By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Everyday public discourse in Nigeria is disturbingly suffused with casual references to death and of appeals to violence against (political) opponents. That’s why turns of phrase like “if you don’t like it, go and hug a transformer,” “we will stone him if he doesn’t perform,” etc. are recurrent in the quotidian expressive repertoire of many Nigerians.
The “transformer” has become the preferred demotic metaphor for death, and “stone” has become the trope of choice to express fury toward political opponents. They are often invoked when discussions get heated and uncomfortable, or when interlocutors have exhausted their persuasive and argumentative armory.
The thanatological and sanguinary character of the quotidian conversational engagements of many Nigerians is emblematic, I think, of the ingrained culture of morbid intolerance of dissent that was birthed and nourished in the country by years of asphyxiating military totalitarianism. (Thanatos is the ancient Greek god of death, so “thanatological” is an adjective for anything concerned with death.) This culture of morbid abhorrence for dissent is so widespread and so deep-seated that even elected public officials, who are expected to be able to rein in their base emotions at least in public, are often unable to rise superior to its temptation, especially in moments of partisan political hyperarousal.
On October 16, 2015, Kaduna State governor Nasir el-Rufai joined a long list of public officials who invoked bloodcurdling thanatological allusions to shut down criticism. “All of us in Kaduna State Government have sworn with the Qu'ran—Christians with the Holy Bible—to do justice and we will do justice,” he said in Hausa during a town hall meeting in Kaduna. “We better stand and tell ourselves the truth. Everyone knows the truth. No matter the noise, the truth is one. And as I stand here, no matter who you are, I will face you and tell you the truth. If you don’t want to hear the truth, you can climb Kufena Hills and fall.”
Falling from Kufena Hills is a chilling local metaphor for death. No one falls from a tall, steep hill and survives. That was why Sunday Vanguard of October 17, 2015 interpreted el-Rufai as asking his critics to “go and die.” Although Governor el-Rufai didn’t directly utter the word “die,” Vanguard’s interpretive extension of his thanatological metaphor is perfectly legitimate, even brilliant. It’s interpretive journalism at its finest. It helped situate and contextualize the governor’s utterance for people who don’t have the cultural and geographic competence to grasp it.
Since anyone who jumps from the edge of a hill will naturally plunge to his death, it’s impossible to defend the governor’s choice of words with the resources of linguistic logic. Plus, text derives meaning from context. The video clip of the town hall meeting where el-Rufai enjoined his critics to go climb Kefena Hills and fall shows him in a combative and livid mood. He wasn’t joking. That’s why I think it is singularly disingenuous for el-Rufai’s media team to insist that their principal didn’t ask his critics to go die.
El-Rufai’s intolerance of criticism is particularly noteworthy because he is famous for describing himself as a “certified ruffler of feathers,” and his political rise owes a lot to his trenchant criticism of political opponents from the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua to former President Goodluck Jonathan. That’s probably why he thinks “the truth is one” and only he is its custodian. All else is “noise,” and whoever can’t stand the one and only truth that only he embodies is worthy only of violent death. This takes arrogant discursive intolerance and rhetorical violence to a whole new level.
|Kufena Hills, Zaria|
Of course, rhetorical violence against political opponents didn’t start with el-Rufai. Recall that in late 2014, former Katsina State governor Ibrahim Shema used an even more insidious thanatological metaphor to incite his supporters to mass slaughter. “You should not be bothered with cockroaches of politics,” he said to his supporters in Hausa in a leaked video. “Cockroaches are only found in the toilet even at homes. If you see a cockroach in your house what do you do?”
Like el-Rufai’s paid spin doctors are doing, Shema could have said he didn’t ask that anybody be murdered. After all, he didn’t directly utter the word “kill,” or “murder,” although his animated supporters actually said “kill” in response to his rhetorical question. But even an elementary student of language knows that both the text and context of Shema’s utterance point to a call to mass murder of political opponents.
Edo State governor Adams Oshiomhole dispensed with the encumbering subtleties of metaphors and rhetorical sophistication in his own thanatological aversion to irritation from the people who voted him to power. In November 2013, when a widow who flouted state law by hawking on the street begged him for mercy, he flew into a murderously tempestuous rage and yelled, “You are a widow, go and die!” There were no metaphorical accoutrements to this own thanatological missile; it was pure, unembellished, deathly candor that left no room for any defensive rhetorical maneuvers by his spin doctors. That was why he felt compelled to invite the distraught widow to Edo State Government House, publicly apologize to her, and mollify her with a 2 million naira monetary gift.
Oba of Lagos Rilwan Akiolu was even less refined than Oshiomhole in his thanatological fury against political opponents. “On Saturday, if anyone of you, I swear in the name of God, goes against my wish that [APC candidate] Ambode will be the next governor of Lagos state, the person is going to die inside this water,” he told Igbo leaders in Lagos who paid him a courtesy visit in his palace. “If you [the crowd] do what I want, then Lagos will continue to be prosperous for you. If you go against this, you will be banished to the water! Finished!”
When politicians don’t invoke sepulchral metaphors and references against political opponents, they casually endorse or make appeals to barbarous violence using the trope of the stone. Appeals to stoning of public officials are legion both by private citizens and by politicians, but former president Goodluck Jonathan’s 2012 endorsement of stoning stands out like a sore thumb.
On February 2, 2012, Jonathan, while justifying the withdrawal of his support for the reelection of former Governor Timipre Sylva, said the following to his favored candidate, Seriake Dickson: “You have brought people from Abuja to Yenagoa today. The only thing I want to tell you in the presence of Bayelsa State is that I was here in this place some months ago and Bayelsans stoned [Governor Timipre Sylva]. You must work hard to make sure that Bayelsans don't stone you. The day I come here and Bayelsans stone you, I will follow and stone you.”
This presidential verbal indiscretion sparked justifiable outrage. But Reuben Abati, Jonathan’s spokesman, said the president was only being “metaphorical” and shouldn’t be understood literally. I countered this disingenuous defense in a March 18, 2012 article titled, “Reuben Abati’s Violence against Metaphors.” Among other things, I wrote: “[I]f a metaphor by nature compares two dissimilar things, where is the metaphor in Jonathan’s utterances? Sylvia was actually LITERALLY stoned by Bayelsans. So nothing is being compared with anything here, whether implicitly or explicitly. It is just a statement—and apparently an endorsement— of the bare fact of Sylva being stoned by an angry, possibly ‘rented,’ crowd. And Jonathan’s saying that he would ‘follow and stone’ Dickson should the occasion arise in future isn’t, by the wildest stretch of literary fantasy, a metaphor, either; it’s a literal, vulgar, unvarnished countenance of violence. It’s plain old verbal violence that is outrivaled in rawness and impropriety only by Abati’s own violence against metaphors and meaning.”
Governor el-Rufai’s media aides are inflicting the same semantic violence on metaphors and the interpretive enterprise by claiming that asking critics to jump from a hill isn’t synonymous with asking them to go die. Well, if the media aides—or, better yet, el-Rufai himself— can go jump from Kufena Hills and live to tell the story, we will believe their defense.