Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Grammar and Vocabulary of “Fuel Subsidy Removal”

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Epochal changes in society can, and often do, inspire new vogue vocabularies and expressive styles. The social turbulence that the sudden increase in the pump price of petrol stirred in Nigeria activated many hitherto passive vocabularies and brought to the surface many distinctive usage patterns in Nigerian English. I chronicle a few of them below.

1. “Subsidy.” Perhaps the biggest linguistic gain of the petrol price hike embroilment of the last few weeks is the promotion of the term “subsidy” to the front burner of the linguistic consciousness of Nigerians of all social classes. Before now “subsidy” was a passive terminology that was used only by the highly educated stratum of the Nigerian society. Now almost every Nigerian knows what it means.

A clear marker of the integration of this otherwise “big,” formal word into the everyday speech of Nigerians is its continuously creative vernacularization and humorous contortions.  For example, a protester in Kano inscribed the following words on the back of his T-shirt: “Subsidy is my soul.” This simple yet pithy catchphrase captures the depth of the helplessness and angst of the Nigerian masses in the face of government’s overt economic hostilities against them. Similarly, because the angry protests that accompanied government’s action led to many deaths in such cities as Ilorin, Lagos, and Kano, Nigerians coined the term “subsidie” to capture the slaughterous character of the moment.

Interestingly, when the word “subsidy” first entered the vocabulary of the English language from about 1100 to 1450 by way of Norman French ( i.e., the language of the French men who conquered England in 1066 in the Battle of Hastings and colonized it for over 300 years), it was spelled as “subsidie,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of English.  The word is derived from the Latin “subsidium,” which literally means “assistance.”

Music of lamentation and anger over the misery that the petrol price increase has visited on ordinary Nigerians is now called “subsidy blues.” YouTube is suffused with scores of “subsidy blues” from upstart Lagos musicians.

“Subsidy” has even made inroads into the lexis and style of Nigeria’s native languages. There was, for instance, a popular social media joke during the protests that said a Yoruba couple had a son during the petrol price hike crisis and decided to name him “Subsideen” to mark the circumstances of his birth. This is obviously a play on such names as Muyideen, Sharafadeen, Shamsudeen, Tajudeen, etc., which Yoruba Muslims have a particular fondness for. The female version of Subsideen is “Subsidat,” also a play on such popular female Muslim names as Rashidat, Muyibat, Habibat, etc.

 There is another joke about an Igbo man whose wife gave birth to a son during the “subsidy crisis” and who chose to name the son “Chibusubsidim,” which stands for “God is my subsidy.” Other Engligbo ( i.e., English with Igbo inflections) “subsidized names” (as one Nigerian blogger creatively called it) are Chukwubusubsidim (a male name, which also means “God is my subsidy”); Nkechisubsidilanyi ( a female name that translates as “one that God has subsidized for us”); Chinwesubsidi (a female name that translates as “God owns all subsidies”); Subsidibuifeoma (a female name that translates as “subsidy is good”); Chukwuemekasubsidi ( a male name that translates as “Thank you Lord for the subsidy”); Chinasubsidisikasi ( a unisex name that stands for “God is the ultimate subsidizer”); Chukwukasubsidi ( a unisex name that means “God is mightier than subsidy”); Nkesubsidinye (Engligbo for “born as a result of subsidy”); and Ikesubsidi  (a male name that means “the power of subsidy”).

All these names are creatively humorous lexical and semantic contortions of such popular Igbo names as Chibuzo, Chukwuemeka, Ifeoma, Nkechi, Chinwezu, etc.

The Ibibio version of the “subsidy” jokes said a child born in Akwa Ibom State during the petrol subsidy removal crisis was named “Subsi-obong.” Another was named Subsi-abasi. Obong means chief or king in Ibibio. Abassi means God. 

It was also said that during the mass protests the commonest form of greeting in the Yoruba states of Lagos, Oyo, Osun, Ekiti, and Ondo was “eku subsidi” in mimicry of such formulaic Yoruba greetings as “eku ise” (for someone who is working), “eku faji” (for people in a conversation), etc.

2. “Fuel.” For some reason, the word “petrol” seems to be receding from the active idiolect of Nigerians. It is being replaced with “fuel”—in more ways than has ever been the case before. In both American and British English, fuel is not synonymous with petrol. Among its many meanings, fuel is the umbrella term for all substances that produce energy such as coal, petrol (which Americans call gasoline or gas for short), kerosene, diesel, etc. So, technically, the Nigerian government didn’t remove subsidy on fuel on January 1; it only removed subsidy on petrol.

 But I have come to accept “fuel” as Nigerian English’s synonymous term for petrol or gasoline. When I write for a Nigerian audience I too habitually—and intentionally— interchange the two terms. Curiously, in their coverage of the Occupy Nigeria protests, even the American and British news media appeared to have accepted the Nigerian usage of “fuel,” at least in their headlines. This is perhaps because they assumed that the price hike also involved products like kerosene and diesel.

3. “Premium Motor Spirit (PMS).” When Nigerian newspapers don’t call petrol “fuel,” they call it “premium motor spirit.” No other variety of English in the world calls petrol by that name. None of my American friends, for instance, had the slightest hint what the term meant when I asked them if they ever encountered it. So I concluded that it probably came to Nigerian (media) English by way of British English.

It turns out that the term has no currency even in British English. My research showed that from the late 1800s up to the late 1930s, business rivals of Carless, Capel & Leonard (now renamed Petrochem Carless Ltd), one of Britain’s first oil companies (which also invented the term “petrol”) chose to differentiate their product from Carless, Capel & Leonard's "petrol" by calling it “motor spirit.” But when “petrol” became a generic term by the 1930s “motor spirit” went out of circulation. It’s amazing that our journalists still use this long-dead British archaism in their reportage.

4. “Cabals.” This became a part of the active idiolect of Nigerians during the dying days of the Umar Musa Yar’adua administration when a renegade group within the administration alleged that the president had been held hostage by a “cabal.” Now Nigerians talk of the “oil cabals” that is reputedly the beneficiary of government’s multi-billion-dollar oil subsidy payments. This is all creative, except that cabal can’t be pluralized when we are talking about just one conspiratorial clique of power and influence peddlers in the oil industry. The plural form of cabal is legitimate only when we are talking about different cabals, such as the Yar’adua cabal, the Jonathan cabal, and the oil industry cabal.

5. “Palliative.” Nigerian government officials have said repeatedly that they would put in place “palliative measures” to help working-class Nigerians cope with the dramatic increase in the cost of living that has attended the sharp increase in the pump price of petrol. But a palliative, properly conceived, only temporarily relieves pains without curing the cause of the pain. That means government will relieve the grief it afflicted on the people only in the short run and thereafter leave the people to wallow in their agony and distress forever. It is obvious that this is not what the government wants to be understood as saying, although that is indeed what they have in mind. Here is a classic case of incompetent grasp of grammar betraying the real motives of people in power.

Politics of Grammar Column (46 articles on grammar)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Re: Labor’s Treachery Against the “Occupy Nigeria” Revolt

What follows is a sample of the messages I received from readers in response to the above article. Some of the messages were sent to my  email address. Others were posted on my Facebook page, and yet others were left on my blog. I encourage people who leave comments on my blog to please identify their names. As always, the views expressed here are those of the authors’, not mine.

 I'm quite delighted with the article you wrote on labor's betrayal of the masses. It goes to show that a lot people who genuinely have the love of this country at heart are watching.
Dayo Shogbola, Lagos

That was a beautiful essay. But in light of recent events in KANO, do you still own the seemingly admirable Muslim-Christian "covenant"?
Felix Ekechi, Ohio, USA

Thank you Farooq! I am Italian. I am following occupy Nigeria and the activities of the social networks and I found your work. Very interesting. I love your work!! Please, keep writing for all of us.
Annalisa Buttucci, Italy

Thank you for yet another insightful treatise. I quite share your optimism about the awakening of the Nigerian masses. This awakening is taking roots, thanks to the new means of mass social intercourse brought about by technology. I believe also that this episode has given the masses a taste of the tremendous power they possess in shaping their destiny. Let's all keep our fingers crossed.
M.B. Usman, Abuja

I completely agree with you. With a mentor like Adams Oshi Omo Ole (Yoruba words for “foolish son of a thief”) Omar couldn't have done better. I told Bamidele Aturu that Omar couldn’t be trusted, but all he could say was that he is an honest man. For all who trusted him I hope they are now wiser. As for the number one public enemy, Adams, your day of reckoning is at hand. Shame on you, Mr Turncoat, brother of Judas Iscariot!

You said nothing but the truth, sir. It’s a pity that very few can withstand the temptation of luxury in Nigeria.
Ameenu Abdulrashid, Kaduna

 Nigerians are getting wiser, gathering momentum and boldness. One day, and it will be very soon, our revolt will be beyond the labour unions and will consume them. Thank you for another captivating eye-opener.
Tanimu Umar, Gombe

A very insightful piece, I must say. Well scripted, too. It burns my heart to know that we have so many traitors and moles around us. Up until the unilateral price fixed by the president, Labour kept saying, “65 naira or nothing.”  Then out of the blues they called off the strike. May omar and Esele's generation pay for this treacherous act towards the Nigerian masses. And when Occupy Nigeria does erupt again I pray it consumes them alongside our evil rulers (not leaders)
Anonymous comment on my blog

I agree with you .The opportunity we had had been quashed. The Occupy Nigeria movement was compromised by the so-called labor leaders. They are not committed at all. Jonathan and Ngozi threw some Naira in the air at them and the whole shouting disappeared into thin air even before the negotiation commenced.  They buckled and did not even try to put up a fight.  Shame on them! 
Sanya Arigbede, Lagos

Well done! That graphically captured the betrayal, the human and non-human factors that led to the disastrous but enduring occupation, but we will soon avenge. Nigeria won't disintegrate. True patriots will rescue her drowning raft!
Makinde Olewale Oyewunmi, Lagos
I cannot agree more with your description of Oshiomhole. Your analysis of the latest labour betrayal is also dead right. I'm happy there are others like you who see these things the way I see them as well.
Kalu Akaraka Friday, Enugu

A good digestive piece for a conscious mind! Well, I for one have never believed that NLC/TUC would achieve anything tangible for the masses. Looking at the timeline: there was never a moment in the recent past when they've successfully fought and won any labour battle. The last minimum wage strike is still fresh in our minds. To date, the government is yet to implement it. My fear is that the NLC is rather misusing the all-powerful weapon of STRIKE in the arsenal of any labour movement.  When the masses lose confidence in them, as it is now the case, they're useless. Oshiomhole traded with the masses and became a politician today. We shall see with the rest.
Anonymous comment on my blog.

I'm a student of electrical/electronic engineering at Obafemi Awolowo University,  Ile-Ife. I never like to miss your articles in Weekly Trust even if I never get to buy it ( there is no Daily Trust in Ife) so I read the online version of Weekly Trust just for your articles. Your articles are always well-researched and incisive! May Allah bless you.
Kazeem Yusuf (

I love the piece you wrote about the extinguished revolution. More grease to your elbow. Please shout it more for us with your literary prowess.

NLC and TUC may have succeeded in deceiving Nigerians by fraudulently romancing with the FG in direct opposite of the will of Nigerians, but for sure with the aid of such articles like Kperogi's the 'Occupy Nigeria' movement will bounce back and if they are able to render our peaceful protest irrelevant, they will surely risk violent protests. May Allah provide you wisdom to do more.
Seko Jubril Gure, Abuja

Another Kperogi masterpiece! You know, when a burning fire is not quenched well, the flame may go but it still smolders. When the next anger of Nigerians erupts, it will be a volcano with lava that will consume whosoever dares it. Enough is enough!
Aminu Tukur, Abuja

This merely shows that all Nigerians are cowards, fools, or 419-ners. You can't trust and do anything good with anyone of them. But no problems. The next time I get the chance to revolt, I'll revolt alone and, believe me, I'll be remembered in the history of Nigeria.
Jackson Adegbenro, Ibadan

This treacherous deceit from the NLC and TUC is a very important lesson we would never forget in the history of our struggle against bad governance. They only managed to exterminate the strike action and not our collective determination to liberate ourselves from these tyrants.  The struggle continues. We are all boiling from within, and our next boil off will surely halt bad governance and give way to the Nigeria of our dream.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Labor’s Treachery against the “Occupy Nigeria” Revolt

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

There is no doubt that the last unprompted mass revolt against President Goodluck Jonathan’s cold-blooded economic war on Nigeria’s middle- and working-class families was a damp squib, as the British call something that turns out to be a disappointment after good expectations.

 Here was a splendidly promising, spontaneous, unscripted, and unexampled mass insurrection against an evil ruling class. Its promise—and initial success—filled us all with renewed faith and enthusiasm for our fatherland.  For the first time in Nigeria’s history, a broad scope of Nigerians across our traditional primordial fissures of religion, region, ethnicity, etc. united in the face of a common threat from a greedy, unimaginative, and unconscionable elite that is dedicated to exterminating the masses of our people piecemeal. There is no parallel for that historic coalition of the oppressed in Nigeria.

Then Nigeria’s thoroughly compromised labor movement hijacked the revolt, lulled the people into a false sense of solidarity, and finally extinguished the revolutionary fire that was burning down the foundations of Nigeria’s ruling elite.

The Nigerian Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress didn’t join the mass protests until at least three days after the fact. They were obviously drafted by President Jonathan and his agents to help contain, and if possible snuff out, the conflagration that was going to consume them.

From the very start, I privately expressed concerns that the Nigerian Labor Congress would infiltrate and dilute the people’s revolt. My friend, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, who is president of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Center, thought I was being overly suspicious. He said he could vouch for the credibility of NLC president Abdulwaheed Omar. I wasn’t convinced. I told him his trust would be betrayed. I didn’t say that because I had oracular powers. I don’t. But I had this steadily escalating sense of premonition that the labor leaders would commandeer and crush the spontaneous mass revolt from within. And they did.
Finanice Minister Ngozi Okonjo_Iweala congratulates NLC president Abdulwaheed Omar and his TUC counterpart for a job well-done.
 The signs were evident for anyone with even the wispiest perceptual capacities to see. First, the current leaders of the NLC are unapologetic protégés of Adams Oshiomhole, the most cunningly duplicitous labor leader Nigeria has ever produced—but who for a long time enjoyed an unearned and undeserved reputation as a dogged and forthright defender of the Nigerian masses, a reputation he fraudulently exploited to become governor of Edo State. 

Second, Adams Oshiomhole, NLC’s puppeteer, is an unapologetic advocate of petrol price hike—as he has always been, although he had done a great job of pretending to be for the people. It has now come to light that all the strikes he led against previous petrol price increases were all grand, elaborate, and carefully choreographed performances. Since NLC’s current leaders are his puppets, they couldn’t possibly perform anything independent of their controller.

 Third, in the course of the mass revolt, a government document I saw showed that the NLC, in fact, had given its imprimatur to government’s plans to increase the pump price of petrol (which is now cleverly masked as “fuel subsidy removal”) many months back. So labor had been in cahoots with the government to fleece the masses all along. All their pretensions to the contrary were mere theater. 

NLC and TUC leaders’ hijacking, neutralizing, and extinguishing of the people’s revolt reminds me of Malcolm X’s witty dramatization of how the popular revolt of black Americans against racism in the 1960s was contained by the government through “civil rights leaders.”  These civil rights leaders weren’t originally part of the “March on Washington” during which Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

 Like the “Occupy Nigeria” movement, it was a spontaneous grassroots revolt that took the American black bourgeoisie by surprise. The government was scared to death that a “black steamroller was going to come down on the capital,” as Malcolm X memorably captured it. 

Then the government quickly called the black civil rights leaders of the time and told them to stop it. "Boss, I can't stop it, because I didn't start it. I'm not even in it, much less the head of it," Malcolm said in an imaginary conversation he made up between the conniving black bourgeoisie and the John F. Kennedy administration. Malcolm said this during a December 10, 1963 speech he delivered in Detroit, Michigan, titled “Message to the Grassroots” .

 When the black bourgeoisie said they were helpless before this black steamroller, Malcolm again made up a response that the government gave to the compromised black civil rights leaders: “I'll put you at the head of it. I'll endorse it. I'll welcome it. I'll help it. I'll join it.”

There are eerie analogues between the events Malcolm X brilliantly dramatized, some would say over-dramatized, in 1960s America and what happened in Nigeria last week. The “Occupy Nigeria” mass revolt took both the Jonathan government and the morally bankrupt labor aristocrats at the NLC and the TUC by surprise. When government told them to stop the revolt, they probably said, like the black bourgeoisie in 1960s America, they couldn’t stop what they didn’t start. So the government put them “at the head of it,” to use Malcolm’s words. It did this by choosing to “negotiate” with labor, the same labor that was never a part of the revolt, that joined the revolt three days after it had started. 

Soon enough, the masses of the people began to look up to NLC and TUC leaders as the “leaders” of the revolt. Then they “became” the revolt. They took it over. As they took it over, they took control of its rhythm, form, compass, and denouement. And they are being rewarded for their skillful performance. I read that TUC president Peter Esele has been rewarded with membership into the Special Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) Task Force. That’s such a swift compensation for treachery!

But we shouldn’t despair. The leaderless, unstructured, spur-of-the-moment, if for now unsuccessful, mass upheaval that we saw in the past few days has restored many people’s optimism about Nigeria’s future in more ways than one. First, it has disproved the time-honored national myth that Nigerians can never unite over anything other than football. 

Second, for the first time in Nigeria’s 51 years of existence, Muslims and Christians signed a covenant to live in peace in Kano, the hotbed of sanguinary religious convulsions. Pictures of Christians guarding Muslims while they prayed and of Muslims reciprocating the gesture by visiting churches and assuring Christians of protection and fraternal solidarity warmed my heart beyond measure.

Lastly, this battle isn’t over yet.  The suicidal and clueless Nigerian elite are unlikely to relent in their cowardly and egomaniacal violations of the poor. When the combustion does erupt again, it would take a decidedly different course. Labor leaders would no longer be able to stop what they didn’t start. A wise government would learn from this, retrace its steps, and respect the will and wishes of the people it claims to govern. But is any Nigerian government wise?

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why Ordinary Americans are also Angry with Goodluck Jonathan

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
On Monday January 9, my 7-year-old daughter and I joined many Americans from the “Occupy Atlanta” movement or, as they like to call themselves, “Atlanta’s 99 percent,” to protest against President Goodluck Jonathan’s revoltingly conscienceless war on the poor though his thoughtless and ill-conceived hike in petrol prices. 

We converged at the Nigerian Consulate in Atlanta in symbolic solidarity with the admirably dauntless Nigerian people at home who have chosen to bracket their differences and unite in defense of their common humanity against a notoriously malevolent and incompetent government.

Atlanta is just one of several cities where ordinary Americans of all races came out forcefully and passionately to support Nigerians against this embarrassingly inept, IMF/World Bank-controlled government. Across major cities in America, scores of Americans are joining Nigerians in America in demonstrations against the most usurious petrol price hike in Nigeria’s entire history.

But why would Americans who live thousands of miles away from Nigeria and who have a reputation for being provincial and indifferent to world events that have no direct consequence on their lives be interested in what goes on in our country?

There are three reasons. First, the Internet, especially social media, has annihilated the boundaries of time and space in hitherto unthought-of ways. A lot of Americans became aware of the desperate conditions of the Nigerian people at home not through their legacy, mainline news media, but through online social networks and citizen blogs. 

I take delight in saying that my October 22, 2011 article titled “Fuel Subsidy Removal: Time to ‘Occupy’ Nigeria!” and a sequel titled “Biggest Scandal in Oil Subsidy Removal Fraud” were major catalysts in this awakening. The articles went viral on the Internet, attracted an unprecedented traffic to my blog, and caused scores of inquiries to be directed at me Of course, as I said on my Facebook page, I don't claim any credit for the “Occupy Nigeria” movement. I think its emergence is the product of a spontaneous outpouring of righteous anger against a smothering and insensitive government policy. Of course, several other Nigerians also wrote many thoughtful articles and analyses on the cruelty, fraud, and illogic of the Jonathan government’s inhuman petrol price hike. These disparate initiatives all coalesced to form a compelling social media narrative of what is going in Nigeria. 

The second reason ordinary Americans identify with the current struggles of the Nigerian people is that many of them were intensely scandalized to learn that Nigerians, 80 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, were paying more for petrol than they who live in the world’s wealthiest nation. The lowest paid worker in America receives the equivalent of 185,00 naira per month. Nigeria’s current minimum wage of 7,500 naira translates into $47 dollars a month. If the Jonathan government honors its promise to increase the minimum wage to 18,000 naira, that would translate into $112 per month. 

A softhearted American friend of mine who saw this statistic wept profusely a few days ago. “That’s just not fair!” she cried. “Someone with a 47-dollar-a-month wage pays $3.6 for a gallon of gas while a minimum wage worker in Georgia who receives nearly $8 an hour pays $2.99 for the same? That’s just wrong on so many levels!”

She would probably have literally cried her heart out if she knew that the Nigerian government actually pays millions of dollars to an avaricious cabal of primitive capitalist vultures to import toxic, low-grade refined petrol into the country. As I said in a previous article, the petrol price comparison between Nigeria and the United States— and other countries— is, in fact, grossly inaccurate because all of the petrol that is imported to Nigeria is so low-grade that it’s a criminal offense to use it in America, Europe, and other parts of the world.

Thirdly, and most importantly, contrary to the intentional lies being hawked by the economic policy thugs of the Jonathan administration, the American government heavily SUBSIDIZES the fuel consumption of its citizen. Most responsible, socially sensitive governments do. 

According to a TIME Magazine article of January 3, America’s 50 states collectively spend $10 billion a year to subsidize the fuel consumption of their citizens. In America, with all its vast material prosperity, the surest way for any government to collapse irretrievably is to encourage any policy that causes the price of petrol to go up. As TIME put it beautifully, “One of the fastest ways to alienate voters is to be seen supporting anything that intensifies pain in the pump.”
American state governments subsidize petrol prices for their citizens through low taxes on their oil companies. During the 2008 presidential election, for instance, Hilary Clinton and John McCain, in fact, advocated a “gas tax holiday” regime. That meant oil companies would not be taxed at all for an extended period so that gas prices would come down by about 18.4 cents a gallon for petrol and about 24.4 cents for diesel.

According to TIME, “politicians’ refusal to increase gas taxes in line with inflation and construction costs starves needed infrastructure of funding.” Sounds familiar? The perennial reason our governments in Nigeria advance to increase fuel prices is that the government needs money for “infrastructural development,” which by the way is a fat lie. (They should be honest for once and admit that they need more money to steal). But the point is that no responsible government starves its people to death because it wants to build infrastructure. Only the living use infrastructure.

There is an instructive example in the Midwestern state of Iowa of how a caring government, faced with a cash crunch, responded to recommendations for an increase in petrol prices to raise money. I will reproduce parts of the story, which is from TIME, without authorial intervention:

“In Iowa, which hasn’t raised its tax in 22 years, a citizen advisory panel recommended an 8 cent to 10 cent bump per gallon in November. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad quickly took any increase off the table, instead asking his Department of Transportation to look for savings.

“‘Everyone realizes that we need more funding for roads and bridges,’ said Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Branstad. ‘I don’t think the legislature was especially willing to put a burden on Iowa’s tax payers at this time.’”

So an American state was in dire need of money to fund projects that would benefit the people and a panel made up of professionals not affiliated with the government recommended that the government increase the pump price of petrol to raise cash. 

What did the government do? It said no. It said increasing petrol prices by just 8 or 10 percent would impose an unbearable burden on its citizens. It then said the state should raise money by SAVING. And this is a state in the wealthiest country on earth. Do you see any parallels here with Nigeria?

Well, that’s why every American who is familiar with what is happening in Nigeria is deeply angry with Jonathan on our behalf. So don’t give up, Nigerians. The whole world is watching you, supporting you, and celebrating your extraordinary gallantry!

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Nigeria’s Unique Telephonic Vocabulary

By Farooq A. Kperogi

With the exponential growth and flowering of mobile telephony in Nigeria, a corpus of uniquely Nigerian telephonic phraseology is emerging. What follows is not intended to be understood as grammatical errors. A word or phrase isn’t a grammatical error simply because its usage deviates from the norms of native-speaker varieties. On the contrary, it may indicate linguistic creativity. But it helps to know the communicative limitations of uniquely local phrases for international communication.

1. “Toss” or “toos.” This is Nigerian English’s first telephonic vocabulary. It is now outdated. It’s short for “temporarily out of service”— a voice prompt that Nigeria’s notoriously incompetent state-run NITEL (Nigerian Telecommunications) invented for telephone lines that were suspended for failure to pay monthly service bills. Although the initials of the words that make up the phrase are “toos,” Nigerians preferred “toss,” perhaps because it sounded more English than “toos.” Or maybe it was because a word with that spelling already exists in the English language. Nigerians later invented creative phrases around the term, such as “my line is on toss,” “my line has been tossed,” etc. Interestingly, one of the meanings of “toss” in English is to throw or cast away, which is somewhat similar in effect to what happens when a phone subscriber’s line is suspended.

2. “Flash.” I have written several articles on this word which, in Nigerian English, means to drop a call intentionally before the intended recipient picks it up. The closest approximation of this term in native varieties of English, especially in American English, is “missed call,” that is, intentionally dropped calls.
In the Third World, intentionally missed calls are used to communicate several messages. In Nigeria, for instance, it can mean “I have no minutes in my phone; please call me back,” or “Hi. This is just to let you know I’m thinking about you,” or “I’m ready. Come pick me up.” It can also function as a code between people, such as when somebody says, “When I ‘flash’ you, it means he is here.” 

In the Philippines, “flashing” is called “miskol.” It’s formed from “missed call” and functions both as a noun and as a verb (as in: “That was a miskol”; “I will miskol you”). It won the “word of the year” in the country in 2007. 

In England and Australia it’s called “prank,” (as in: “I don’t have your phone number; can you prank me?” Or “That wasn’t a real call; it was a prank”). In the U.S. it’s called “drop call” (used both as a verb and as a noun, although it’s a rare urban slang term). In Rwanda it’s called a “beep,” and it’s also used both as a verb and as a noun. See my previous articles titled “In Defense of Flashing and other Nigerianisms” and “Top Hilarious Differences between American and Nigerian English” for other examples.

3. “Handset.” This is the Nigerian English word for what speakers of the dominant varieties of English simply call a phone. In popular usage in both the US and the UK, a handset doesn’t refer to a mobile phone receiver; it usually refers to the detachable part of a landline telephone that is held up to speak into and listen to. Americans also call it “French telephone.” In British and American English, “handset” can also refer to a handheld controller for any piece of electronic equipment such as a remote control for TV, a walkie-talkie, or a video recorder.
This is what native speakers call a "handset"
 I recall reading former Nigerian presidential spokesman Segun Adeniyi’s experience in America about this. He wrote that no one understood him when he said he had misplaced his “handset.” After a lot of explanation, he said, someone vaguely understood what he meant and asked, “you mean your phone?” To be sure, technically, a mobile phone receiver is also a handset; it’s just that native speakers of English hardly call it by that name in informal, conversational contexts.

4. “Call off.” Many Nigerians use this phrase where speakers of British and American English would use “hang up.” This arises from a very literal understanding of the phrase: When you dial people’s numbers, you call them, and when you cut the call you “call off.” But “call off” is an idiom and idioms, by definition, are expressions whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the individual words that make them up. “Call off” chiefly means to cancel something altogether or to postpone it indefinitely. Example: The Academic Staff Union of Universities will call off its strike tomorrow. “Call of” has no connection with telephony, but Femi Kusa, a former Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian, wrote in a recent article that a reporter called him and “called off.”

5. “Engaged.” This word for what Americans call “busy” isn’t uniquely Nigerian. It is the preferred British English word to indicate that a telephone line is unavailable because it is already in use. Thus, “engaged tone” or “engaged signal” is the sound you get when you dial a number that is “engaged.” The first time I told an American that I called his number and it was “engaged” there was a communication breakdown. If I had said it was “busy” or that I got a “busy tone” he would have understood me immediately.

6. “Network problems.” This is the phrase Nigerians use when there is a high incidence of what native English speakers call “dropped calls.” Where Americans and Britons would say “the signal (strength) is weak,” or “reception is poor,” or they are “experiencing access failure,” Nigerians say “the network is poor” or “there are network problems.” Interestingly, “network problems” is now becoming a catch-all phrase for all kinds of technological failures outside of telephony. For example, a friend recently told me he didn’t respond to my email on time because of “network problems” with his Internet!  Synonymous expressions for “network problems” are “service problems” or simply “service,” especially in Nigerian Pidgin English. 

7. “Interconnectivity.” This is not an everyday word in native varieties of English, but it is in contemporary Nigerian English. It is used to denote poor signal exchange between Nigeria’s wireless phone service providers. Even uneducated Nigerians habitually talk about “interconnectivity problems” between, for instance, MTN and Glo. That word would make no sense to most people in the UK and the US for three reasons: First, the idea that two phone companies can’t exchange signals is beyond their experiential repertoire. Second, that word is too big, too stilted, and too pretentious for informal, conversational purposes. Third, the word is never used in connection with telephony. But I think it speaks to the linguistic creativity of Nigerians that they have “hijacked” this word and “force-fed” it with extraneous semantic properties in the service of expressing a phenomenon that is unique to their telephonic experiences. There is absolutely no reason to discourage its use in this context.

8. “Killer numbers.” From about the midpoint of 2011, maybe earlier, several hoaxes emerged in Nigeria that claimed that answering certain mysterious phone numbers could result in the instant death or paralysis of the receiver. The Nigerian press dubbed such numbers “killer numbers.” The phrase is now integrated into the everyday speech of a broad spectrum of superstitious Nigerians because the hoaxes have endured to this day. Native speakers of English will find this phrase puzzlingly incomprehensible.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Boko Haram as an Empty Signifier

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Semioticians (i.e., people who study the function and meaning of signs and symbols) deploy the term “empty signifier” (also called “floating signifier”) to denote things or concepts that have no fixed, stable meaning; that have vastly variable interpretive renditions; or that “may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean,” to quote Jeffrey Mehlman who wrote an influential essay on the subject in 1972.

The original Boko Haram isn’t exactly an empty signifier in the classical conception of the term since it has an identifiable ideological character (antipathy to Western modernity, etc.), a locational identity (northeast Nigeria), and a recognizable operational modality (violence against people who oppose its wacky ideology).

However, over the past few months, the perceptual consensus about the group in the popular imagination has mutated radically. For many mainstream northern Nigerian Muslims, Boko Haram initially just meant an embarrassing lunatic fringe that would sooner or later dissipate. Over time, however, the term came to be understood as a scurrilous linguistic marker deployed by southern Nigerian Christians to describe all northern Nigerian Muslims. As a result, many northern Muslims who truly detest the ideology and operational modalities of Boko Haram have been pushed to the uncomfortable situation of tacitly defending the group. But in reality they’re merely defending their northern Nigerian Muslim identity that is now being unfairly linked with Boko Haram.

 For many southern Christians, Boko Haram initially meant nothing. But later came to represent this omnipresent monster of violence that wants to wipe out Christians from the surface of the earth. Over time, the term became a stand-in for northern Nigerian Muslims. On Facebook, Twitter, and other Internet deliberative arenas, Boko Haram has become the shorthand for northern Nigerian Muslims.
For Jonathan administration officials, Boko Haram is this shadowy, sinister group formed by resentful northern Muslim politicians as a bargaining chip to win concessions from the reigning government, although the group’s emergence predated Jonathan’s ascendancy to the presidency by at least 8 years.

For international observers, especially in the West, Boko Haram is al Qaeda’s representative in Nigeria that could target Western interests in Africa. It is divorced from Nigeria’s local politics.

These characterizations are, of course, broad strokes that ignore many subtleties. For instance, it is not every Christian that invariably associates Boko Haram with all northern Muslims. And many northern Nigerian Muslims don’t feel compelled to defend Boko Haram in order to protect themselves from stereotypical generalizations.

But it can’t be denied that the current popular conceptions of Boko Haram are not exactly consistent with the original identity of the group. Boko Haram has now transmogrified into a catch-all devil term for any and every violent deed in (northern) Nigeria. When robbers dress in stereotypical northern Nigerian Muslim robes and utter “Allahu Akbar!” before dispossessing their victims, they are “Boko Haram” members. Any church that goes up in flames in any part of Nigeria is invariably attributed to Boko Haram. The Christian man who was caught attempting to burn a church in President Jonathan’s home state of Bayelsa while dressed in traditional northern Nigerian attires would have been dubbed a Boko Haram member had he succeeded.

(Some months back, a lady identified as Lydia Johnson was stopped dead in her tracks while attempting to set a church ablaze in Bauchi. Not long after that, seven men who were neither northerners nor Muslims were arrested by law enforcement agents for posing as Boko Haram members and threatening, through text messages, to bomb prominent politicians and Western embassies in Nigeria.)

Boko Haram members, like other murderously wacky fringe groups, are enjoying the over-sized attention they are getting from everywhere. But many other people who are not even remotely associated with them are helping them, too. Minutes after every tragedy, several “Boko Haram” representatives always claim responsibility. (Compare this to what happened in Norway: an attention-seeking Middle Eastern terrorist group had claimed responsibility for the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks until it came to light that a Norwegian citizen by the name of Anders Behring Breivik was responsible for it.)

The latest appropriation of Boko Haram is the alleged email the group sent to media houses giving an ultimatum to Christians in the north to leave the region. From my point of view, it is implausible that such a directive would emanate from the “original” Boko Haram for two reasons.

One, Boko Haram primarily operates in the northeastern states of Borno and Yobe, and these states have a robust indigenous Christian population. Some people estimate that as much as 30 percent of the populations of these states are indigenous Christians. I won’t be shocked if some Boko Haram members have distant relations who are Christians. How plausible is it for a group located in such states to ask its indigenous Christian population to relocate to the south? The notion of a wholly Muslim north is a fallacy that gets repeated many times by people who have no clue about the complex religio-cultural architecture of the region.

Second, when Boko Haram emerged in 2002, it wasn’t violent. It was merely a ludicrously crazed group that derided Western education, venerated its leader as God’s divine representative on earth (which is blasphemous in mainstream Islam), preached for the enthronement of its version of Islamic rule in Borno and Yobe, and ridiculed other Muslims who scoffed at its eccentric beliefs.

Then in 2009, the Yar’Adua government sent law enforcement agents to raid the group’s headquarters because its members were allegedly stockpiling arms in readiness for a violent confrontation with Muslims who disdain their beliefs. Scores of the group’s members and leaders were murdered in cold blood without due process. It was after this brutal suppression that the group became violent. Its violence was initially directed only at law enforcement agents and Muslim scholars who openly criticized them. It’s difficult to account for their transmutation into a Christian-hating group.
Many people believe the Jonathan administration and the “new Boko Haram” may be one and the same thing. In this moment of extraordinary unity in adversity that the senseless hike in petrol prices has activated in Nigeria, the government has a compelling reason to keep the people divided and distracted. And what better way to do it than to exploit Nigeria’s traditional fissures: pit Muslims against Christians and southerners against northerners.

I am not completely sold on this theory. Boko Haram does exist. And its capacity for evil is boundless. There are also despicably homicidal thugs in Muslim garbs whose thirst for innocent non-Muslim blood cannot be denied. I have written about and condemned these groups on this page many times in the past (see related articles below).

 But a government that arrested an alleged Boko Haram leader but gave him a slap-in-the-wrist jail term at a comfortable, secluded location outside Nigeria’s prison system after an unusually speedy and secretive trial, that tells its citizens to learn to live with the burden of perpetual violence and deaths, that declares a state of emergency in selected parts of some states in the country only as a smokescreen to jerk up petrol prices, that has earmarked an insanely and unprecedentedly gargantuan proportion of the national budget to “security,” and that is gripped by a monomaniacal obsession to visit horrendous misery on ordinary Nigerians at any cost in obeisance to IMF/World Bank directives is capable of anything.

Fortunately, Nigerians have risen superior to the distraction. There is no greater proof of this—and of the floating nature of the Boko Haram signifier— than the popular protest slogan in the demonstrations across the country that says “Goodluck Jonathan is a Boko Haram.” How apt!

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