By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
My email and Facebook inboxes have been inundated with questions about what the Nigerian military truly meant when it said it had “fatally wounded” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. Did the military mean it killed him? Or did it mean it severely injured him?
And when the military “declared” people “wanted” who were not on the run, what precisely did it mean?
Instead of replying individually to tens of private messages and to social media tags, I’ve decided to devote this week’s column to these questions. So here you go:
“Fatally wounded” means dead
I wrote a Facebook status update in the aftermath of the announcement by the Nigerian military that it had “fatally wounded” Abubakar Shekau. I wrote: “The Nigerian military said today that it has ‘fatally wounded’ (meaning killed) murderous Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in an airstrike. Great! But how many times will the Nigerian military kill the same man? [T]he military has claimed to have killed Shekau at least three times in the past. Does the man resurrect after every death? Or is he literally the proverbial cat with 9 lives, in which case we should expect at least 5 more Shekau ‘deaths’ before he is actually finally dead and gone?”
Several people found the update funny. But other people said to me that by “fatally wounded” the military didn’t mean Shekau had been killed; that the military merely meant he had been brutally injured. Some even went so far as to say that every Nigerian English speaker understood the military as saying that it had critically injured Shekau. Well, that’s a stretch.
Many Nigerians I know didn’t understand “fatally wounded” to mean severely wounded. No truly educated person (in English) would understand “fatally wounded” to mean “brutally wounded.” Since the military didn’t just write for uneducated or poorly educated Nigerians, it is fair to expect it to abide by internationally acceptable standards of English usage. For one, the military’s news release was picked up by several international media organizations, as you will see below, and our military was assumed to be communicating in Standard English, not uneducated Nigerian English.
Fatal means “bringing death.” A fatal accident is an accident in which people die. “Fatally” is the adverbial form of “fatal,” and it means “resulting in death.” In fact, the usage example given for “fatally wounded” in the 2014 edition of the Collins English Dictionary is, “fatally wounded in battle.” Fatality also means human death. So when I say there has been a decrease in vehicular fatalities, I am saying fewer people now die in road accidents than in the immediate past.
According to the 2015 edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “Fatal alone means ‘causing or ending in death,’ and in this meaning it often associates with accidents, diseases, and injuries” (298). So being “fatally wounded” can only mean sustaining injury “ending in death.”
It is only when “fatal” is used in a metaphorical sense that it does not necessarily denote and connote death. For instance, we can say someone made a “fatal error,” a “fatal misjudgment,” suffers from “fatal ignorance” or has “fatal character flaws.”
Simply put, no one who is “fatally wounded” lives to tell the story. That is why most Western news organizations that republished the Nigerian military’s news release concluded that Shekau had been killed--again.
Here are samples: US News and World Report’s headline was: “BokoHaram Leader Killed.” Washington Times’ headline was “Nigeria reports Boko Haram leader killed in airstrike as John Kerry arrives.” The headline in Yahoo Finance via Quartz was “Nigeria’s army says it has killed Boko Haram’s leader—again.” The Sun, the UK’s most widely circulated newspaper, had this headline: “‘FATALLYWOUNDED’ Boko Haram leader ‘killed by Nigerian military airstrike’ along with 300 militants.” TIME magazines’ headline was, “BokoHaram's Abubakar Shekau 'Fatally Wounded' – Again”
I can go on, but the point is that most international news organizations understood the military as saying that it had killed Abubakar Shekau. More than 90 percent of the headlines, from my informal survey, had these words in them: “Nigerian army,” “killed,” “Boko Haram leader,” and “again.” “Kill” and “again” were recurrent because past military spokesmen had bragged about killing Shekau—complete with putative pictorial corroborations.
However, a second look at the news release that inspired the misunderstanding that the military said it had killed Abubakar Shekau shows that it is the writer of the release that is fatally ignorant of English grammar. He wrote: “In what one could describe as the most unprecedented and spectacular air raid, we have just confirmed that as a result of the interdiction efforts of the Nigerian Air Force, some key leaders of the Boko Haram terrorists have been killed while others were fatally wounded.”
The semantic disaster in this statement is as astonishing as it's comical: some “have been killed while others were fatally wounded”! It is uncannily similar to Patience Jonathan’s infamous statement—while condemning suicide bombing—that she would rather kill herself than commit suicide! Well, just like committing suicide and killing oneself are synonymous, being killed and being fatally wounded mean the same thing! As I showed earlier, to be fatally wounded means to die from wounds.
I am aware that Nigerian newspapers habitually report on “fatal accidents” that have no fatalities, that is, where no one dies. But the military can’t afford to repeat that sort of error, especially when it communicates about Boko Haram—about which the whole world is now deeply interested— to the world.
There are two issues involved in the military’s use of the term “declare wanted.” The first is semantic and the second is idiomatic or structural.
After the flush of criticisms against the military for “declaring” people “wanted” who weren’t on the run—who, in fact, turned themselves in, but were told to go home and return the following day—it became apparent that the person who wrote the news release for the military was just being—yet again—fatally ignorant of communicative English grammar.
The news release, it later emerged, only meant to convey the sense that the military needed the cooperation of three people who were believed to have close associations with Boko Haram to get information on the precise location of the Chibok girls. “Therefore, the Nigerian Army hereby declares the two gentlemen and the lady wanted for interrogation,” the military news release said. But then the release ended with this bewildering statement: “We are also liaising with other security agencies for their arrest if they fail to turn up.”
Typically, in security terminology, wanted notices are issued only after people evade arrest, fail to honor invitation for interrogation, or are adjudged to be criminals on the run. That’s the practice all over the world. That was not the case with the people the military “declared wanted.” Another military spokesman was impelled to clarify on TV that the “wanted” people were merely “invited” for questioning—through the media.
Finally, people asked why I didn’t use the phrase “declare wanted” in my column in the Daily Trust on Saturday. Well, it wasn’t conscious, but it’s probably because I am used to hearing the expression as “issue a wanted notice,” not “declare wanted.” That doesn’t mean “declare wanted” is wrong; it’s just uniquely Nigerian English phraseology, which I actually like. In my Facebook status update on this issue, I wrote “declare wanted.”
The Nigerian Military and English
Because of the effects of internet permeability, the communications of the military travel far and wide, and poor grammar can impede intelligibility and defeat the purpose of communication. In this critical period when the military needs to share news of its successes and triumphs and persuade the world of the rightness of its actions, it can’t afford the luxury of being fatally ignorant of basic grammar rules.
A cursory look at the news releases that emanate from the military shows that there is a blithe unconcern with grammatical correctness in the military’s public relations unit. For instance, a recent news release from the military read, “TROOPS ARRESTS SUSPECTED KIDNAPPERS IN BAUCHI STATE.” Any good senior primary school student knows that “troops” is a plural subject that should take the plural verb “arrest,” not “arrests.”
But mechanical errors such as this, which interlard news releases from the military, can be ignored. What can’t be ignored are costly semantic errors that completely distort the meaning of the messages the military wants to pass across.
The military could certainly use the help of good English graduates in its communication with the public to avoid this constant stream of communicative and grammatical embarrassments.
Fatally wounded English grammar kills terrorists without actually killing them. That’s fatally bad.