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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

English in Nigeria: India Not an Exemplary Model

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

Although I am a strong advocate for native languages, there are two major reasons why I advocate the retention of English as Nigeria’s official language and as our language of instruction at schools. The first reason, which I have explored extensively in previous columns, is that Nigeria, as it’s presently constituted, is held together by English.


In an April 24, 2010 article, I wrote: “English is the linguistic glue that holds our disparate, unnaturally evolved nation together. Although Nigeria has three dominant languages, it also has over 400 mutually unintelligible languages. And given the perpetual battles of supremacy between the three major languages in Nigeria—indeed among all the languages in the country—it is practically impossible to impose any native language as a national language. So, in more ways than one, English is crucial to Nigeria's survival as a nation. Without it, it will disintegrate!”

The second reason is that English is the lingua franca of global scholarship, and we would be shutting ourselves off from the global scholarly community if we shut out English. This is how I captured it in my 2015 book titled “Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in aGlobal World”:

 “Most importantly, [English] is the language of scholarship and learning. The Science Citation Index, for instance, revealed in a 1997 report that 95 percent of scholarly articles in its corpus were written in English, even though only half of these scientific articles came from authors whose first language is English (Garfield, 1998). Scores of universities in Europe, Africa, and Asia are switching to English as the preferred language of instruction.

“As Germany’s Technical University president Wolfgang Hermann said when his university ditched German and switched to English as the language of instruction for most of the school’s master’s degree programs, ‘English is the lingua franca [of the] academia and of the economy’ (The Local, 2014). His assertion has support in the findings of a study in Germany that discovered that publishing in English is ‘often the only way to be noticed by the international scientific community’ (The Local, 2014).

“So most academics in the world either have to publish in English or perish in their native tongues. In addition, it has been noted in many places that between 70 and 80 percent of information stored in the world's computers is in English, leading a technology writer to describe the English language as ‘the lingua franca of the wired world’ (Bowen, 2001).”

English has moved beyond being imperialistic; it's now hegemonic. That is, its dominance isn’t a consequence of forceful imposition; it’s now entirely voluntary. When German, Italian, Israeli, Asian etc. universities switched to English as their medium of instruction, they didn't do so because they were conquered by Britain or the US.

When millions of Chinese people spend time and resources to learn English, they do so because they want to be competitive in the global market. When South Koreans go to the ridiculous extremes of spending thousands of dollars to perform surgery on their tongues so they can speak English with native-like proficiency, they do it of their own volition. (In South Korea, professors can’t be tenured, i.e., granted permanent employment status, if they don’t demonstrate sufficient proficiency in English).

When poor, struggling Indians spend scarce resources to acquire proficiency in English and to “dilute” their accents so they can approximate native-speaker oral fluency preparatory to call-center jobs, they do so because they think it offers a passport to a better life.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once argued that people who are targets of hegemonic cooptation only voluntarily agree to this process if they believe that, in accepting it, they are giving expression to their free subjectivity. That's effective hegemony.

If English ceases to be the receptacle of vast systems of knowledge that it is now and goes the way of Latin, everyone would drop it like it's hot. This isn't about "race," "inferiority," "superiority," or such other piteous vocabulary of the weak. It's plain pragmatism.

This isn't about English as a language of culture, or as a symbol of colonial domination; it's about the fact that it is the depository of contemporary epistemic production and circulation. You shut it out at your own expense. It is hard-nosed pragmatism to embrace its epistemic resources both for development and for subversion.

Of course, English won't always be the language of scholarship. Like Latin, Arabic, Greek, etc., it would wane at some point, especially when America ceases to be the main character in the movie of world politics and economy, which Trump's emerging fascism is helping to hasten faster than anyone had imagined. It could be succeeded by Mandarin. Should that happen, it would be counterproductive for any country in the world to, in the name of nativist linguistic self-ghettoization ignore Mandarin.

As I argued two weeks ago, there is no truth to the oft-quoted claim that no society develops on the basis of a foreign language. On the contrary, it is misguided nativist linguistic self-isolationism that actually hurts development.

India as Model for Nigeria?
India often features prominently in every conversation about language policy in Nigeria. There is much that I like about India’s language policy and much that I wouldn’t recommend to Nigeria.


Although India has as many as 880 languages, it has two national official languages: Hindi and English. It also recognizes 31 regional languages in its constitution, and allows states to determine their own official languages—even if the languages are not among the 31 constitutionally recognized languages. In addition, people whose mother tongues are not recognized as state languages may choose to speak in their native languages in official communication, including in state parliaments—of course, with the permission of the Speaker. But all laws at both state and federal levels must be written in English.

It’s relatively easy to make Hindi the national language because 45 percent of Indians speak Hindi or its dialectal variations. No Nigerian language is spoken by up to 45 percent of the national population, and any attempt to impose a domestic language on others in Nigeria will be resisted. The only time people willingly accept formal linguistic imposition without conquest is if the language serves a personal social need—if it’s a vehicle for upward social mobility. There is absolutely nothing to be gained in getting one's education in a domestic foreign language with limited utility outside the country.

But linguistic minorities in India didn’t simply accept Hindi with listless resignation. The proposal to derecognize English as an official language and impose Hindi as the sole official language of the country was met with violent protests, especially in the south where Hindi isn’t widely spoken. This compelled the government to reverse the policy (see Robert Hardgrave’s interesting 1965 essay titled, "The Riots in Tamilnadu: Problems and Prospects of India's Language Crisis" in the Asian Survey.) Nor is Hindi's dominance in India unchallenged (See "Hindi Not a National Language: Court" in The Hindu of January 25, 2010).

Most importantly, though, there is a class dimension to the language policy in India that many people seem to ignore. First, although Hindi-language media are the most popular in the country (the Hindi-language Dainik Jagran, for example, is India’s largest circulation newspaper), the English-language media set the national agenda and are more influential in shaping national discourses than the indigenous language ones.

 Second, the upper crust of the Indian society educate their children in English (and, of course, Hindi) and condemn others at the lower end of the society to Hindi or other indigenous language education. This entrenches intergenerational perpetuation of social and economic inequalities because Hindi-only educated Indians often have limited social and economic mobility. They are not part of the great Indian revival. They are shut out of the country's exploding ICT revolution.

Children of wealthy people attend English-language schools, climb the social ladder, travel the world, become citizens of the world, partake in all the thrills that the English-dominated global world offers, etc. while children of the poor are educated in indigenous languages, vegetate in epistemic insularity, limited social mobility, and perpetual servitude to the children of the English-educated, privileged class. That is not the Nigeria I want for my people.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Babachir Lawal’s Suspension: Praise and Concerns

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

It’s great that after much dillydallying President Buhari has finally summoned the intestinal and testicular fortitude to “suspend” “cash-and-carry” SGF Babachir David Lawal of “grass-cutting” infamy.

In my December 17, 2016 column titled “12 conditions for praising Buhari,” the third condition I gave for praising the president was that he should, “Sincerely investigate and prosecute the corrupt people in his administration. Secretary to the Government of the Federation David Lawal Babachir has become a byword for unspeakably high-profile corruption. He has been accused of all kinds of shady deals, including callously shortchanging IDPs, prompting the equally sleazy Senate to call for his prosecution.
Babachir David Lawal stuck out his tongue to mock Nigerians who think anything will come out of his suspension
“Abba Kyari has been accused of all manner of corruption. Irrefutable documentary proofs of Buratai’s corruption have been published on Sahara Reporters. Amaechi has been accused of bribing judges. The list goes on. Not a word has been heard from the presidency in response to any of these accusations. But (corrupt) political opponents are hounded, even without firm evidence, in the name of ‘anti-corruption’ fight.”

My consistent criticisms of the president’s selective anti-corruption fight in my columns may have nothing to do with his latest move (for all you know, the president probably never even reads my column), but I’ll fulfill my pledge nonetheless and say, “good job, Mr. President for suspending one of the biggest embarrassments to your government—and to Nigeria.”

But this is only a start, a small start. Abba Kyari, Tukur Buratai, Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau, Rotimi Amaechi and other corrupt fat cats in the government should be shown the door, too. Then, we can begin to talk of real anti-corruption fight.

Frankly, Lawal should never have been Secretary to the Government of the Federation. The man neither has the experience nor the temperament to hold such a sensitive office. He is a notorious gaffe machine who can’t seem to be able to say the right thing.

He once said Boko Haram was a PDP creation to intentionally depopulate the northeast region because the region’s political sympathies lie with the APC. Boko Haram was formed, he said, to "decimate the voters’ population on the North-east," he told journalists, because, he added, "they [PDP members] know that the region is 100 percent APC."  Which sane adult talks like that?

At a church thanksgiving service in his honor on October 17, 2015, Lawal also said Bola Tinubu and Bisi Akande were singularly responsible for his appointment as SGF. “Because if it has been left to northerners, it is doubtful if they will take a Christian man to make Secretary to the Government of the Federation,” he said. That was needlessly divisive.

During the same thanksgiving service, Lawal publicly admitted to receiving monetary gifts from Ebonyi State Governor David Umahi—in contravention of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers. “This is a man I don’t know but he is PDP,” Lawal said at the event. “He’s Igbo but he sent a trailer load of rice to my governor for the IDPs in Adamawa state recently. May be he did not want me to say it. Again, one day I was just in my office looking and sounding broke. He just said, ‘during the Sallah, I am going to send Ebonyi rice to you.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want Ebonyi rice. I have too much rice in my house. I don’t even know what to do with the rice.’ So later his ADC comes and says, ‘Oga sent me to you.’ And I said, ‘what is inside that thing,’ and he said, ‘money,’ and I said, ‘bring it my friend.’”

This was before he discovered that he could cut grass for internally displaced Boko Haram victims for hundreds of millions of naira. Some interesting transformation there.
These are just a few of the man’s many embarrassingly tactless public utterances. Plus, people who have related with him say he is astonishingly arrogant, corrupt and incompetent. It’s such a joke that a person that reckless, unguarded, and impolitic is saddled with a job as sensitive as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation.

In fact, Lawal himself thought it was a joke that anyone would find him worthy to be SGF. “I started getting hints to this job just about two to three days to it, and I thought it was a very big joke,” he said at the thanksgiving service organized to celebrate his appointment. Yes, it’s still a big joke, Lawal!

However, while I think the president has moved in the right direction, several throbbing concerns remain. Why did the president initially write to the National Assembly to exonerate the SGF without prior investigation? What new information informed the decision to suspend and investigate him now? Why is he being investigated by his colleagues, one of whom actually exonerated him of the same allegations in the past? Can we expect any justice from this committee? Why isn’t he being investigated by an independent presidential commission of inquiry or, at the very least, the EFCC or the ICPC?

Corrupt political opponents of the president are never investigated by a presidential committee. They are often hounded by the EFCC and tried in the news media. Why is the president’s corrupt political associate being treated differently?

And should we expect Abba Kyari (who is accused of accepting a hefty bribe from MTN to reduce the telecom company’s fine), Tukur Buratai (about whom incontrovertible evidence of inexplicable enrichment has been provided) and others to be suspended and investigated, too? That would be the real anti-corruption fight. If not, even if Lawal is found guilty and fired, people will impute ulterior motives to his ouster. For the anti-corruption campaign to succeed, it must be sincere, wholehearted, and just.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Why President Buhari is Wildly Popular in the Muslim North

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

Someone suggested a few weeks ago on Facebook that President Buhari’s irrationally wild popularity in the Muslim north would require an entire doctoral dissertation to explain. I disagree. It doesn’t require that much effort to explain. It’s simply the product of a mix of amnesic nostalgia, visceral emotions, and Muslim clerical tyranny in the north. Here is what I mean.

Nigerians generally have a predilection for sentimentalizing the supposed glories of bygone days. The past is always greener than the present, and the further a memory recedes into the past the more its putative glories are celebrated and romanticized. Add that to the fact that Buhari’s first coming was short-lived.

But you can actually map the genealogy of the myth of Buhari’s “Mai gaskiyaness,” which is the immediate trigger for the worshipful admiration he enjoys among the masses (and some elites) of the Muslim north. It started in the year 2001 after former President Obasanjo summoned a Council of State meeting in the aftermath of the Sharia-inspired sanguinary fury that drenched Kaduna in oceans of blood.

 The Obasanjo government, speaking through then Vice President Atiku Abubkar, said the Council of State, of which all past presidents and heads of state are members, had agreed that all Sharia states should revert to the “status quo ante,” basically meaning they should discontinue the implementation of Sharia.

Buhari disputed the accuracy of the Obasanjo government’s rendition of what the Council of State recommended. He said Sharia didn’t even come up in the discussions of the Council of State. For being the only person to openly disagree with the Obasanjo government, he began to be called “Mai Gaskiya.”

Thereafter, he became an open advocate for Sharia and even went so far as to say the northern Muslim electorate shouldn’t vote anyone into office who wasn’t committed to Sharia. "I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria," Buhari said at a seminar organized by the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria in August 2001. "God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia in the country."

Although Buhari himself isn’t a deeply religious person, his open, full-throated but politically motivated (some would say opportunistic) support for Sharia (at a time no other former president of northern Nigerian Muslim extraction was willing to do so) caused him to be wildly popular among northern Muslim masses and the conservative clerical elite of the region.

Now, Islamic clerics in the north preach that Buhari is divinely ordained to be president and that criticism of his policies amounts to blasphemy. That’s why northern Muslim critics of Buhari like me are seen as heretics—or, worse, not even Muslim at all. I recall a northern Nigerian university teacher and foreign-based PhD student exclaiming “SubhaanAllaah!” when I first shared my criticism of Buhari with him during a WhatsApp chat. He was so distraught you would think I committed blasphemy. So it isn’t just northern Nigerian Muslim masses that literally worship Buhari.

Given the oversized influence of Islamic clerics in shaping public opinion in Muslim northern Nigeria, no amount of logic, evidence-based reasoning, economic hardship, etc. will make the littlest dent on Buhari’s popularity in the Muslim north.

In his widely shared articled titled, “Advice On Buhari Media Centre,” Dr. Aliyu Tilde beautifully captured the complicity of the conservative northern Nigerian Muslim clerical establishment in the deification of President Buhari.

“The same thing applies to religious leaders who are invited to the villa (by the President, said one of them) for the same purpose of propaganda,” Dr. Tilde wrote. “They return and tell their followers all sorts of stories that they have met an angel there and witnessed miracles at the foot of Sinai. I just heard a Whatsapp audio of one of them from Sokoto who was telling his followers, amidst Allahu Akbar, this kind of stories: Buhari ya yi kira. Kuna ga sai a zauna?…kun san da Nijeriya ba ta da uba. Yanzu na tai uba. Na je villa, na ga abin ban mamaki… What a shame."

It’s interesting that Buhari was particularly unpopular with the northern Nigerian Muslim clerical establishment in the 1980s. He was resented for a number of reasons. His wife then, as now, made sartorial choices that didn’t conform to the clerics’ expectations of a Muslim woman. Buhari also banned open-air preaching, stopped/drastically reduced state sponsorship of Hajj, and forbade the building of new Jumu’ah mosques without the permission of emirate councils.

This put him at odds with Muslim clerics, particularly the emergent Izala sect, which now enjoys hegemony in northern Nigeria. Sheikh Abubakar Mahmood Gumi, in fact, said during a preaching session that “Allah will not forgive the regimes of Shagari and that of Buhari because they blocked the way of Allah.”

Fast-forward to the 2000s and Buhari’s support for Sharia when it wasn’t politically wise to do so, especially by a former head of state, set the stage for his deification and worship by a clerical elite that a generation ago invoked curses on him. In a way, Buhari is reaping the “benefits” of the choices he made in 2001.

Now millions of people in the Muslim north would rather die than withhold support for Buhari, however much his government’s policies, or lack thereof, smolder them. Support for Buhari in the Muslim north isn’t just politics; it’s now religion. There is no precedent for this in Nigeria’s history.

Emir Sanusi II as President?
I picked up on the cryptic but devastating critique of Kano State Governor Ganduje’s government in Emir Sanusi’s wildly trending Kaduna speech and wonder if the emir is still interested in his job.

Remember that the power to appoint and dethrone traditional rulers rests exclusively with state governors. Now, pissing off the federal government AND the state government AND an entire region’s conservative cultural elites with bitter, uncomfortable truth-telling is a lethally combustible mix.

I make no pretenses to possessing oracular powers (because I don't), but I predict that, like his grandfather, Emir Sanusi II will be deposed. But, unlike his grandfather, he may end up becoming Nigeria’s president after his dethronement. Kano’s loss would then be Nigeria’s gain (or loss, depending on how he would turn out), which, in a strangely circuitous way, would also be Kano’s gain (or loss) since Kano is part of Nigeria.

Sanusi shouldn’t be Kano’s emir; he should be Nigeria’s president. I have strong disagreements with the neoliberal orthodoxy he subscribes to and his feudal and elitist detachment from the plight of the poor, but it would be nice to have a truly informed and educated man as president for once.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

English, Indigenous Language Instruction, and National Development

By Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D.

There are two persistent fallacies concerning the nexus between language of instruction at schools and national development. The first fallacy states that no society has ever developed using a foreign language. The second fallacy flows from the first, and it states that indigenous language instruction in and of itself guarantees national development. I will explode both fallacies in today’s column.

Broadly speaking, two groups of people are invested in, and help popularize, these fallacies. The first group is made up of people I choose to characterize as “English mumpsimuses.” Mumpsimus is defined as “adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, memorization, practice, belief, etc., out of habit or obstinacy (opposed to sumpsimus).” A person who is wedded to, or who persists in, mumpsimus is also called a mumpsimus. (The term mumsimus came to mean stubborn resistance to correction because an old monk in the 16th century mispronounced the Latin word “sumpsimus” as “mumsimus” but intentionally persisted in her error even after she was corrected.)

So an English mumpsimus is a person who commits errors in English but is either unwilling or unable to accept corrections. English mumsimuses not only choose to persist in their errors but also direct their anger at the language and at people who point out their errors. This group has my sympathy because English does have quirky and whimsical conventions of usage that can throw off even the most careful learner.

The second group of people is a motley crowd of feel-good, starry-eyed, sentimental nationalists who resent the global linguistic hegemony of English—for good reason. But their arguments against the use of English as a language of instruction at schools are often injected with heavy doses of emotive appeals, but they stand on a slender thread of empirical evidence.

As an advocate for African languages myself, I share some of their sentimental reasons for promoting the use of indigenous languages for instruction at all levels of education. But sentiments are no substitutes for evidence-based reasoning, and legitimate emotions don’t become facts by virtue of their legitimacy. So let’s look at the evidence.

Nations that developed using foreign languages
It’s a well-worn cliché among dewy-eyed linguistic nationalists that indigenous language instruction is the only key to national development. There are several iterations of this sentiment. 

For instance, in a 2016 edited book titled Studies in Nigerian Linguistics, Philip Anagbogu and Gideon Omachonu contributed a chapter in which they claim that, “No nation has ever made appreciable progress in development as well as science and technology education relying on a foreign language(s).”

One Professor Birgit Brock-Utne, a Norwegian who taught and lived in Tanzania for a long time, also claimed that, "No country has ever developed on the basis of a foreign language." But these essentialist claims have no basis in linguistic or historical evidence.

 Evidence from linguistic research (and, I might add, common sense) shows that no one is infrangibly wired to cogitate rarefied thoughts only in their native language. Societies don't develop because they use their primordial languages for education, nor do they stagnate because they deploy a foreign language for education. That’s vulgar linguistic determinism. Development isn't solely a function of language of instruction at schools; it's a consequence of a multiplicity of factors.

There are 6,909 living languages in the world. The linguistic deterministic thesis of development that holds that societies can only develop if they use their indigenous languages for instruction at schools would suggest that speakers of all the 6,909 living languages in the world should have their separate instructional policies based on their languages. What a babel that would be!

History is littered with examples of countries that developed on the basis of a foreign language.
Let’s start with Europe. Scholarship in Latin, that is, Classical Latin, is the foundation of the development of Western Europe. Latin wasn't native to vast swathes of people in Europe. It was an exclusive elite language, a reason all other European languages at the time were called “vernacular languages.” Latin was the language of education in Europe (including in North Africa where it was studied in schools until the Roman Empire waned) until about the second half of the 18th century.

 European development wasn't stalled because people learned and used Latin for scholarship; on the contrary, scholarship in Latin is the foundation for Western Europe’s development. It isn't because there is something intrinsically superior or magical about Latin; it's simply because, for historical reasons, it was the vault of knowledge at the time—the way English is today.

In the Muslim world, particularly from the 8th century to the 13th century, during the so-called Golden Age of Islam when science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, economic development, etc. grew and flowered luxuriantly, the language of scholarship was Arabic, but several of the key personages associated with this golden age spoke Arabic as a second language.

For example, Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Kwarizmi, the father of algorithm, spoke Farsi as his first language, but his language of education was Arabic. That didn't stop him from making profound contributions to knowledge and to development. Note that Farsi (Persian) and Arabic are not only mutually unintelligible languages, they also belong to two different language families. Persian is an Indo-European language (in common with English!) while Arabic is an Afro-Asiatic language (in common with Hausa!)

Ibn Sina, through whose efforts the West recovered Aristotle and whose work in medical science is foundational, was also a Persian who learned and wrote in Arabic. Arabic was a second language to him. I can go on, but the point I want to make is that several of the central figures in Islam's golden age weren't native Arabic speakers. In fact, most people in the Muslim Ummah at the time weren’t Arabs. But Arabic was the language of education. It was the epistemic storehouse of the time, and the fact of Arabic’s foreignness didn't cause it to halt the development of the societies in which it was used.

For modern examples of countries that developed using a foreign language, Singapore is one. Although most Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, they use English as the language of instruction at all levels of education in their country. Singapore, not long ago, transitioned from “third world to first,” to borrow from the title of late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s book. Use of English as the language of education hasn’t stalled Singapore’s development.

Ireland is another example. For long, it was Europe’s fastest growing economy because of its advances in information and communication technology. Ireland’s language of instruction at all levels of education is English even though English isn’t “native” to the country. The country’s “native” tongue is Gaelic, which is mutually unintelligible with English. Like Nigeria and Singapore, Ireland was colonized by England.

In addition, several universities in Asia and Europe are now switching to English as their language of instruction. They aren't stupid.

On the other hand, North Koreans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Mongolians, etc., use their native languages as their countries' official languages and as the languages of instruction at all levels of education. That hasn't guaranteed their development. So it is simplistic to assert that simply being educated in a native language is all that is needed to be developed, and that use of a foreign language forecloses development.

As I pointed out earlier, although evidence suggests that mother-tongue instruction enhances learning, no human being is intrinsically and inexorably wired to conceptualize high-minded thoughts in just one language, or only in the language of the culture they grew up in. Nigeria isn't stuck in prolonged infancy because English is its official language; it is because it has had no purposeful, forward-looking, transaction-oriented leadership since independence.

I will explore this topic some more next week and conclude with a discussion on India, which shares many similarities with Nigeria.



Saturday, April 8, 2017

The False Binary Between Saraki and Buhari

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

President Muhammadu Buhari and Senate President Bukola Saraki are at loggerheads again, and Buhari apologists are erecting annoyingly false Manichean binaries between an “evil” National Assembly and a “benign” Aso Rock!

I’m going to be blunt: Both Aso Rock and the National Assembly are equally evil, corrupt, obtuse, and inept. Saraki is a cold, calculating, corrupt conman who destroys everything that comes in his way and Buhari is a self-centered, insensitive, naïve, and clueless man who has no business being president. The politics and choices of both men conspire to drag the nation to the pit.


Saraki’s astonishingly gargantuan corruption is matched by Buhari’s unparalleled profligacy. We have a supposedly “frugal” president whose first priority upon being sworn in as president was to build a multi-million naira vanity “helipad” for himself in his hometown, a president who spent millions of dollars to travel the world in his first year, and who has spent millions more on both secretive and public “medical vacations” while the people he is mandated to govern starve, die of easily treatable diseases, and writhe in pains. Now Aso Rock is scared to tell Nigerians exactly how much the president spent in his last "medical vacation" in London—itself an unprecedented international embarrassment.

The president’s handlers said it’s “insensitive” to ask to know how much of the public’s money was used to care for the president abroad. But what’s really insensitive is underfunding public hospitals that care for millions of poor people and spending millions of dollars to fly the president abroad for the best care—and emotionally blackmailing citizens into hypocritical silence. I know of no serious country in the world where that happens.

I agree that the National Assembly is useless, but so is Aso Rock. None is better than the other. It used to be said that Nigeria was on auto-pilot. Under Buhari, Saraki and Dogara, the triumvirate of double-dyed incompetence and corruption, Nigeria has nose-dived and come to a screeching halt.

Exactly two years ago today, I said here that Buhari’s election as president was the best birthday gift I had ever received in my over 4 decades on earth. I spoke too soon. In retrospect, it was the absolute worst birthday gift. We elected a president who repudiates his campaign promises with the glibness of an accomplished conman, a man who luxuriates in the perks and privileges of power without a bother for the welfare of the people who put him in power, a man who has no earthly clue how to govern, whose economic policies institutionalize reverse Robin Hoodism, that is, robbing the poor to enrich the rich, and so on.

Buhari’s ineptitude, double standard, mindless profligacy, and insensitivity to the poor actually feed and fortify Saraki’s corruption, pigheadedness, and intolerably brazen arrogance. So stop the false binaries already!

Zamfara Governor, Meningitis, and Conscientious Stupidity
People are understandably getting bent out of shape about Zamfara State Governor Abdul'aziz Yari’s cruelly insensitive claim that the meningitis devastating thousands of poor people in his state is “divine” wrath against them for their moral transgressions.

But the truth is I’m not the least bit surprised. In Nigeria, there is practically no distinction in the quality of mind between most people at the upper end of the social scale and people at the lower end of the social scale. They are equally sunk in crying ignorance, superstition, atavism, and irrationality, causing one British expat to characterize Nigeria as a perversely “classless” society.

Does anyone remember a Professor Chinedu Nebo, former VC of UNN, who, during a senate confirmation hearing in January 2013, said Nigeria’s perpetual power outages were caused by “witches and demons”? “If the President deploys me in the power sector, I believe that given my performance at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where I drove out the witches and demons, God will also give me the power to drive out the demons in the power sector,” he said. And that’s a professor!

In November 2012, a minister of state for power by the name of Hajiya Zainab Kuchi told a South African delegation that “evil spirits” were responsible for Nigeria’s electricity problems. You can’t make this stuff up!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” But I think it’s a little too gracious to attribute the backward, superstitious mindset of our leaders to mere “sincere ignorance” and “conscientious stupidity.” Why don’t they attribute their own sicknesses—and the sicknesses of their close family members—to divine retribution? Why do they go abroad to treat the littlest illnesses?

Buhari goes to London to treat his illnesses, including mere ear infections. His Chief of Staff recently went to London to treat “breathing problems,” and his medical bill was paid by the public treasury.
And while northern Nigerian Muslim masses were slaughtering rams and getting rapturous in prayers for Buhari’s recovery, the man was receiving modern, world-class treatment in London at the cost of millions of dollars from the public treasury. He didn’t attribute his sickness to divine affliction. In fact, when he returned home, he rhapsodized over the medical advances in UK hospitals, as if to mock everyday Nigerians who can’t afford the luxury to go to London to treat their illnesses.

In Nigeria, when the rich are sick, they seek the best medical treatment abroad while the poor at home pray for them to recover, but when the poor are sick, the rich tell them they are suffering divine punishment for their moral failings. But between the rich and the poor in Nigeria, who are more morally degenerate? Why are the poor the disproportionate target of “divine” wrath? Does God hate the poor for being poor? For that matter, what sins did children who died from meningitis commit?

Imagine for a moment that Governor Yari was governor of Lagos State when Ebola struck, and he sat back listlessly and said it was a divine affliction about which nothing could be done. Chew over that.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Why There Are No Native Speakers of Standard English

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

My column from three weeks ago provoked a conversation at a scholarly online forum about the meaning, history, and utility of Standard English and about why we should continue to use English as our language of instruction at all levels of education in Nigeria. I will expound on Standard English this week and devote next week to discussing the benefits and drawbacks of instruction in our native languages.

So what exactly is “Standard English”? Well, Standard English is the English that is taught in schools, that is codified in grammar books (starting from about the 18th century, as I will explain further), that is "curated" in dictionaries, and that is privileged in and popularized by mainstream media.

Being a "native English speaker" isn't the same thing as being a speaker of Standard English. They are different. Many native speakers don't speak Standard English; they speak their regional varieties, which are not necessarily compatible with Standard English. With formal education, exposure to mainstream media, and circulation within educated circles they learn Standard English. There is, therefore, strictly speaking, no native speaker of Standard English. It's a consciously learned variety of English, although it is true that it is made up of parts that are drawn from different native regional varieties.

Nothing that is as elaborately systematized, formalized, and methodically learned as Standard English can be truly "native" to anybody. What is truly "native" is rarely formally learned; it is often effortlessly acquired. That is why "nativity" isn't always a guarantee of proficiency in Standard English--which is basically, as I pointed out earlier, a mishmash of a multiplicity of regional dialects with a dash of Latin-inspired grammar rules.

That is also why many native English speakers who aren't self-conscious, methodical learners of the language do poorly in English grammar tests, and why non-native speakers who study English grammar systematically can--and do--teach native English speakers "their" own language. Plus, there is a plurality of standard varieties of English (such as British, American, Australian, Indian, etc.), even though there is a notional international standard variety, which is perpetually dynamic.

Nor is this unique to English. Modern Standard Arabic, for instance, is (in)famous for its lack of "native speakers." Like Standard English, it's an amalgam of several regional Arabic dialects. It is formally taught in schools and is used in the mass media, but no one speaks it outside formal contexts in the Arab world.

Shakespeare didn’t speak or write Standard English
Standard English is a relatively recent phenomenon. William Shakespeare, reputed to be the greatest writer in the English language, didn’t speak or write Standard English. I know this sounds counter-intuitive on the surface. How can the greatest writer in and of a language be said to not speak or write the standard variety of the language? Here is why.

There was no "standard" English in Elizabethan times when Shakespeare lived. There were several regional dialects of the language, as there are now, but none was purposively privileged and codified as the "standard."

Shakespeare wrote in the London dialect, although his grammar and orthography, like those of his contemporaries, weren't always consistent since there was no conscious codification of grammar and spelling at the time. He didn't even spell his name in a consistent manner. He variously spelled it as "Shakspe," "Shakspere," Shaksper," "Shakspeare," and "Shakespeare." Eighteenth-century grammarians and printers preferred the last one, and that's what we know today.

The idea of a "standard English," that is, the overt codification of the language through grammar books and dictionaries, inspired largely by Latin, didn't start until the 18th century, although the term "standard English" didn't emerge until the 19th century. In other words, Shakespeare antedated Standard English by at least a century.

 For an idea of how contemporary Standard English differs radically from the English Shakespeare spoke and wrote, read my August 9, 2015 column titled, “Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today‘s Standards.”

Here is a sample of what I wrote in the column: “Double negatives. Use of double negatives (such as ‘I don’t know nothing’ or ‘I don’t like nobody’ or ‘I don’t need no grammar lesson’) is one of the biggest grammatical taboos of contemporary Standard English. We are taught that two negatives cancel each other out to produce a positive, so that ‘I don’t know nothing’ would mean ‘I know something,’ ‘I don’t like nobody’ would mean ‘I like somebody,’ and  ‘I don’t need no grammar lesson’ would mean ‘I need a grammar lesson.’

“But double negatives were used for emphasis and intensification of meaning [in Shakespeare’s time], and that tradition survives in nonstandard, low-prestige English varieties (such as Appalachian English, African-American Vernacular English also called Ebonics, Cockney, etc.) and in pop music.

“Like other English users of his time, Shakespeare used double negatives for emphasis. In Henry IV Part I, he wrote: ‘Nor never could the noble Mortimer/Receive so many, and all willingly.’ And in Richard III, he wrote: ‘You may deny that you were not the mean/Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.’ If he lived now, he would most certainly have written, ‘You may deny that you were the mean/ Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.’

“5. Double comparatives and double superlatives. As I wrote in my July 19, 2015 article [titled ‘Response to the Critique of my Critique of Buhari’s Inaugural Speech,’] in modern grammar, it’s taboo to modify an adjective using ‘more’ and the ‘er’ suffix simultaneously, such as ‘more taller.’ That is called the error of double comparatives. It’s also taboo to modify an adjective using ‘most’ and the ‘est’ suffix simultaneously, such as ‘most tallest.’ That’s called the error of double superlatives.

“As Kenneth G. Wilson points out in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, ‘Shakespeare … and other Renaissance writers used double comparison to add vigor, enthusiasm, and emphasis, and so do young children and other unwary speakers of Nonstandard English today, but the eighteenth-century grammarians seem to have prevailed, and one comparison per adjective is all today’s Standard English will allow.’

“Apart from the ‘most unkindest cut of all’ that I mentioned in my article of July 19, several examples can be found in other Shakespearean works. For example, in The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote: ‘And his more braver daughter could control thee.’ In Julius Caesar, he wrote: ‘With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome.’”

What came to be known as "standard" English, from the 19th century on, is, of course, no more than the arbitrary social dialect of the dominant class. That's the Marxist in me talking. Of course, many linguists have pointed to this fact years ago. But the pragmatist in me also sees the utility in having some form of uniform standards of usage, spelling, and grammar to aid mutual intelligibility across vast swathes of the world, especially given English’s emergence as the world’s de facto lingua franca.

 The various dialects of a common language can become mutually unintelligible over time, so a "standard" version of the language in the service of broad communicative inclusivity often helps.

But standards aren't fixed in time and space; they perpetually evolve, and will continue to do so. A language that does not evolve sooner or later dies. That's a universal linguistic truth.

 But this fact is no reason for linguistic anarchy, in my opinion. At any point in time, for purely communicative reasons, we need a set of formal rules to guide usage, at least for formal contexts. These formal rules of usage have no native speakers. We are all learners.

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Dino Melaye Distraction and School Pride

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

Although Senator Dino Melaye is certainly not in the good graces of Aso Rock, the president’s handlers must be thanking Melaye for the week-long media circus he instigated, which gave the president some reprieve.

I am already sick and tired of being sick and tired (apologies to late African-American civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer) of the Dino Melaye ABU graduation controversy. But let me say this one last thing before I filter out Dino Melaye from my discursive radar.

The most gracious thing that can be said about ABU VC Ibrahim Garba's testimony before the Senate Ethics Committee is that it raises more questions than answers. If Melaye indeed graduated from ABU with a Third Class BA degree in Geography in 2000, why was his name missing from the graduation list for that year? Was his name omitted because of clerical oversight? I am aware of several legitimate graduates whose names didn’t make it to the final graduation list. Was that the case for Melaye?  Was the VC misled by his staff? Or did he knowingly lie under oath, which would be perjury? We need answers to these queries to get closure on the issue.

Nonetheless, people who are obsessing over the apparent discrepancy between Melaye's description of his NYSC cohort as "ABU 1999 set" and his putative year of graduation in 2000 fail to realize that because of unceasing ASUU strikes in the 1990s, there was (and still is) a jarring asymmetry between the official numeric labels assigned to academic cohorts and actual years of graduation.

For instance, the numeric label assigned to my graduating cohort at BUK was “1995/1996.” (The graduating cohort ahead of us graduated in 1995, and their official numeric label was “1994/1995.”) Were it not for an ASUU strike, we should have graduated in 1996, but our final session dragged on till early 1997. So, while my official BUK transcript reads "1995/1996" session, my degree certificate has a 1997 date. Technically, members of my cohort belong to the “BUK 1996 set," even though our actual year of graduation is 1997.

I see parallels between my experience and Melaye’s—if he indeed graduated from ABU. Melaye was admitted, I think, in the 1993/1994 session, so the numeric label for his graduating cohort would be 1998/1999--if you account for the lost year at ABU. Plus, NYSC discharge certificates always bear the numeric label of one’s graduating cohort. Although I did my NYSC in 1997, the call-up number in my discharge certificate has “1996” in it. It didn’t mean I “served” before I graduated.

So people who use the chronological asymmetry between the year indicated in Melaye’s NYSC call-up number (1999) and his putative year of graduation (2000) as a basis to impeach the credibility of his claims haven’t paid any attention to the turbulence in the Nigerian university system in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Nobody who graduated from a Nigerian public university from the mid to late 1990s is different from Melaye.

School pride and vainglory
I met Dino Melaye first in, I think, 1999 when I worked with the Weekly Trust Newspaper, then headquartered in Kaduna. He came with a bunch of other students from ABU to our newsroom and asked to be interviewed over something I don’t recall now. He immediately struck me as an insufferably attention-seeking boor. My recollection is that we refused to assign anybody to interview him.

I can’t speak to whether or not he actually graduated from ABU, but I’ve been struck by the frenetic social media chatter that his troubles with the media have inspired. It both conduced to the denigration of ABU by non-ABU graduates and to the activation of defensive institutional pride and self-congratulation by ABU alumni.

Here is my take. I have no problem with ABU’s smug, hyperbolic, and self-congratulatory bumper-sticker slogan that says "An ABU graduate is ahead of you naturally," which got played up a lot in the aftermath of the Melaye debacle. For me, it’s cheeky, good-natured humor. Of course, anyone with even the slightest pretense to education knows that people’s cognitive worth is never measured by the name of the institution they attended. And, as many people have pointed out, there is frankly no difference whatsoever in the quality of education offered by all Nigerian universities.

I have read people talk of the bygone “glories” ABU and other first-generation Nigerian universities. That’s simply not true. There were just as many smart people then as there are now—just like there were as many dumb people then as there are now. It is unreflective chronocentric narcissism that causes people to denigrate the present and valorize a putative glorious past. Have you interacted with 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s Nigerian university graduates? If you haven’t, they are our ministers, senators, lecturers, etc. They are as many gifted people among them as there are obtuse people among them—just like now.

I have interacted with graduates from all generations of Nigerian universities and found no difference in the quality of their minds as a consequence of their age, years of graduation, years of establishment of their schools, etc. Your year of graduation, the school you graduated from, your ethnicity, your region, etc. have little or no influence on your intellectual worth.

Dino Melaye would still be the buffoonish, air-headed thug that he is irrespective of the university he attended—and what year he graduated.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

In 2015, I Told Buhari I’d be His Watchdog, not His Lapdog

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In last week’s column titled “Psychoanalyzing Dishonest, Low-IQ Buhari Apologists,” I quoted a sentence from my April 4, 2015 column titled “After the Euphoria, What President-elect Buhari Needs to Know” to show that I put the president on notice from the get-go that, although I supported him, I would be a critical watchdog, not a fawning lapdog.

Apparently, many people missed the column when it was first published. In response to requests from readers, I’ve decided to republish it this week, almost two years later. It is unedited, as its print version can testify. Read and decide for yourself if what I wrote could ever come from someone who wanted a job from Buhari or who “hates” him. Enjoy:

March 30 was my birthday. Although I don’t celebrate birthdays, people close to me—especially my children and my wife—make it a special day for me. They take me to a dainty restaurant for a nice dinner. But this birthday was different. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep, either.  Although I knew that the balance of forces favored a Buhari win, I was nonetheless gripped by crippling anxieties about the election. I’d feared that Goodluck Jonathan would rig himself back to power and plunge the country into a fratricidal upheaval.

 Even though I live in America and will not be affected in a direct way by what happens in Nigeria, I love Nigeria too much to be unconcerned by what goes on there. I knew that Nigeria would never be able to survive another four years of Goodluck Jonathan’s ineptitude, and the prospect of Jonathan forcing himself back to power by any means terrified me to no end. That was why I stayed up all night monitoring the election on Facebook, Twitter, and Channels TV. My heart stood still several times during the night. Thankfully, my worst fears didn't come to pass.

I was also deeply touched when I discovered that my American students who are enrolled in my Global Journalism class this semester got equally emotionally invested in the election. At least two of them stayed up the night monitoring the results of the election on Channel TV’s livestream. You’re probably wondering why young white Americans would be so invested in an election taking place in a distant place to sacrifice their sleep.

Well, in several discussions in the class, I sparked their interest about Nigeria—and about the elections that just ended. But, most importantly, Goodluck Jonathan has become a known name in America in the last few months for the wrong reasons. The worldwide “Bring Back Our Girls” protest caused several Americans to find out who Nigeria’s president was. What they found out—and say about him—isn’t flattering. First, they think he’s too incompetent to be president of any country. Second, Americans find his name and ever-present fedora hilarious. (There is a popular comedic children’s TV show here called “Good Luck Charlie,” so when President Jonathan’s name is mentioned in the news, they think of the TV show, which causes them to laugh).

In any event, as I wrote on my Facebook timeline, Buhari’s epoch-making electoral triumph in the last presidential election is the best birthday gift I’ve ever received in all my adult life. I’ve been ecstatic since it became apparent that Buhari had won the election. This is undoubtedly a great moment for Nigeria and for Nigeria’s democracy. But after savoring the afterglow of the victory, President-elect Buhari needs to come to terms with several things.

First, as he himself has recognized in his acceptance speech, his honeymoon with Nigerians won’t last too long. In light of the blight and venality that has characterized the past few years—and the enormous, some would say unrealistic, hopes that Nigerians have invested in him to right the wrongs of the past—there is bound to be what sociologists call the crisis of rising expectations. So when Nigerians get impatient with him, he shouldn’t be irritated.

His relationship with the media would be crucial. The media will get under his skin. Columnists like me will excoriate him, not because we hate him, but because we care, and because we know that to perform well and be in touch with the masses of people who elected him, we need to help hold his feet to the fire. When Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” he was acknowledging the importance of the media to the sustenance of democracy.

President Buhari should expect to be scrutinized and criticized and even “attacked” by critical media outfits like the compulsively contrarian Sahara Reporters, which robustly supported him throughout his campaign for the presidency. Recall that the same Sahara Reporters vigorously supported Jonathan against the late Yar’adua’s “cabal.” Before then, it supported Abubakar Atiku against Obasanjo. It will turn against Buhari the moment he officially assumes duties. It’s not personal. Sahara Reporters understands its role as a comforter of the afflicted and an afflicter of the comfortable.

 Many of us share this “adversarial” philosophy of the press and shouldn’t be made to suffer for it. I want to be able to visit Nigeria without being harassed by security forces because I wrote critical articles against the president and his government. That’s one area I give President Goodluck Jonathan some credit. I was the first person to call him “unfathomably clueless” in my recounting of his first American visit when he was acting president. “Clueless” has now become his second name. Yet I have never been harassed in all the times I have visited Nigeria during his presidency.

Where he erred, however, was in choosing vulgar, abusive, ill-bred philistines like Reuben Abati and Doyin Okupe as his mediators with the Nigerian public. Buhari should never make that mistake. He should make it clear to whoever he appoints as his intercessors with the public that their role is to explain the president’s policies to the people, not to insult and denigrate critics of government. 
Employing Abati- and Okupe-like media reps is the fastest way to deplete any president’s goodwill.

Lastly, Buhari should resist the temptation of falling into the trap of provincialism. He won an unprecedentedly national mandate. His “kitchen cabinet” should reflect this.

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