"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: June 2014

Saturday, June 28, 2014

I’m Tired of Being Tired of Nigeria’s Unending Violence

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


This admittedly convoluted headline speaks to the depth of my frustration and helplessness over the never-ending bloodletting that has become the lot of Nigeria in the past few years.  Nigeria has become a nation that is drenched in its own blood. It has become immobilized by the continually unspeakable terror of a homicidal lunatic fringe and the rank ineptitude of a clueless state apparatus. It’s hard to resist being jaded and insentient.

Just as I sat down to write this week’s column, I was jolted by the news of yet another senseless butchery of innocent shoppers at a mall in Abuja. When I first read the news on social media sites, my instinctive reaction was, “Oh, not again! Will this ever end?”

 I didn’t think I had any more capacity to be shocked by the ceaseless sanguinary fury of the murderous psychopaths that have made parts of Nigeria hell on earth--- until I found out that one of the scores of people that died at the mall was a journalist I had had a reason to relate with in Nigeria. 

The tragedy of the mall bombing took on an added psychological proximity for me after I found out that Suleiman Bisalla, a former deputy editor at Daily Trust and managing editor of the New Telegraph, was among the dead.  It was Josef Stalin who reputedly once said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” He was basically underscoring the fact that deaths evoke more emotions when we can personally relate to the individuals that are deceased.


I first met Suleiman in Jos either in late 1998 or early 1999 when I was a reporter for the Weekly Trust. I did a story on the notions of Middle Belt identity, which required me to travel to Jos and other hot spots of Middle Belt identity politics.  While in Jos, I went to the Plateau State secretariat of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) both to familiarize myself with local journalists and to get leads on the best people to talk to. Suleiman was the first journalist I met. He was a reporter, I think, for the Nigerian Standard at the time. I found him to be very kind, genial, and obliging.

I recall being fascinated by his last name and asking him if he was by any chance related to the late Major General Illiya D. Bisalla. I don’t remember what his response was because it wasn’t a particularly comfortable topic for him. I also thought that being a Muslim who was indigenous to Plateau State, the notional political headquarters of the Middle Belt, he would have a unique perspective on Middle Belt identity.  He shared very interesting thoughts with me about this but refused to go on record. He said he was a news reporter, not a news maker.

I had left Trust when he moved over to the paper. When I met him again at Trust many years after our first meeting in Jos, he didn’t seem to remember where and how we first met.  But I couldn’t forget my meeting him in Jos. Were it not for his help I would not have been able to speak with such notable Plateau State politicians as the late Senator John Wash Pam and Mrs. Hannatu Chollom. He will certainly be missed by the Nigerian journalism profession

May Suleiman’s soul, and the souls of the others who perished in the blast, rest in peace.

As I think about this senseless carnage, I can’t help being angry at Nigerian security forces.  Just a few weeks ago, the military seized thousands of newspapers and hounded news vendors because the military claimed it got “intelligence” that “materials with grave security implications” were being hidden in newspapers. Poor innocent people are routinely harassed in the name of preventing terrorist attacks. Yet when the real terrorists strike the security forces are often caught flatfooted. 

Ismail Omipidan, a regional editor at the Sun, echoed my frustrations well when he wrote on his Facebook timeline: “First, they searched every circulation van of media houses, looking for explosives; they found none. They seized some sales executives, looking for explosives; they found none. And they got intelligence report that Petrol Tankers will be used to bomb Abuja. Then, they shifted to Kaduna, to search Speaker Tambuwal's car, again for explosives; they found none. But they were nowhere near Emab Plaza, Abuja, to search for the real explosives that eventually killed one of my friends and colleague. They did not also get the unusual intelligence report that Emab plaza was the target yesterday.”

It’s a terrible fate to live in a country that can’t secure its capital; where even the seat of power is vulnerable and helpless before terror. I am tired of being tired.

Re: When a Country's Future is in its Past
I received many great responses to my column with the above title, but I am publishing only one this week, because it corrects a minor but important factual error.

For your information, the late Gov. Abubakar Rimi did not appoint a commissioner from the South or any other state outside Kano, but he appointed non-Kano indigenes to other high offices, including a South-southerner as Director of Research in the Government House. Others were the Special Advisor, Political Affairs; the Chairman of the State Investment Co. and the MD of the State Newspaper, The Triumph.
Kassim Bichi, Kano

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Nigeria: When a Country’s Future is in its Past

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


The other day I was reflecting on Nigerians’ new favorite pastime: endless griping about the increasingly disabling dysfunction of the country. And I realized that one theme that often stands out when we bewail our present conditions is that we almost always sentimentalize the past. 

In other words, many Nigerians find relief from the worries of the present by taking a mental escape to the past.  

For instance, when Nigerians bemoan the “indigene/settler” dichotomies in many states of the country, they like to recall, for example, that as far back as 1956, a Fulani man from Sokoto by the name of Malam Umaru Altine was elected the first Mayor of Enugu, the political capital of Eastern Nigeria. His religious and ethnic identity didn’t stand in the way of his election—as it certainly would in contemporary Nigeria. They also remember that when the late Alhaji Abubakar Rimi was governor of Kano State in the Second Republic, he appointed many non-Kano indigenes, including Christians from the South, as commissioners. There are several other examples of inclusiveness from the past that we invoke to deplore the politics of intolerance and exclusivity of the present.


And when Nigerians bemoan the worsening insecurity in the country, especially in the northeast, they never fail to recall that Borno State, the main theater of Boko Haram’s unceasing carnage, used to be so peaceful that its license-plate slogan is “home of peace.”  Now, that slogan reads like a cruel joke.

On almost every imaginable subject—infrastructure, electricity, standard of education, tolerance, security, governance, leadership, etc.—our past has become our refuge from the scourge of our present. About the only thing that Nigerians don’t look to the past for inspiration is in telecommunication. No one looks back to the days of NITEL with nostalgia even in the face of the crappy GSM services that private telecom operates provide now.

 I know of no society that valorizes its past, in even the most trivial indices, with as much wistfulness much as Nigeria does. Here in the United States, to give just one example, rather than a sentimental longing for the past, I notice a tendency toward chronocentricity, that is, the notion that the present is superior to anything that preceded it. For instance, when Americans discuss race relations, they look back at their past with disdain. Even though they are far from achieving racial equality, they all seem to agree that they have come a long way; that every subsequent generation is more racially tolerant and broadminded than the one that anteceded it. 

As President Obama said in one of his speeches, the fact that racial incidents like the Trayvon Martin murder case captured the national imagination and became the subject of intense national debate speaks to the unusualness of such cases and indicates how much progress has been made in race relations. 

Although Americans also complain about declining standards in education, it isn’t as much a national obsession as it is in Nigeria. In fact, studies now show that young Americans actually read more print (and—obviously—electronic) books than previous generations.

In many societies, people say things like “this is the 21st century, for God’s sake!” to rail against people who are narrow-minded, who are ensconced in their primordial cocoons, who are opposed to progress. Implicit in this utterance is the idea that the current age is an improvement on the previous ones; that history proceeds in a progressive, not recursive, direction. Of course, this is not entirely accurate, but it does capture a certain level of confidence about the present—and optimism about the future.

Nigerians don’t have even this illusory luxury. The past is a lot more comforting than the present and is therefore a better template for the future. But why wouldn’t it be? As a nation we seem to be moving from bad to worse in almost every sphere. At a time when most closed societies are opening up and open societies are becoming even more open, we are becoming more wedded to subnational loyalties than ever before. Citizens of Nigeria habitually get “deported” from parts of the country where they are not considered “indigenes.”

 Corruption has reached such crushing heights that even the president of the nation says stealing is not corruption. And stealing of public money no longer makes headlines news unless it’s in billions of US dollars. What is more, we have become so desensitized to death that unless people die in their hundreds newspaper editors don’t put it on the front page. 

Even universities that are called “ivory towers” because of their putative insulation from the reality of everyday life are affected by this emergent national culture of worshipping the past. University teachers look to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to reclaim the idea of the university. I have never heard or read any Nigerian university teacher brag about improvement in scholarship and pedagogy in the universities in the course of the years.

No future can be envisioned out of this depressingly dark present. That is why we glorify and idealize the past. But a country whose past is better than its present in most indices of human development is in a bigger trouble than it realizes. And, most certainly, a country whose future lies in its past has no future.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Pragmatic Analysis of “Emir,” “Sarki,” “Oba” and “Chief” in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


When I reviewed Nigerian social media chitchat in the wake of the death of the Emir of Kano and the appointment of his successor, I noticed that Hausa-speaking Nigerians almost never use the word “Emir” to refer to the Emir of Kano when they write in Hausa. They use “Sarkin Kano,” sarki being the Hausa word for king. They only use “Emir” when they write in English.

This seems like an obvious, self-evident, banal observation. But it’s not—at least from a pragmatic point of view. (Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that studies how social contexts affect the meaning of language). To start with, many southern Nigerians invariably associate the term “emir” with Muslim northerners.  Many southern Nigerians, in fact, think “emir” is a Hausa word. Yet it isn’t natural for Hausa-speaking northerners to refer to their traditional rulers as “emir” when they converse in Hausa.  Saying “emir” while speaking Hausa is generally understood as code-mixing, that is, interspersing a conversation with foreign words.


In other words, “emir” is a foreign word in Hausa. It was introduced to Hausa-speaking Nigerians by British colonizers, which is kind of interesting, even a bit ironic, considering that “emir” is derived from an Arabic word that has historical roots in Islam. As most linguists know, “emir” is the Anglicization of the Arabic “amir,” which literally means “leader” or “commander.” 

The successors to the prophet of Islam (called “Caliphs” in Islamic literature) were often called “amir-ul- muminin,” which roughly translates as commander of the faithful (i.e., Muslim faithful).  (Interestingly, Hausa people don’t call the most prominent traditional ruler in the Muslim north the "Sultan of Sokoto"; they call him “Sarkin Musulumi,” which translates as leader of Muslims—obviously a domestication of “amir-ul-muminin”; it’s also more natural for Hausa speakers to say “daular Usmaniyya” than to say “Sokoto Caliphate”).

Well, the linguistic journey of the word “emir” into English was a little tortuous. It was the French who first domesticated “amir” to “√©mir."  Then the word came to English as a French borrowing. As the reader can see, the English rendering of the world is unaltered from French, except for the dropping of the grave accent on the letter “e.” Etymologists say the first appearance of “emir” in English can be traced to 1593. 

Another prominent, widely used derivative of “amir” in English is “admiral.” It is derived from the Arabic "amir-ul-bahr,” which translates as “commander of the sea.” 

Nonetheless, although “emir” is an English word, it evokes connotations of Hausa-Fulani Muslim overlordship in Nigeria.  That is why Yoruba nationalists who want to “reclaim” Ilorin resent the labeling of the traditional ruler of the town as “Emir of Ilorin.” Every so often, Yoruba cultural nationalists spearhead the advocacy for the appointment of an “Oba of Ilorin.” 

When I was a reporter for the Weekly Trust in 2000 I was assigned to cover a controversy over the calls for an “Oba of Ilorin.” In the course of my investigation, I spoke with people from all classes of the Ilorin society. 

One thing that struck me throughout my stay in Ilorin for the story was that everybody in the town, including members of the ruling family, called their traditional ruler “Oba” when they spoke in Yoruba. “Emir” sounded strange, even forced. Like Hausa people up north, the Ilorin people don’t relate well to the word “emir” unless they are putting on airs or speaking in English.

A particularly insightful encounter for me was an interview I had with an old, uneducated man who identified himself as a descendant of Afonja, the Yoruba founder of Ilorin who lost power to the progenitor of the current ruling family. I asked him if he wanted an “Oba of Ilorin.” He was genuinely befuddled. His response, in Yoruba, was: “what are you talking about? We already have an Oba.” Using the categories that have been popularized by the Nigerian news media, I said, “no, you don’t have an Oba; you have an emir.” His comeback threw me off.  He didn’t know what an emir was. “Kilo je be? [what is that?],” he said.

That was when it dawned on me that “emir” is an English word that only western-educated northerners use to refer to their traditional rulers when they speak in English. Just like Hausa speakers call their traditional rulers “sarki,” Ilorin people call theirs “oba.” Every Ilorin person calls the emir’s palace “ile Oba” (which literally translates as “the Oba’s house”). The biggest market in Ilorin, which is close to the emir’s palace, is called “Oja Oba,” which translates as “the market of the Oba.”

So “emir” is rarely used in Ilorin—as in other northern Muslim places—outside official communication and in English-medium conversations. A more appropriate question for the old man should have been “do you want an Oba who is Yoruba rather than this Oba whose ancestors are Fulani?” I actually did rephrase my question like that after realizing that the old man couldn’t relate to the term “emir.”

How about “chief”? In southern Nigeria, a chief isn’t a traditional ruler; he is just someone who has been conferred with a traditional title by a traditional ruler. But Westerners, particularly Americans and Britons, tend to think Nigerians who prefix “Chief” to their names are kings who have dominion over communities. When I lived in the US state of Louisiana about 10 years ago, I read the newspaper profile of a cocky Nigerian resident of a Louisiana city who was described as the “ supreme king in absentia” of three different Nigerian communities because he told his interviewers that he was a “triple high chief,” whatever in the world that means. The editor of the paper was embarrassed when I later told him that a “chief” is merely a traditional title holder in southern Nigeria.

In northern Nigeria, however, “chief” is a politically loaded term and has a completely different meaning from how it's used in Nigeria's south. It can mean a non-Muslim traditional ruler of any rank. It can also mean a low-ranked or unranked Muslim ruler in northern Nigeria, usually one whose lineage has no direct link with the Sokoto jihad. Increasingly, Muslim traditional rulers whose status has been elevated prefer to take on the title of “emir” in official documents. For instance, when the recently murdered Emir of Gwoza in Borno State was promoted to a second-class (and later first-class) traditional ruler, his title changed from “Chief of Gwoza” to “Emir of Gwoza.” In northern Nigeria it is offensive to call a Muslim traditional ruler a “chief” if he has been elevated to an “emir.” An acquaintance of mine, who is the son of the traditional ruler of Jere, didn’t take it kindly when I referred to his dad as the “Chief of Jere.” He had recently been elevated to an “emir,” although the people of Jere call him “Sarkin Jere” irrespective of his official designations.

While an “emir” has notional jurisdiction over an “emirate,” a “chief” rules over a “chiefdom.”  In my part of Borgu, which is predominantly Muslim with Songhai-descended rulers whose “emirates” predate the Sokoto jihad by more than 100 years, we didn’t get the memo that a “chief” was a somewhat inferior ruler in Muslim northern Nigeria. In my hometown of Okuta, for several years, our traditional ruler was called a “chief” in official communication and his palace was called the “chief’s palace.” Of course, like everywhere else, natives call him “suno,” the Baatonu word for king. When my people became familiar with the pragmatic signification of “chief” in northern Nigerian officialese, they quickly changed the official title of the traditional ruler to “Emir.” The “Chief’s Place” became the “Emir’s palace.”

All this point to the context-dependence of the meanings of the linguistic markers we deploy for everyday communication.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Why the Nigerian Military’s Clampdown on Newspapers is Stupid

By Farooq A.Kperogi, Ph.D.


For four days, beginning June 6 through June 10, 2014, the Nigerian military confiscated thousands of copies of Nigeria’s top newspapers reputedly on “security” grounds. Military spokesman Chris Olukolade told the news media that the seizures of the newspapers were no more than “routine security action” in the wake of “intelligence reports indicating movement of materials with grave security implications across the country using the channel of newsprint-related consignments.”

At the end (or has it ended?) of the “routine security action,” the military didn’t find any “materials with grave security implications” in any newspaper and, as far as I am aware, military authorities have not apologized to the newspapers whose businesses were rudely  and crudely disrupted for days.
It’s interesting that a military that can’t find hundreds of abducted girls weeks after their abduction, that couldn’t forestall two fatal bombings—in quick succession— at a crowded bus station in the nation’s capital, and that can’t even protect its own members against terrorists suddenly got “intelligence reports” that weapons of mass destruction had been mysteriously concealed in “newsprint-related consignments.” Because of this, soldiers continually harassed and dehumanized newspaper distributors, vendors and even readers across the country. So even reading newspapers can have “grave security implications.” How interesting!


Well, it turned out that the “materials with grave security implications” were also written on newspaper pages; they weren’t merely concealed in “newsprint-related consignments.” Why else would readers be beaten for reading a newspaper? A Nigerian newspaper editor told Reporters without Borders that soldiers “flipped through the pages [newspapers] to be sure that there is no major stories on Boko Haram.” 

So the “materials with grave security implications” were also in the uncomfortable stories newspapers wrote about the military in the past few days. 

One of those uncomfortable stories is Daily Trust’s exclusive June 4, 2014 story about top generals who illegally shared a plot of land that the government had designated as the site for a barracks. Another is Leadership’s story about the alleged court-martial of several serving generals who actively aid and abet Boko Haram terrorists. The story has been picked up by many international news outlets.
Maybe it’s these kinds of uncomfortable stories in newspapers that the military considers the real “materials with grave security implications” that must be prevented from circulating. But that’s stupid for at least three reasons.

One, iron-clad strangulation of the news media in the form of violent seizures of copies of newspapers or shutting down of broadcast stations is an old, tired, discredited form of censorship. In our increasingly interdependent world it’s the surest way to destroy any government’s reputational capital. I thought the Jonathan government would have quickly called the military to order  and told it to stop this primitive suppression of the press—that is, assuming the government didn’t, in fact, give the orders in the first place. Presidential spokesman Doyin Okupe removed all doubt when he said the serial clampdown on the media was just a little temporary discomfort that Nigerians should learn to live with in the fight against terrorism! This government, I tell you, is more nitwitted than I ever thought possible for any government.

Now, in addition to the international embarrassment that the Jonathan government has been exposed to in the wake of its crying incompetence in the rescue the Chibok girls, the world is waking up to the realization that the Jonathan government is a creeping fascist dictatorship. That’s not a label any thinking government wants to be associated with. But this isn’t a thinking government.

Second, it’s elementary public relations that you don’t dispel a negative story by amplifying it. As I said earlier, by confiscating newspapers in hopes of suppressing the uncomfortable stories they published about the military, the military only gave wings to those stories. This isn’t helped by the terrible public image of the military among the Nigerian public. The civilian population sees Nigerian soldiers as a bunch of primitive, narcissistic, incompetent, and corrupt bullies who can neither protect the nation from both internal and external aggression nor save themselves. The military’s embarrassingly subpar performance in its fight against Boko Haram has particularly exposed to it so much scorn and erased the plaudits it had earned in peace-keeping operations in the West African sub region. 

In light of this disconcerting reputational deficit, the civilian population in Nigeria, which has .lived with the insufferable arrogance and brutality of the military, is prepared to believe the worst about the military.

The third reason the seizure of print copies of newspapers is stupid is that newspapers now have a dual presence: hard-copy and online presence. Nigerian newspapers are actually several folds more popular online than they are offline. All of the newspapers that the military seized get more daily hits on their websites than the combined annual hard-copy circulation of all newspapers and magazines in the country. Seizing hard copies of newspapers in a bid to suppress stories is the stupidest, most primitive form of censorship in the digital age. Stories that are suppressed in physical form almost always become “social stories,” that is, stories that go viral because they are voluntarily shared by users on social media platforms.

A military that is still stuck in nineteenth-century notions of censorship can’t confront a 21st century enemy. A military that thinks seizing hard copies of newspapers is all that is needed to suppress the newspapers is not worth its name. A military that has no metal detectors to test whether “newsprint-related consignments” contain “materials with grave security implications” and instead forcibly seizes newspapers and brutalizes distributors, vendors and readers is a doomed military.

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