"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 04/05/15

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Curious British Parliamentary Vocabularies in Nigeria’s American-Style Democracy

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

Although Nigeria practices American-style presidential democracy, its political and media elite still habitually deploy the idiosyncratic vocabularies of British parliamentary democracy to describe political experiences and practices that have no parallels in the American-style republican presidential democracy Nigeria practices. This is, of course, because when Nigeria got independence from British colonial rule in 1960, it inherited the British parliamentary system.

But Nigeria adopted the American model of presidential democracy in 1979. It still practices this model. Nevertheless, the Nigerian political and media elite still use First Republic British parliamentary terminologies to describe their American-style democratic practices. I have mulled over and written on this issue in the past, but the acceptance speech of President-elect Muhammadu Buhari gave me the push to explore it further this week.

1. “Ruling party or governing party.” In his acceptance speech after his epochal electoral triumph in the March 28 presidential election, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari said, “There shall no longer be a ruling party again: APC will be your governing party.” On the surface, this sounds like a big distinction. “Ruling party” sounds like an offensively domineering party that rules with prideful swagger while “governing party” sounds like a less threatening, more accommodating, humbler label. In reality, however, it’s a distinction without a difference. “Ruling party” and “governing party” are synonymous terminologies in parliamentary democracies. That is, you can use one in place of the other without change in meaning.

 More importantly, the terms “ruling party” or “governing party” make sense only in a parliamentary democracy where the political party that has the most members in the legislative branch of government also controls the executive branch of government by default. That is, you become the prime minister (and head of government) only if you are the leader of a political party that wins the majority of seats in the parliament.

American-style presidential democracies don’t have “ruling parties” or “governing parties” because the executive and legislative branches may be controlled by different political parties, as is currently the case in the United States where Republicans dominate both houses of Congress (that is, the House of Representatives and the Senate), but the President is a Democrat. Because both branches of government check and balance each other, none can be said to be “ruling” or “governing” exclusively. Even when a political party produces the President and controls the Congress, as was the case during Obama’s first term, it is never called a “ruling party” or a “governing party.” Americans don’t have a term for the party that is dominant in the political space at any given time.

2. “Cross-carpeting” or “carpet crossing.” As I wrote in a previous column, “Carpet-crossing” or “cross-carpeting” are nonstandard expressions, but they are clearly derived from the British parliamentary expression “crossing the floor (of the House),” which occurs when a member of parliament either bucks his political party and votes with members of an opposing party on an issue, or when he entirely switches political party affiliation. In the British Parliament, members of the “ruling party” (which does not exist in American-style presidential democracy, as I noted earlier) sit on the right side of the Speaker while members of the “opposition party” sit on the left side of the Speaker. Members of parliament who have a reason to change political party allegiance always have to “cross the floor” to join members of the other party.

During Nigeria’s First Republic, a carpet (which is the same thing as a “floor” since floors are always carpeted)  also separated members of parliament from the ruling party and those from the opposition parties, so changing political party affiliation also required “crossing the carpet” to the other side. That is why changing political parties has come to be known as “carpet crossing.” 

But under Nigeria’s current American-style presidential democracy, the expression is unsuitable. Although members of Nigeria’s national and state assemblies still sit according to party affiliations and are separated by a carpet, they are no longer the only players in the democratic game. There is a president, a vice present, governors, and deputy governors who are not members of national or state assemblies (who therefore don’t have a carpet to cross) and who can—and do— change party affiliations.

In the First Republic, politicians from Nigeria (and other Third World Commonwealth nations) invented the term “cross-carpeting” or “carpet crossing” on the model of the British expression “crossing the floor” because they practiced parliamentary democracy. Now that Nigeria no longer practices British-style parliamentary democracy (which has no provision for a president, vice president, state governors, etc. and where even the prime minister has to be first elected to the parliament from his constituency), what term should we use to refer to change of political party affiliations, especially for elected and appointed officials who are not members of the national and state assemblies?

 Maybe we should look to America since Nigeria practices American-style presidential democracy. What we call carpet-crossing in Nigeria would be called “party switching” (sometimes “party switch”) in America. People who switch parties are called “party switchers.” But Americans also have the expression “crossing the aisle” for the act of members of Congress voting against the official position of their political parties. It is used only for members of Congress and does not refer to the act of changing political parties. Perhaps Nigerian English can retain “cross-carpeting” to describe the act of members of the national and state assemblies voting against party lines and use “party switching” or defection for the act of changing political party affiliation.

Of course, other countries have different names for party switching. In New Zealand, for instance, it’s called “party-hopping” or “waka-jumping.” I know “waka-jumping” sounds a lot like Nigerian Pidgin English where “waka” means “walk away,” but it’s actually derived from Maori, an aboriginal, Polynesian language in New Zealand. In Maori, “waka” means a boat. So the Standard English rendering of “waka-jumping” would be “jumping ship,” which is what switching political parties entails—figuratively, that is. South Africans call party switching “floor-crossing” or “crosstitution.” Crosstitution is a blend of “crossing” and “prostitution,” implying that elected officials who switch political parties are political prostitutes.

The Nigerian news media also use “decamp” to mean party switching. That is not standard usage. “Decampee” is also nonstandard. In everyday Standard English, “decamp” means to abscond, to run away, to leave a place suddenly or secretly, often taking something along, as in: “After Buhari won the presidential elections, several Jonathan appointees decamped with millions of naira from the national treasury." Decamp has other meanings, but it is never used by native English speakers to refer to changing political parties.

  “Decampee” does not exist in any Standard English dictionary. It’s entirely the invention of Nigerian journalists. As I wrote earlier, the American English expression for people who defect to another political party is “party switchers.” They are also called “defectors,” although the word is primarily used of a person who abandons military duty.

Buhari’s Beautiful Acceptance Speech
Whoever wrote Buhari’s acceptance speech deserves a lot of praise for an exceedingly well-written piece. I don’t recall any presidential speech in recent memory in Nigeria that even remotely rivals it in depth and linguistic sophistication. It is simple and accessible, yet rich, profound, and memorable. A Facebook friend tagged me on a post that alleged that the speech lifted passages from President Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech. That’s a false charge.

It’s true that there is a discernible native-speaker flair in the English of the speech. To be frank, I too had thought that the speech was probably written by APC’s American political consulting firm because the speech’s cadence and stylistic footprints didn’t strike me as typically Nigerian, but when I came across the expression “so, be rest assured that our errors will be those of compassion and commitment not of wilful neglect and indifference” I knew it was written by a Nigerian.

“Be rest assured” is a prominent Nigerianism. Native English speakers say “rest assured” without the “be.” In addition, an American is unlikely to describe a political party in a presidential democracy as a “governing party.”

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