"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: October 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Virtual Nigeria Says about Real Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi

More than ever before, Nigerian discourses are rapidly migrating to what one might call the virtual public sphere. Spirited and occasionally transformative discourses about Nigerian politics, economics, and culture are now increasingly taking place on such Web sites as Facebook, Sahara Reporters, the Nigerian Village Square, and a whole host of other digital discursive arenas. It came as no surprise to me when I read sometime ago that almost 40 percent of Internet traffic from Africa’s over 50 countries now originates in Nigeria.

We have outrivaled South Africa and the North African nations of Egypt and Tunisia in Internet use. Until this year, these countries had dominated the African presence on the Web. This is a good sign. Discursive democracy, which has been sorely lacking in our political culture, is taking roots. This is especially helped by the impersonality and anonymity of the Internet, which conduce to the bracketing of social status differentials, so that people at the lower end of the social scale can converse on equal terms with people at the upper end of the scale.
Lagos scene
This all bodes well for deliberative democracy, except that the nature, tenor, and compass of most of the discussions that take place in digital Nigeria give cause for a little worry. Go to the comments page of a typical article in, say Sahara Reporters or the Nigerian Village Square, on any issue. You will be petrified by the unnervingly savage profusion of unspeakably raw, undiluted ethnic and religious chauvinism that pass for comments. The display of baleful and willful ignorance is often so thick you can cut it with a knife.

If readers don’t agree with a writer’s point of view—or, in fact, if they merely don’t like his/her name! —they almost always ignore the substance of his argument and launch vicious attacks on his ethnicity, religion, and region. And, of course, they never forget to add that he or she is a paid hack of some politician. In the twisted opinion of much of the contemporary Nigerian Internet commentariat, no opinion is the product of any individual’s independent analytical or discursive choice; it’s always already inspired either by primordial loyalties or by pecuniary gratification—or both! The only “objective” and “balanced” opinions are those that reinforce and give comfort to the commenters’ prejudices and biases. Although there are the occasional sane, measured, and thoughtful comments on articles and news stories, they are often, for the most part, drowned out by the primitive cacophony of rank ignorance and bigotry that now pass for “comments” on Nigerian-based Web sites.

Every issue is gazed at from the crude prism of Nigeria’s primordial fault-lines, which have unfortunately been actively promoted and even sanctified by our backward ruling elites since Nigeria’s founding. Calls for the dissolution of the country or for the excision of certain parts of the country from the union, or the belittling of whole peoples and cultures almost always accompany ANY Nigerian online discussion. In short, the quality of discourse is often so terrifyingly crude, so rhetorically violent, so destitute in basic conversational decorum you would think you are in some godforsaken cyber-jungle where wild, blood-thirsty animals are tearing each other apart with maniacal glee.

A friend once mentioned to me that if the comments people make on popular Nigerian cyber forums is a genuine reflection of what we think about the fascinating ethnic and religious tapestry that is Nigeria, then we have no business remaining as one country. While I understand the sentiment behind this point of view, I think it misses three crucial points.

First, there is something about anonymity that just brings out the beasts in people. People write mean-spirited and unmentionable things about other people that they can’t say about them or to them if they were to meet physically. Anonymity frees people from the burden of responsibility, accountability, and restraint. This fact, to be fair, is true of most anonymous online discourses; it isn’t exclusive to Nigeria, although a certain class of Nigerians would seem to be patenting hate and irresponsibility in online comments.

Second, for most of our life as a nation, we have been under totalitarian military governments whose hallmark had been the cruel, iron-clad strangulation of dissent and honest national conversation. The brief periods of civilian administrations we’ve had have not been qualitatively different. Plus, our national media formation is, for the most part, corrupt, compromised, closed, and obsessed with the petty squabbles of the ruling elite. So people have not had avenues to vent the pent-up anger, angst, and anxieties that have built up in their systems over the years. The Internet is now providing the platform for them to ventilate their suppressed frustrations. Perhaps, after a while, the undisguised rawness and vulgarity that characterize online comments on popular Nigerian online discussion forums will wane and rational, reasoned conversations and logical disputations would take place. I hope I am right.

Third, it appears that the poor and lowly taste of the comments in these forums is a reflection of the low quality of mind and immaturity of the people who participate in them. If mastery of basic grammar can be a reliable measure of educational attainment ( I know it not always is), then most of the commenters really sound barely educated. They come across as angry, ignorant, ill-mannered little terrors. It appears that mature, well-educated Nigerians have withdrawn from participating in these forums and just watch in amusement from the sidelines. I can bear testimony that when I started to actively participate in Nigerian online conversations in the early times, the quality of discourse was far superior to what obtains now. The incredible ignorance and viciousness that now pass for discussion on Nigerian online discussion boards is truly staggering.

I’ve stopped participating in popular online Nigerian conversations in the last one year. I have even stopped reading comments on my articles, which is sad because there are the occasional insightful comments, contestations, additions, suggestions, etc from a few thoughtful readers. But I can't subject myself to the torment of reading scorn-worthy, malicious illiteracy that I have chosen not to respond to because I want to read the occasional intelligent comment. That's why I include my email address in every of my posts. If people have something important to say, they will probably send it to my email. And since the email will hopefully bear the real names of the senders, they are likely to be more civil and more measured than they would be under the cloak of anonymity that the message boards give them.

After all is said and done, I don't advocate that anybody be banned or censured for the egregiousness of their comments. I think the key is to introduce some mechanism for people to be accountable for the comments that they make—such as registering their IP addresses and making them trackable. But if “virtual” Nigeria is a true reflection of the “real” Nigeria, then ours is a country where frighteningly naked hate and mutual suspicion and distrust reign supreme. Wise leaders would take a cue from this.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Q and A on Nigerian English Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I received many interesting questions from my readers these past few weeks, which inspired me to make this week’s column a Q and A. I encourage readers to send in their queries to my email address. As a rule, remember, I don’t disclose the identities of questioners. Enjoy:

Question: Is it “delivered a baby” or “delivered of a baby”?

My wife wrote to her place of work, after giving birth, that she was delivered of a baby in the hospital. “I was delivered of a baby boy last Thursday,” she wrote. The guy who saw the letter cancelled the statement and ranted that it was a mistake. He insisted that it should only read, "I delivered a baby last Thursday".

Actually, I feel the guy was wrong to say his statement is the ONLY correct one, and I also thought my wife was right in how she made the statement. Please help me resolve this and reply via email. Thanks so much.

Answer:

Your question reminds me of a Nigerian language columnist’s take on this issue years back. He wrote that it is wrong to say “my wife delivered a baby yesterday.” Instead, he said, it should be “my wife was delivered of a baby yesterday.” So this grammar columnist is the very antithesis of your wife’s unsolicited, self-appointed grammar police. But what is the correct expression?

Well, “be delivered of a baby” is a fixed idiom in British English. It means “to give birth to a baby.” This definition is taken straight from the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. And this is the usage example the dictionary gives: “She was delivered of a healthy boy.” That means the expression “I was delivered of a baby last Thursday” that your wife used in her letter is legitimate.

However, “deliver” as a word can also mean “cause to be born,” and the phrase “deliver a baby” also means “to help a woman give birth to a baby.” So it is also perfectly acceptable to write, “I delivered a baby last Thursday.”

Now, according to usage experts in British English, the phrase “be delivered of a baby” is the preferred expression to use in formal contexts, while “deliver a baby” is especially suitable in informal, colloquial contexts. So both expressions are correct. I would add that since your wife was writing a formal letter to her workplace, her choice of expression is particularly appropriate.

Having said that, I’ve realized that almost no American says they have been “delivered of a baby girl.” I have American friends who have had babies or whose wives have had babies, but I’ve never heard any of them use the British English idiom “delivered of a baby.” They just say they or their wives “delivered a baby.” So the decision to use “delivered of” or “deliver” may also be dialectal. But we speak and write British (or what I like to call neo-British) English in Nigeria. In that wise, you’re right that your wife was right.

Question: Is there a word like “unserious”?

Recently, I used the word “unserious” in a discussion on an online forum, and somebody, whom I respect, corrected me. He said there is no such word as “unserious” in English; that it's either I say “not serious” or use another word. Please clarify this for me.

Answer:

Well, your friend is both right and wrong. He is right because “unserious” is traditionally not a frequently used word in British English, which we speak—or pretend to speak—in Nigeria. That's why it can’t be found in prestigious British English dictionaries. But he is wrong because the word has been an integral part of the lexicon of American English for a long time.

“Unserious” has an entry in such prestigious American dictionaries as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It is also listed in Wikitionary, the collaborative online dictionary. But Dictionary.com has no entry for it.

 But, more importantly, the word is used by well-regarded columnists in prestigious newspapers like the New York Times. Take, for instance, Professor Paul Krugman’s September 29 op-ed column titled “Unserious Central Bankers.” Krugman, in case you didn’t know, is a Nobel laureate and professor of economics at Princeton University. Famous and well-regarded conservative American philosopher George Will also famously called Obama “seriously unserious” in a Newsweek article last year.

 Interestingly, as with most English expressions and words that were once exclusively American, “unserious” is spreading to British English. I found three records of its use in the British National Corpus, the most definitive record of contemporary spoken and written British English.

Question: Which is the correct expression between these two: “to be rest assured” or “to rest assured”?

I see that many educated Nigerians use the expression “to be rest assured.” But someone said it’s wrong. What can you tell me about this?

Answer:

The idiom is “to rest assured.” This is how it is rendered in both British and American English and, I imagine, in other native varieties of the English language such as Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand English.  However, over the years, Nigerians have distorted the idiom to “to be rest assured.” It is typical to hear some Nigerians say, “You should be rest assured that I will deliver on my promises.” But it should correctly be, “you should rest assured that I will deliver on my promises.”

The 2002 edition of the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines “rest assured” as “to be assured; to be certain.” And it gives the following examples of the idiom’s usage: “Rest assured that you'll receive the best of care. Please rest assured that we will do everything possible to help.”

Similarly, the 2006 edition Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms defines “rest assured” as “to be certain something will happen” and gives the following usage example: “I know this fellow well, and you can rest assured he will give you good advice.” In case you think this an exclusively American English idiom, it is not; it is also found in British English.

It’s unclear how the intrusive “be” entered into the Nigerian rendering of the idiom. Since we don’t say “go and BE rest” in Nigerian English, it seems indefensible that we say “you should BE rest assured.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Re: A MENDacious President

By Farooq A. Kperogi

My write-up with the above title elicited interesting reactions from a broad range of readers. I present some of them below. As the first writer notes, the president seems blissfully oblivious of the political, social and even national security dangers of turning himself into a lying, bungling spokesman for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, an organization that almost single-handedly introduced and popularized kidnapping in Nigeria, and that has a long history murders, of oil theft, and many other unmentionable criminal infractions.

 It’s obvious that the president hasn’t learned age-old noblesse oblige, that is, the obligation of people of high rank to be honorable. This is obviously a highfalutin ideal for this president who is transparently single-minded in his preoccupation to wallow in power for the hell of it. Advising this man about civility, restraint, self-reflexivity, and social/geo-political sensitivity is like throwing pearls before swine. He doesn’t seem to know that to defend one’s own people is an instinctive impulse. It doesn’t require any effort. What requires effort is the capacity to rise superior to this base temptation and to be dispassionate. What requires effort is the courage to admit and confront the failings and foibles of one’s people. No one needs the capacity for this effort more than the leader of a complex, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious nation like Nigeria.

Look, I am a huge sucker for political upsets, for the tale of unlikely, hitherto disregarded people shocking the world by rising to positions of prominence. In fact, I was initially thrilled that someone from outside of Nigeria’s predictable tripodal ethnic configuration, especially from the deep south where the bulk of the revenue that sustains our nation comes from, has emerged president. But I’ve since been disillusioned. This man is just NOT it. I would gladly support a more competent “South-South” person. President Jonathan’s simple-mindedness and cluelessness scare me to death. He is, without a doubt, the most uninformed president or head of state we’ve ever had. He is, I am sorry to say, almost illiterate. For the first time in my life, I have great doubts that Nigerian can endure. Jonathan may be the death bell of Nigeria. I hope and pray I am wrong!

Your description of President Goodluck Jonathan as a “MENDacious president” is not only apt and creative, it is also prophetic. Daily Trust of Wednesday October 20 reported the president as yet again defending MEND! When will this man realize he is president for all of Nigeria, whether they are MEND or BEND or Boko Haram? Can you imagine Obasanjo becoming a spokesman for OPC or the late Yar’adua becoming a defender of Boko Haram or Yandaba? I don’t recall any president in Nigeria’s 50 years a nation who has ever publicly defended murderous, undesirable elements from his part of the country. But the sad thing is that even in defending MEND, the president deliberately lies through his teeth. A MENDacious president indeed!

Sabi’u Umar, Kano (sabimoru@yahoo.com)

This was a fine essay, by all that fineness denotes and connotes. Nigeria is for now under some siege. We hope that the writings of deep scholars like you will incite unsparing radicals against the state of things. Do please keep it up my brother and my friend!

Makinde Olawale Oyewunmi, Lagos (greatmankind@gmail.com)

I can't agree more with you, Farooq. This guy is a clown and total embarrassment to Nigeria. Well, I hope those trying to install him for a further four-year term have a rethink now before they tear Nigeria into shreds. And for his Niger Delta defenders: we all fought to have him there when his boss was ill, but you have made it your job to claim responsibility and stand by him even when he is clearly wrong. It remains to be seen how far he will go.

Aliyu O. Musa, Liverpool, UK (musaaliyu1@yahoo.com)

Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s president, demonstrates clearly that he is intellectually deficient and suffering from chronic poverty of ideas. If by any chance he happens to lead the country come 2011 it will be just too tragic for tears. One keeps on contemplating why is it that we always got it wrong when it comes to leadership. May God save the country.

Alhassan Bello, Gombe (hassani21@yahoo.com)

Good day. I just saw your write up in today's paper, and I really like the way you put things about the so-called Mr. President. The president is too sentimental about everything he does in this country. With Jonathan as a president, Nigeria is going no where because he's the most inexperienced president that our beloved nation ever had. Now, to me, only with the help you ''the press'' (by telling Nigerians exactly who Goodluck Jonathan is) will God will help Nigerians out of this mess, or rather misfortune.

In the end, I will like to say I'm really delighted by your column. And also, if possible I will like to know you better. Thanks.

 Auwal Rogo (auwalrogo@yahoo.com)

Many thanks for your beautiful and well researched write up. Truth will always prevail. Please keep it up. This kind of writing could and should be educating our politicians and teaching them what politics and democracy (in this globalised world) are all about. To add more to what you said, the MENDacious president could as well be described as "A leader with an empty headed megaphone" and the most unpopular and worst president Nigeria ever had.  Please try to get these two beautiful books or search via the Internet:

The first is titled "Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (2009).” The author is Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University. He is also the author of "The Bottom Billion". The second book is titled "Held Together by Pins: Liberal Democracy Under Siege In Africa (2007)". It is authored by Professor Tatah Mentan of the Minnesota University, USA. He teaches courses on globalisation and security issues.

Abbati Bako, (abbatibako58@yahoo.com), MA Political Strategy and Communication, University of Kent, UK, Brussels Campus

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

A MENDacious President!

By Farooq A. Kperogi

The two dominant dictionary definitions of “mendacious” are, “given to lying” (as in: “a mendacious child”) and “intentionally untrue” (as in: “a mendacious statement”). President Goodluck Jonathan has lately shown himself to be an embodiment of both meanings of the word, that is, unblushing, barefaced lies and intentional falsehoods.

He told four brazen lies in one week! But he gave a new, curious, “punny” meaning to “mendacious” when he transformed himself into a lying spokesman for MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks on Abuja during Nigeria’s October 1st celebrations.

“We know those behind the attack and the persons sponsoring them,” the president was quoted to have said. “They are terrorists, not MEND. The name of MEND that operates in Niger Delta was only used. I grew up in the Niger Delta so nobody can claim to know Niger Delta than [sic] myself, because I am from Niger Delta.”
President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria
Malam Mohammed Haruna has done an excellent job of dispassionately unmasking the notoriously inept duplicity and mendacity (MENDacity, if you like) of President Goodluck Jonathan. So did Modibbo Kawu and Adamu Adamu.

There is nothing to add to their excellent interventions, except to say that it speaks to the quality of mind of our president that he would engage in a visceral, primitive defense of an organization that had warned of its attacks well in advance of the act, that has been labeled a terrorist organization by many agencies, including the TerroristPlanet.com, and that British intelligence officers knew would launch attacks days before it struck.

Jonathan’s argument, which he is obviously too incompetent to make effectively and coherently, appears to be that MEND members couldn’t possibly want to sabotage his presidency because he is a Niger Deltan like them. Only northerners who are embittered by his treacherous jettisoning of the power rotation clause in the PDP constitution could be responsible for this heinous crime. In any case, he seems to be saying further, only Muslims can be terrorists and MEND members are non-Muslims. Or what else could he mean when he said, “They [the bombers] are terrorists, not MEND.”

Even the president admitted that, among many violent acts against innocents, on March 15, 2010, MEND detonated two bombs a short distance away from the venue of a two-day “post- amnesty” dialogue organized by Vanguard Newspapers in Warri. The meeting was packed full of Niger Delta leaders. Again, like the October 1 attacks, MEND’s Jomo Gbomo sent out emails warning of the attacks days before they occurred. But, according to a new, curious Jonathanian logic, that wasn’t terrorism. Or, better still, if that qualified as terrorism, then it wasn’t carried out by MEND. MEND and terrorism are like (Niger Delta) oil and water; they don’t mix.

 The president wonders why no one has investigated the Warri attacks, and implied that it’s because there is a conspiracy to rope in MEND and Niger Deltans in terrorist acts. But the last time I checked, Jonathan was in Aso Rock when these incidents occurred. Whose responsibility is it to order an investigation? This man has got to be way more clueless and intellectually barren than I thought he was.

Similarly, what do we make of the bombing of Jonathan’s own private residence in his hometown of Otuoke in Bayelsa State by Niger Delta militants on Wednesday May 16, 2007? Many people don’t seem to remember this. 
A grainy picture of President Jonathan's bombed house
Now, if his own people bombed his own personal residence at the point that he had just been elected vice president (at that time unparalleled in the history of the Niger Delta) and in spite of being a Niger Deltan like them, what would stop them from doing so now that he is president? Well, perhaps, it was some northern “Boko-Haramish” terrorists who bombed his home and told Niger Delta militants to claim responsibility for it. Remember: Niger Delta (or MEND) and terrorism are mutually exclusive.

Jonathan’s curious positional transmogrification from the president of Nigeria to a MENDacious, bumbling, bigoted spokesman for daredevil terrorists is obviously actuated by politics and by unreasoning ethno-regional chauvinism of the kind that has no parallel in the annals of Nigeria’s presidential politics.

But this man is so incompetent and so intellectually impoverished he can’t even tell a simple lie effectively. Even MEND must be ashamed of him.

When I once called attention to the fact that this man is shockingly incapable of stringing together a phrase that is not a mockery of the English language, few people thought I was harsh and disrespectful. I think it’s an outward manifestation of an inner absence of substance if someone with a Ph.D., any Ph.D., (and who so loves the English that his first and last names are English!) ironically has the dubious honor of being the worst violator of the most basic rules of English grammar among Nigeria’s presidents and heads of state.

But Jonathan’s lack of basic intelligence is not his worst foible. His most disabling impuissance is that he is so incredibly insecure and diffident that he surrounds himself with people who are just as incompetent as himself, people who validate and normalize his crying ineptitude. Just look at his speeches; they are either shamelessly plagiarized or riddled with embarrassing, cringe-inducing errors. His Facebook status updates are excellent specimens of how not to write English. Even memos to the National Assembly from the President’s Office are interlarded with avoidably ugly proofreading errors. In one memo, for instance, “acting president” (Jonathan’s title at the time) was spelled “ACTIIING PRESIDENT.”

But if his problems were merely one of grammar, he could be forgiven. Unfortunately, they’re worse than that. His advisers and assistants appear to be a bunch of provincial, inexperienced, knee-jerk jerks. For evidence, look at Jonathan’s catalogue of embarrassingly childish policy summersaults in the few months that he’s been president. He was told to ban the national team. Although that was a decidedly thoughtless thing to do, he went ahead and did it. When FIFA threatened to suspend Nigeria, he was told to reverse himself, and on and on.

Now, some asinine “bush man” adviser told him to exonerate MEND of complicity in the October 1 attacks even before investigations have commenced and, like a thoughtless automaton, he did it. Now the country is on fire. At least half the people Jonathan leads now see him as a vicious partisan that they can’t trust with their safety. That is dangerous.

Well, we can’t do anything about President Jonathan’s obvious cognitive deficiencies. It’s pointless trying to straighten a dry, bent stick; it will break. But the President can be advised to surround himself with competent, cosmopolitan, sophisticated policy and PR experts. He is no longer the governor of Bayelsa State. Nor is he some powerless vice president. And, courtesy of Nigeria’s rare brand of politics, he might be president for the next four years—if the country still exists. He has a choice: does he want to be Nigeria’s president or a MENDacious president?

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Friday, October 15, 2010

The Grammar of Titles and Naming in International English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I’ve lost count of the number of times Americans have asked me why the Nigerian president has a common Western first name (Jonathan) as his last name. These queries remind me of the question the late Chief Abraham Adesanya asked former ThisDay editor and current Minister of Youth Development Bolaji Abdullahi when the latter introduced himself to the Chief on the phone. “Bolaji what?” the late Yoruba leader asked. “Why not Abdullahi Bolaji?”

Americans—and other Westerners— seem to also be asking, “Goodluck what? Why not Jonathan Ebele—or any other name but a Western first name?” In the West, last names, also called family names or surnames, are the names often used to identify members of one family (dad, mom, children, paternal cousins, paternal grandparents, etc.) and sometimes to trace a family tree. They are distinguished from first or given names—which are, for the most part, common—by the fact that they are usually unique. Of course, many hitherto unique last names have now become so commonplace that they might as well be first names. Examples are Smith, Doe, Adams, Brown, etc.

But the concept of “family name” is either non-existent or entirely new in most Nigerian cultures—and, for that matter, in most non-Western cultures. When I started elementary school in Nigeria, for instance, I was only asked of my first name and my “father’s name,” not my family name. Of course, I gave my father’s first name, Adamu, an African Muslim rendering of the Semitic name, Adam. And so I had been known as Farooq Adamu for the first 24 years of my life.

But my own father, who was an Arabic and Islamic Studies teacher in the same school, is known and addressed as Malam Adamu Kperogi, Kperogi being my grandfather’s first name. So if you didn’t know us, you would never guess that I was related to my dad since there are a thousand and one Adamus in my community. The absurdity of my names only dawned on me when I was 25 and already a journalist. I realized that my names denuded me of an identity.

It was then I swore a court affidavit and changed the order of my names: I “demoted” Adamu to a middle name, excised my former middle name completely, and added Kperogi—a name exclusively associated with my family—as my last name. Many of my paternal cousins and uncles had been bearing Kperogi. But until I changed my last name, few people knew they were my relations.

My experience typifies the naming dilemma many Nigerians grapple with. The name Jonathan is, of course, President Goodluck Jonathan’s dad’s first name. I am certain that his paternal cousins have a different last name from him. And it won’t be unusual if the president’s children bear “Goodluck” as their last name. Well, because the culture of last names seems to be taking roots in Nigeria now, Jonathan’s children may well adopt “Jonathan” as their last name. His grandchildren may also bear Jonathan as their last name.

 But the truth is that almost no one bears “Jonathan” as a last name in the West from where the name originates; it’s a first name in the class of Moses, John, William, Adam, etc.

Interestingly, although Nigerians are nonchalant about last names—in ways that both surprise and amuse Westerners—we do really subconsciously pay attention to last names that are distinctive. For instance, we talk of the Aguyi Ironsi regime, the Gowon regime, etc. but talk of the “Murtala regime.” It should have been the Muhammed regime; the full name of Olusegun Obasanjo’s predecessor is Murtala Muhammed. But Muhammed is such a common name (actually, it's the most common name in the whole wide world) that it is easy to forget.

We also call former Vice President Atiku Abubakar by his first name, “Atiku,” instead of “Abubakar,” his last name. This is also because, like Muhammed, Abubakar is so common in Muslim majority societies that it is easily forgettable. And we're confused what to call Abdulsalami Abubakar because both first and last names are common. The less common Abdulsalami seems to be increasingly preferred by Nigerian newspaper headline writers these days. The lack of a last-name culture in Arab societies from where these names are borrowed is partly to blame for this.

Our blithe unconcern for the importance of first and last names is reflected in the annoying habit of many Nigerians who write their last names first and their first names last even in informal contexts. For people whose first and last names are undistinguished to start with, this can make identification a strain. I have, for instance, received friendship requests on Facebook from friends I’d lost touch with a long time ago. Their first names, by which I’d known them, would often appear last and their last names, which I didn’t quite know, would appear first. This is particularly awkward for women who risk being called male names because in all other cultures people call people by the names they write first.

This awkward naming habit is a holdover from the practice in schools where last names are written first in the school register to make sorting easy for teachers and administrators. But every country in the West that I know of also writes people’s last names first on school records, but this has not predisposed citizens of these societies to write their last names first in informal, out-of-school contexts.


In the West, titles such as Mrs., Mr., Dr., Professor, Sir, Dame, etc. appear either with first and last names combined or with last names alone. For example, it’s either “Mr. John Smith” or “Mr. Smith” but not “Mr. John.” We don’t respect that order in our everyday social interactions in Nigeria. Titles are regularly prefixed to people’s first names.

But what cracks me up big time is the Nigerian practice of prefixing “Mrs.” to a combination of married women’s first names and their husbands’ first names. For instance, Mrs. Gloria Fulani, whose husband is known as John Fulani, could be addressed as “Mrs. Gloria John.” I’m myself a “victim” of this ignorance. On my second daughter’s birth certificate, a Nigerian doctor wrote my wife’s name as “Mrs. Zainab Farooq”! Well, this practice owes its existence, again, to the absence of an established last-name culture in Nigeria that I talked about last week.

It’s noteworthy that in conventional British English, Mrs. is traditionally only used with a woman’s husband’s first and last names (e.g. Mrs. John Fulani) rather her with a woman’s first name and her husband's last name (e.g. Mrs. Gloria Fulani) unless she’s a peer’s daughter (which would cause her be addressed as Lady Gloria Fulani). This is now becoming outmoded because it's decidedly chauvinistic. Similarly, in British society, women used to be addressed by their last names only (e.g. Mrs. Fulani) if they were servants or criminals.

And in modern British and American English, it is grammatically wrong to use “Miss” or “Mrs.” along with other titles, so that a woman doctor can’t be called “Dr. (Mrs.) Gloria Fulani.” Choose only one title. Of course, in a society like Nigeria where women rightly have a need to flaunt both their professional achievement and their marital status, not to talk of our obsession with titles, this rule will never be obeyed.

Abuse and Misuse of Titles
Our “big” men and women have adopted the habit of taking on Western titles whose histories and sociological content they have not a scintilla of awareness of. The most abused Western titles in Nigeria are “Sir” and “Dame.” (I will write a full column on the origins and uses of “dame” in the coming weeks). In British culture, a “Sir” is a man who is honored by the Queen or King of England for chivalry or other personal merit. A “Dame” is the female equivalent of a “Sir.” But there is a certain famous “Dame” we all know in Nigeria who is only just now learning to shed her Okrika rusticity, who murders the English language with a ferocious glee, and who couldn’t possibly have been knighted by the Queen of England, the symbolic custodian of the English language. But she swanks her “Dameness” nonetheless.

Other popular British titles are “Lord,” “Lady,” and “the Hon.” (short for Honorable). Lord and Lady are used with the first name for the sons and daughters of dukes and marquesses: e.g. Lord John; Lady Elizabeth. But they are used with the last name elsewhere. Similarly, “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.
In Nigeria, however, “the Hon.” title has been hijacked by vain politicians and is now prefixed to the names of members of the Federal House of Representatives, ministers, commissioners, chairmen of local governments, and councilors of wards. Not wanting to be outdone, members of the Nigerian Senate have invented a hitherto non-existent title that they call “Distinguished Senator.” These days, people just call them “Distinguished,” as if the word “distinguished” were a noun!

It is also now fashionable to ignorantly prefix the adjective “executive” to every position in Nigeria. But “executive” is prefixed to a post only when it is necessary to differentiate it from a “ceremonial” post. 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, the elected president had executive powers. It is totally pointless to prefix “executive” to the names of governors, chairmen, etc. since we never had or have ceremonial governors or chairmen in the past or at present. This also applies to such titles as “executive director,” “executive editor,” etc. The “executive” is called for only if a company has non-voting directors or if a newspaper has an editor who exercises no real editorial decision-making powers.

“Excellency” (often preceded by “Your,” “His” or “Her” is another title of honor that is used uniquely in Nigeria. In most countries, it 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. In Nigeria, it is also used for wives of presidents and state governors.

Although America’s first president used “His Excellency” as part of his titles of honor, it has now fallen into disuse.I have never heard any American president addressed as “His Excellency.” Out of America’s 50 states, only about 13 officially call their governors “His/Her Excellency.” The American First Lady is never called “Her Excellency.” Americans also don’t use “His/Her Excellency” for their ambassadors; the use “the honorable.”

I also find it curious that our attitude to Western titles is as influenced by our own local traditions as our local traditions are influenced by our understanding of Western titles. In the north, for instance, “Alhaji” and “Malam” are always prefixed to people’s first names alone—or with their first and last names combined but never with their last names alone, unlike in the West where courtesy titles are prefixed to the last names of adults.

However, our journalists now habitually mix and confuse the Western naming convention with the Nigerian naming practice, so that it is usual to see a “Musa Labo” addressed as “Alhaji Labo” on second reference in news reports. But it is “Musa” who went to Mecca and earned the title of “Alhaji” for himself, not his dad or granddad, “Labo,” who is probably not an “Alhaji” himself. Same applies to the title “Chief” and its many local variants in southern Nigeria.
This is particularly awkward for women because their earned titles are attached to their husband’s family names on second reference. Referring to Hajia Fatima Abdullahi as “Hajia Abdullahi” or a Chief Stella Okereke as “Chief Okereke” on second and subsequent references in a news story is downright misleading. It should be Hajia Fatima and Chief Stella.

In the West, how people are addressed—i.e., whether or not titles are prefixed to their names—is often indicative of levels of familiarity or social and power distance. Calling people by their first names without titles usually indicates that you are on very familiar, friendly terms with them and that the power distance between you and them is very short or non-existent. Calling them by their titles and full names or their titles and last names indicates that there is a wide social and power distance between you and them, the kind of social and power distance that exists, say, between teachers and students or between total strangers on opposite ends of the social scale.

On other occasions, addressing people with their title and last name (such as Mr. Smith) when you are their social equal or their social superior can indicate cold detachment, even hostility. And calling people by their first names when they are older than you, are your social superiors, are not sufficiently known to you, or have not explicitly permitted you to do so, is considered rude.

But this is not the case in Nigeria. Very close friends write letters to each other and sign off as “Mr. Somebody” or “Dr. Somebody Someone,” or “Professor Big man.” In the West, signing off a letter with your title and last name to a friend would indicate hostility, arrogance, or social awkwardness. That’s the basis of the Western expression “we are on first-name terms,” which basically means “we are so familiar with each other that we call each by our first names, not last names and pompous titles.”

There are exceptions to this convention in America, though. In the American south, for instance, it is customary for children to prefix “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Miss” or “Ms.” to people’s first names to indicate both familiarity and courtesy: the mention of the first name indicates familiarity and warmth, while the affixation of the title indicates courtesy. This is now becoming a national tradition that even adults use jocularly. This practice has been around in Nigeria, for a different reason, for as long as I’ve been alive.

Finally, in the West, it is considered bad form to introduce yourself to people with your titles. For instance, it is socially awkward or pompous to introduce yourself to a new person by saying, “I’m Professor John Danfulani.” But this is common practice in Nigeria. For me, this attitude is justified only on occasions when women have a need to tell a male stranger that they are married. So “I am Mrs. Fatima Isa” tells the male stranger what boundaries not to cross.

What of False Titles?

A related phenomenon is “false titles,” that is, creating titles out of professional callings. Nigerian lawyers prefix the title “Barrister” to their names. Architects prefix “Arc.” to their names. Pharmacists prefix “Pharm.” to theirs. Engineers prefix “Engr” to their names. Which profession have I left out? Many, I know. Nigerian journalists seem to be the only people left out in this craze for false titles. But “Journ” would be a nice title for journalists!

 But, seriously, in the West, only medical doctors, Ph.Ds, and (serving) ambassadors prefix professional titles to their names. Every other person contends with Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. In Britain, the range of titles is, of course, wider because the Queen knights people for personal merit.

In Europe, except Britain, it is usual for university teachers who have a Ph.D. and attained the rank of “Professor” to refer to themselves as “Professor Dr. John Smith” This sounds utterly clumsy and superfluous to Britons and Americans—and to Nigerians. But it is intended to showcase both academic and professional achievement. “Professor” indicates professional achievement and “Dr.” indicates academic achievement. Since it is possible to become a professor without a Ph.D. and have a Ph.D. without attaining the rank of professor, Western Europeans (except Britons) think it is fitting to honor people who both have a PhD and attained the rank of professor, thus the vain, clumsy “Professor Dr.” title.

It is noteworthy that what grammarians call “false titles” didn’t start with Nigerians. It was actually started by Time magazine and is now the stuff of journalese (i.e., English distinctive to journalistic writing). In native English societies, false titles are defined as prefixing the name of a professional activity to the name of a person, e.g. “footballer Nwankwo Kanu has retired from the national team.” In the preceding sentence, “footballer” is a false title.

False titles are useful for journalists because they save space. But all journalistic writing conventions in Britain and America insist that the first letters of false titles should not be capitalized (e.g. it is wrong to write “Footballer Nkwankwo Kanu”) since they’re not “real” titles. They should also not be separated by a comma (e.g., it’s wrong to write, “Famous footballer, Nwanko Kanu, has landed a big gig in Spain”) from the name they precede. But this is precisely what Nigerians have perfected: the first letters of false titles are not only routinely capitalized; they have also been mainstreamed as “real” titles.

The titles “Barrister,” “Engr,” “Arc.,” “Surveyor,” “Pharm,” etc. are classic examples of false titles that have been elevated to the status of real titles in Nigeria.

All this wouldn’t matter if we only related to each other in Nigeria. But the reality of globalization has forced us to relate with people in other parts of the world more frequently than was the case in the past. I know that many Westerners are often confused by our naming conventions, especially because such conventions are often poor imitations of their ways. So it helps to know that there is grammatical logic to naming and titles.






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