanation. When it comes to belief in backward superstitions, most educated and uneducated Nigerians are indistinguishable. That was why one British journalist once described Nigeria as a “classless” society, by which he meant that educational attainment and social class are hardly reliable predictors of people’s attitudes and value systems.

People who are laughing at the JAMB woman’s superstitious fraud secretly nurse and cherish their own superstitions, and would get all hot and worked up if theirs are mocked. So let’s start.
The idea that “spiritual” things (such as otherworldly snakes, jinns, spirits, witches, wizards, etc.) steal money is actually not that outlandish in Nigeria. For instance, some people I support with monthly stipends told me sometime last year—at different times and unknown to each other— that “spirits” had been stealing their money at night. It was the first time I’d heard about “spirits” stealing money, but it’s apparently a widespread superstition.

In Nigeria, the vast majority of people believe that evil spirits can be transferred through cell phones. Nigerian journalists characterize some phone numbers as “killer numbers” because they supposedly kill you the instant you pick calls from them! I blocked someone on WhatsApp who was always sending me unsolicited periodic updates on “killer numbers” I shouldn’t pick.

 In Nigeria, a “professor” by the name of Chinedu Nebo, who is a former university vice chancellor, told the nation’s senate in 2013 during his confirmation hearing for the position of minister of power that power outages were caused by “witches and demons,” and that “If the President deploys me in the power sector, I believe that given my performance at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where I drove out the witches and demons, God will also give me the power to drive out the demons in the power sector.”

A year earlier, a minister of state in the same Ministry of Power by the name of Zainab Kuchi told a South African delegation that “evil spirits” were responsible for Nigeria’s perpetually capricious power supply. And you wonder why our electricity generation is still stuck in the Stone Age.

Many Nigerians believe that it’s possible to have supernormal immunity against bullets. I’ve read several stories of Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) militia men and so-called civilian JTF militia men in Boko Haram-ravaged Borno State being gunned down like sitting ducks because they believed in the lies of a witch doctor who convinced them that some herbal concoction he gave them provided them immunity to gunshots.

This recalls a comical experience I witnessed in Kano in the 1990s when my late uncle was commanding police officer of the Hotoro Mobile Police Barracks. Some “malam” who claimed to have the secrets of supernatural bulletproof insurance told my uncle that he could metaphysically inoculate him against all gunshots. The first question my uncle asked him was, “Are you yourself supernaturally immunized against gunshots?” The man boastfully answered in the affirmative. My uncle went to his room, brought a gun, and aimed it at him. He bolted from his seat faster than the speed of lightning!

On May 27, 2014, many newspapers published a fictitious report of Borno women invoking a magical spell to subdue Boko Haram terrorists who had reputedly come to attack them.  Vanguard quoted a nameless eyewitness of this putative supernormal encounter to have said that Boko Haram “attackers invaded the village yesterday on motorcycles but met some women, adding ‘they wanted to hit the women with sticks but when they raised the sticks, their hands refused to descend.’”

Daily Trust’s report of May 27, 2014 on the same incident titled “Women arrest Boko Haram fighters in Borno” was more dramatic and fantastical than Vanguard’s. Like Vanguard, Daily Trust also quoted an unnamed eyewitness to have said, “The insurgents wanted to attack the women but their guns did not work. They tried hitting them with the boot of their guns but mysteriously, all the hands of the insurgents hung until youth and vigilantes in the area mobilized and killed them.”

As I mentioned in a previous column, many senior members in Buhari’s government believe the president is failing because he is under a spell. “But like most Buhari aides, my informant believes Buhari is metaphysically held captive by a potent, disabling evil spell that causes him to be easily susceptible to the wiles and devious manipulations of a vicious cabal in Aso Rock. He said efforts are being made to exorcise this spell. But that’s superstitious nonsense,” I wrote in my October 22, 2016 column titled “Aisha Buhari and the Evil Aso Rock Cabal.”

And the vast majority of Nigerians believe that there is such a thing as “magun” (Yoruba for “don’t climb”), which is supposedly a metaphysical deterrence against marital infidelity by women. Of course, it’s superstitious garbage. Biologists actually call it penis captivus, and it has nothing to do with what anyone did to any woman. It’s a rare biological, scientifically explainable condition that occurs in every society, including Oyinbo societies where people have gone past the sort of atavistic ignorance that still reigns supreme in our societies.

When I first shared this on Facebook, a whole host of supposedly educated Yoruba commenters on my wall assured me that “magun is real o!” Well, if you believe "magun" is real but disdain the tale of a money-stealing spiritual snake, you're the victim of a massive psychic imbalance and need help.
Those are not the only bizarre things Nigerians believe. For instance, in January 2009, a goat was arrested and detained by the police in Kwara State because “eyewitnesses” said a robber had transmogrified into it to escape capture. In April 2017, Zamfara State governor Alhaji Abdulaziz Yari said the meningitis that killed scores of children was God’s punishment for fornication. The list is endless.

So before you laugh at the woman’s “spiritual snake” alibi, remember the superstitions you believe, too. Remember the “testimonies” you give for the mundane favors you get, for being able to steal government funds and not get caught. You’re no different from the Benue woman.

A scientific mindset free of the encumbrances of silly, retarded superstitions is an indispensable requirement for progress. But from the comments I read on my Facebook wall, we really have a long way to go—or perhaps no way to go, frankly.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Kafiri, Saitan, Ogbomosho: Strange Personal Names Among America’s Gullah People

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In last week’s column, I promised to share with the reader some of the noticeable African influences in the Gullah language. These influences are so vast, varied, and deep that I cannot do justice to them in a single newspaper column. So I’ve decided to capture them in two installments.

In his groundbreaking book titled Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, which I made reference to in last week’s column, the late African-American linguist Dr. Lorenzo D. Turner identified more than 4,000 words in the Gullah English dialect that trace lexical descent from several languages in west and central Africa. He found these African influences in Gullah people’s personal names, in their quotidian conversational vocabularies, and in their folk songs, stories, hymns, and invocations. I will explore Gullah personal names this week and conclude with the African lexical influences in the everyday speech and songs of the Gullah people in the coming weeks.

In what follows, I identify the African origins of many Gullah personal names. Given that the research for the book from which material for this column was drawn was done in the 1930s, I have updated several of the author’s data. I’ve also extended and enriched his conclusions based on my own experiential and epistemological location in relation to his data.

Thousands of personal names the Gullah people bear are similar to many names people in west and central Africa still bear. It is impossible to mention all of them in this piece; Turner identified more than 4,000 personal names among the Gullah in Georgia and South Carolina. So I am only going to isolate a few, mostly Nigerian, names that stood out for me.

I am particularly surprised by the large number of Yoruba names the Gullah people bear. As Turner pointed out, the Gullah people had not the slightest awareness of the Yoruba origin and meaning of their names. Among the hundreds of Yoruba names Turner recorded among the Gullah people in the 1930s are names like Ade, Adebisi, Adebiyi, Adekule [Adekunle], Adeniyi, Adewale, Adu, Adosu, Aganju, Akaraje [i.e., eat bean cake], Akawo [Akanwo], Alafia [ “Alafia” is an Arabic-derived word; see Arabized African names below], Alabo, Alade, Alawo, Baba, Bankole, Erelu, Idowu, Iyaoba, Kehinde, Oduduwa, Otunla, Ogboni, Oluwa, Okuta, Ola, Oriki, Olubiyi, Olugbodi, Oyebisi, Sango, Yeye.

There are hundreds more in the book, but I was struck, just like Turner was, that the Gullah people have retained the difficult “gb” sound in their names. Most people, including Africans who don’t speak a Niger-Congo language, usually have a hard time articulating the “gb” sound, which Turner called “the voiced labio-velar plosive,” including the “kp” sound that begins my last name, which Turner characterized as the “gb” sound’s “voiced counterpart” (p. 25).

This, for me, is nothing short of extraordinary. Even my first daughter, to whom my native Baatonu language isn’t a mother tongue, has a hard time pronouncing her last name and has pleaded with me to dispense with the “K” in our last name. I told her that would be a mutilation of the name because “kp” is an independent sound unit like “ch” is in “chair” in English.

Well, the Gullah people also bear many Africanized Muslim names they obviously inherited from their Fulani, Mandingo, Yoruba, Hausa, Bambara, Wolof, and Mende Muslim ancestors. As I pointed out last week, the extensive second-hand Arabic influence Turner found in many African-derived Gullah words, which he discovered after speaking with West Africans in London and Paris in the 1930s, caused him to learn Arabic so that he could make sense of his data.

Turner recorded names like Aburika, which is probably a corruption of Abubakar; Adamu, incidentally my father’s first name, which is the West African Muslim rendering of Adam; Aduwa, an Africanization of du’a, the Arabic word for prayer; Ayisa and Ayisata, Mandingo and Bambara Muslim approximations of Aisha, the name of one of the wives of the Prophet of Islam; Ayuba, the Muslim version of Job, which is rendered as Ayub in Arabic; Baraka, which is Arabic for blessing that shares etymological and semantic affinities with Barack, the first name of President Obama; Dirisu, which is how the Mandingo and Bambara people call the Muslim name Idris—Yoruba Muslims call it Disu; Fatuma, Fatu, Fatimata (all Mandingo, Wolof, and Bamabara versions of “Fatima,” the name of the daughter of the Prophet of Islam); Fitina (derived from the Arabic word for trouble); Ibrahima, the West African Muslim rendering of Ibrahim, which Christians and Jews call Abraham.

He also recorded names like Jumare, now regarded as a Fulani name but which is actually derived from (al)jumea, the Arabic name for Friday— Yoruba, Ebira, Baatonu Muslims, etc. bear the name as Jimoh; Gibril (which Nigerian Muslims bear as Jibril or Jibrin or Jibo and which Christians and Jews know as Gabriel; Imale (the Yoruba word for Muslim, presumably because Islam came to Yoruba land from Mali); Haruna, which is the West African version of Harun, which Christians and Jews know as Aaron; Lafiya ( derived from “afia,” the Arabic word for good health, which is borne as a royal name among the Borgu people in Nigeria and Benin Republic, and as an everyday personal name in Senegambia and other historically Muslim polities in West Africa; Madina, the name of the second holiest city in Islam known to Westerners as Medina, which West African Muslims bear as a female personal name; Laila; Laraba, a Hausa name given to a girl born on Wednesday, derived from al-arbi'aa', the Arabic word for Wednesday; Woli, (the Yoruba Muslim domestication of the Arabic wali, which means patron saint);  Salihu; Salamu; etc.

The Gullah even bear puzzling names like Kafiri (a derogatory name for a non-Muslim, which Yoruba and Baatonu Muslims call keferi, which is an African approximation of the Arabic kafir) and Saitan, which is the Muslim rendering of Satan!

They also bear the names of West African ethnic groups as personal names, perhaps indicating the ethnic origins of some of the Gullah people. They bear names like Fulani, Fulbe, Fula (which refer to the same people), Ibibio, Ijesa, Ogbomosho, according to Turner’s records. The name Yoruba didn’t exist as a collective name for people in what is now southwest Nigeria. “Yoruba” in its current form is a 19th-century creation by Samuel Ajayi Crowther—following a 16th century Songhai Islamic scholar by the name of Ahmed Baba who first used the name to refer to people in the old Oyo Empire. That is why only names like Ijesa (a Yoruba sub-group found in present-day Osun State) and Ogbomosho, rather than “Yoruba,” appear in the records of people enslaved in the West from West Africa.

The Gullah people also bear Kwora, the name for River Niger (which is rendered as Kwara in the northcentral Nigerian state where I am from) in many West African languages, including Hausa, Baatonu, and Fulani from where it was probably passed down to the Gullah. Interestingly, among the Baatonu people, Kwora is a name reserved exclusively for members of royal families in both Nigeria and Benin Republic.

 While the gendering of many Gullah names corresponds with their gendering in West African names (for instance, many of the Yoruba names among the Gullah are unisex, like they are among the Yoruba), there is a discordance in others. For example, a name like Aba, which is a male name in Gullah, is the name of a girl born on Thursday among the Fante people of present-day Ghana.

Turner found out that most of the personal names that the Gullah bear can be traced to Arabic (by way of members of several Islamized West African ethnic groups who were enslaved to rice plantations in Georgia and South Carolina); Bambara ( who are now found primarily in Mali, but also in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Senegal); Bini in southern Nigeria; Bobangi in the Congo; Zarma who now live mainly in what is now Niger Republic; Ewe who can be found in Togo and Benin Republic; Efik in southern Nigeria; Fante in Ghana; Fon in Benin Republic; Fulani; Hausa; Igbo; Ibibio in southern Nigeria; Kongo in Angola; Kikongo in the Congo; Kimbundu in Angola; Kpelle in Liberia; Mende in Sierra Leone; Malinke, Mandinka, and Mandingo in Senegambia, Mali, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc., Nupe and Gwari in central Nigeria; Susu in Guinea; Songhai in present-day Niger, Mali, and Benin republics; Twi in Ghana; Temne in Sierra Leone; Tshiluba in the Congo; Umbundu in Angola; Vai in Liberia and Sierra Leone; Wolof in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania; and Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria.

Keep a date next week for an analysis of African words in the Gullah English dialect.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

News Media’s Cultivation of “Fulani Herdsmen” Hysteria

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

Journalists like to think they are the mirror of society. In fact, a famous American journalist and author by the name of Arthur Brisbane (1864-1936) once said, “A newspaper is a mirror reflecting the public, a mirror more or less defective, but still a mirror.”

This notion gave rise to the idea that the news media “reflect” reality. But insights from cultivation theory in mass communication tell us that the news media do not reflect reality; they cultivate it instead. Although the theory originally studied how heavy TV viewing distorts our perception of reality, it has been extended to explain how the news media’s habitual framing of news skews perception of reality in general.

I see a lot of media cultivation of “reality” in the coverage of “Fulani herdsmen” in the Nigerian media. This cultivation has been so successful that it has established inescapable mental frames. One of these mental frames is the conflation of “Fulani” ethnic identity, “herdsmen,” and murderous criminality. Even President Buhari, who is half Fulani (a quarter Hausa and a quarter Kanuri—by his admission), uses “Fulani herdsmen” as a stand-in for the murderous criminals that are ravaging several parts of Nigeria.

But here are the facts. Most Fulani people are not cattle herders and, although most cattle herders in West Africa are Fulani, there are hundreds of cattle herders who are not Fulani. Most importantly, though, most cattle herders are NOT criminals or murderers. The fact that there are cattle herders who commit crimes does not make all cattle herders criminals, nor is it sufficient to equate cattle herding in and of itself with criminality, although cattle herding is, as I argued in my January 20, 2018 column titled “Existential Threats of Nomadic Pastoralism to Nigeria,” anachronistic.

The Nigerian media, however, have chosen to make “Fulani herdsmen” the lexical substitute for “criminals” or “murderers.” Even when the media are not sure who committed a crime, it is typical for them to attribute the crime to “suspected Fulani herdsmen,” not even “criminals suspected to be Fulani herdsmen,” implying, in essence, that to talk of either “Fulani herdsmen” or “criminals” is to talk of the other. This violates a cardinal journalistic principle that says “when in doubt, leave it out.” If you only “suspect,” which means you’re not sure, why rush to give an ethno-occupational identity to the suspects?

On the other hand, where the Fulani are the victims of murder or any crime, their ethnic identity—and the ethnic identity of their tormentors— is often concealed, as happened in Benue recently where the murder of 7 Fulani cattle herders by Tiv militia was reported in the national media with the following headline: “Bandits kill, burn 7 travelers.”

The invidious, ethnically colored media narrativization about “Fulani herdsmen” and “murderous crime” has become so mainstream that most Nigerians have now been programmed to associate criminality with and murderous intent to any Fulani cattle herder. To get a sense of how unfair this is, imagine alternative scenarios involving other people. If a Baatonu farmer commits a crime, for instance, you won’t read a headline like “Baatonu farmer kills herders.” (I am Baatonu, by the way). You will never read a headline like “Ogoni fisherman murders farmers.” You will never come across a headline like “Yoruba mechanic slaughters customer.” Nor will you see a headline like, “Igbo spare parts seller kills man.” And so on so forth.

I warned of the dangers of ethnic and occupational stereotyping in news reporting in at least three columns (see, for instance, my October 10, 2015 column titled “‘Fulani herdsmen’ as Nigeria’s New Devil Term” and my February 4, 2017 column titled “The Dangerous Criminalization of Fulani Ethnicity”). In the February 4, 2017 column, I pointed out that “Criminalizing and pathologizing an entire ethnic identity is often the precursor to genocide.”

It didn’t come as a surprise to me when I read of the February 1 murder and burning of 7 innocent Fulani cattle herders by people who have been programmed to associate criminality with all Fulani cattle herders. Early last year, some man by the name of Apostle Suleiman had told his church members to extra-judicially murder any Fulani person they saw. “And I told my people, any Fulani herdsman you see around you, kill him,” he said in a widely circulated video. “I have told them in the church here that any Fulani herdsman that just entered by mistake, kill him, kill him! Cut his head!”
He said this precisely because of the unreflective conflation of “Fulani herdsmen” and murderous criminals that the media have caused to percolate into the consciousness of Nigerians.

A few weeks ago, a certain Sayo Ajiboye, who introduced himself to me as the President of the Redeemed Bible College and Seminary in Texas, USA, called me after reading one of my columns on the unfair media portrayals of Fulani cattle herders. He said until he read my article, he hadn’t consciously thought of the fact he also grew up with Fulani herders in his hometown of Ilesha in Osun State several decades ago and that Fulani herders kept his father’s cattle for him in trust—like they do elsewhere.

But the continuous demonization of “Fulani herdsmen” in the media had put him in a state of suspended animation. He wasn’t able to make the mental connection between the Fulani people he grew up with—and that still live peacefully in his community—and the demons the media report on. If a highly educated man like that is only just now coming to this realization, imagine what everyday consumers of Nigerian news think when they see a Fulani cattle herder. The truth is that the vast majority of Fulani cattle herders are peaceful, everyday people with the same needs, anxieties, and hopes as the rest of us.

This is not by any means intended to lessen the dangers and existential threats that foreign cattle herders pose to Nigeria. Nor do I intend to be understood as implying that Nigerian Fulani cattle herders don’t commit crimes. There are criminals and good people in every ethnic group and occupation. To insist that any group is free of criminals or is composed only of criminals is to denude such a group of its very humanity.

I should point out, too, that Miyetti Allah is as culpable in demonizing Fulani cattle herders as the news media have been. In claiming to represent Fulani cattle herders and admitting to several mass murders, they make even innocent bucolic Fulani cattle herders in various communities objects of suspicion and targets of righteous anger.

Look at this March 27, 2017 press statement from Miyetti Allah Kwara State chairman by the name of Usman Adamu, for instance: “Fulanis from across the country and neighbouring countries gathered here last week and they requested for my permission to go and retaliate but I insisted that they should sheath their swords… See what is happening in Nasarawa, Zamfara, Jos and other states. If you see what our Fulanis did in Imo, and if you are Muslims, honestly, you will cry, and if somebody said it was Fulanis that did that, you will not believe it.”

That’s a chilling self-confession of mass murder that implicates millions of innocent Fulani cattle herders. With “leaders” like that, do innocent Fulani cattle herders need enemies?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Gullah: An African-American English Dialect No One Understands

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In line with my tradition to highlight aspects of the linguistic culture of Black America in February, which is celebrated as “Black History Month” in the United States and Canada, I want to introduce the reader to a truly charming African-inflected Black American English creole called Gullah (pronounced something like gah-lah) or Geechee. It is spoken by people who live in the sea islands of the southern coast of the United States in such southern US states as Georgia (where I live), South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida.

The Gullah were, for more than 300 years after being enslaved in the United States, insulated from the dominant cultural and linguistic currents of the rest of the country principally because the sea islands in which they were forced to work on rice plantations by their enslavers were malaria-infested, and white people didn’t have the genetic immunity that the Gullahs had to survive the devastation of malaria on the islands. This insulation enabled them to retain some of their African cultures and to develop a distinct form of the English language that creatively combines the syntactic and lexical features of various African languages and English.

In William Pollitzer’ absorbingly informative book titled Gullah People and Their African Heritage, we learn that slave records of the Port of Charleston in South Carolina show that most Gullah people are descended from west and southwestern Africa. About 39 percent of them, records show, were enslaved from what is now Angola (from where some scholars say the term Gullah is derived), 23 percent from what is now Sierra Leone, 20 percent from what is now Senegal and the Gambia, 13 percent from what is now Ghana, and 5 percent from what is now (coastal) Nigeria, Madagascar, and Mozambique.

When these divergent African ethnicities converged in the sea islands of southern United States, they lost their linguistic singularities but forged a new collective linguistic identity that combines a substrate of their various African languages and a superstrate of early modern English to form a unique English creole that has captured the imagination of researchers of varying disciplinary orientations.

 However, it is only relatively recently that the African linguistic heritage of the Gullah dialect has come to light. For several decades, Gullah was described as nothing more than a fusion of the surviving remnant of archaic British English dialects and “baby talk.” Others simply called it “broken English” or a “debased form of Elizabethan English.” It wasn’t until 1949 when African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner’s magisterially game-changing book titled Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect was published that the world learned of the enormous phonemic, lexical, and syntactic similarities between Gullah and several west and southwestern African languages.

Turner caused the world to see Gullah not as an incompetent mimicry of Standard English, but as a complex, well-ordered, grammatically self-sufficient language that blends features of several African languages and English. As Katherine Wyly Mille and Michael B. Montgomery noted in their Introduction to the 2002 edition of Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, the book “provided, for the first time, concrete, comparable, and measurable correspondences between Gullah and African languages, tangible objects for those wanting to substantiate speculations about the history of this unusual variety of language, which H.L. Mencken characterized as the only type of American speech not intelligible to outsiders” (xii).

In researching the African heritage of the Gullah language in the 1930s, Turner first recorded the folk stories, chants, songs, speech patterns, etc. of the people, then went to the University of London to study with scholars of West African languages and cultures, where he learned and gained a working mastery of Sierra Leonean Krio, Twi (spoken mostly in Ghana), Kimbundu (spoken in Angola), Efik (spoken in the southern Nigerian state of Cross River), Fante (spoken in Ghana), Ewe (spoken in Ghana, Togo, and parts of Benin), Yoruba, Mandingo, and other African languages.

 He also studied Arabic at Yale University because, after interviewing scores of (French) West Africans in Paris in 1937, he realized that languages such as Mandingo and Yoruba were heavily influenced by Arabic, an influence that was transferred to Gullah, which I will discuss next week.

In addition, Turner visited and lived in Africa, notably in Sierra Leone and in Nigeria, where he was a Visiting Fulbright Lecturer between 1950 and 1951 at the then University College in Lagos, which later became University of Lagos. That means he came to Nigeria a year after his book was published.

Anyway, in Turner’s book, from where I will draw examples of African influences in the Gullah language next week, we read of the fascinating story of a family in coastal Georgia that had preserved and handed down a folk song called “A waka” relatively unchanged for more than 200 years. It was later discovered that, that song is in Mende, a Niger-Congo language spoken Sierra Leone.

More than 40 years after the publication of the book and 20 years after Turner’s death, three researchers by the names of Joseph Opala, Cynthia Schmidt, and Tazieff Koroma found a rural Mende community in Sierra Leone where people still sing that very song—with the same diction, rhythm, and cadence. The story of the uncanny congruence between the centuries-old “A waka” folk song in the Gullah language in the United States and in the Mende language in modern Sierra Leone inspired the compellingly enthralling documentary film titled The Language You Cry In. (The 57-minute documentary is available online for free).

From the 1990s, the Mende people in Sierra Leone and the Gullah people in the US have established formal linkages. They send representatives to each other’s’ cultural festivals. In 2007, I ran into a man, who later told me his name was Suleiman, at the International Your Delkab Farmers’ Market here in Atlanta. I was looking for Nigerian food and found someone who struck me as distinctly Nigerian, so I stopped him to ask for help. He told me he was Sierra Leonean, not Nigerian. Of course, from his accent I could tell that he was Sierra Leonean because I was around Sierra Leoneans a lot during my undergraduate days in Kano.

But I was intrigued when Suleiman told me he was in the US to represent a Mende community at a Gullah cultural festival in Savanah, Georgia. He said it wasn’t the first time he represented the king of some Mende community, and that Gullah people also send representatives to Mende cultural festivals in Sierra Leone. It was through him I first learned about the Gullah people and their cultural and linguistic affinities with the Mende of Sierra Leone.

Seven years later, in 2013, I took my family to Savannah, Georgia, for a conference. While we were having dinner at a hotel, we overheard a barely audible conversation that struck us as distinctly and unmistakably West African, although we couldn't tell what West African language it was. I decided to go ask the people what West African language they were speaking. The closer I got to them, the more it sounded to me like they were speaking some dialect of what linguists broadly call West African Pidgin English. I concluded that they were probably Sierra Leonean (Krios). I was wrong. They were Gullah!

That encounter reminded me not just of Suleiman from Sierra Leone who had told me of the connections between the Gullah people of Savannah, Georgia, and the Mende of Sierra Leone (who also speak Krio, an English-based creole); it also reminded me of my then 6-year-old daughter's teacher in 2010 who taught her students that "Kumbaya" (the title of a popular campfire spiritual song here in the US that has origins in Gullah) was an "African word." My daughter came home to ask me what the word meant in "African." LOL! Although the word does sound West African, it is actually the Gullah idiosyncratic phonetic approximation of the English "come by here."

I am sharing this anecdote to make the point that Gullah definitely does sound West African. Today in American English, the expression “sing kumbaya” is used, often with a sarcastic undertone, to mean “engage in a show of unity and harmony with one's opponents or enemies,” as in, “Don’t think you can undermine and insult me and I’ll ignore all that and sit in a campfire with you singing Kumbaya. No, I will pay you back in your own coin.”

Next week I will explore in more depth African linguistic influences in the Gullah language. Keep a date.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

How Buhari Has Lowered the Bar of Governance

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

People who say I am too hard on President Buhari like to point out that I am expecting too much from him and that I haven’t come to terms with the fact that he isn’t perfect since he is only human. That’s wrong.

The very first paragraph of my May 16, 2015 column titled “6 Reasons Why Incoming Buhari Government Fills Me with Hope” reads: “The incoming Muhammadu Buhari administration won’t be perfect by any means. It will disappoint us in some areas, betray us in others, even annoy us sometimes, but I am confident that, after all is said and done, this incoming government will represent a qualitative departure from the legalized banditry that has passed for governance in Nigeria for so long.”

So I never cherished the illusion that Buhari would be perfect, although I was guilty of naïve, misplaced confidence and optimism about him based on his symbolic, pre-inauguration moves. I had hoped that even if Buhari wasn’t a stellar president, he would at least not lower the bar. But that is precisely what he has done. He has set the bar of governance so low that all it would take for any president who comes after him to impress us is to:

1. Constitute his cabinet within a few days of being sworn in. It took Buhari nearly six months to appoint his cabinet, which is the worst record in Nigeria’s entire history. It slowed the country and hurt the economy. On September 17, 2015 when France 24’s François Picard asked him why he hadn’t named his ministers months after being sworn in, he said ministers are worthless and just “make a lot of noise.” That was a low point. And the cabinet he took months to put together turned out to be one of the most colorless and lackluster in Nigeria’s history.

2. Appoint members of governing boards of government agencies in the first few months of being in power. It took Buhari nearly three years to do this. Since government agencies can’t legally function without governing boards, governance basically halted for more than half of Buhari’s first term. That’s why I once observed that while previous administrations were guilty of misgovernance, Buhari is, for the most part, guilty of “ungovernance,” which is worse.

3. Not be so incompetent as to appoint dead people into government—and living people without first consulting them.

4. Periodically speak to Nigerians through the domestic media, not when he is abroad.

5. Personally visit sites of national tragedy, show emotion, and make national broadcasts to reassure a grieving nation. In my March 18, 2017 column titled, “Why Buhari Should Learn from Osinbajo,” I wrote:

“In a tragic irony, it took Buhari’s sickness for Nigeria to get a chance at some health. It also took his absence for the country to feel some presence of leadership. Why did it take the ascendancy of Osinbajo to the acting presidency for this to happen? The answer is simple: symbolic presence. Buhari lacked symbolic presence in the 20 months he was in charge.”

6. Have an economic team made up of economists and not, as Buhari has done, appoint a diplomat as an economic adviser and then push him to the gaunt fringes of the Vice President’s office.

7. Reflect token religious, regional, and national diversity in appointments. Buhari won a national mandate, but his appointments are, as I’ve pointed out in previous columns, undisguisedly Arewacentric. His personal example shows that he doesn’t believe in one Nigeria, yet he often insists that Nigeria’s unity is “non-negotiable.” That’s unreasonable.

8. Not lie shamelessly about self-evident facts.

9. Not budget billions for Aso Rock Clinic and yet starve it of basic medicines (so much so that his own wife and daughter would complain openly) and then fly to London for medical treatment at the drop of a hat even for “ear infections” and “breathing difficulties.”

10. Not have a compulsive runawayist impulse that ensures that he travels out of the country at the slightest opportunity and for the silliest reasons.

11. Even pretend that the whole of Nigeria is his constituency—including those who gave him “97%” of their votes and those who gave him only “5%” of their votes.

12. Add to the list

Sadly, these are really basic things that shouldn’t attract any praise. There is no greater evidence that Nigeria has regressed really badly in almost every index in Buhari’s less than 3 years of being in power than the reality of these grim facts.

And he wants you to extend this national tragedy for another 4 years in 2019? Well, it’s up to you. If that's what Nigerians want, who am I to deny them the "luxury" to inflict self-violence on themselves?

But what I won’t take is the narrative being promoted by apologists and beneficiaries of the government that there is no one better than Buhari at this time. On the contrary, it’s actually practically impossible to be worse than Buhari because he has brought Nigeria to the ground zero of incompetence, so almost anybody would be better than him. He descended from the zenith of “Sai Baba” to the slope of “Baba Go-slow” and finally to the nadir of “Baba Standstill.” It can’t get worse than that.

Crybabyism as Governance
Buhari and his administration interminably gripe about how much Jonathan bankrupted the nation (never mind that Buhari and his administration are actually doing worse now) and how the hurt Jonathan inflicted on the nation is still responsible for our woes.

But Buhari is president today precisely because the vast majority of Nigerians thought Jonathan was incompetent and that it would take a Buhari to redress the harm Jonathan brought to the economy. If Nigerians thought—or knew—that Buhari was not capable of turning our fortunes around, they would have stuck with Jonathan.

Buhari’s endless crybabyism about Jonathan’s damage to the economy reminds me of my days as news editor of the Daily Trust. During one of our editors’ meetings in 2001, many editors expressed concerns about the painfully poor quality of the grammar and reportorial skills of some of our reporters and correspondents. But amid our self-righteous angst, our business editor, Aliyu Ma’aji said, “Let’s realize that we wouldn’t have had our jobs if there were no reporters with terrible grammar and less than perfect reporting skills. So stop complaining!” We all laughed at his creative humor, but he was right.

Buhari got the job of being president because Jonathan sucked at it. If Jonathan was a great president, Buhari won’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell to be elected. In any case, he had tried to be president many times in the past and failed because the depth of hopelessness that Jonathan instigated in Nigerians in 2015 didn’t exist in 2003, 2007, and 2011. Although Obasanjo wasn’t exactly the archetype of a great leader, his policies birthed Nigeria’s robust middle class.

Buhari should quit the crybabyism and self-pitying lamentation and correct the wrongs that Jonathan did. If he can’t do the job, he should be honorable enough to resign. Ceaselessly reminding us that he inherited a bad economy (while making it infinitely worse than he met it) is now unbearably trite and tired. He wouldn’t be president if everything was great under Jonathan.

We elected a commander-in-chief to solve problems, not a complainer-in-chief to wail in self-pity about problems.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In Defense of Tautology in English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Tautology or redundancy, often defined as “useless repetition,” is undeservedly demonized in English. Expressions like “adequate enough,” “free gift,” “HIV virus,” “PIN number,” etc. are routinely ridiculed. But as I’ve pointed out many times in previous columns, the stigmatization of tautology is a relatively recent phenomenon in the English language.

Tautologies were an intrinsic feature of the English language, the same way that reduplications are core features of most African languages. (A reduplication is an intentional repetition of a word or the syllables of a word either for emphasis or for pluralization. Examples are “maza maza” in Hausa, “kia kia” in Yoruba, “gara gara” in Baatonum, “ngwa ngwa” in Igbo, which all mean “quickly.”)

Because tautologies used to be constitutive of the natural rhythm of the English language, the most respected writers in the language in past generations deployed all kinds of tautologies in their writings. William Shakespeare, for instance, used them copiously for emphasis and for stylistic effect. Some of his most famous tautologies are “most unkindest cut of all,” “more braver,” and “most boldest.”

In Julius Caesar, the character called Antony calls the wound inflicted on him by his boson friend Brutus as the “most unkindest cut of all.” In The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote: “And his more braver daughter could control thee.” Again in Julius Caesar, he wrote: “With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome.”

By today’s standards, “most unkindest,” “more braver,” and “most boldest” would be considered uneducated English. Only children and non-native English speakers with inadequate proficiency in the language now use these kinds of constructions, which grammarians call errors of “double comparative” and “double superlative.”

If tautologies, including double comparatives and double superlatives, were socially and grammatically acceptable in the English language—and were used liberally by the greatest writers in the language—why are they stigmatized now? Why are tautologies, especially double comparatives and double superlatives, now considered ungainly?

Eighteenth-century Prescriptivism
The answer lies in the rise and flowering of what has come to be known as Standard English. The whole idea of “standard English” to “fix” the English language and make its usage norms uniform across social classes and regions started in the 17th century, but became mainstream in the 18th century, first in Britain and later in America. Ironically, most of the standard English enthusiasts of the time used the rules of Latin, a foreign, “colonial” language, to “fix” and standardize the English language.

The eighteenth-century grammarians who imposed on themselves the task to fix and standardize the English language arbitrarily marginalized some vernacular varieties of the language, privileged others, imposed the rules of Latin in some usage conventions, and made new whimsical rules using the resources of logic, as I will show shortly. Tautologies got the short end of the stick during this time.

One of the most influential prescriptivist grammar books of this era was Robert Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar, which was published in 1762. In this book, Lowth introduced many of the grammatical prohibitions that endure to this day. Tautology was one of the usage norms he and others arbitrarily banned.

He also banned double negatives, such as “I don’t like nobody.” He used the rules of logic to point out that double negatives cancel each other to produce a positive, so that “I don’t like nobody” translates to “I like somebody.” But natural languages don’t always obey the laws of logic. English is probably the only language in the world where double negatives are frowned upon.

In French, for instance, two negatives don’t make a positive; they make a stronger negative. For example, Je n'ai plus aucun argent in French literally translates in English as “I don't have no money anymore,” but it actually means “I don't have any money anymore.”

Shakespeare and his contemporaries used double negatives to lend vigor and emphasis to what they wrote. In Henry IV Part I, for instance, Shakespeare wrote: “Nor never could the noble Mortimer/Receive so many, and all willingly.” And in Richard III, he wrote: “You may deny that you were not the mean/Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.” If he lived now, he would most certainly have written, “You may deny that you were the mean/ Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.”

Interestingly, in spite of the vilification of double negatives by grammarians, it survives in nonstandard, low-prestige English varieties (such as Appalachian English in the United States, African-American Vernacular English also called Ebonics, vernacular southern US English, Cockney English in the east end of London, etc.) and in pop music.

Not Only Tautologies and Double Negatives
Other casualties of the arbitrary standardization efforts of the eighteenth-century grammarians are the ideas that prepositions shouldn’t end sentences and that split infinitives are bad. The grammarians who came up with these rules simply imposed the rules of Latin on English. On this, however, they weren’t as successful as they were with the previous rules.

In the natural flow of the English language, prepositions end sentences, but in Latin, they don’t. So eighteenth-century grammarians said the rules of Latin must be imposed on English. Where people used to say, “She is the one I gave the book to,” for example, eighteenth-century grammarians said “She is the one to whom I gave the book” should be preferred.

As I wrote in my book, the “no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence” rule is not only counter-intuitive and senseless; it is also antithetical to the natural rhythm of the English language. How do you, for instance, avoid ending with a preposition in the following sentences: “I don’t know what she is talking ABOUT” (who says, “I don’t know about what she is talking”?); “What does she look LIKE?” (who says, “What like does she look?”), “The details have been attended TO” (who says, “The details attended to have been?”).

Today, many serious writers ignore the rule because it’s patently stupid and unnatural. Late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is reputed to have mocked this Latin-inspired rule by saying, "This is the kind of nonsense up with which I shall not put"!

Another thoughtless Latin-inspired rule the eighteenth-century grammarians imposed on English is the rule on split infinitives. An infinitive is a two-word form of the uninflected form of a verb, such as “to go,” to see,” “to laugh,” etc. If you allow words, usually an adverb, to come between “to” and the verb that follows it, you are said to be splitting your infinitives, and that was supposed to be bad grammar.

So if I say, “He told me to seriously consider the proposal,” I would be guilty of splitting my infinitives. I should instead say, according to eighteenth-century grammarians, “He told me to consider seriously the proposal.” Of course, the “unsplit” infinitive construction sounds stilted and odd, which explains why most modern writers pooh-pooh it. In their wildly popular book, Modern English Usage, the Fowler brothers called pedants of the split infinitive rule "bogy-haunted creatures."

Why Tautologies Should be Tolerated
Tautologies give vigor, intensity, and emphasis to our communication. They reduce ambiguity and enhance clarity, a reason lawyers love tautologies. Tautologies are particularly helpful in speech. If I say, for instance, “what is your PIN (personal identification number),” I can be misunderstood or misheard as saying, “Where is your pin (a sharp object that pokes)?” But if I say “PIN number” (which technically repeats “number” since the “n” in PIN stands for “number”), my hearer would be in no doubt about what I mean.

In defense of tautologies in speech, a linguist said the following in an online forum: “Those who have studied information theory will immediately realize that redundancy is very useful for error-correction. This is what phonology achieves. A lot of redundancies are imposed by phonotactic constraints (these constraints determine which sounds can occur where in a language, and whether they can occur at all). The redundancy in phonological representations acts as a safe-guard and reduces the probability that a sloppy or poorly-heard/noisy production is perceived as an unintended word.”

I entirely agree. Even in writing, disfavored redundancies like “repeat again,” “return back,” “free gift,” etc. are helpful ways to reinforce meaning.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Why Dangiwa Umar Should be the Standard-bearer of the Third Force

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

While there is a widening consensus that President Buhari, through his remarkable incompetence and bigotry, is inexorably leading Nigeria to infernal ruination, there isn’t a sufficiently robust discussion on who should replace him. Most politically unaffiliated people who have accepted that the presidency is above Buhari’s mental paygrade simply say the swashbucklers in PDP can’t be his replacement.

It’s time to move beyond that rhetoric. Who is a viable alternative to Buhari? Who has the capacity to steer us away from the path of perdition we’re headed under Buhari?  There is a curious reluctance to confront these questions forthrightly. This reluctance conduces to the flourishing of dishonest and exasperating bromides like “Well, we know Buhari is incompetent, but what is the alternative?” or “Although we agree that Buhari hasn’t lived up to expectation, there is really no alternative to him at this time."

It’s like being led to a pit of hell by a blind guide and saying, “Well, there is no alternative to this guide, so I have to come to terms with my earthly damnation.” That’s pointless, boneheaded self-immolation. Only people with a perverse taste for self-violence reason like that. There ARE several alternatives to Buhari.

In my December 16, 2017 column titled “There Must be an Alternative to Buhari and Atiku,” from which former President Olusegun Obasanjo quoted in his recent press statement, I suggested that we give a thought to Retired Colonel Abubakar Dangiwa Umar.

“How about we try someone else? Off the top of my head, I can think of retired Colonel Dangiwa Umar widely acknowledged as just, fair, principled, hardworking, cosmopolitan, widely traveled, and well-educated,” I wrote. “I’m not suggesting that he is perfect. He is not. No one is. It is our imperfections that make us human, but we all know what sorts of imperfections ruin nations and people. I don’t think anyone can accuse him of those sorts of imperfections—sloth, lethargy, corruption, clannishness, incompetence, indecisiveness, etc. He may decline to throw his hat in the ring. But there are many like him.”

I see that there is now a growing conversation around getting Col. Umar interested in a run for the office of president in 2019. But I am also aware that some people have raised concerns about the symbolic burden of his military background, particularly because of justified national anxieties about the domination of our politics by past military people. This is a legitimate concern.

Nevertheless, I believe Umar’s military background is incidental to his qualification for this job. It is the strength of his character, his urbaneness, his record of inclusivity, his contagiously genuine passion for pan-Nigerianism, his stubborn commitment to higher principles, his vast knowledge of the ways of the world, his intellectual curiosity, his unflappability in the face of stress and strain, and his broadmindedness that stand him out and that would potentially make him such a comforting departure from the blight we’re mired in now.

There are many others like him, but I am suggesting him for at least two reasons. One, the national mood appears to favor a northern presidential candidate, perhaps as a consequence of the internal power-sharing arrangements of most political parties. Second, the only northerner, in my estimation, who is “salable” outside his natal region based on his record is Umar.

His uncommonly principled stand against the cancellation of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which caused him to voluntarily resign his commission from the Nigerian military, will resonate with many voters in the southwest. He fought General Sani Abacha with all his strength when it was extremely risky to do so—and at the cost of libelous smears and threats to his life.

His exemplary, even-handed management of the 1987 religious crisis in Kaduna is still a reference point. "If you win a religious war, you cannot win religious peace,” he famously said. “Since the killing started how many Christians have been converted to Islam? How many Muslims have been converted to Christianity? It is an exercise in futility."

He is one of only a few northern Muslim leaders that northern Christians trust and have confidence in. Although he is a direct descendant of Usman Dan Fodio (his father was Wazirin Gwandu), he is on record as being severely critical of religious bigotry by Muslims, a reason he isn’t popular in his immediate constituency.

He was also one of only a few northerners to recognize the legitimacy of IPOB’s angst and to caution against government’s strong-arm tactics against the group. “One of the swiftest ways of destroying a kingdom is to give preference to one particular tribe over another, or to show favour to one group of people rather than another, and to draw near those who should be kept away and keep away those that should be drawn near,” he wrote in a press statement on August 30, 2017. “Like Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, many Igbos genuinely feel marginalized since they belong to the category of those who gave Mr President only 5% of their votes and appeared to have fallen out of his favour.”

Whatever foibles Umar has, ethnic and religious bigotry aren’t one of them. Given the unprecedented dissension and acrimony that Buhari’s government has instigated in the nation, we need a clearheaded, mild-mannered, even-tempered nationalist to bring us together, to calm frayed nerves, and to inspire us to dream again. I see Umar fitting this role.

He will certainly lose in the northwest and in such northeastern states as Borno, Yobe, Bauchi, and Gombe. In these states, most—certainly not all—people would vote for Buhari even if he were to go on a murdering spree of people there. Those who survive the carnage would still vote for him. But remember that the votes of this bloc were never sufficient to make him president.

If he were to square off against Buhari in a free and fair election in 2019, Umar would handily win the deep south, the southeast, most of the southwest, and the northcentral, except, perhaps, Niger State. In essence, he would reduce Buhari to the ethno-regional champion he had always been, which was reversed because of the purchase his candidacy got in the southwest and the Christian north in 2015 as a consequence of Jonathan’s intolerable misgovernance.

But if Jonathan was clueless, Buhari embodies cluelessness on steroids. Buhari’s cliquishness, insouciance, and down-the-line incompetence are a clear and present danger to Nigeria’s continued existence. Reelecting him in 2019 would be the kiss of death for the nation.

 It's impossible for Nigeria to survive a 4-year extension of Buhari's misrule, which is characterized by rampant injustice, invidious selectivity, insecurity, unexampled nepotism, smartly dressed corruption, sloth, intellectual laziness, hardship, and directionlessness. You know a country is utterly leaderless when it has a president who proudly says “I am not in a hurry to do anything” while the country he supposedly governs burns.

Umar won’t be perfect. He would falter. The intoxication of power may alter him. And maybe not. But the beauty of democracy is that it imbues us with the power to change ineffective leaders. It is the incremental rectification of past electoral mistakes that aggregates to qualitative change in democratic societies. No society makes progress by reelecting transparently incompetent leaders.

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