By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Hundreds of readers wrote to tell me they were disappointed when none of my columns concerned President Muhamadu Buhari’s May 29 inaugural address. They said they expected to read my critical examination of the grammar, usage, and rhetoric of the speech.
But I want readers to be aware that the deadline for turning in my columns is Tuesdays for my “Notes from Atlanta" column in the Daily Trust on Saturday and Thursdays for this column. Given this fact, I could never have written about Buhari’s inaugural address in my columns since it was given on Friday.
Having said that, it’s worth noting that whatever anyone may think of the speech, it will go down in history as one of the most memorable inaugural speeches by a Nigerian president or head of state. Few inaugural speeches can rival the attention it has attracted, the frenzied discussions it has generated, the interpretive contestations it has invited, and the hope and confusion it has inspired. President Buhari clearly has excellent, well-informed speech writers.
In what follows, I identify and analyze what, from my perspective, constitute the rhetorical and grammatical high points of the speech.
1. “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.” No expression in a presidential address has simultaneously puzzled and gladdened Nigerians as this one. On the surface, the expression appears to be mutually contradictory: you can’t belong to everybody and belong to nobody concurrently. The overlap in duration of belonging to everybody and belonging to nobody appears to be a classic illustration of the Aristotelian law of noncontradiction, which says "One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time."
But the expression is actually an example of a rhetorical device that some scholars call a veridical paradox, which means a contradiction that seems absurd on the surface but that is nonetheless true when looked at deeply. (Veridical means “true” or "real"). In this expression, Buhari gave powerful words to the sentiments several people who know him have expressed about him—that he is something of a blank slate on whom people inscribe whatever they want.
For instance, many people in the Muslim north were passionate about him because they perceived him as the apotheosis of Islamic morality; in the non-Muslim north and elsewhere, he was reviled and feared for the same reason. When pictures of him shaking hands with Edo State governor’s new wife surfaced on social media, many of his Muslim supporters were heartbroken, but his erstwhile critics who had labeled him an intolerant, doctrinaire Muslim were pleasantly discombobulated.
During the campaigns, his critics loosened up a lot when they saw pictures of his wife and female children whose sartorial choices defy the stereotype of people who are “oppressed” by a “fanatical Muslim” man. Which “fanatical” Muslim marries an 18-year-old woman fresh out of secondary school and allows her to go to London to study cosmetology and then enroll for a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s degree?
We also learn from Pastor Tunde Bakare that President Buhari is so religiously cosmopolitan that he calls “Jesus!” in moments of extreme excitement. “I also remember when we got back from a campaign and he was tired and while going to his room, he staggered and said, Jesus Christ of Nazareth and I went ‘What!’” Bakare said. “I said ‘General, I thought it was a swear word,’ and he laughed and said ‘Pastor you don’t have the monopoly of Jesus Christ, you don’t want to hang around General for too long.’”
Buhari’s long and illustrious career in the military certainly broadened his scope, deepened his tolerance for and acceptance of Nigeria’s ethnic and religious plurality, yet it hasn’t vitiated the moral essence of his Hausa-Fulani Muslim identity. That’s why he could leave for Jummat prayers while the inaugural lunch held in his honor was still ongoing.
Saying “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody” captures the truth of Buhari’s notionally multiple yet unified Nigerian identities.
People who are widely traveled and that settle in different parts of the world for extended periods, but usually not long enough to plant any roots, often describe themselves as belonging to “everywhere and nowhere.”
I laugh at people who claim that Buhari’s speech writers plagiarized the expression from the lyrics of a song titled “Out of Nowhere” by Eric Burdon & War where the line “I belong to everyone, because I belong to no one” appears. The verbiage is similar, no doubt, but the expression doesn’t exclusively belong to Eric Burdon & War. It first appeared in English in Bible translations where Paul says to a servant, in 1 Corinthians 9:19, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone.”
There have been several variations of this biblical expression over the years. Another popular adaption of the expression can be found in Lana Del Rey’s song titled “Ride (Monologue)” where the following line appears: “I belong to no one - who belonged to everyone.” As I wrote in a September 30, 2012 article, “using fixed expressions from the pool of disciplinary and cultural linguistic repertoire isn’t plagiarism.”
2. Grammatical slips in the inaugural address
Although the speech is rhetorically sound, it is bedeviled by several careless grammatical slips. I identify them below, not to ridicule the writers of the speech, but to guide people who might, out of innocence, hold up the speech as the paragon of a well-written, grammatically correct and complete speech.
A. “I salute their resolve in waiting long hours in rain and hot sunshine to register and cast their votes and stay all night if necessary to protect and ensure their votes count and were counted.”
There are at least two grammatical errors that stand out like sore thumbs in the excerpt above. “In rain” isn’t idiomatic. The usual rendering of the expression is “in the rain.” The verb “count” should be rendered as “counted” since the president was referring to an event that has already happened, thus it should be, “ensure their votes counted and were counted.”
B. “I thank those who tirelessly carried the campaign on the social media.”
Unless you’re referring to a social media platform you had mentioned previously, the definite article “the” is unnecessary, even confusing, when it precedes “social media.” The phrase would have been better as “campaign on social media” since the reference to “social media” is generic, not specific.
C. “At the same time, I thank our other countrymen and women who did not vote for us but contributed to make our democratic culture truly competitive, strong and definitive.”
It should be “contributed to making…” In British English, when the preposition “to” comes after verbs like “contribute,” “dedicate,” etc., the auxiliary verb that follows is always in the progressive tense, that is, it always has the “ing” form of a verb.
D. “African brethren.” “
Brethren” is an archaic plural form of brother. Its modern version is “brothers.” In contemporary usage, brethren refers only to lay members of certain Christian religious sects. Besides, it’s sexist and exclusionary to use a male gender marker to refer to a vast multitude of people who include both men and women.
E. “Our founding fathers, Mr Herbert Macauley, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Malam Aminu Kano, Chief J.S. Tarka, Mr Eyo Ita, Chief Denis Osadeby, Chief Ladoke Akintola and their colleagues worked to establish certain standards of governance.”
By the rules and logic of Standard English grammar, the insertion of a comma after “founding fathers” gives the impression that Mr Herbert Macaulay and the rest aren’t our founding fathers; that our founding fathers, who are nameless, along with Macaulay and co., “worked to establish certain standards of governance.” Removing the first comma helps “founding father” to function as an attributive phrase that modifies the names that follow.
F. “Not least the operations of the Local Government Joint Account.”
That is a sentence fragment unworthy of being in a presidential address. A sentence fragment is a group of words that lacks a subject, a main verb, and that does not express a complete thought. This excerpt fits the bill.
G. “No single cause can be identified to explain Nigerian’s poor economic performance over the years than the power situation.”
“Than” always co-occurs with the comparative forms of adjectives (such as taller, better, more beautiful) or “rather.” So the sentence should correctly be, “No single cause can be identified to explain Nigeria’s poor economic performance over the years MORE than the power situation.” Even at that, it is awkward phraseology.