"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 2017

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Social Class Prejudice in Nigerian Teacher Competency Tests

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

The results of the teacher competency test in Kaduna State—and in several Nigerian states in previous years—give literal materiality to Oscar Wilde’s satiric epigram about how “everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.”

The samples Kaduna State governor Nasiru El-Rufai made public on social media may be unrepresentative. They probably merely serve to hyperbolize the egregiousness of the teachers’ incompetence and to win the governor public support.

 But I cannot in good conscience defend the continued employment of teachers I would never allow to teach even my enemies’ kids, much less my own kids. That’s my own irreducibly minimum personal morality test on the issue.

But it’s also true that the sacking of the incompetent teachers merely scratches the surface of a problem that is considerably high and deep. For one, the remuneration for primary school teachers is now among the worst in the country. When my dad was a primary school Arabic and Islamic Studies teacher in the 1970s and 1980s, his salary was sufficient to sustain a fairly comfortable lower middle-class lifestyle for us. He was even able to save enough to start building a 4-bedroom house until Buhari and Idiagbon struck in 1983, and things went downhill from there.

Today, public primary school teachers aren’t just poorly paid; they are usually owed salaries for months on end. As the English saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. I’d add that if you pay nothing, you get nothing.  As I pointed out in my August 6, 2016 column titled “Nigeria as a Perverse Anarchist Paradise,” “When I grew up in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s, private primary schools were few and far between, and the existing ones at the time had a need to boldly inscribe on their signposts that they were ‘government approved’ to legitimize their existence. Even so, private primary schools were almost completely absent in rural Nigeria.

“During my last visit to Nigeria, the only primary schools that were in session in the whole of Kwara State (and this is true of most other states) were private primary schools. Government primary schools were closed because teachers were on strike to protest months of unpaid salaries. Several people told me even if teachers weren’t on strike people with even a little means have learned to not send their children to government primary schools because government schools have become the graveyards of learning and creativity.”

So if El-Rufai won’t increase teacher pay, his reform would be mere superficial window-dressing because the half-wits he is weeding out now will most definitely be replaced by people who won’t be different from them. He would have my full support if he were to say, “I will triple teacher pay and insist that only the most qualified are recruited.”

Of course, this should be replicated at all levels of education—and even beyond—for it to be meaningful. Limiting it to only primary school teachers would not just be callous grandstanding; it would be exhibitionistic trampling on the weak and the helpless.

For starters, if the governor is sincere, the people who set and graded the competency exams should also be fired. They, too, have no business being judges of anyone’s competence. From inexcusably poor grammar, to inept and fuzzily worded questions, to questionable grading (for example, a teacher lost points for not prefixing “Malam” to El-Rufai’s name!), they are nearly as incompetent as the people they are causing to (justifiably) lose their jobs.

And I can bet my boots that if a governance competency test were conducted for Nigeria’s leaders—from the very top to the bottom—most of them would fail, but their fiercest defenders would be the very people they routinely oppress and dehumanize. It’s the same twisted mentality that explains why poor, petty thieves are burned alive by other poor people but wealthy politicians who feed off the misery of the poor are celebrated and defended by the poor.

As someone whose intellectual and ideological temperaments are irrevocably and unapologetically pro-poor, I hate for people to lose their jobs, but you can’t have uneducated and uneducable adults "educating" poor people’s children and thereby ensuring an invidious intergenerational perpetuation of a vicious cycle of poverty.

Education is the greatest social leveler. There are very few Nigerians who come from moneyed or aristocratic dynasties.  Access to decent basic public education was the propeller for many people’s social rise. That access is now being denied to the children of the poor. They are condemned to be taught by “teachers” who are incapable of learning or who are too poorly paid to bother with teaching, in schools that aren’t even fit for animals, and under the watch of political leaders who don’t spare a thought for decent public education because their own children are either abroad or in the best Nigerian private schools.

 That means the children of the poor can’t escape the poverty trap that many of us children of poor parents escaped through access to decent public education.

In a bizarre way, nonetheless, several (certainly not all) of the people who celebrate the competency tests for primary school teachers and those who condemn them are unified by a common contempt for the poor: several who celebrate the tests do so only because the tests target a weak, poor segment of the society, and those who decry them do so because they’re not personally affected by the poor quality of teachers at public primary schools since their own kids are either abroad or in private primary schools.

But overhauling public primary school education through incentivizing teaching and then recruiting the best is crucial to securing our future. I hope that is Governor El-Rufai’s ultimate goal.

Fake Lai Mohammed Quote on Nigerian Social Media
When fake, satiric quotes attributed to you are indistinguishable from your real, everyday utterances, you know you’re the very proverb for untruthfulness. A quote trending on Nigerian WhatsApp groups— and that is now spilling over to Facebook and Twitter—credits Information Minister Lai Mohammed with having said, "PMB's government has spent almost N2 trillion on infrastructural projects. But you can't see it because of the huge size of these projects."

It would have been insanely rib-tickling if it were true, but Lai Mohammed actually never said that. Search the sentence on Google and you won’t find a record of it anywhere. The meme suspiciously never mentions when and where Lai allegedly made the statement. That was a dead giveaway for me. But I honestly don’t blame people who were suckered into believing its authenticity. I, too, was almost had, and it’s precisely because Lai had told fibs in the past that compete with that quote in incredulity.

A transparently compulsive liar who perpetually says he has never lied in his life (a claim even saints can’t and won’t make), who barefacedly tells the basest, most audacious lies without the slightest pang of compunction, and who has come to embody mendacity at its vilest is capable of telling any kind of lie. I think that’s why people are primed to believe the worst of Lai Mohammed. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Moslem,” “Journey Mercies,” “Stay blessed”: Q and A on Nigerian Religious English and More

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

Is it “Moslem” or “Muslim”? Are the expressions “remain blessed” or “stay blessed” uniquely Nigerian? Can “guys” be used to refer to both men and women? Is “majorly” a legitimate word? You will find answers to these and many other questions in this week’s edition of my Q and A series.

A Muslim friend of mine took offence when I spelled Muslim as “Moslem.” I told him Moslem is the accepted English spelling and that Muslim is the Arabic rendition. Since I am speaking or writing English I thought I should use the accepted English spelling. Can you help me educate my friend?

Your friend may be a little too thin-skinned for his own good if he takes offense at the mere (mis)spelling of a word, but his objection to the spelling of “Muslim” as “Moslem” has basis in modern English. Most modern dictionaries and style guides now prefer “Muslim” to “Moslem.”  The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, says “Muslim is the preferred spelling for a ‘follower of Islam’….The archaic term Muhammadan (or Mohammedan) …should be avoided.”

The 2017 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, America’s most prestigious journalistic style guide, also writes: “Muslims [is] the preferred term to describe adherents of Islam.” Finally, in their book Longman Guide to English Usage, Professors Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, two of Britain’s most celebrated grammarians, wrote: “The adherents of Islam are now usually referred to as Muslims, rather than the older form Moslems.”

So, in essence, many educated native speakers of the English language no longer spell Muslim as “Moslem.” This change is a response to the preference of Muslims. Related spellings that have changed over the years are Qur’an (instead of the now archaic “Koran”) and Muhammad (instead of “Mohammed” or the older, more archaic “Mahomet”). The changes are also a response to the preferences of Muslims, although many Muslims still spell Muhammad as “Mohammed” even in the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam.

I have a question for your column. "Stay blessed" and "remain blessed," are these Nigerian expressions? What are about "journey mercies"?

“Stay blessed” or “remain blessed” (sometimes incorrectly written as “stay bless” or “remain bless”) are not exactly uniquely Nigerian English expressions, but Nigerians use them way more frequently than native English speakers do. These expressions, which are often used to sign off letters and emails, are scarcely used by the general populations in America and Britain. Only very religious, compulsively churchgoing people in America, and perhaps Britain, use them. The general populations in America and Britain end their emails with expressions like “kind regards,” “best,” “best wishes,” “take care,” etc.

The expression “I wish you journey mercies” is also church lingo in America. The general population says “I wish you a safe trip” or just “have a safe trip.” Before writing this response, I asked a number of Americans if they would understand me if I said “journey mercies” to them. Of the 10 or so people I asked, only one had any clue what the expression meant, and that one person is a churchgoer who said she would never use the expression in everyday settings.

But Nigerians are overtly, some would say overly, religious people, and this reflects in their language use.

I have two questions. First, is there a word like "majorly"? I have been unable to find it in any of the dictionaries available to me. Second, does one move the adoption of the minutes of a meeting or move for the adoption?

Yes, “majorly” is a legitimate word. It means extremely, mainly, chiefly, etc. Examples of the word’s usage in my dictionary are: “majorly successful," "I feel majorly better," "he is majorly interested in butterflies." The reason you don’t find the word in basic dictionaries is that it’s a relatively recent word. It was formed first as a slang term in the US and Canada in the 1980s, but it’s now used and accepted across all the major varieties of English. In fact, Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest-surviving and most prestigious dictionary in the English language, has an entry for the word.

 To answer your second question, one moves a motion for the adoption of the minutes of a meeting.

I’m a student in Nigeria. I often hear my colleagues use “guys” to refer to for both genders. My question is: is the word conventionally accepted for both genders in America?

The straightforward answer is yes. The singular form of the word, that is, “guy,” is an informal term reserved only for a man, as in, “He is a really great guy.” But the plural form of the word, that is, “guys,” can be, and is often, used to refer to men alone, women alone, and men and women combined. Women here in America frequently say “let’s get going, guys!” when they address an all-female company. And it is conventional to refer to a mix-gender company as “guys.”

My students and I actually discussed this issue extensively two weeks ago during a class on gendered language in the news media. At least two things came out from the discussion. First, “guys” has not always been used to refer to both men and women; its use as gender-neutral plural is a relatively recent semantic evolution. Second, the use of “guys” to refer to people of either gender first took roots in northern United States before it crossed over to the South. One of my students said her parents told her one of the definitive shibboleths (that is, a manner of speaking that marks people out) of Yankees (as people from the American south call their northern compatriots) was their tendency to use “guys” where southerners would say “you all” (often pronounced “y’all”).

But it’s important to note that in modern informal English, in both America and Britain, it’s now wholly legitimate to use “guys” to refer to either gender. This sense of the word has already been captured even in the Oxford English Dictionary.

What grammatical rules are responsible for the hyphenation or non-hyphenation of some compound nouns /words/expressions such as: backbone, back-breaking, birthmark, birthplace, blood-red, etc.?

Hyphens perform many functions in written English, but for reasons of space and time I will touch on only a few of them.

 First, hyphens are joiners; they help form new words by joining words that are traditionally different into a single word. For example, what used to be “electronic mail” up until the 1980s became “e-mail” in the 1990s, and “email” in most dictionaries in the later part of the 2000s. Similarly, the words “proof” and “read” were hyphenated to form “proof-read.” Now, there is no hyphen in the word: it’s correctly spelled “proofread.”

It helps to note, though, that unlike other punctuation marks, there are no standard, universal rules for hyphenating words. Different style guides have different rules about hyphenation. In general, however, hyphenation is used to avoid ambiguity. For example, the hyphen helps us differentiate between the words “recover” and “re-cover.” While “recover” can mean recoup, recuperate, or get back (as in, “he recovered from his illness”), “re-cover” means to cover again (as in, “he re-covered the table after the wind blew the tablecloth away”).

Second, the hyphen is used to avoid what the Associated Press Stylebook calls “duplicated vowels” such as “anti-intellectual” and “pre-empt,” or tripled consonants such as “shell-like.” However, some words with duplicated vowels, such as “cooperate” and “coordinate” are not hyphenated by many style guides and dictionaries.

Third, in forming what grammarians call compound modifiers, hyphens are indispensable. Compound modifiers are two or more words that act like an adjective and appear before a noun. Examples: the good-for-nothing governor of my state, little-known heroes, etc.

On the bodies of tankers carrying fuel in Nigeria, we often see the inscriptions “Highly Inflammable” or “Highly flammable.” Which one is correct?

I’ve answered this question before. Here is what I wrote: “Both expressions are correct. Flammable and inflammable mean one and the same thing. You can use one in place of the other. Many people mistake inflammable to be the antonym of flammable. They are wrong. The proper antonym of flammable is ‘non-flammable.’ Other alternatives are ‘fireproof’ and ‘incombustible.’”

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Ghost of PDP is Haunting Buhari’s Government

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

Karl Marx famously started the Communist Manifesto with the following ominous words: “A spectre [i.e., a ghost] is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” When I think about the Buhari government’s enduringly monomaniacal obsession with PDP, I can’t help recalling Marx and saying, “A spectre is haunting Buhari’s government—the spectre of PDP.” Only that it’s a PDP it defeated in an unprecedented electoral upset in 2015.
Buhari said he would take personal responsibility for the actions and inactions of his government, now his officials blame PDP for everything that is wrong the government
Right from its inception to now, the Buhari government has spent its every waking moment quaking in its boots in debilitating dread of the ghost of PDP. The last few weeks have seen a particularly unexampled uptick in the evocation of PDP to explain away government’s incompetence and dishonesty. Let’s recapture a few of them.

On October 25, 2017, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity Malam Garba Shehu said, in spite of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, that PDP was responsible for reinstating and promoting alleged pension fraudster Abdulrasheed Maina. “[S]ome influential officials loyal to the previous government may have been the invisible hand in the latest scandal that saw the return of Maina to the public service, despite being on the EFCC’s wanted list,” he said in press statement.

Well, now that a leaked memo from the Head of Service of the Federation, which hasn’t been disclaimed, has revealed that President Buhari was aware of, and actually signed off on, Maina’s recall and promotion, who might these “influential officials loyal to the previous government” whose “invisible hand” actuated the Maina scandal be? Perhaps, Malami, Dambazzau, or even Buhari himself?

On October 28, 2017, Colonel Hameed Ali, a Buhari confidant and Comptroller General of Nigerian Customs service, said, “Today, with all sense of responsibility, I want to say that we have 50 per cent of PDP in our government. How can we move forward with this load?...Today, we have members of the PDP calling the shots.”

On October 31, 2017, Personal Assistant to the President on Social Media by the name of Lauretta Onochie said PDP isn’t just 50 percent of the present government; it’s actually omnipresent and omnipotent. “That brings me to those in this government who are here to serve themselves [that] colonel Hameed Ali… called PDP. They said that there is about 50 percent of them in this government, but I say no they are more than 50 percent. They are everywhere; they are in the presidency, they are in the National Assembly, you can find them in the judiciary, they are in the law enforcement agencies…”

On November 2, 2017, Imo State governor Rochas Okorocha, who is the sole APC governor in the southeast, said, “It is not that 50 per cent of PDP are running this government alone, but that PDP members are holding major plum jobs in the country which, if it were PDP government, they won’t have allowed. They are getting fattened as a result and ready to fight us.”

And on November 3, 2017, Femi Adesina, the president’s Senior Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, implied that PDP is the reason Buhari goes to London for medical treatment. “The question is, ‘What did they do with that money? Why didn’t they fix our hospitals in all those years that we had boom?’” he said during an appearance on an AIT news show called “Focus Nigeria.”

It makes you wonder if PDP is also responsible for the Buhari administration’s inability or unwillingness to equip Aso Rock clinic with basic medical equipment more than two years after being in power and after budgeting billions of naira for it.

On October 9, Mrs. Buhari had cause to lament the appalling state of Aso Rock Clinic. “Few weeks ago I was sick as well,” she said. “They advised me to take a first flight to London. I refused to go. I said I must be treated in Nigeria because there is a budget for an assigned clinic to take care of us. If the budget was N100 million, we need to know the way the budget is spent…. There are lots of constructions going on in that clinic but there is no single syringe there.”

Mrs. Buhari’s fulmination came in the wake of her daughter’s Twitter outrage a week earlier. Why didn’t anyone tell them that they were barking up the wrong tree? They should have been told to complain to the ghost of PDP, which is apparently still dictating the direction of the current government.

As the reader can see, the opinions of key players in this government appear to coalesce around the consensus that PDP is still in power and is responsible for all the actions and inactions of the current government.

It is entirely in the realm of plausibility that the Buhari government spokespeople and officials will find a way to spin the latest $1.4 million military contract scam involving, according to TheCable of November 8, “Mansur Dan-Ali,… minister of defence, Danjuma Nanfo, the immediate past permanent secretary in the ministry, and LYM Hassan, a brigadier-general and coordinator of peacekeeping” and link it to the PDP.

At this rate, PDP may even be accused of metaphysically inhabiting in Buhari’s very body since he is, in many cases, directly or indirectly involved in several of the scandals PDP is blamed for!
None of what I’ve written is intended to make light of PDP’s disastrous 16-year rule. PDP was unquestionably a monster of depravity when it held sway, but APC is not any better. Plus, it’s in power now and has all the legal instruments it needs to summarily dislodge, if it so desires, the faintest vestige of PDP wherever it exists.

In fact, even the PDP itself expected to be dislocated, isolated, and contained as soon as it lost power. Senator Silas Zwingina notably said in the run-up to presidential election in 2015 that it was imperative to stop Buhari from winning because he would send crooked PDP politicians like him to jail. “As you know, there is no way you will hold office in Nigeria and go scot free if the authorities want to get you,” he said. “Buhari is determined to send people to jail and even APC governors are not comfortable with him, and that’s why many of them are not following his campaign team.”

More than two years on, Buhari hasn’t only embraced the very people who dreaded him, his officials now say those same people are the engine of his government. What stops the government from removing all the PDP members it says still constitute the bulk of its personnel and are responsible for its underachievement? Of course, everyone knows the answer: “PDP” is merely a bogeyman, a deceptive rhetorical crutch that functions to deflect attention from the government’s failures, incompetence, and unpreparedness to govern.

 An English proverb says a bad workman blames his tools. We can rephrase that to: an incompetent, unprepared government blames the ghosts of the opponents it has vanquished.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Boss Mustapha and Silly, Ungrammatical Titular Vanity among Nigerian Politicians

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

New Secretary to the Government of the Federation Boss Mustapha struck at the core of the titular conceit of Nigerian politicians when he said last Thursday that he didn’t want to be burdened with silly honorific prefixes like “Your Excellency,” “Honorable,” etc., which he said were unconstitutional and unnecessary.

 “I will make a passionate appeal: I don’t know where you people get this ‘Your Excellency’ from,” he said. “Some of the nomenclatures are banana peels. I often hear people say ‘Executive Governor.’ I say look at the constitution; there is nothing like executive governor. It is governor of a state. I want to simply be addressed as SGF, please.”

Former Jigawa State governor Sule Lamido also famously rejected Nigeria’s exhibitionistic titular conventions for governors when he told journalists that he didn’t want to be addressed as “Your Excellency” or described as an “Executive Governor.” He said he wanted to be addressed simply as “Governor Sule Lamido.” I don’t know if this panned out during his governorship, but it’s refreshing that there are what one might call oases of sanity and titular modesty in Nigeria’s desert of inflated, title-crazed, oversized egos.

While it’s entirely defensible to contort, relexicalize, and resemanticize the English language—or any language, for that matter—to express  the unique socio-cultural thoughts and values of a people, Mustapha and Lamido are right to call attention to the abuse of titles in Nigeria. Today’s column lends a linguistic perspective to Mustapha’s and Lamido’s unease with superfluous, flamboyant, often misused and worthless, English titles.

“Your/His Excellency”: In Nigerian English, “Your Excellency” or “His Excellency” or “Her Excellency” is prefixed to the names of just about all self-important, high-ranking bureaucrats and their spouses. That’s why wives of presidents, vice presidents, governors, deputy governors, and even local government chairmen and vice chairmen are “Excellencies.”

 But in most countries, the “Excellency” title is used only for presidents, vice presidents, state governors, ambassadors, viceroys, Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops, English colonial governors, and the Governor General of Canada (who is still symbolically an English colonial governor because he is the representative of the Queen of England in Canada.)

 Although America’s first president used “His Excellency” as part of his titles of honor, the title has now fallen into disuse here. If you pay attention to American politics and culture, you will notice that Americans don’t address their president as “His Excellency” or “Your Excellency.” He is simply “Mr. President” (a female president would be called “Madam President”), and only “President” is prefixed to his name. (President is a lifetime title in the US, which means once you’re a president you will continue to earn the right to prefix “president” to your name.)

Unlike Nigerians, Americans don’t prefix “Her Excellency” to the names of their First Ladies. In fact, “First Lady” isn’t even a formal title of address. The president’s wife is addressed as, “Mrs. (First name) (Last name), First Lady of the United States of America” or “Mrs. (First name) (Last name), Wife of the Governor of (name of state)” or “Mrs. (First name) (Last name), First Lady of (name of state).”  Wives of the vice president and lieutenant governors (as Americans call their deputy governors) have no titles. They are typically addressed as, “Mrs. (First name) (husband’s last name), wife of the Vice President or “Mrs. (First name) (husband’s last name), wife of the Lieutenant Governor of (Name of State).”

Out of America’s 50 states, only about 13 (someone said it’s just 3) officially call their governors “His/Her Excellency” in official communication only. The rest call them “Honorable” in formal address. But only “Governor” is prefixed to their names in everyday conversations and news reports, as in, “Governor (First name) (Last name).” American ambassadors’ names are also prefixed with the title “the honorable,” not “His/Her/Your Excellency.”

Of course, no law of nature says we must mimic Americans, or that we can’t tweak their titles and make them ours, but the Nigerian formal address for governors is frankly exhausting in its titular vainglory: “Your Excellency, the Executive Governor of (name of state) Alhaji Chief Dr. (First name) (Middle name) (Last name).”

“Executive (fill in the blank)”: Presidents, governors, and local government chairmen/chairwomen in Nigeria are invariably “executive.” This is superfluous and needlessly egotistic. “Executive” is prefixed to the name of a position only when it is necessary to differentiate it from a “ceremonial” position. For instance, during Nigeria’s First Republic, there was a “ceremonial president” in the person of Nnamdi Azikiwe who had no substantive powers. Substantive powers resided with the Prime Minister.

So when Nigeria adopted the American presidential system in the Second Republic, it became necessary to prefix “executive” to the name of the president to show that, unlike in the First Republic when the president had no executive powers and when the Prime Minister who was head of government was a member of the legislature, the newly elected president had executive powers. In America, whose presidential system we have adopted, the president is never referred to as an “executive president” because it goes without saying that he is the head of the executive branch of government.

 And, of course, it is totally pointless to prefix “executive” to the names of governors, local government chairmen/chairwomen, etc. since we never had or have ceremonial governors or chairmen/chairwomen in the past or at present. Since governors and chairmen/chairwomen have executive powers in their spheres of influence as a matter of constitutional right, it’s a waste of words to prefix “executive” to their titles. It’s as pointless as saying “legislative senators” or “judicial judges.”

Vice presidents, deputy governors, or local government vice chairmen/chairwomen can’t logically prefix “executive” to their names because they don’t even have constitutional powers to take executive decisions unless their superiors delegate such responsibilities to them.

This also applies, to some extent, to such titles as “executive director,” “executive editor,” etc. The term “executive” is justified only if a company has subordinate directors who are not CEOs or if a newspaper has an honorary editor who exercises no real editorial decision-making powers. In American English “Executive Editor” and “Editor-in-Chief” are synonymous.

“Distinguished Senator”: I have heard people say this title is unique to Nigerian English. That’s not exactly true. American senators routinely refer to their colleagues as “distinguished senator” out of conversational courtesy—just like British lawyers call each other “learned friend” or “learned colleague.” “Distinguished” here denotes “illustrious,” “respectable,” or “gentlemanly.”  I am certain that the Nigerian use of “distinguished senator” owes lexical debt to America since, in any case, our democracy is modelled after theirs.

 However, only Nigerian senators capitalize the first letters in the expression, make it an honorific, and prefix it to their names, such as “Distinguished Senator (First name) (Last name).” In fact, “distinguished” has become a standalone title, as if the word were a noun. This would strike Americans as quaint and comical.

In American English, the phrase typically occurs this way: “I disagree with the distinguished senator from Georgia” or “The distinguished senator from Oregon made a great point,” etc. In other words, “distinguished senator” is just a phrase, not a title. “Distinguished Senator (First name) (Last name)” is a ridiculous as lawyers being addressed as “Learned Colleague (First name) (Last name).” US senators are addressed simply as “Senator (First name) (Last name).”

“Honorable”: Different countries have different conventions for this honorific. In Britain, from where we copied it, “honorable,” often rendered as “the Hon.,” is used with the first name for the children of viscounts, barons, and life peers and peeresses, and for the younger sons of earls. E.g. The Hon. William Adams.

It’s also prefixed to the names of certain high-level political appointees or elected representatives—such as members of parliament, ministers, commissioners, legislators, etc. The only difference is that in both the UK and the US, “the Honorable” is only used in writing—typically in official email or snail mail communication—and not in speech. In speech, government officials entitled to the honor of using the title are addressed simply as “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Ms.” Most importantly, the title is never used self-referentially, that is, people who are entitled to use it never refer to themselves by the title, such as is common in Nigeria where members of the House of Representatives, for example, introduce themselves as, “I am Honorable (First name) (Last name.)”

“Right Honorable”: I see that the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Nigeria styles himself “Right Honorable.” Well, in the United States, the Speaker of the House of Representatives does not use that title.  The formal title prefixed to the name of the Speaker is just “Honorable,” and he or she is formally addressed as “Mr. Speaker” or “Madam Speaker.”

“Right Honorable” is a uniquely British title and refers only to members of the Privy Council, a body of eminent serving and retired politicians that advises the British monarch. Members of Parliament who are appointed as cabinet ministers automatically become members of the Privy Council if they weren’t members before.  Members of Parliament who are not appointed to cabinet positions are not addressed as “Right Honorable.”; they are simply “Honorable.”

So in Nigeria we have an American-style Speaker with a British-style title, perhaps because “Right Honorable” sounds grand and intimidating. Technically, you can’t have a “Right Honorable” without a Privy Council, which we can’t have in Nigeria because we operate an American-style presidential system of government, not a British-style parliamentary system of government. To address someone who isn’t a member of any Privy Council a “Right Honorable” is honorific inflation.

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Unravelling of the Corruption in Buhari’s “Anti-Corruption” Fight

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

The latest thunderbolt from the Head of Service of the Federation that President Buhari was actually aware of, and perhaps even countenanced, the reinstatement and promotion of Abdulrahseed Maina against her counsel is probably the final nail in the coffin of the Buhari administration's rib-tickling pretense to being an "anti-corruption" government.

“I sought audience with His Excellency, Mr. President on Wednesday, 11th October, 2017 after the FEC meeting where I briefed His Excellency verbally on the wide-ranging implications of the reinstatement of Mr. A. A. Maina, especially the damaging impact on the anti-corruption stance of this administration,” the HoS wrote in a memo to the President’s Chief of Staff, which was leaked to the press. The shamefaced silence of the usually flippantly garrulous presidential media team—as of the time of writing this column on Wednesday—says a lot.

 So Buhari did KNOW about this indefensibly scandalous subversion of justice but feigned surprise and outrage ONLY because the matter became public knowledge and was greeted with widespread condemnation. That's a smoking gun right there! It helps to contextualize and explain Buhari's initial reluctance, even resistance, to fire Babachir David Lawal (whom he had actually defended in writing with lies!) and his choice to protect other shady, inept fat cats in his kitchen cabinet.

Sahara Reporters also reported on its Twitter handle that "Buhari's Min of Interior, Abdulrahman Dambazau directly told @officialEFCC officer in charge of Maina's case to destroy casefile." Additionally, it’s a well-known "secret” that the country’s attorney-general and minister of justice, Abubakar Malami, gave formal and explicit approval for the reinstatement and promotion of Maina. 

Given the deep involvement of Dambazzau, Malami, and Abba Kyari in the perpetration of this scandal, it’s impossible that the president was not in on it, a fact that some of Maina’s family members hinted at some time ago—and which the HoS has unwittingly confirmed in her official communication to the presidency.

It became obvious to me that Buhari never intended to truly fight corruption the moment he reneged on his promise to publicly and fully declare his assets and compel his appointees to do the same. In my column of June 13, 2015 titled "Mishandling of Asset Declaration May Doom Buhari's President" (that was when I still cautiously nursed the hope that Buhari would work to make good his promise to "change" governance in Nigeria), I wrote: 

"The social and cultural basis of Buhari’s legitimacy and popularity revolve around the notion of his transparency and incorruptibility. But the secretiveness, disingenuousness and overall informational poverty of the handling of the asset declaration issue is eroding Buhari’s very credibility and giving people cause for what psychologists call post-decision cognitive dissonance. If this issue is not handled artfully and transparently, it will set the tone for his entire presidency."

After intense public pressure, the president caved in and instructed his media aide to issue a “public declaration” of his assets that was, to use human rights activist Chido Onumah’s wise words, “long on sophistry and short on details.” It was not a real public declaration. There were no specifics other than unhelpfully broad claims that the president had a house in Abuja (which he earlier said he didn't have during the campaigns), Kano, Kaduna, and Daura; some cattle and livestock; “less than 30 million naira” (how more deceptively vague can you get than that?); and so on. Compare Buhari’s "public asset declaration" with the late President Umar Musa Yar'adua's more transparent, public declaration and the underhandedness of Buhari’s will become nakedly apparent.

 Even the president’s people knew the so-called declaration was a sleight of hand. That was why the president’s media aide said, “As soon as the CCB is through with the process, the documents will be released to the Nigerian public and people can see for themselves.” It’s been more than two years since, and the declaration hasn’t been released to the public—like the late Yara’adua’s was.

This government is an embodiment of multi-layered chicanery, and it is unravelling before the world. There is only so far you can go with unintelligent prevarications and propaganda. Every lie has an expiration date. I think we’re getting to the expiration date of the lies of this government.

On Boss Mustapha's Appointment as SGF
The career profile of Boss Mustapha, the new Secretary to the Government of the Federation, is impressive. On paper at least, he seems well-suited for the job. But I hope he also has the temperament and moral stamina for the job. With his pick, it’s obvious that Buhari still wants to play safe in his comfort zone while avoiding the danger of falling into the religious and ethnic, but mostly religious, chasm of the North.

Like Babachir Lawal, Boss Mustapha is a Christian from the Kilba ethnic group in Adamawa State. That’s commendable sensitivity on Buhari’s part because had Babachir been replaced by a northern Muslim, there would have been (justifiable) grumbling in the northern Christian community, given Nigerians’ hypersensitivity to empty symbolism.

Nonetheless, as I argued in my September 5, 2015 column titled “Buhari is Losing the Symbolic War,” “Neither the southeast nor the deep south has anybody in the top echelon of the executive branch. It's a no-brainer that any leader who is desirous of notional national inclusion would have chosen an SGF from either the southeast or the deep south. Now, you may ask: won't one of the two regions complain if the SGF were chosen from one and not the other since the SGF can't simultaneously come from both regions? Well, that's a better problem to have than to exclude both of them. It's certainly perceptually better than choosing another northerner as SGF. We are talking here of symbolism and perception, not substance.”

Well, it has now come to light that Mustapha is Lawal’s relative and that the appointment may actually be a compensation to mollify Lawal. If this is true, we’re not yet out of the woods.  It’s another reward for personal loyalty that doubles as a symbolic gesture to northern Christians. But, whatever it is, it’s both praiseworthy and gratifying that Babachir is gone for good. That should only be a first step, though; for his sack to have any meaning, he should also be arrested and prosecuted forthwith. And we should keep an eye on Mustapha.

While we’re at it, other corrupt toadies in the government should be shown the way, too. And the president should pledge to henceforth not be a protector of corrupt associates and a tormentor of corrupt opponents; he should be an equal-opportunity tormentor of all corrupt people. That’s the only way he can salvage his fast depleting reputational capital.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

“Pregnant for a man,” “Spinster,” “Thuggery”: Nigerian English Q and A

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

A contributor to your column once observed that it is only Nigerian women who say they are “pregnant for” their husbands or fianc├ęs or boyfriends. What is grammatically wrong with saying that? What do native English speakers say to indicate that a man is responsible for a pregnancy?

Well, in response to the observation of the commenter, who lives in London, I wrote:  “Yes, it is true that only Nigerians say a woman is pregnant ‘for a man.’ It’s probably a translation of socio-cultural thoughts from some Nigerian languages, but the Nigerian languages I am familiar with have no equivalent expression for that phrase. I will only add that native English speakers usually say they are…‘pregnant by a man’ to show that the ‘man’ is responsible for the pregnancy. Americans (both wife and husband) now say ‘we are pregnant’!”

Now that I think about it again, it seems to me that the tendency for Nigerian women to say they are “pregnant for” a man is a reflection of their internalization of and capitulation to the dominant patriarchal arrogance in the Nigerian society. The phrase gives ownership of the child to the man— to the exclusion of the woman who carries the baby in her stomach for nine months. Since a child is biologically half of both its father and its mother, it is illogical to say you’re pregnant “for” a man. In fact, only the mother can logically claim ownership of a pregnancy. As the commenter you referred to said, “A woman cannot be pregnant for somebody else except for herself!” Being responsible for a pregnancy doesn’t give a man ownership of it; at best it gives the man part ownership of it. Maybe a surrogate mother can correctly say she’s “pregnant for” another woman or for a couple since the woman or the couple takes ownership of the child after delivery.

Saying you’re “pregnant for” a man is especially problematic because while a child’s maternal connection is often never in contention (except in rare cases of child swapping in hospitals), its paternity is never always indisputably self-evident except through DNA testing or noticeably striking resemblance. That’s why Americans humorously say “Mommy’s baby, daddy’s maybe.”

I met an American girl online some time ago. In the course of our chat, she told me she wasn’t married, so I said something about her being a “spinster” and she got upset. What’s wrong with calling an unmarried woman a spinster? What am I missing?

You’re missing a lot. In contemporary English usage, the word spinster is considered pejorative. Careful speakers and writers avoid it. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “In modern everyday English spinster cannot be used to mean simply 'unmarried woman'; it is now always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed."

So, by the conventions of modern usage, it’s incorrect to call a young woman in her 20s or 30s—or maybe even early 40s— a “spinster.” The word is reserved only for women who are still unmarried—and childless— by the time they reached or are approaching menopause. 

American English uses “bachelorette” or “bachelor girl” to refer to an unmarried young woman. Note, though, that these terms are absent in British English, although America’s cultural dominance ensures that they are widely understood. “Single” or “single woman” appears to be the preferred term across all native English varieties.

I am often confused about the right word to use to describe a former student of a school. Is it alumni, alumna or alumnus?

Even native English speakers are confused by these words, and it’s because the words are part of the few Latin borrowings in English that have not been Anglicized; they still retain their Latin inflections for gender and number.

A former male student of a school is called an “alumnus.” The plural is “alumni.” A former female student of a school is called an “alumna.” The plural is “alumnae.” However, the male plural, that is, “alumni,” is used as the plural of choice for all former students of a school irrespective of gender. So it is correct to say the “alumni of Bayero University Kano” even though the university has both male and female former students. But it is incorrect to use “alumni” to refer to all-female former students of a school. The correct word is “alumnae.” For example, it is wrong to say “the alumni of Federal Government Girls’ College Bakori.” Replace “alumni” with “alumnae.”

Because of the difficulty in remembering the subtleties of usage between alumnus, alumna, alumni, and alumnae, native English speakers have informally invented “alum” as a catch-all, gender-neutral, singular form for former students, as in, “she is an alum of ABU,” “he is an alum of Barewa College.”

Your question reminded me of a recent comical incident that happened on a Nigerian online discussion forum. A conceited and overly self-assertive Nigerian who lives in the United States wanted to impress members of the discussion forum by claiming that he was “an alumni of Harvard Business School.” Someone pointed out that a person who went to Harvard should know enough to know that “alumni” is a plural noun and can’t be used to refer to a single former student.

Instead of accepting the correction in good faith, the ignorant braggart defended his solecism. So someone on the discussion board sent an email to Harvard Business School to find out if indeed someone by his name graduated from their school. It turned out that he didn’t get a degree from the school; he only attended a one-week workshop organized by Harvard Business School at a city other than where the school is located!

Someone told me that the word “thuggery” is a uniquely Nigerian English word. The person seems to be right because each time I type the word on Microsoft Word it always gets underlined. Please let us know if the word is indeed exclusive to Nigeria.

You are the third person to ask this question. No, it’s not at all true that “thuggery” is an idiosyncratic Nigerian English word. It occurs regularly in native-speaker English, and is derived from “thug,” which means an aggressive or violent criminal. It entered the English language in the 1800s from the Hindi word “thag,” which means a rogue, a thief, a scoundrel, or a cheat. In the past, in India, there existed a professional association of thieves and assassins who murdered their victims by strangulating them. They were called “Thag.” When reference is made to this group, the first letter in the word is always capitalized, as in, “Thug.”

When I checked the British National Corpus, I saw several past and contemporary uses of “thuggery.” Conservative Republican House of Representatives member Michele Bachmann caused a stir in 2013 when she accused President Obama of “thuggery.” “I think we could be on the cusp of seeing civil disobedience — I’m not saying I want civil disobedience — but people aren’t going to take the thuggery of this president much longer. We see thuggery going on in the White House. We’re not going to take it,” she said. “Thug” and “thuggery” have now emerged as code words of choice among American conservatives to refer to black people.

So “thuggery” is by no means an exclusively Nigerian English word. The fact that Microsoft Word underlines it says nothing about its use and acceptance in native-speaker English. Microsoft Word, as you probably know, has a really limited internal dictionary, although its red underlines can often do a good job of alerting us to misspellings and unusual, sometimes misused, words.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

How about the Other “Mainas” in Buhari’s Government?

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

President Muhammadu Buhari is infamously impervious to, and even contemptuous of, public opinion. That’s why his order to fire Abdulrasheed Maina who was surreptitiously reinstated into the civil service and promoted to the next level in spite of weighty allegations of corruption against him was both refreshing and pleasantly surprising.

Of course, the real, far-reaching surprise would be if the president is able to summon the testicular fortitude to fire the people who conspired to pull off this audacious perversion of justice and civil service protocols.

While it’s gratifying that the president has asked that the issue be thoroughly investigated, the fate of previous investigations of corruption involving people close to the president (such as Babachir David Lawal) doesn’t inspire confidence that anything earthshaking will come out of this.

But maybe—just maybe—the president has now had enough and is determined to salvage what remains of his severely diminished reputation through a full-throated attack on the corruption of not just his political opponents but also of his close associates, which is frankly the sincerest test of his will to fight corruption.

The Head of Service of the Federation, the Minister of Interior, the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, and other co-conspirators may yet get the boot. Should that happen, I’d be one of the people whose confidence in the president would be restored. But don't hold your breath.

What’s most significant, though, is the fact that Abdulrasheed Maina is not an aberration in this administration. He is merely an addition to a list that is already distressingly long. Let me recapitulate a few names that are going the rounds in Nigerian social media circles.

A certain Louis Edozien who was fired in 2014 as Executive Director at the Niger Delta Power Holding Company (NDPHC) for failure to produce authentic credentials during an audit was reinstated and promoted to the position of Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Works, Power and Housing in November 2016. NDPHC’s General Manager in charge of audit and compliance by the name of Mrs. Maryam Mohammed who audited Edozien’s credentials and recommended his firing was unjustly fired last year in apparent retaliatory vendetta.

The position of Permanent Secretary is normally the crowning accomplishment of career civil servants, but Edozien isn’t a career civil servant and shouldn’t be a permanent secretary, according to the Daily Trust of October 20, 2017, which said “highly placed officials in the presidency facilitated” this rape of justice. SaharaReporters of October 12, 2017 was blunter: “Mr. Edozien is a friend and business partner to Mr. [Abba] Kyari,” it wrote. “The Chief of Staff's daughter also worked directly under Mr. Edozien.”

Interestingly, although the president reversed the dismissal of Mrs. Mohammed after she wrote to him directly, Abba Kyari allegedly overruled the president and, the woman, who is the mother of orphans, is still unemployed. In many respects, this eclipses the impunity and scandalousness of Maina’s reinstatement and promotion.

There is also the case of a Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court by the name of Ahmed Gambo Saleh who, along with two others, was charged with a N2.2 billion fraud on November 3, 2016. “The defendants are specifically accused of conspiracy, criminal breach of trust and taking gratification by Public officers contrary to Section 10 (a) (i) of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Act 2000 and punishable under the same section of the Act,” according to the Sun of November 4, 2016.

The same Saleh who hasn’t (yet) been absolved from the charges against him was appointed Executive Secretary of the National Judicial Council (NJC) on July 1, 2017. I know it’s technically outside the powers of the president to intervene in issues involving another branch of government, but we all know that the nocturnal bust of the homes of judges, including Supreme Court justices, by Nigeria’s secret police in October 2016 had a stark, unmistakable presidential imprimatur emblazoned all over it.

There is another “Maina” serving as a minister in Buhari’s cabinet. According to the Premium Times of October 26, 2016, Buhari’s Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Usani Usani, “was charged with fraud 15 years ago, after he was indicted in 2000 by the government of Cross River State where he served as a commissioner.” His indictment, the paper added, “is documented in a state government White Paper.” It can’t get any more empirically verifiable than that. Yet the man still serves as a minister in a government that bills itself as an “anti-corruption” government.

The list goes on, but I’ll stop here because of the constraints of space and time. It is ironic that a government with this depth and breadth of love affair with corrupt people has the chutzpah to talk about “fighting corruption.” But the clearest sign that this government is a joke and that it’s “anti-corruption” fight is an even bigger joke came on October 25 when a presidential news release blamed “invisible hands” from the Goodluck Jonathan administration for the Maina embarrassment.
 “[S]ome influential officials loyal to the previous government may have been the invisible hand in the latest scandal that saw the return of Maina to the public service, despite being on the EFCC’s wanted list,” the statement said.

When I first read it on a listserv on Wednesday, I thought it was a spoof and let out a burst of deep, loud, hearty laughter. I said it was impossible for this to be true until I read it in respected traditional news outlets. I give up. The battle has been lost irretrievably.

Buhari’s Commendable Biafra Gesture
News that Buhari has approved the payment of pension to ex-Biafran police officers who served on the rebel side during Nigeria’s 30-month Civil War from 1967 to 1970 is heartening. It is little symbolic gestures like this that nurture national cohesion.

National cohesion won’t magically emerge out of thin air because some leader proclaimed that Nigeria’s unity is “settled” and “non-negotiable”—or that the question of Nigeria’s unity had been settled with some rebel leader at a private meeting. Nation-building is never “settled” and is always in a state of negotiation and renegotiation.

Unity is consciously sowed, watered, and nourished by acts of kindness to the disadvantaged, by equity and justice to all, by consensus-building, by deliberate healing of the existential wounds that naturally emerge in our interactions are constituents of a common national space, and by acknowledging and working to cover our ethnic, religious, regional, and cultural fissures.

If Buhari, from the incipience of his presidency, had offered this sort of olive branch to parts of Nigeria that didn’t vote for him, we won’t have the current immobilizing fissiparity that is threatening to tear down the very foundation of the country. But it’s never too late to do the right thing.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

“Add weight,” “on my mind”: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage

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

I had a conversation with a native English speaker sometime ago. In the course of our conversation, I said something about “adding weight,” that is, getting fatter, but he didn’t understand me. It then occurred to me that I was probably speaking Nigerian English, which wasn’t comprehensible to him. How do native English speakers say it?

Native English speakers say “gain weight,” not “add weight,” as in, “If you eat a lot of fatty foods, you will gain weight.” You are right that “add weight” is the Nigerian English expression for “gain weight” in Standard English. Alternative Standard English expressions for “gain weight” are “put on weight” and “add pounds” (especially in informal American English). The Nigerian English “add weight” was probably formed on the model of “add pounds.”

Native English speakers use “add weight” often in a metaphorical sense to mean “make stronger,” such as saying, “Buhari’s reluctance to fire his corrupt Secretary to the Government of the Federation adds weight to the argument that his so-called anti-corruption fight is a farce.”

“Add weight” is also used in Standard English to denote physically increasing the heaviness of something by adding extra stuff on it. If someone is carrying a half bucket of water, for instance, and you pour some more water into it, you’re adding weight to their load.

It’s interesting that although Nigerians say “add weight” to mean “gain weight” they don’t say “subtract weight” or “take off weight” to mean “lose weight,” perhaps because the literalness of “subtract” or “take off” is immediately apparent. The antonym of “gain” is “lose” and the antonym of “add” is “subtract.” If you don’t “subtract” or “take off” weight you why do you “add weight”?

What is the proper way to call a car with two doors or four doors, because people in Nigeria call cars with two doors “one-door-cars.” 

I, too, have always wondered why Nigerians refer to two-door cars as “one-door” cars. As far as I know, in no other variety of English is a two-door car called a “one-door” car. So I would say the proper way to call a car with two doors is a two-door car. A four-door-car is also, well, a four-door-car.

I have a friend in my office who so loves your write-ups that he now even spends his last kobo to buy Daily Trust on Sunday because of your columns. Can you clarify for me conventional/nonconventional uses of "you and I" and “you and me”?

 As I wrote in previous articles, the trick to knowing how to use the pronouns correctly is to first know that pronouns are usually categorized into "subjective" pronouns and "objective" pronouns. Subjective pronouns always function as the subject (that is, main doer of action) in a sentence. Examples: I, we, they, he, she. "Objective" pronouns, on the other hand, always function as the object (that is, recipient of action) in a sentence. Examples: me, us, them, him, her.

So if you look at a sentence and can determine its subject and object, you can pretty much tell when "I" and "me" are used wrongly. Look at this sentence, for instance: “He said the bag was for you and I.” That sentence is wrong because "he" is already the subject of the sentence. The "I" in the sentence should be "me" because "me" is the recipient of an action, that is, it is the object of the sentence.

 If that explanation isn’t helpful, always remember that “you and me” is almost always interchangeable with “us” while “you and I” is almost always interchangeable with “we.”

Between “on my mind” and “in my mind” which is grammatically correct?

"On my mind" and "in my mind" are both correct depending on the context. "On my mind" means something is bothering you. Example: “The plight of the poor is on my mind.” "In my mind," on the other hand, means something resides in your imagination. Example: "I have a picture in my mind of an idyllic village in the deserts of the Sahara.”

Is it grammatically correct to say “if he were here?” What of “if he was here”?

I wrote about this in a previous article. Here is what I said: “There is still a fierce battle among grammarians about the appropriateness of these phrases. In grammar, “if I were” is referred to as being in the “subjunctive mood.” The subjective verb represents the form of a verb used to represent an act or a state that has not happened and has no likelihood of happening but that has nevertheless been imagined. For instance, when Beyonce sang “If I were a boy,” she clearly implied that she was actually not a boy nor could she be one, but imagined herself as one nonetheless. Semantic purists insist that on occasions such as this, “if I were” is the only acceptable expression.

“But the subjunctive verb, which was prevalent in Middle English (i.e. from about 1100 to 1450), is now obsolete. It’s only in the expression “if I were” that it has endured in modern English. Increasingly, however, people, especially young people in both Britain and America, are replacing “if I were” with “if I was,” although “if I was” used to be considered uneducated English. (For recent notable examples of the use of “if I was” in popular hit songs, refer to Far East Movement’s “If I was you” and Liza Minnelli’s “If there was love”). It is inevitable that “if I were” will ultimately die and be replaced with “If I was.” But, for now, my advice is this: use “if I were” in formal contexts and “if I was” in informal contexts.

I want some explanation on this issue: The word “welcome” is an irregular verb but I see that both the BBC and CNN sometimes use it as if it were a regular verb.

“Welcome" is a regular verb. Its present tense is "welcome," its past tense is "welcomed," and its participle is "welcomed." But when "welcome" is used as an adjective (that is, when it means "giving pleasure or satisfaction or received with pleasure or freely granted", as in: "your suggestions are welcome"), it does not have a "d" at the end. That is, it would be wrong to write "your suggestions are welcomed." So CNN and BBC are right to use "welcome" as a regular verb.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

World Bank, Buhari, and Presidential Subnationalism

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, in a news conference on October 12, reported President Muhammadu Buhari as having said the World Bank should “shift our focus to the northern regions of Nigeria.” Several commentators, particularly from the South, said the revelation provided evidence of the president’s prejudicial northern subnationalism. The president’s defenders, on the other hand, said he actually meant the “northeast.”

 Rather strangely, both the president’s critics and his defenders are right. Here is what I mean.

According to the transcript of the conference on the World Bank’s website, the question that elicited Kim’s response was, “what is the World Bank doing to support those ravaged in the northeastern part of Nigeria by the Boko Haram terrorists?” In other words, the questioner specifically wanted to know what the World Bank was doing about northeastern Nigeria in light of the devastation that has been wrought upon the region by years of Boko Haram insurgency.

It's therefore not unreasonable to assume that the World Bank chief meant that the president told him to focus attention on the northeast. Most non-Nigerians have no awareness of, or interest in, our arbitrary cartographic nomenclatures such as “northeast,” “northcentral,” “northwest,” etc., although the World Bank’ chief’s reference to “the northern regions [note the plural] of Nigeria” at best complicates and at worst invalidates my observation.

But since we didn’t hear these words directly from Buhari’s mouth, it’s sensible to believe his spokesperson who said the president meant the northeast, which every Nigerian agrees is in desperate need of a massive infrastructural renewal. Plus, saying “focus” should be put in one part of the country doesn’t necessarily imply an order to exclude other parts of the country. In any event, a breakdown of the World Bank’s projects in Nigeria shows that the South isn’t excluded.

However, it would be escapist, even dishonest, to ignore the fact that Buhari’s personal politics and symbolic gestures both before he became president and now that he is president conduce to the notion that he is an unapologetic provincial chauvinist. Before he was elected president, he made no pretense to being anything other than a “northern” subnationalist, which has no precedent for a former or incumbent Nigerian president or head of state, at least in public utterances.

Former president Goodluck Jonathan is an exception here. He once publicly defended the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta’s self-professed terrorism against Nigeria when it detonated two bombs in Abuja that killed 12 people and injured 17 others on October 1, 2010. Although MEND’s Jomo Gbomo sent out an email to the news media warning of the attack— and actually claimed responsibility for it after the fact—Jonathan said MEND couldn’t be responsible for the bomb attack because it would not sabotage the administration of a fellow Niger Deltan like him.

 “We know those behind the attack and the persons sponsoring them,” he said. “They are terrorists, not MEND. The name of MEND that operates in Niger Delta was only used. I grew up in the Niger Delta, so nobody can claim to know Niger Delta than [sic] myself, because I am from Niger Delta.” But he forgot that Niger Delta militants bombed his house in his hometown of Otueke on May 16, 2007 in spite of his being a Niger Deltan. Jonathan’s defense of Niger Delta terrorists out of subnationalist solidarity caused me to write a caustic column on October 16, 2010 titled “A MENDacious President.”

Like Jonathan, Buhari also had his own moment of subnationalist solidarity with Boko Haram terrorists. In June 2013, Buhari told Liberty Radio in Kaduna that the sustained military assault on Boko Haram insurgents while Niger Delta militants were being mollycoddled by the government through “amnesty” was unfair to the “north.”

And, although, he recanted and later redeemed himself after his infamous “97%” versus “5%” gaffe in Washington, D.C., it’s nonetheless legitimate to contend that it was a Freudian slip that betrayed his genuine thoughts, especially in light of the pattern of his appointments, which I once characterized as undisguisedly Arewacentric.

There are other symbolic miscues that feed the notion of Buhari’s provincial particularism. For instance, when he canceled his planned visits to the Niger Delta and to Lagos, he didn’t send personal apologies to the people. But when he canceled his visit to Bauchi, he recorded a video apology in Hausa to the people of Bauchi State. Again, during his sick leave in London, he recorded a personal audio sallah message only for Hausa-speaking Muslims. Yoruba, Auchi, non-Hausa-speaking northern Muslims, etc. were excluded. He picked and chose even among Muslims.

Buhari’s interpersonal discomfort with, and perhaps contempt for, Nigerians who are different from him—often expressed through awkward snubs and linguistic exclusivism—go way back. On page 512 of Ambassador Olusola Sanu’s 2016 autobiography titled Audacity on the Bound: A Diplomatic Odyssey, for instance, we encounter this trait:

“I was asked by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs… to accompany Major-General Buhari on a trip to West Germany when he was Petroleum Minister in 1978,” he wrote. “During the flight, to and fro, [he] did not say a word to me even when we sat side by side in the first class compartment of the plane. When we got to Germany and went to the Nigerian Ambassador’s residence, [he] spoke entirely in Hausa throughout with the Ambassador-in-post. He did not speak to me throughout the trip. I was deeply hurt and disappointed.”

Interestingly, Ambassador Sanu actively supported Buhari in 2015, and probably still does. “Time is a great healer and I bear Buhari no malice,” he wrote, pointing out that, “I believe Buhari is now a changed man and Nigeria in decline is in need of disciplined, honest, focused and purposeful leadership to turn it around.” Well, you be the judge.

Now, let me be clear: there is immense merit in speaking our native languages. I actually applaud people of President Buhari’s political and symbolic stature who show pride in their native languages by speaking it anywhere without apology. But that’s not the issue here. In a complex and plural country that is torn by the push and pull of competing cultural, ethnic, and linguistic fissures such as Nigeria, there are moments when linguistic subnationalism from leaders can become fodder for untoward fissiparity.

Buhari’s insularity may be a consequence of his limited education and socialization outside his comfort zone, but a country whose political leaders perpetually proclaim that their country’s unity is “settled and non-negotiable” needs a leader who consciously works to unite the fissiparous tendencies in the country; who puts nationalism above subnationalism; who recognizes that to favor one’s own people is an instinctive impulse that is effortless, but that what requires effort is the capacity to rise superior to this base temptation and to be dispassionate, cosmopolitan, and fair to all.

So while Buhari most probably told the World Bank to focus on the northeast, which is defensible, his history of ethno-regional chauvinism provides grounds for people to be suspicious of his utterances, even silences, and motives.


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