"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: May 2014

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Journalism is Dying a Slow Death in Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

As a journalism teacher and scholar (and a former journalist), I’m deeply pained by what seems to me the progressive descent of Nigerian journalism to the low-water marks of incuriousness, credulity, and vacuity. The past few weeks have been particularly too painful to bear.

First, in the wake of the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State, more than a month ago, no Nigerian news organization, to my knowledge, sent reporters to Chibok until after foreign news organizations showed them the way. Nigerians newspapers appeared to be only interested in uncritically reporting on the pathetic buck-passing between the federal government and the Borno State government. 

But that’s even a more tolerable professional indiscretion than the Nigerian news media’s tragic surrender to schoolboyish social media chatter. At least three events bear this out.

In a rambling, badly written May 10, 2014 cover story titled, “Chibok:American Marines locate abducted girls in Sambisa forest,” Saturday Vanguard reported that US marines not only identified the exact location where the abducted school girls were held hostage; it also arrested a Boko Haram kingpin who masterminded the abduction. The “report,” which has now been deleted from the paper's site, is worth reproducing in its embarrassing detail:

“The sources told Saturday Vanguard in Abuja that members of the United States Marines who are already in Maiduguri following the promise by President Barak Obama to assist Nigeria in rescuing the abducted girls, located the girls inside the forest, using some Satellite equipment which combed the forest, located an assembly of the young girls and sent the images back to the Marines on ground in Maiduguri.

“Aside locating the whereabouts of the girls in the dense forest, it was also, further gathered that one of the leaders of terrorist group [sic] who participated in the abduction of the girls was arrested by a combined team of the US Marines and Nigerian forces.

“Sources said that the Boko Haram leader was arrested, through an advanced interceptor equipment which was used to track the terrorist while exchanging information with his colleagues in Sambisa Forest about the movements of American and Nigerian soldiers in Maiduguri.

“His phone was subsequently traced to a location in Maiduguri where he was arrested and handed over to the Nigerian military.”

For good measure, Saturday Vanguard published the alleged picture of the Boko Haram terrorist in the hands of US marines. 

This was a complete fabrication that started life in Nigerian social media circles. The picture is actually an old picture of a man who was arrested by French soldiers in the Central African Republic. But Vanguard, which is supposed to be one of Nigeria’s oldest and most prestigious newspapers, rushed to press with the “story”—and the picture— without any form of corroboration from any credible source.

As if that’s not egregious enough, on May 27, 2014, many newspapers, including—yet again—the Vanguard, went to town with another transparently fictitious report about Borno women invoking a magical spell to subdue Boko Haram terrorists who had reputedly come to attack them.  Vanguard quoted a nameless eyewitness of this putative supernormal encounter to have said that Boko Haram “attackers invaded the village yesterday on motorcycles but met some women, adding ‘they wanted to hit the women with sticks but when they raised the sticks, their hands refused to descend.’” Hmn. The hands of the Boko Haram terrorists “refused to descend”! 

In my effort to find out if any other mainstream newspaper reported this incident I found Daily Trust’s report of May 27 titled “Women arrest Boko Haram fighters in Borno,” which was even more dramatic and fantastical than Vanguard’s report. Like Vanguard, Daily Trust also quoted an unnamed eyewitness to have said, “The insurgents wanted to attack the women but their guns did not work. They tried hitting them with the boot of their guns but mysteriously, all the hands of the insurgents hung until youth and vigilantes in the area mobilized and killed them.” 

 I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read this. I did both. 

That modern newspapers like the Vanguard and Daily Trust would give space to this sort of fictional, superstitious bunkum dispirited me deeply. It killed the last vestige of hope I had that we might be able to leapfrog into the 21st century. We are probably condemned to be stuck in the Stone Age where ignorance and childlike obsession with superstitions and irrational, unfounded beliefs hold sway.

The story of the “mystical” Borno women also started in the Nigerian social media. A couple of days ago, a stock photo of gun-toting Malian women “bent on revenge against Tuareg rebels” (as The Times of London, from whose website the picture was downloaded, put it) surfaced on Facebook. 

Suddenly, a story was spun around the picture, and the story was that the women in the photo were Borno women who repelled Boko Haram attacks with the instrumentality of magic spells.
 Vanguard—and Daily Trust—learned their lesson. They didn’t publish the picture to accompany their stories. 

But what kind of reporter would report those kinds of patently false stories? What is even worse is, what kind of editor would allow a fantastical story, with no authentic pictorial corroboration, based solely on the secondhand account of an unnamed source to be published in his her paper? What happened to age-old journalistic skepticism? What happened to the ideal of verification before publication?

When you add these to the countless stories in our newspapers about birds transmogrifying into witchy old women (another gem from Vanguard and other supposedly reputable newspapers), you know Nigeria’s problem isn’t just high-level corruption and incompetence in the highest reaches of government; it’s also irresponsible and credulous journalism.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Q and A on Grammar of the Nigerian Constitution, Politicians and Word Formation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

 In this week’s Q and A find out how the Nigerian constitution has misused the word “impeachment” in at least two places. Also find out the idiomaticity of President Jonathan’s recent use of the expression “I don’t sleep with both eyes closed.” If you’re curious about what “verbing” means and how it enriches the English language, you’ll find the answer here as well. Enjoy.

Could you please help to explain the meaning of the word 'impeach'? My friend argued that it means removing a political office holder from office as most Nigerian newspapers use it, but I understand it to mean to accuse a political office holder of wrongdoing. For example, President Clinton was actually impeached and not removed from office. Help us to settle this.

You're right. Impeach doesn't mean to remove from office, but it's often a prelude to removing a public official from office. To impeach is to “charge (a public official) with an offense or misdemeanor committed while in office.”

 In other words, it means to formally accuse a public official of a crime. In the United States, it is only the House of Representatives that has the power to impeach the president.  The next procedure after impeachment is trial and then removal or acquittal. In the United States, only the Senate has the power to try and remove or acquit a president who has been impeached (by the House of Representatives).  Only two presidents have been impeached in America’s history, and both were acquitted by the Senate. They are President Andrew Johnson (America’s 17th president who was acquitted by just one vote) and President Bill Clinton (America’s 42nd president).

Nigerian newspapers interchange “impeach” with “remove from office” because they are copying the authors of the Nigerian constitution who don’t seem to know what “impeachment” really means. In the only two passages in the Nigerian constitution that the word “impeachment” appears, it is used as if it meant “removal.” Section 146 (3) (a) of the document says, “where the office of vice president becomes vacant – by reason of death, resignation, impeachment, permanent incapacity or removal in accordance with section 143 or 144 of this Constitution….”
Again, in Section 191 (3) (a) of the constitution the following sentence appears: “where the office of deputy governor becomes vacant – by reason of death, resignation, impeachment, permanent incapacity or removal in accordance with section 188 or 189 of this Constitution….”

Well, an office can’t possibly become vacant by reason of “impeachment.” Just like people don’t go to prison simply because they have been accused of an offense, a vice president’s office can’t become vacant simply because he or she has been impeached. That would be a perversion of justice. 

Impeachment simply means accusation, and accusation is never a basis for conviction. To convict an accused person, you have to try him or her first. Plus, conviction is not the only possible outcome of a trial. An accused (or impeached) person can be acquitted after trial, as was the case for the two US presidents that were impeached.

 Curiously, the Nigerian constitution never uses the word “impeachment” in relation to the president and state governors; it instead talks of the procedures for the “removal” of the president and of governors from office.

The people who wrote the 1999 Nigerian constitution are clearly not sufficiently educated about the meanings of the terminologies they deployed in the constitution. And they passed on their ignorance to the Nigerian news media and to the Nigerian populace.

President Goodluck Jonathan declared in a world press conference at the end of the World Economic Forum for Africa that he will henceforth not sleep "with both eyes closed" until the girls have been found. I did a Google search of the expression and almost all the web pages returned were of Nigerian origin. What do you think?

“Sleep with both eyes closed” is not a standard idiomatic expression in English. The usual expression is "sleep with one eye open," which means to be mentally perceptive and responsive, to be on a “stand-by alert” in the event of danger. A related expression is “fox’s sleep,” which arose from the notion that foxes sleep with one eye open because of the ever-present treacherousness of the forest.  President Jonathan inverted the standard “sleep with one eye open” to “won't sleep with both eyes closed." Was he being linguistically creative here? Maybe. But is he unidiomatic? Absolutely.

My question is not exactly on Patience Jonathan but rather on another observation I made on a piece I read somewhere and which I want you to analyze for further enlightenment. The piece was titled, "Monica Lewinsky has corrected Beyoncé on a lyric in the singer's recent song 'Partition'."

Beyoncé song references a dress worn by Lewinsky with a semen stain left by Bill Clinton. In this piece, Beyoncé was reported to have said in the lyric, "He Monica Lewinsky'd all over my gown", in reference to what former US President, Bill Clinton, did on Monica Lewinsky's dress. And Monica Lewinsky was said to have corrected Beyoncé by saying, "Thanks, Beyoncé, but if we're verbing, I think you meant 'Bill Clinton'd all on my gown,' not 'Monica Lewinsky'd.'"

My observation here is that this expression may likely be popularized and eventually be accepted as a Standard English idiomatic expression. How would you classify these kinds of occurrences in the English language? Is that why languages that accept such evolutions are called living languages?

Secondly, could you explain what Monica Lewinsky means by, "verbing" above?

That’s an interesting question.  I know "verbing" as "verbification," which means to turn a word that is not usually a verb into a verb.  More often than not, it is nouns that get modified as verbs. A classic example is "out-herod," usually in the expression "out-herod Herod," which means to surpass someone in cruelty. It's in reference to a Biblical king called Herod who was said to be exceptionally cruel. “Out-herod” is modeled after verbs like “outdo” and “outfox.” But there are several common, less dramatic examples such as “stomach” (as in “I can’t stomach his rudeness”), “table” (as in “we tabled the issue before the committee”), “chair” (as in “he chaired the meeting), etc. Stomach, chair, table, began life as nouns, but their use as verbs is now pretty standard.

Verbification or verbing is an age-old practice in English. Famous English writers like Shakespeare did it to great effect.  Some verbifications are transient and region-specific; others endure and enjoy worldwide acceptance.  Verbs like incentivize, gift, fax, xerox, Google, Mirandize (to tell someone under investigation that they have a right to a lawyer and that whatever they say to the police can be used against them in a court of law), etc. have enriched the English language and have become part of our everyday expressive repertoire.  It remains to be seen, however, if “Bill Clintoned” or “Monika Lewinskyed” can survive. I doubt they will.

When I was at the Ealing Hospital, London, 2005, I noticed that people regularly pluralised blood in the sense of blood samples as in 'take bloods for microbiology and chemistry'.

That’s definitely in-group vernacular. As I noted in my “A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Patience Jonathan’s Recent Televised Histrionics,” in conversational English it is rare to pluralize blood—well, unless you’re Dame Patience Jonathan. When people have a need to quantify blood they usually say something like “pints of blood.”

But it’s not only medical professionals that pluralize words that everyday users of the language don’t pluralize. Humanities and social science scholars also pluralize words that regular people don't pluralize, such as "logics," “knowledges,” “publics,” etc.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Insanity of Extending State of Emergency in the North-east

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I learned early this week that President Goodluck Jonathan has written to the National Assembly to request the approval of a third (!) extension of the emergency rule in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. I won’t mince my words: this is straight-out insane.

A popular epigram says “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Emergency rule in these three northeastern states has done nothing to contain or countermine the sanguinary fury of Boko Haram. In fact, it seems to have escalated it. No one contests that fact. It is utter insanity to repeat three times in a row the same thing that has proved to be ineffectual.

It was during the state of emergency that scores of students were slaughtered in their sleep and their dorms set ablaze in Yobe State. It was during the same state of emergency that hundreds of female students were brazenly abducted in Chibok, Borno State, prompting mass outrage the world over. 

As Abdullahi Bego, the Yobe State governor’s spokesman, said in a recent news release, “over the six months of emergency rule and later over the second, we have seen some of the worst attacks by Boko Haram in Yobe State. From GSS Damaturu to GSS Mamudo to College of Agriculture Gujba and FGC Buni Yadi, more than 120 students were killed by insurgents. There were many other attacks in Gujba and Damaturu local governments.”

Yet President Jonathan wants to elongate the emergency rule in the northeast by another six months. That, right there, is the very definition of insanity. Call it government by insanity, if you like. The state of emergency may not in and of itself be responsible for the escalation of violence in the northeast in the past six months, but it certainly has not lived up to its promise. A sane government would devise a different strategy.

I was one of the first people to applaud the declaration of state of emergency in the northeast last year. (See my May 25, 2013 column titled “The Malcolm Xian Logic in Jonathan’s Praiseworthy Boko Haram Offensive”). I thought it was the best option to neutralize and rout out the homicidal maniacs called Boko Haram. It has become apparent, however, that the state of emergency in these states hasn’t worked and is unlikely to work, not least because we have seen a disturbing uptick in violence in the wake of the emergency rule.

What’s particularly tragic in all of this is that the Jonathan administration doesn’t seem to know what it actually means to declare a state of emergency in a part of the country. I thought this was elementary knowledge. The declaration of a state of emergency in a state effectively relieves state governors of the responsibility to superintend over the security of their states, yet the Jonathan administration, at every turn, blames the Borno State governor for the unprecedented abduction of nearly 300 school girls. The federal government wants to have its cake and eat it. That’s childish.

In any case, if rising insecurity is the only reason why President Jonathan wants to perpetually extend emergency rule in the northeast, he should also consider declaring a state of emergency in Abuja. In fact, the whole of Nigeria is ripe for a state of emergency since not a day goes by that we don’t read of news of bloody communal upheavals in different parts of the country. Nigeria is effectively a leaderless, rudderless, auto-pilot nation. 

I have never felt this much shame to be Nigerian all my life.

In light of the worldwide “#BringBackOurGirls” protests Nigeria has been dominating the news cycle in the global media. Our dysfunction as a nation is now nakedly transparent to the whole world. Every single day here in America people ask me questions about Nigeria and its president that I just feel too ashamed to answer. The president is absent where it matters; he is only present to supervise the large-scale organized robbery that governance has been reduced to.

Thanks to President Jonathan’s incompetence, Nigeria is now the object of scorn the world over—almost the same way it was during General Sani Abacha’s evil rule. That’s why Senator John McCain could afford to talk so rudely about President Jonathan without any consequence. In response to a question about the propriety of American intervention to rescue the abducted girls in Chibok, he said "If [the U.S.] knew where [the kidnapped girls] were, I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country. I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan.”

That’s an unbearably disrespectful thing to say about the president of a sovereign state, but President Jonathan brought this upon himself. He has told the world that he has no frigging clue what it means be a president and commander-in-chief. That’s why almost every country in the world is either in Nigeria or is offering to go to Nigeria to help find our girls. A country can’t get any more helpless and hopeless than that.

 The same government that can’t even secure its immediate surroundings (think of the Nyanya bombings and the comical shutdown of Abuja because of some world summit) and that can’t locate abducted girls in a well-known forest, wants to take over the security of a vast, far-flung part of the country in perpetuity. Only a government headed by “some guy named Goodluck Jonathan” does that.

I have no confidence in members of the National Assembly, but I hope they pleasantly disappoint me and refuse to approve this insane request to extend a spectacularly useless emergency rule.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Patience Jonathan’s Recent Televised Histrionics

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Amid the righteous indignation that has attended the tragic abduction of more than 300 school girls in Chibok, Borno State, by Boko Haram terrorists, Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan managed to regale the Nigerian public with a much-needed comic relief during a televised rebuke of the principal of the secondary school from which the girls were abducted.

A tape of the First Lady’s melodramatic questioning of the distraught principal of the school, which has gone wildly viral on social media sites, shows her saying the following:

“Do you come with two teachers? You were not informed, too? Eh? Kontinu [Continue]. No problem. God will see us. There is God. There is God in everything we are doing. Those bloods that are sharing in Bronu [Borno] will answer.

“What of two teachers, Wayec [WAEC; West African Examination Council], two teach..., ehn two, ehn…. What of two teachers that can tell us that they conducted that exam? Do you come with any? Prispal [Principal], no too? Na only you waka come? Okay!

“Now the First Lady is calling you. Come, I want to help you. Come to find ya [your] be... ya [your] child, ya [your] missing child. Will you keep quiet? Chai! Chai! There is God o! There is God o! The bloods we are sharing, there is God o! There is God o! There is God o! There is God o! There is God o! There is God o! [followed by a transparently contrived and exaggeratedly melodramatic wailing and the tape fades].”

This transcript of the First Lady’s catechistic grilling of the principal is less sensible, and certainly less theatrical and comical, than the oral rendition, but it’s a great starting point for a socio-linguistic analysis. (See the video below. Start from 1:03).

Out of curiosity, I asked a native English speaker to watch the video and let me know what she understood the First Lady as saying. She understood only about 30 percent of it. When she read the transcript, she was able to make sense of about 40 percent of it. It immediately became apparent to me that one has to be inserted in, and have an intimate familiarity with, Nigerian cultural idioms to be able to wholly decode the First Lady’s speech act.

It is true, of course, that Mrs. Jonathan’s spoken English falls short of even the prevailing standards of acceptability in Nigerian English, but no Nigerian born and raised in Nigeria would have a hard time understanding her. So here is how I decoded Patience Jonathan’s performative utterances to a native English speaker.

1. “Do you come with two teachers?” By the logic of Standard English, the question suggests that the First Lady wants to know if the principal habitually comes to some place, presumably the Presidential Villa, with two teachers. That is obviously not the sense she wanted to communicate. She wanted to know if the principal came with two teachers. That sense is correctly communicated by saying, “Have you come with two teachers?” American English speakers would say, “Did you come with two teachers?” The First Lady’s utterance is therefore a simple case of an incompetent grasp of elementary English syntax and tense.

2. “God will see us. There is God. There is God in everything we are doing.” There is an extravagant overload of Nigerian socio-cultural and linguistic codes that need to be unpacked in these incoherent utterances. First, to theists, the idea that “God will see us” in this earthly existence is borderline blasphemous. That utterance suggests, at least by the logic of Standard English, that God currently doesn’t “see” us either because He is unable or unwilling to do so, but that He plans to see us at a future date. Theists would say God already sees us and always will. But it’s clear that the First Lady meant to say “God sees us” or, perhaps, “God will judge us.” Tenses are obviously not Mrs. Jonathan’s strong suit.

As a standalone sentence, “there is God” is almost meaningless in Standard English. It is both unidiomatic and unnatural to the syntactic structure of English. Syntactically, it would make more sense to say “God exists,” or “God is real,” but since the First Lady wasn’t having an argument with an atheist about the existence of God, she probably meant to say something like “God lives in us.”

However, as a native speaker of a Niger-Congo language, I can relate to the expression “there is God.” It’s a direct, unidiomatic English translation. In Baatonu, my native language, “Gusuno wa” (which directly translates as “there is God”) is uttered in moments of acute feelings of anxiety about injustice or unpunished wrongdoing. I am guessing that the First Lady was translating an equivalent expression from her native language into English when she said “there is God o!”. She has my sympathy here, because I can’t think of an exact idiomatic equivalent of that expression in English.

“There is God in everything we do” is probably best rendered as “God knows all we do” in Standard English. So in one speech act the First Lady simultaneously denudes God of the capacity to see us AND affirms His abiding presence in all we do. In other words, God doesn’t currently see us, yet He dwells in us. This contradictory reading is, of course, the consequence of mixing English and Nigerian of socio-linguistic codes. In truth, the sense Mrs. Jonathan sought to express was this: God is a just God who abides in all we do and will someday sit in judgment over our deeds in this world.

3. “Those bloods that are sharing in Bronu [Borno] will answer.” I must admit that this one threw me off a little bit. “Blood” is almost never pluralized in English. It’s “blood” whether it’s singular or plural. When blood is pluralized to “bloods” it can mean one of two things. In American English it means members of a street gang in Los Angeles, California. (The “b” in the “blood” is usually capitalized, that is, it’s usually written as “Blood.”)  In British English slang “bloods” can mean “handsome young men.”

 So, I thought: who are these “bloods”? Maybe Boko Haram members? And what are the “bloods” sharing? Maybe the abducted girls? And what will they answer?

 Upon deeper reflection, I realized that the First Lady actually meant that the blood that is being shed in Borno will someday avenge. Again, here, you have to be versed in the Nigerian cultural cosmology to understand how the dead can strike back. It basically means the unearned agony that the dead suffered will someday ignite a karmic retribution against the people who murdered innocents in cold blood.

4. “Na only you waka come?” This is a Nigerian Pidgin English expression for “Did you come alone?” It is a classic case of code-switching. The First Lady switched from her cringingly error-ridden version of Nigerian English to Nigerian Pidgin English without warning. But it was a socio-linguistically ill-advised switch because most people in Nigeria’s far north don’t speak or understand Nigerian Pidgin English. It was apparent from her flustered looks that the principal had no clue what “na only you waka come?” means.

5. “Chai! Chai! There is God o! There is God o!” I’ve written about popular exclamatory expressions in Nigerian English (see “My Favorite Exclamatory Expressions in Nigerian English (I)” published on October 13, 2013 and “My Favorite Exclamatory Expressions in Nigerian English (II)” published on October 20, 2013), but I missed “Chai!” It’s probably a variation of “Chei!” which I said is “used to express disbelief, or deep admiration tempered with a dose of disbelief.” I observed that it’s somewhat equivalent to “Oh my God!” in English.

The “o” that regularly peppered the First Lady’s utterances is what I once called a “terminal intensifier” in a May 20, 2010 article titled “Broken English, Pidgin English, and Nigerian English.” “O” appears at the end of most utterances in Niger-Congo languages –and in Nigerian Pidgin English—and does nothing more than accentuate the meaning of the expression that precedes it.

6. “The bloods we are sharing, there is God o!” “Bloods” sharing again? This made my blood run cold. I thought: is this some inadvertently confessional admission that the First Lady and her husband (since she said “we”) are a blood-sucking conjugal dyad? It didn’t take long, however, to realize that she was probably repeating the sense I explained in point number 3, but used “we” to mean that the whole Nigerian society is somehow complicit in Boko Haram’s mass murder of innocents. That doesn’t make any sense, though, but sense-making isn’t the First Lady’s priority.

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