Sunday, June 28, 2015

Nigerian Pentecostal Christian English Expressions in Popular Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In my forthcoming book titled Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World (which will be released by Peter Lang USA at the end of July)—and in several of my previous writings on Nigerian English—I have identified sources of Nigerian English to include linguistic improvisation, British archaisms, normalized usage errors, and a mishmash of American and British English.

I also explored what I called Biblical English as a fountain of Nigerian English idioms. By Biblical English I mean old-fashioned English expressions that are now confined to English translations of the Bible but that are rarely used in the conversational English of native speakers. Some examples I gave in my book are the tendency for Nigerian English speakers to use the word “harlot” in place of “prostitute” and the use of the expression “eye service” to mean service done not for its sake but in order to impress someone who is watching you, etc.

“Harlot” and “eye service” are used in the Bible but are rarely used by contemporary native English speakers. (In American English “eye service” is now used as the informal term to describe the services of an eye doctor.) Of course, there are several modern English idiomatic expressions and turns of phrases that are derived from the Bible. Idioms like “give up the ghost,” “by the skin of one's teeth,” “the salt of the earth,” “put words into one’s mouth,” “be a law unto oneself,” and fixed turns of phrase like “from strength to strength,” “the land of the living,” “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” “widow’s mite,” “the prodigal son,” etc. came to English directly from the Bible.

In his book titled Begat: The King James Bible and the English language, Professor David Crystal, one of the world’s most respected authorities on English, identified 257 phrases in the English language that are directly borrowed from the King James Bible, leading the BBC to remark that “No other book, or indeed any piece of culture, seems to have influenced the English language as much as the King James Bible. Its turns of phrase have permeated the everyday language of English speakers, whether or not they've ever opened a copy.”

I find parallels between the influence of the Bible on English and the influence of the Qur’an on Arabic. But that is a topic for another column.

Over the last 10 years or so, the vernacular of Nigerian Pentecostal Christianity has emerged as a fundamental source of Nigerian English. The linguistic seepage of the vernaculars and registers of Nigerian Pentecostalism into popular Nigerian English occurs primarily through Nollywood movies, but it’s aided in no small measure by social media. Nigerian Pentecostal Christian English codes have now become so widespread that even Nigerian Muslims and non-Pentecostal Nigerian Christians have unconsciously coopted them in their conversational repertoire, as I show below.

1. “It is well.” This is becoming the default expression to indicate empathy and concern for people in difficulty of any kind. When people have a death in the family, Nigerian Pentecostal Christians say “it is well.” When people writhe in emotional distress because they have been betrayed by their lovers, Nigerian Pentecostal Christians say “it is well.” Just about any tragedy “is well” with Nigerian Pentecostal Christians.

But tragedies are increasingly becoming “well” even with Nigerian Muslims and non-Pentecostal Christians. For instance, when I lost my wife to a car crash 5 years ago and was in excruciating emotional distress, an acquaintance of mine in Nigeria, who is a Muslim, told me “it is well, my brother.” I lost it. “What the heck is well? That my wife died in a car accident? Are you freaking kidding me? No, it isn’t well!” I fumed. The man apologized and said, “I thought that is what English people say when someone is bereaved.”

Well, no English speaker in the world says “it is well” to people who are grieving; only Nigerian Pentecostal Christians say that, and it’s intolerably annoying, even offensive, to people outside these circles. English people say “I am sorry for your loss”—or some variation of that— to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

I reacted to the expression the way I did, obviously, because I was in a state of emotional turmoil, but also because I hadn’t heard the expression used in that context before. It appeared to me as if my acquaintance derived perverse pleasure in my personal tragedy. Putting “well” in the same sentence with “death” seemed to me singularly and unconscionably malevolent.

But in my moment of emotional clarity, it occurred to me that it was unlikely that even the most vile and spiteful person on earth would go to a grief-stricken person that they barely knew and gloat over their personal tragedy. So I researched the origins and pragmatics of the expression.

Here is what I wrote about the expression in my book: “This peculiarly Nigerian English salutation for people in grief is distilled—perhaps I should say distorted—from a popular hymn (as Christians call a song that praises God) written by an emotionally distraught American Christian lawyer by the name of Horatio G. Spafford who lived in Chicago in the 1800s, and who was hit by a string of personal tragedies. As a mechanism to cope with his grief, he penned a thoughtful hymn titled ‘It is well with my soul’ that some Christians consider the ‘closest to heart for one undergoing grief’ (Asiado, 2007).

“Although the context in which Nigerian Christians use ‘it is well’ is consistent with the intent of the hymn, native speakers don’t say ‘it is well’ to a grieving person. That would come across as stilted and detached. Besides, the full expression is, ‘it is well with my soul.’ Perhaps it would make more grammatical sense to say ‘it is well with your soul’ to a grieving person than to simply say ‘it is well.’ A native speaker might ask: ‘what is well?’” (p. 183).

As the reader can see, although the expression may have Biblical echoes, it isn’t exactly Biblical; it’s only a Nigerian Pentecostal Christian appropriation of a 200-year-old hymn by an emotionally troubled American. I also discovered that the expression was appropriated by Nigerian Pentecostal Christians because it is thought to confer positive vibes to otherwise melancholic situations. Nigerian Pentecostal Christianity has an obsession with banishing any hint of what is thought to constitute negativity—and embracing what is considered positive and upbeat even in moments of disappointment, death, and destruction. 

It is safe to say that “it is well” has now transmuted into a legitimate Nigerian English expression. It would help, though, if you don’t say “it is well” to a grieving non-Nigerian. As a Nigerian Muslim who wasn’t sufficiently schooled in the Nigerian Pentecostal Christian linguistic universe, I initially took umbrage at the expression. You can only imagine how non-Nigerians would react to it.

2. “It’s not my portion/potion.” Nigerian Pentecostal Christians utter this expression where everyday English speakers would say “this won’t happen to me,” or “I deserve a better fate than this,” or simply “it is not my fate.” The expression itself reflects the rampant contradictory, narcissistic, and escapist fatalism in Nigerian expressions of religiosity: in one breadth, many Nigerians believe that God has lined up great things for them as a matter of inexorable certainty, and in another breadth they believe no evil of any kind is predetermined in advance for them.

The expression is typically rendered as “It is not my portion in Jesus name,” “poverty is not my portion,” “sickness is not my portion,” “(premature) death is not my portion,” “fear is not portion,” “shame is not my portion,” etc. It is derived from Lamentations Chapter 3 verse 24 of the Bible (“The Lord is my portion, sayeth my soul; therefore will I hope in him.”)

 One of the first recorded inversions of this Biblical expression is found in Rabindranath Tagore’s poem titled “Gitanjali” where he wrote: “If it is not my portion to meet thee in this life/then let me ever feel that I have missed thy sight.” (Rabindranath Tagore was a famous Indian poet who has the distinction of being the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913).

To be continued next week

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Obama and Buhari: Comparing their “Senior Moments”

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

Last week’s column titled “Criticizing Buhari Over ‘President Michelle of West Germany’ Gaffe is Ignorant” elicited three strands of responses. The majority of responses (about 90 percent, by my estimation) said they were educated by it and are now informationally equipped to understand President Buhari’s memory lapses and slips.

But another set of responses said I was merely making excuses for the president since President Ronald Reagan with whom I compared him was later diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease (an irreversible, age-related disease that gradually destroys people’s memory, mental capabilities, and eventually leads to their death), and suggested that Reagan’s memory lapses were the result of his disease rather than “senior moments.” Someone even cynically suggested that I was wishing that Buhari got Alzheimer’s disease! Another said I implied that Buhari might be suffering from the early onset of the disease. As I will show shortly, these are wildly inaccurate extrapolations.

The second set of responses said a more valid comparison would be with President Obama since Obama, unlike Reagan, has no Alzheimer’s disease. So here is my response.

First, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, that is, 5 years after leaving the White House. Doctors said at the time he made his notorious memory-induced gaffes as president, he didn’t have a trace of Alzheimer’s disease. According to the New York Times of October 5, 1997, “But while the line between mere forgetfulness and the beginning of Alzheimer's can be fuzzy, a matter of gradation, Mr. Reagan's four main White House doctors say they saw no evidence that he had crossed it as President. They saw and spoke with him daily in the White House, they said, and beyond the natural failings of age never found his memory, reasoning or judgment to be significantly impaired.”

Dr. John E. Hutton Jr., Reagan’s personal physician from 1984 to 1989, also told the New York Times in 1997 that Reagan ''absolutely'' did not ''show any signs of dementia or Alzheimer's,'' even after “extensive mental-status tests.” So what Reagan suffered during his presidency was mere age-related memory disablement.

Nothing in my article even remotely suggested that Reagan’s slips were a consequence of Alzheimer’s disease. I wrote: “Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Eric Kandel and his colleagues published a well-received study in 2013 in the Journal of Science Translational Medicine where they, among other things, reveal that a ‘memory gene’ in us appears to get weaker as our brain ages, causing us to forget easily, mix things up, and unable to easily recall information stored in our memory banks.” It’s an illogical, groundless interpretive leap to suggest that I wished that Buhari had Alzheimer’s disease—or that I implied he had one.

Now, for people who think Obama is a perfect president who never has memory lapses, here is a sample of his notorious memory-induced gaffes:

1. In 2008, during a presidential campaign event in the city of Beaverton in the northwestern US state of Oregon, Obama infamously said, "I've now been in 57 states -- I think one left to go. Alaska and Hawaii I was not allowed to go to, even though I really wanted to visit but my staff would not justify it." Problem is, America has only 50 states. Every elementary school student in America knows this. But Obama, in this ill-famed gaffe, implied that the country he sought to govern had 58 states (57 + “one left to go”= 58) or, perhaps, 60 states (57 + “one left to go” + “Alaska and Hawaii” = 60).

Similarly, when he lost a presidential primary election to Hillary Clinton in the state of Kentucky in 2008, he said, “Senator Clinton, I think, is much better known, coming from a nearby state of Arkansas.” Well, actually, Illinois, Obama’s adopted state, is closer to Kentucky than Arkansas is.

2. On August 25, 2008, Obama spoke to the Democratic National Convention from Kansas City in the State of Missouri. But he had a lapse of memory and said, "I'm here with the Girardo family here in St. Louis."

3. On April 4, 2009, Obama traveled to Strasbourg in France. While there, he addressed a news conference during which he said the following: "It was also interesting to see that political interaction in Europe is not that different from the United States Senate. There's a lot of—I don't know what the term is in Austrian—wheeling and dealing…." Unfortunately, there is no language called “Austrian.” An Austrian is a citizen of Austria, and Austrians speak German.

4. At a town hall meeting in Tampa, Florida, on January 28, 2010, Obama entertained questions from students. In response to a student’s question on why America supports Israel with billions of tax payers’ dollars in spite of Israel’s poor human rights records, he said, "The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries." Huh? If you know what means, please let me know.

5. On November 16, 2011, while addressing a news conference in the city of Honolulu in the US state of Hawaii, Obama said, "When I meet with world leaders, what's striking—whether it's in Europe or here in Asia—the kinds of fundamental reforms…" Americans justifiably mocked Obama for saying Hawaii was in Asia. Remember that Obama was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, yet he called it “Asia.”

6. On at least two occasions, Obama has confused “Memorial Day” (the day set aside to remember military people who died in battle) with “Veteran’s Day” (a day dedicated to honoring ex-military people who are living). In 2008, he infamously said, "On this Memorial Day, as our nation honors its unbroken line of fallen heroes—and I see many of them in the audience here today—our sense of patriotism is particularly strong." As a conservative commentator asked, “Does Obama see dead people?”

In 2012, Obama repeated the same mistake. He said, “And a lot of those men and women who we celebrate on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day come back and find that, when it comes to finding a job or getting the kind of care that they need, we are not always there the way we need to.” Do dead people find jobs and desire care?

There are countless more embarrassing slips Obama has committed (such as not knowing the age of one of his daughters, saying an entire town was wiped out by a tornado when only 12 people died, etc.), but no one doubts that Obama is an exceedingly intelligent and educated person. He also has aides who prepare him meticulously before news conferences and other kinds of public appearances, yet he fumbles occasionally, not because he is clueless, but because he is human and is liable to “senior moments” which, to quote my article, “can start as early as late 30s and get worse as we get older.”

Always remember this when Buhari makes his next gaffe.

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Criticizing Buhari Over “President Michelle of West Germany” Gaffe is Ignorant

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

I have read people refer to President Buhari as “clueless”—and suchlike adjective of disesteem suggesting cognitive incapacity—for his recent reference to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “President Michelle of West Germany.” That is ignorant. And I will explain why shortly.

There are many things to criticize about President Buhari, but cluelessness isn’t one of them. His thought-processes are clearly complex, sophisticated, and high-level. If in doubt, get hold of any of his off-the cuff remarks, go beyond the distractions of his accent, and you will see a man whose intellect is deep and whose understanding of governance and world politics is admirably advanced. I have interviewed him twice—first when I was a journalist in Nigeria and later from here in the US for the Nigerian Village Square website in 2010.

You’re probably wondering where I am going with this. How could someone call Germany “West Germany,” mangle its president’s name and official title, and I not only say he isn’t clueless but insist he is, in fact, intellectually deep?

OK, let me start by saying I am not some viscerally one-dimentional, unreflective Buhari apologist who is wedded to what I call the misguided philosophy of Buharist inerrancy, that is, the wrongheaded idea that Buhari can’t ever be wrong. Buhari is only human who is liable to errors and lapses of judgment. Many of us who criticized him, and will criticize him in future, do so not because we are better but because, as the saying goes, the onlookers, not the participants, see most of the game.

Now, when Buhari called German Chancellor Merkel “President Michelle of West Germany,” he was merely suffering from what Americans call a “senior moment,” which is the momentary lapse in memory occasioned by old age. As psychologists know only too well, as we age, the speed with which we retrieve information from our cognitive reservoir slows. Age-related memory lapses, experts tell us, can start as early as late 30s and get worse as we get older.

Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Eric Kandel and his colleagues published a well-received study in 2013 in the Journal of Science Translational Medicine where they, among other things, reveal that a “memory gene” in us appears to get weaker as our brain ages, causing us to forget easily, mix things up, and unable to easily recall information stored in our  memory banks.

Buhari is not the only president who contends with age-related memory impairment. The late President Ronald Reagan, America’s oldest president who was elected at nearly 70 years in his first term, was famous for his bewildering senior moments. I will give only a few examples. Sometime in 1984, when he was 73 years old, during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, according to TIME magazine, President Reagan constantly referred to his own Vice President, George Bush, Sr. (father of George W. Bush), as "Prime Minister Bush." (Remember Buhari’s reference to Vice President Osinbajo as “Osunbade” during a campaign rally in Owerri?)

And, according to Tom Friedman’s 2006 book titled You Are Not Alone: 1,000 Unforgettable Senior Moments: Of Which We Could Remember Only 246, “President Ronald Reagan’s senior moments were legendary. He often forgot what foreign country he was in or the name of the dignitary he was meeting. When he visited Brazil, he referred to it as Bolivia. He greeted Princess Diana as ‘Princess David’; at a conference of mayors once introduced himself to Samuel Pierce, the only African-American member of his cabinet, who he thought was the mayor of some American city; and called President Samuel Doe of Liberia ‘Chairman Doe.’” (p. 85).

Have you seen any similarities yet? Well, another US president, Richard Nixon, had a senior moment when he went to France in 1974 to attend the funeral of French president Georges Pompidou. Nixon had a lapse of memory and totally forgot why he was in France, so he said, “This is a great day for France!”

There will be many more age-related memory lapses from President Buhari. Get used to it. It’s no big deal. It’s part of the normal process of aging, and has no impact whatsoever on cognitive ability or performance. In spite of his notoriety for embarrassing “senior moments,” President Reagan has often been ranked as one of America’s greatest presidents. In fact, a February 2011 Gallup poll placed him as America’s greatest president of all time—ahead of Abraham Lincoln.

Like Buhari, Reagan lost in a past presidential election, but went ahead to defeat a younger incumbent in 1980. He won reelection at nearly 74 years with the biggest Electoral College victory in American history. When he left office in 1989, Reagan had an approval rating of 68 percent, which is the highest rating for a departing president in America’s modern history. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton rival this feat.

I am not implying that Buhari will be a Nigerian Ronald Reagan, but his age-induced cognitive impairments and slips should not cause us to dismiss him. When he recently said to Nigerians in South Africa “I wish I became Head of State when I was a governor, just a few years as a young man. Now at 72, there is a limit to what I can do,” he was referring to the inevitable impediments that age imposes on people. But senior moments don’t impair performance if the will to succeed is there, as the example of Ronald Reagan clearly shows.

Although I think it’s ignorant to hold up Buhari’s senior moments as evidence of cluelessness, it’s fair game to poke fun at them. That’s the nature of democracy. Even Reagan laughed at the humor his senior moments actuated. I hope Buhari—and his legion of zealous, humorless supporters—will learn to laugh at his senior moment jokes.

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

“Past is Prologue” and Other Presidential Inaugural Turns of Phrase

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

Many readers wondered why I didn’t write about President Buhari’s “past-is-prologue” statement in my analysis of his inaugural address last week. The simple answer is that I ran out of space. I exceeded my word limit.

There is no doubt that this Shakespearesque expression was the most puzzling in Buhari’s inaugural address. It appears to contradict the statements that preceded it. “A few people have privately voiced fears that on coming back to office I shall go after them. These fears are groundless. There will be no paying off old scores. The past is prologue,” he said.

 A prologue is the introduction to a play, and has been extended metaphorically in popular usage to mean a beginning, an opening, as in, “Appetizing delicacies were the prologue to a long dinner.” That was the sense of the word America’s 4th president James Madison had in mind when he famously said in 1822 that “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.”

If prologue means the beginning, what did Buhari mean by “the past is prologue,” especially after saying “there will be no paying off old scores”?  When we say “past is prologue,” we usually mean the past matters and will shape the present and, perhaps, the future. In other words, it means whatever happened in the past won’t be forgotten. That sense sharply contradicts the conciliatory sentiments that the preceding sentence conveys, that is, that “there will be no paying off old scores.”

As I hinted earlier, Buhari’s “past-is-prologue” statement is derived from an adaptation of a statement from a Shakespearean Play called The Tempest where Antonio says "(And by that destiny) to perform an act, Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge."

The phrase is used in modern times to mean we can’t ignore the lessons of the past. For instance, during the 2008 American vice presidential debate, when Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused then Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden of dwelling too much in the past at the expense of the present and the future, his retort  was, “Look, past is  prologue.” After Biden’s remark, there was an exponential spike in Google searches for “past is prologue.” Biden, by that quote, meant that we can’t wish away the past; that the past has an abiding effect on the present.

Buhari’s speech writers clearly misused the expression. If Buhari had said, “A few people have privately voiced fears that on coming back to office I shall let criminals who raped this nation go scot free. These fears are groundless. There will be no ignoring the wrongs of the past. The past is prologue,” he would have made sense. But to juxtapose a message of forgiveness of the past with “past is prologue” absolutely makes no sense. If the past is prologue, it means Buhari will indeed pay off old scores.

There are several stock expressions that can help make the case that the sins of the past will be forgiven and forgotten, such as “what is past is past.” There are also countless inspirational quotes about the past being past from well-known personages. Take, for example, Bil Keane’s memorable “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.” Or Mother Teresa’s “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” Or Søren Kierkegaard’s “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Or Rick Warren’s “We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it.”

Some people suggest that Buhari intended to send a message that he would go after past leaders who pillaged the nation but chose to make the message intentionally cryptic and ambiguous by juxtaposing two mutually contradictory statements. I am not persuaded.

"…ensure their votes count and were counted.”
In last week’s article, I corrected the above phrase in the inaugural speech to “ensure their votes COUNTED and were counted.” Many readers asked that I take a second look at my correction. 

Someone said “count” was used as a noun in the sentence. I disagree. It was undoubtedly used as a verb and is synonymous with “mattered.” If something “counts,” it means it matters, it carries weight, as in, “in our company everybody’s opinion counts.” If one’s vote counts, it means it has weight, that it matters.

As the reader can see, the sense of “count” that means “carry weight” is indisputably a verb, and verbs are inflected for tense when they express an action. In our case, the action was in the past, so the verb should be inflected for (past) tense. If we replace “count” with other synonymous words, such as “matter,” the awkwardness of the present tense in the sentence would stand out in bold relief. Try, for instance, “ensure their votes matter and were counted.” That certainly sounds awkward.

 If “count” were used as a noun in the sentence (which would be sloppy, ungainly phrasing), then "votes" shouldn't be pluralized, so that "vote" would have functioned as an attributive noun that modifies "count." But it would be an awkwardly meaningless sentence.

“Rescue alive”
Someone called my attention to the needless repetitiveness in the phrase “rescue alive,” which appeared in the inaugural address in the following sentence: “This government will do all it can to rescue [the Chibok girls] alive.”

 Rescue means to save from harm, so it goes without saying that you can’t be said to have rescued people if you can’t bring them alive. If the Chibok girls are brought back dead, then they are not rescued. Since bringing victims alive is central to the notion of a rescue, “rescue alive” is pointless verbiage.

I suspect, however, that Buhari’s speech writers chose the tautological “rescue alive” for emphasis and clarity. Rescuing the girls from Boko Haram would require both combat and tact, which could either result in death or rescue. The speech intended to convey the message that in rescuing the girls, care would be taken to ensure that they come out alive.

It is worth noting that tautologies are not errors. As I pointed out in my June 9, 2013 column titled “Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (II),” “In all natural languages, tautologies are inevitable. We all commit tautologies either consciously or unconsciously. I am sure I’ve committed quite a few in this write-up. Tautologies sometimes help give clarity to our thoughts. At other times they intensify, reinforce, and accentuate the messages we seek to convey. They can also be used for literary, aesthetic, stylistic, and humorous effects. Yet, they can be products of laziness and sloppy thinking.”

I think the use of “rescue alive” in Buhari’s inaugural address is inspired by the desire for clarity and intensification of meaning.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Mishandling of Asset Declaration May Doom Buhari’s Presidency

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Although many of us still nourish the hope that President Buhari’s administration will represent a substantive departure from the blight of the past, Buhari has so far done little to inspire confidence that he will live up to the hopes we have invested in him. Perhaps the biggest germinal error he has made, which might haunt his administration, is his seeming reluctance to publicly declare his assets, contrary to the promise he made during his campaigns.

Malam Garba Shehu, one of Buhari’s spokesmen, has characterized calls for Buhari to fulfill his campaign promise by publicly declaring his assets as being “precipitate.” But it was actually Malam Garba who was precipitate when he declared in a May 30, 2015 news release that by submitting their assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau Buhari and Osinbajo had fulfilled one of their campaign promises. “By declaring their assets, President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo may have not only fulfilled the requirements of the Nigerian Constitution, but also fulfilled the first of their many campaign promises,” he said in a statement.

But that is not accurate. The Punch of February 20, 2015 reported Buhari to have said: “I pledge to PUBLICLY declare my assets and liabilities, encourage all my appointees to publicity declare their assets and liabilities as a pre-condition for appointment.” Declaring assets to the Code of Conduct Bureau isn’t a fulfillment of that promise; it’s a constitutional requirement that even former President Goodluck Jonathan of the “I-don’t-give-a-damn” fame fulfilled. 

To pass off Buhari’s and Osinbajo’s mandatory, non-public declaration of their assets as a fulfillment of “the first of their many campaign promises” is not only precipitate; it is also disingenuous. It is precisely why both supporters and critics of Buhari have launched a campaign to compel Buhari to publicly declare his assets. If Malam Garba hadn’t touted the mandatory declaration of Buhari’s assets as a fulfilment of Buhari’s campaign promise, many people would have patiently waited for 100 days to lapse before raising dust.

In the face of withering criticism, Malam Garba has backtracked and now says Buhari will publicly declare his assets only after it has been verified by the Code of Conduct Bureau. If he had said this earlier, the current controversy would not have arisen in the first place. But, let’s face it, even that isn’t good enough. No law forbids Buhari from publicly declaring his assets before verification by the Code of Conduct Bureau. If Buhari is truly committed to transparency and accountability, he should declare his assets publicly now and enlist the public to assist the Code of Conduct Bureau in verifying his claims. That would be “change.”

Buhari’s apologists who point to the late President Musa Yar’adua as the benchmark for President Buhari's public declaration of his assests don’t realize that they are actually doing Buhari a disservice. When people voted for Buhari, they did so because they thought he would transcend all the presidents that preceded him.

The mishandling of Buhari’s asset declaration has now spawned a cottage industry of conspiracy theories about why Buhari is reluctant to publicly declare his assets. I have, for instance, read stories that allege that he is actually a multi-millionaire who deceived the Nigerian people into thinking that he was a poor former head of state whose modesty of means and fierce independence compelled him to take a loan from a bank to buy his party’s nomination forms. It is speculated that Buhari fears that should his assets be declared publicly and Nigerians find out how stupendously wealthy he is, his credibility (which is built on the notion of his legendary frugality and modesty of means) would crumble irretrievably.

There are also conspiracy theories that put his wealth at close to a billion naira with choice properties in Abuja and other cities. Others said Buhari made lavish, unrealistic promises during the presidential campaigns because he didn’t think he would win, evidenced by the fact that he hasn’t announced even basic appointments several days into his presidency.

My inclination is to dismiss these speculations as mendacious and malicious, but the presidency’s lack of straightforwardness on this issue is the biggest fuel for all kinds of wild rumors. As communication scholars often say, poor or insufficient communication is the biggest enabler of rumors, speculations and other forms of ill-natured chatter. Humans are communicating beings; they cannot NOT communicate. If you don’t provide sufficient information to satisfy their communicative curiosity, they will make up their own information.

 The handling of the Buhari asset declaration matter has been a lamentably all-round PR disaster.

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

 I hope President Buhari and his handlers will take this counsel as coming from a well-wisher who wants Buhari to succeed for the benefit of all us. The consequences of Buhari’s failure go way beyond him as a person. He represents the last chance for Nigeria to get it right. That is why he is the most monitored president in Nigeria’s history. Scores of website score him periodically against his campaign promises. There is, in fact, a website called “” that measures “the status of the implementation of promises made by President Muhammadu Buhari.”

For starters, he should go beyond publicly declaring his assets; he should set the process in motion to institutionalize this for all public office holders. This is the best time to do it. People still live in fear of Buhari. Everyone thinks he has come to salvage the nation, and has zero tolerance for corruption. He should strike while the iron is hot. If he delays, tomorrow will be late. Indecision, as the saying goes, is the graveyard of good intentions.

The Code of Conduct Bureau, which is currently severely understaffed and incapable of any truly independent verification of the claims of politicians, should be overhauled and strengthened.

If Buhari doesn’t want to destroy our faith in governance, and in Nigeria itself, he has no option but to live up to his promises.

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Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Grammatical and Rhetorical Analysis of President Buhari’s Inaugural Speech

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

Hundreds of readers wrote to tell me they were disappointed when none of my columns concerned President Muhamadu Buhari’s May 29 inaugural address. They said they expected to read my critical examination of the grammar, usage, and rhetoric of the speech.

But I want readers to be aware that the deadline for turning in my columns is Tuesdays for my “Notes from Atlanta" column in the Daily Trust on Saturday and Thursdays for this column. Given this fact, I could never have written about Buhari’s inaugural address in my columns since it was given on Friday.

Having said that, it’s worth noting that whatever anyone may think of the speech, it will go down in history as one of the most memorable inaugural speeches by a Nigerian president or head of state. Few inaugural speeches can rival the attention it has attracted, the frenzied discussions it has generated, the interpretive contestations it has invited, and the hope and confusion it has inspired. President Buhari clearly has excellent, well-informed speech writers.

In what follows, I identify and analyze what, from my perspective, constitute the rhetorical and grammatical high points of the speech.

1. “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.” No expression in a presidential address has simultaneously puzzled and gladdened Nigerians as this one. On the surface, the expression appears to be mutually contradictory:  you can’t belong to everybody and belong to nobody concurrently. The overlap in duration of belonging to everybody and belonging to nobody appears to be a classic illustration of the Aristotelian law of noncontradiction, which says "One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time."

But the expression is actually an example of a rhetorical device that some scholars call a veridical paradox, which means a contradiction that seems absurd on the surface but that is nonetheless true when looked at deeply. (Veridical means “true” or "real"). In this expression, Buhari gave powerful words to the sentiments several people who know him have expressed about him—that he is something of a blank slate on whom people inscribe whatever they want.

For instance, many people in the Muslim north were passionate about him because they perceived him as the apotheosis of Islamic morality; in the non-Muslim north and elsewhere, he was reviled and feared for the same reason. When pictures of him shaking hands with Edo State governor’s new wife surfaced on social media, many of his Muslim supporters were heartbroken, but his erstwhile critics who had labeled him an intolerant, doctrinaire Muslim were pleasantly discombobulated.

During the campaigns, his critics loosened up a lot when they saw pictures of his wife and female children whose sartorial choices defy the stereotype of people who are “oppressed” by a “fanatical Muslim” man. Which “fanatical” Muslim marries an 18-year-old woman fresh out of secondary school and allows her to go to London to study cosmetology and then enroll for a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s degree?

We also learn from Pastor Tunde Bakare that President Buhari is so religiously cosmopolitan that he calls “Jesus!” in moments of extreme excitement. “I also remember when we got back from a campaign and he was tired and while going to his room, he staggered and said, Jesus Christ of Nazareth and I went ‘What!’” Bakare said. “I said ‘General, I thought it was a swear word,’ and he laughed and said ‘Pastor you don’t have the monopoly of Jesus Christ, you don’t want to hang around General for too long.’”

Buhari’s long and illustrious career in the military certainly broadened his scope, deepened his tolerance for and acceptance of Nigeria’s ethnic and religious plurality, yet it hasn’t vitiated the moral essence of his Hausa-Fulani Muslim identity. That’s why he could leave for Jummat prayers while the inaugural lunch held in his honor was still ongoing.

Saying “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody” captures the truth of Buhari’s notionally multiple yet unified Nigerian identities.

People who are widely traveled and that settle in different parts of the world for extended periods, but usually not long enough to plant any roots, often describe themselves as belonging to “everywhere and nowhere.”

 I laugh at people who claim that Buhari’s speech writers plagiarized the expression from the lyrics of a song titled “Out of Nowhere” by Eric Burdon & War where the line “I belong to everyone, because I belong to no one” appears. The verbiage is similar, no doubt, but the expression doesn’t exclusively belong to Eric Burdon & War. It first appeared in English in Bible translations where Paul says to a servant, in 1 Corinthians 9:19, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone.”

There have been several variations of this biblical expression over the years. Another popular adaption of the expression can be found in Lana Del Rey’s song titled “Ride (Monologue)” where the following line appears: “I belong to no one - who belonged to everyone.” As I wrote in a September 30, 2012 article, “using fixed expressions from the pool of disciplinary and cultural linguistic repertoire isn’t plagiarism.”

2. Grammatical slips in the inaugural address
Although the speech is rhetorically sound, it is bedeviled by several careless grammatical slips. I identify them below, not to ridicule the writers of the speech, but to guide people who might, out of innocence, hold up the speech as the paragon of a well-written, grammatically correct and complete speech.

A. “I salute their resolve in waiting long hours in rain and hot sunshine to register and cast their votes and stay all night if necessary to protect and ensure their votes count and were counted.”

There are at least two grammatical errors that stand out like sore thumbs in the excerpt above. “In rain” isn’t idiomatic. The usual rendering of the expression is “in the rain.” The verb “count” should be rendered as “counted” since the president was referring to an event that has already happened, thus it should be, “ensure their votes counted and were counted.”

B. “I thank those who tirelessly carried the campaign on the social media.”

Unless you’re referring to a social media platform you had mentioned previously, the definite article “the” is unnecessary, even confusing, when it precedes “social media.” The phrase would have been better as “campaign on social media” since the reference to “social media” is generic, not specific.

C. “At the same time, I thank our other countrymen and women who did not vote for us but contributed to make our democratic culture truly competitive, strong and definitive.”

It should be “contributed to making…” In British English, when the preposition “to” comes after verbs like “contribute,” “dedicate,” etc., the auxiliary verb that follows is always in the progressive tense, that is, it always has the “ing” form of a verb.

D. “African brethren.”

Brethren” is an archaic plural form of brother. Its modern version is “brothers.” In contemporary usage, brethren refers only to lay members of certain Christian religious sects. Besides, it’s sexist and exclusionary to use a male gender marker to refer to a vast multitude of people who include both men and women.

E. “Our founding fathers, Mr Herbert Macauley, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Malam Aminu Kano, Chief J.S. Tarka, Mr Eyo Ita, Chief Denis Osadeby, Chief Ladoke Akintola and their colleagues worked to establish certain standards of governance.”

By the rules and logic of Standard English grammar, the insertion of a comma after “founding fathers” gives the impression that Mr Herbert Macaulay and the rest aren’t our founding fathers; that our founding fathers, who are nameless, along with Macaulay and co., “worked to establish certain standards of governance.” Removing the first comma helps “founding father” to function as an attributive phrase that modifies the names that follow.

F. “Not least the operations of the Local Government Joint Account.”

That is a sentence fragment unworthy of being in a presidential address. A sentence fragment is a group of words that lacks a subject, a main verb, and that does not express a complete thought. This excerpt fits the bill.

G. “No single cause can be identified to explain Nigerian’s poor economic performance over the years than the power situation.”

“Than” always co-occurs with the comparative forms of adjectives (such as taller, better, more beautiful) or “rather.” So the sentence should correctly be, “No single cause can be identified to explain Nigeria’s poor economic performance over the years MORE than the power situation.” Even at that, it is awkward phraseology. 

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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Re: Who Will Replace Attahiru Jega as INEC Chairman?

When I asked readers to suggest names of honest, incorruptible and competent people who can build on the gains that Professor Attahiru Jega made at INEC, my intention was not to turn my column as a platform to promote people. But since I promised to publish readers’ responses to my question, I produce below a sample of the names people think might be suitable replacement for Jega. I am unable to publish all the suggestions I received because of the limitation of space.

You underrate your influence when you said your column had nothing to do with Professor Jega’s appointment. Although you’re right that he already had a solid reputation for incorruptibility and fearlessness years before your article, what you write about him did help remind people in power about the man, who had gone out media visibility for a while. In addition, the anecdotes you narrated about him had never been in the public domain. I, for one, saw him in a different light after I read your column about him 5 years ago. You helped me see his decency and incorruptibility personally and up close. In case you didn’t know already, your column is widely read and very influential here in Nigeria. My own advice for President Buhari is that he should seek Jega’s input in appointing his successor. Jega most certainly knows people who can maintain and even build on the good work he did at INEC.
Sabi’u Umar

Jega should not only be persuaded but begged to remain for another tenure to consolidate the reforms and innovations he commenced in INEC. Should he decline, then l suggest Hajiya Amina Bala Zakari, the INEC Federal Commissioner for Sokoto, Kebbi, and Zamfara states. She is incorruptible, articulate, hardworking, a goal getter and an achiever. I am vouching for her because of her positive antecedents, and because l worked under her when she was Executive Secretary, Social Development Secretariat Federal Capital Territory Administration Abuja, between 2007 and 2008.
Abdulhamid Mohammed Suleiman

If it is not reserved for a professor, I know of a Dr. U. B. Ahmed, a trained teacher though without the educational qualifications of Prof. Jega, who is incorruptible. He last served as registrar of IBB University Lapai. He resigned due to former governor Dr. Mu'azu Aliyu’s political toying with the university’s administration immediately after he was sworn in.
Idris Mohammed Bokani

I suggest Garba Muhammad, a retired general, former governor, former Minister of Works and Housing and now a humble provision shop owner opposite BUK old site. He is popularly called “Garba dan Aljanna.”
Abdullahi Ahmed

Your weekly articles are strongly impactful on my English learning career so much that I possess no adequate words to express how informative they are to me. I will pray that Allah continue to bless you for this onerous task. Concerning your question on who will replace Attahiru Jega as INEC chairman, I hereby forward 2 personalities in each of whom I have confidence that he will serve as a suitable replacement of Prof Jega. 1. Prof Mustapha Ahmad Isa who has been recently appointed as Vice-Chancellor of North-West University of Kano State Government. He has built a reputation of incorruptibility especially looking at various posts he held at BUK. 2. Alh Halilu Ahmad Getso. A veteran journalist who is seen as radical by some commentators but widely acclaimed to be always on the course of ethics of public service. Finally I would like to commend you Sir for always engaging and carrying us along in your truth-serving productions. I would advise that you do so on other portfolios that are to be occupied very soon.
Ismail Hashim Abubakar, Kano English Club

I would like to see Professor Pat Utomi take over, but the stumbling block is he has vitiated his CV by involving party politics.
Aliyu Smith Almusawi

I think Dr. Abubakar Siddique of Political science department, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, is fearless, principled, and would not compromise standard or due process for worldly gains.
Abdulkadir Muhammed Yahaya

I suggest Professor Barth Nnaji (Former Minister for power and Steel) for that lofty office. I trust that he can chair the Independent National Electoral Commission to maintain the legacies of Professor Jega, and to effect drastic measures that will register on the credibility of elections in Nigeria.
Abdul Salam Yakubu

''It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.'' This opening sentence to a 'Tale of Two Cities' is a paradox that aptly captured my feelings when I read this article. I say this because the victory of democracy we are celebrating today in Nigeria was largely due to the doggedness and fairness on the part of the man at the helm of affairs in INEC in the person of Professor Attahiru Jega. For those of us who graduated from Bayero University in recent times, Jega is an embodiment of transparency and justice. To hear that Jega is not willing to serve again at INEC really aggravates our fears as to who succeeds him at INEC. This is because, in my opinion good governance begins with credible elections and without competent hands in INEC this cannot be achieved easily. I will use this medium to beg our amiable prof. to please re-consider his stance and stay on this job if Mr. President decides to approve another term for him in office.
Tijjani Abubakar.

I suggest Chidi Odinkalu, who is also a professor and human rights activist. He is very honest, humble, and principled.
Modees Usman

I have seen a personality in your colleague at Media Trust who is equipped naturally to replace Attahiru Jega. That person is nobody but Mahmud Jega, if not because of so-called federal character. Mahmud Jega is well known to be a nonpartisan and highly objective Journalist that can perform excellently as INEC Chairman.

Mohammad Nafiu