"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: September 2016

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Transformation of “Change” from God Term to Devil Term in Nigeria

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

Scholars of language and rhetoric have for long identified certain words and expressions that instinctively evoke warm fuzzy feelings in people, that effortlessly sway opinions, and that galvanize people into action. The words are often so broad and so semantically indeterminate that anyone can read any positive meaning into them. In other words, they are clean semantic slates on which people inscribe whatever positive attributes they want.

American rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called such words “god terms.” In his book titled A Grammar of Motives, Burke describes god terms as the “names for the ultimates of motivation.” They are words that are unquestioningly sanctified by a cultural community, which inspire and drive them to act in a certain way.

Another American rhetorician by the name of Richard Weaver expanded on Burke’s notion of god terms. In his book titled The Ethics of Rhetoric, Weaver defined a “god term” as a “rhetorical absolute” with “inherent potency,” that is, an inherently vague term that most people in a society, culture, and age associate with affirmative attributes and for which they are prepared to make sacrifices.

Words like “justice,” “democracy,” “progress,” “accountability,” “good governance,” “transparency,” “change,” etc. are examples of god terms. They are vague enough to defy semantic precision yet likeable enough to attract positive cognitive and emotional associations.  The words are used by public relations experts, advertisers, politicians, and other kinds of professionals in the mind management industry to persuade people to pursue predetermined courses of actions such as buying a product, voting for a candidate, having a certain kind of opinion or attitude toward a person, a company, or a cause.

God terms are often so universally positive that their underlying assumptions are undisputed, even if they are ill-defined. Who argues with “progress”? Who doesn’t want “justice”? Who resists “democracy”? Who rejects the virtues of “good governance”? Who doesn’t cherish “transparency”? However, although our culture predisposes us to automatically process these terms as invariably positive, we have no precise meanings of the terms, and that’s why they are powerful instruments of persuasion. The best propaganda is one that isn’t suspected as one, and that creatively taps from the cultural consensus of the society.

Devil terms
But there is also something called the “devil term.” A devil term is a word that evokes revulsion in us, that dislocates our sense of emotional balance, and that mindlessly activates negative feelings in us. The most popular devil term of the last two decades is the word “terrorism”—and its many inflectional extensions such as “terrorist,” “terroristic,” “terrorize,” etc.

In Nigeria, “sentiments,” “tribalistic,” “unpatriotic,” etc. have become devil terms. The painfully idiotic expression “wailing wailer” (or “wailer,” which simply means a critic of President Buhari) has also now become a devil term among hordes of low-wattage Buhari partisans on social media.

God terms that are overused, that have exhausted their persuasive power, or that have reached the end of their rhetorical shelf life can transmogrify into devil terms. For example, in the United States, “liberal” went from being a god term to a devil term, no thanks to the propaganda of conservatives who successfully cast liberals as unpatriotic. Now politically and culturally liberal Americans call themselves “progressives.”

 Even in northern Nigeria, “liberal” has transmuted from a god term into a devil term. This connotational transmutation explains why Kaduna State changed its license-plate slogan from “liberal state” to “center of learning.”

The term “political correctness” used to be a god term. It meant social sensitivity, especially in language use, toward marginal groups in the society. Now it has become a devil term that means underhand, Orwellian censorship of free speech.

“Change” as a God Term
The term “change” is historically a powerful god term in politics. It is thought to have endless rhetorical utility, and its invocation especially in moments of great national stress can be enormously potent. A few examples from US political history illustrate this.

Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign slogan was, "Some People Talk Change, Others Cause It." He lost to his opponent, Richard Nixon, by a painfully narrow margin—what some analysts called by “seven-tenths of a percentage point.” Well, perhaps it was because Humphrey was the incumbent vice president who represented the old order, or because he was ambivalent about change. He dismissed people who “talked” about it and cast himself as someone who “caused” it.

God terms are supposed to be vague and devoid of concreteness to be effective. Voters’ material conditions probably reminded them that the government Humphrey was a part of didn’t “cause” the kind of “change” they identified with, so they chose to stick with “some people who talk change,” even if it was an indeterminate change.

In 1976 Jimmy Carter won election as America’s 39th president, and his campaign slogan was, "A Leader, For a Change." However, his administration came to be beset by runaway inflation and a biting recession, much like Buhari’s is shaping up to be, and he became thoroughly unpopular by the end of his first term. Ronald Reagan defeated him in a landslide in 1980 with the campaign slogan, "Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?"

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan, "It's Time to Change America," resonated with Americans, and helped him to handily defeat George Bush Sr., ending 12 uninterrupted years of Republican rule.

Sixteen years later, Barack Obama reengaged with the persuasive arsenal of “change” with the slogan “Change We Can Believe In” (or just "Change”), and won a massive victory against John McCain.

In Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari caused an unprecedented political upset by defeating an incumbent president through his deployment of the “change” slogan.

When “Change” Becomes a Devil Term
Judging from the vast disillusionment that the Buhari administration has instigated in Nigerians so far, “change” may become a “devil term” in Nigeria by 2019, if it hasn’t already become one.

Change has now come to be associated with lies, deceit, hypocrisy, double standards, endless whining and blame shifting by people in government, descent from bad to worse in living conditions, incompetence in high places, unpreparedness, astonishing elite insensitivity, economic and social bondage, pauperization, reverse Robin Hoodism (which I once defined as robbing of the poor to enrich the rich), personalization of power, extreme nepotism and provincialism, facile and arrogant disavowal of promises made during campaigns, etc.

 These are all attributes the current “change” administration embodies in colossal measure, which will certainly cause the “change” slogan to become irretrievably damaged in Nigeria’s linguistic, rhetorical, and political landscape.

Perhaps the greatest violence to the notion of “change” in Nigeria is the “ChangeBeginsWithMe” campaign whose conception and execution ironically undermine its very notional core. The campaign was irreparably marred by two grave legal and ethical infractions that bordered on barefaced intellectual theft. The concept itself is the appropriation of somebody’s copyright. That’s a legal infraction. The speech that formally introduced it to Nigerians plagiarized an entire paragraph from Obama’s speech. That’s an ethical infraction.

The campaign has now deservedly become the object of scorn, derision and anger, especially because government officials who champion it are steeped in the old ways while calling people who are already down and out to “change.”

An old woman I spoke to in Nigeria last Friday, who is a staunch Buhari supporter, captured Buhari’s “change” this way: Unhappy occupants of a leaky house hired the services of a new builder (Buhari) to repair their roof. The builder decided to take down the entire roof in order to rebuild it. But after taking the roof down, the builder is out of his depth, and has no clue how to put it together again.

Now he blames everything and everybody— from his tools to previous builders who put the roof together—for his incompetence and cluelessness. Meanwhile, the occupants of the house who thought being wet from their leaky roof during rains was bad now have to contend with being thoroughly drenched from the rains since they now have no roof at all.

No one in Nigeria will ever campaign again on a platform of “change.” The word is now an irredeemably damaged slogan. Its persuasive content has been depleted. When next a politician or a political party promises “change,” people would most certainly ask: What “change” do you mean? Change from what to what? From bad to worse? Or change in the faces of people in power while the same old order of corruption, cronyism, nepotism, impunity, intolerance, bigotry stays intact? Is this another bait and switch?

When people begin to ask for the precise meaning of a god term you know it’s no longer one. Or, worse, when a term evokes fear and trepidation in people, you know it has graduated to a devil term. “Change” is becoming a devil term in Nigeria.

When Richard Weaker said in the 1950s that "a society's health or declension was mirrored in how it used language," he came across as overly linguistically deterministic. The story of “change” in Nigeria instantiates his assertion. 

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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Garba Shehu and Buhari’s £6-Million London Ear Treatment

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

I have avoided publicly joining issue with Malam Garba Shehu, my former teacher at Bayero University Kano. For instance, on September 16, a well-known international broadcast organization requested that I grant them an interview on an issue that would have pitted me against him. “I have said to myself a long time ago that I would never do, write, or say anything publicly to embarrass my former teachers, including Malam Garba, unless their action is so absolutely detestable and so injurious to society that I can't afford to ignore it. I am not sure this action rises to that level,” I wrote.

The reporter understood. You see, Malam Garba wasn’t just my teacher; he was far and away my most influential journalism teacher for whom I still have the profoundest respect. Although it’s been two decades since he taught me in my final year, I still vividly remember so many invaluable gems of journalistic wisdom I learned from him, which I repeat to my own students here in America.

On his first day in class, for instance, he told us he was “allergic to bad grammar.” We all thought that was a creatively humorous word choice. I still remember his definition of news. He said, “news is the displacement of routine; all else is PR.” He taught us to never be intimidated by politicians, however highly placed they may be, when we interview them. “You are not interviewing them in your personal capacity; you are doing so as a representative of the public.”

 I have never been able to erase from my memory his admonition that “no piece of writing is so good it can’t be improved upon.” I don’t know how many times I’ve said that to my own students. It was also through him I first learned of former Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham’s famous definition of journalism as the “first rough draft of history.”

When you have a teacher who has had such an enduring intellectual and professional impact on you, it is hard, really hard, to disagree with him publicly. This article is one of the most painful articles I’ve written in my career. But I need to set the records straight for posterity.

First, I need to point out that the Vanguard report of June 6, which informed my commentary last week, did NOT state that £6 million was used as the medical bill for Buhari’s ear treatment. It said "Checks at the presidency claimed that, the cost of the trip which includes aviation fuel, accommodation, allowances for aides and medical treatment amounts to about £6 million."

What government needs to do is go beyond issuing a glib denial; it should bring authentic, verifiable documentary evidence that shows exactly how much was spent during the 14-day trip to London when Buhari’s ear was treated. How many aircraft in the presidential fleet were taken to London? How much did it cost to fuel them? What was the landing cost for keeping them in London for 14 days? How many aides and government officials went to London with the president? How much did their per diem (what we call “estacodes” in Nigeria) cost the national treasury? What was the cost of accommodating and feeding the coterie of aides and government officials that followed the president to London? We already know, through Malam Garba, that the president’s medical bill was about 50,000 pounds.

From my own informal observation, when you calculate the cost of the trip—fueling of the aircraft in the presidential fleet, per diem for aides and other government officials, etc. for two weeks.—there is no way on earth that it wouldn’t add up to a few million pounds. No way.

 Now, note that Vanguard claimed to have made "checks" at the presidency, and nobody from the presidency denied it—for more than three months after the fact! As I pointed out on Malam Garba’s Facebook page, I am the first to admit that Vanguard isn't always a reliable source of news (I have written at least two scathing articles on it), but it's also true that Vanguard is Nigeria's most visited online news source, outranked occasionally only by Punch, according to Alexa. You ignore it at your own risk. Plus, the fact that it occasionally publishes stories that turn out to be false doesn’t mean every single story it publishes is false.

Only unreflective Buhari apologists assume the falsity of the Vanguard report without any shred of contrary evidence other than a facile, reactive denial. People who work for the president read all of Nigeria's major newspapers on a daily basis, and they must have seen this story in the Vanguard when it was first published. I know this trade well enough to know that if a negative report goes unchallenged for more than 3 months, the report is probably true—or at least has a grain of truth to it. People affected by it are simply practicing the age-old PR principle of not reacting to a reputationally harmful and embarrassing story so as not to lend it wings, in the hope that people won't notice—until, of course, opinion molders pounce on it and make it an issue.

Some people said I should have verified Vanguard's claims from the presidency before citing it. Why is that my responsibility when the presidency that is directly implicated by the report hasn't denied it for more than three months? Which ethical journalistic canon requires anyone to do that? Why do people cite the employment scandals of this administration without first going to the presidency to verify their truth?

In any case, isn’t it the same presidency that reacts to every inane, obscure attacks on the president even from the gaunt fringes of the Internet? Didn't the presidency once issue a statement denying an unmentioned libelous allegation that Radio Biafra made against Buhari, causing the profile of the station and the cause it espouses to rise exponentially? If it reacts to every irritation against the president, why didn't it react to a report that makes the weighty claim that the president spent £6 million for his London ear treatment trip?

But, most importantly, some people assume that just because the presidency has denied the allegation, it must be false. That's unbelievably shallow and credulous. First, Malam Garba Shehu's statement merely told us the medical bill Buhari incurred for his ear treatment. It said nothing about the cost of the entire trip. Never mind that on June 8, 2016, Femi Adesina actually said “The President did not go to London for treatment.” Now we are told he spent “less than £50,000” for as his medical bill for ear treatment.

Finally, can anybody in good conscience defend the action of a president who allocated N4 billion to Aso Rock Clinic (which is more than the budget of all Nigerian teaching hospitals combined) but goes abroad to treat an ear infection less than a month after he banned government officials from traveling abroad for medical treatment? Let's not allow our emotions to get the better of our judgment!

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

“ChangeBeginsWithMe” Campaign as a Bait-and-Switch Scam

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

The Buhari government’s “Change Begins with Me” campaign is perhaps the cheekiest bait-and-switch governmental scam in Nigerian history. When I said this on Facebook last week, a few people thought I was being harsh. But my choice of words is deliberate and well-advised.

 Bait-and-switch scams are kinds of confidence tricks where unsuspecting customers are lured into (or “baited” to) an attractive, often too-good-to-be-true, offers. Once the customers’ interest is sufficiently piqued, sustained, and won over, the terms of the offer change (or “switch”). It’s an age-old scam in advertising that the APC has brought to the political realm.

Buhari and APC baited Nigerians with a promise to “change” the country from the rampant blight and cronyism of the past. After Nigerians swallowed the bait and voted them into power, they have “switched” and now say “change” begins with everyday Nigerians who voted them into power, not only they who promised it. That’s straight-up dupery.

Even the campaign slogan is a scam. I am not talking of the fact that the concept itself is the product of the shameless theft of the intellectual labor of one Akin Fadeyi, according to the Premium Times of September 11, 2016, which is bad in itself; I am talking of the campaign’s intentional semantic obfuscation. The real motive force behind the campaign is the desire to deflect attention from the current government’s noticeable unpreparedness to govern, from its cocktail of failures that daily conspire to push the country to the edge of the precipice, and from the unwillingness of its principal actors to give up an inch of their privileges to bring about the change they promised.

The “me” in the slogan fraudulently seeks to democratize the blame for the failures of the government.

As most people have pointed out, everybody else in Nigeria has already changed or is prepared to change except people in government. In the first few months of Buhari’s presidency, his supporters were all fired up and ready to change, and even his opponents were in dread of the changes they imagined would come from what they thought was an austere, straight-talking, honest man.

But there has been no change. Instead, promises are being changed. Take, for example, this iconic Buhari pre-election promise.

In February 2015, after the presidential election was shiftily shifted by the Jonathan administration (using "insecurity" as a convenient pretext) in a vain effort to ward off its impending electoral loss (the precise thing that the Buhari administration is doing in Edo State now), Buhari went to London to rest. While there, he addressed the Nigerian community.

"One of the major killers of our economy, apart from corruption, is waste,” Buhari said. “Let me give an instance: Presently, there are more than 6 aircraft in the presidential fleet. What do you call that? Billions of naira is budgeted every year for the maintenance of these aircraft, not to talk of operational costs and other expenses.

“You may want to ask what a Nigerian President is doing with so many aircraft when the Prime Minister of Britain flies around using the same public aircraft like an ordinary Briton. Go and check and compare with that of any developed country in the world: the office of the Nigerian President is a very expensive one in spite of our high level of poverty, lack, and joblessness. Despite all this, you still find a Nigerian minister spending about N10 billion to charter an aircraft for just one year.

“Now, for me, when we come into office, all this waste will be blocked and properly channelled into our economy. We intend, for instance, to bring back our national carrier, the Nigerian Airways. We shall do this by bringing all the aircraft in the presidential fleet into the Nigerian Airways and within a year increase the fleet to about 20.

“What is the difference between me and those who elected us to represent them? Absolutely nothing! Why should Nigerian president not fly with other Nigerian public? Why do I need to embark on a foreign trip as a president with a huge crowd with public fund? Why do I need to go for foreign medical trip if we cannot make our hospital functional? Why do we need to send our children to school abroad if we cannot develop our universities to compete with the foreign ones? ... This is not my struggle. It is our collective efforts to save Nigeria from those who have failed us for 16 years."

Admirable, high-minded sentiments. Call them “baits,” if you like. But two years on, what has changed? Well, he has sustained and, in some cases, doubled down on the very things he railed against in this short speech. Call it a “switch.”

 Nigeria's indefensibly profligate presidential air fleet is still intact, and has cost Nigeria nearly 20 billion naira to maintain since Buhari came to power, according to aviation industry experts who spoke to the Punch. (The official figure is 5 billion naira, which is still unjustifiable, especially at a time when millions of people can’t feed). By contrast, four years ago, former Malawian president Joyce Banda discarded her presidential jet and luxury car fleet to demonstrate that she meant change.

What is more, in direct contradiction to what he promised, Buhari went to London a few months ago to check an ear infection that was already treated in Nigeria “purely as a precaution,” according to his media adviser—less than one month after he issued a policy proclamation that forbids government officials from going on medical treatment abroad.

 To boot, he took the presidential air fleet along with him to London, and cost the nation, by some accounts (which haven't been disproved by the presidency), 6 million pounds. That's more than the money allocated to all Nigerian hospitals in the current budget! Just for an ear infection!

You can’t be luxuriating in the outrageous prodigality of the past and think you can talk to poor, starving people about “change.” What change? Why should they change when you who promised them change haven’t changed? Why should they change when APC now stands for All Promises Changed?

Change should begin with Buhari and other toadies in government, and everybody else will be impelled to follow their footsteps. For starters, Buhari should make good his promise to sell off the planes in the presidential air fleet. He doesn’t need to set up a “committee” to do that.

I don’t hate the Buhari administration. Millions of Nigerians, including me, supported its emergence. I only absolutely detest the administration’s out-and-out hypocrisy and incompetence, and will continue to be on its back until it changes.

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Einstein was a Polytechnic Graduate: Thoughts on Nigerian HNDs

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

Last week’s column titled “Ibrahim Waziri: From HND in Nigeria to PhD in America” recalled a column I wrote on December 27, 2009 on the parity of esteem between polytechnic and university qualifications. Given the interest last week’s column generated, I’ve decided to share a reworked and updated version of the article:

If you are a Nigerian university graduate who has been socialized into disdaining polytechnics as inferior higher education institutions, think about this: Albert Einstein, the world’s most renowned physicist and one of the most influential thinkers of all time, graduated from the Zurich Polytechnic (now called the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich) in 1900 with a diploma in mathematics and physics.

 Unlike in Nigeria, his diploma wasn’t a handicap to his pursuit of advanced degrees. He studied for and earned his Ph.D. in experimental physics from the University of Zurich, five years after his diploma. If a polytechnic produced one of the world’s greatest thinkers, why are polytechnics so low on the totem pole of post-secondary education in Nigeria? Why do we reserve ice-cold derision for polytechnic qualifications?

 Well, the answer lies in the different philosophies that informed the establishment of polytechnics in different countries. In the United States, “polytechnic universities” and “institutes of technology” are, and have always been, similar in status and structure to conventional universities. So they don’t have the reputational baggage that our polytechnics have.

 But the UK tradition of polytechnic education, which we inherited in Nigeria, intended for polytechnics to be no more than intermediate technical and vocational schools to train technologists and a lowbrow, middle-level workforce. So their mandate limited them to offer sub-degree courses in engineering and applied sciences.

In time, however, they ventured into the humanities and the social sciences and then sought to be equated with universities. This request was grudgingly granted only after the British government set up the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA)—composed wholly of people from universities—to examine and validate the quality of polytechnic qualifications.

Nevertheless, in spite of this elaborate institutional quality control (which had no equivalent for universities) the higher national diploma (HND) was treated as only the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree “without honors.” In university administration lingo, only a “pass” degree—the lowest possible rank in British degree classification—is considered a degree “without honors.”

This means that first-class, upper-second-class, lower-second-class and third-class degrees have “honors” and that the HND is only equivalent to a “pass” degree. That’s why, traditionally, British universities did not—and many still do not— admit HND graduates to master’s degree programs (even if the HND graduates had a distinction in their diploma) without first requiring them to undergo a one-year remedial postgraduate diploma program—just like people with “pass” degrees must undergo a remedial program before being admitted to master’s degree programs.

This invidious discrimination against polytechnic graduates and manifestly preferential treatment for university graduates, often called the “Binary Divide” in UK higher education parlance, predictably gave rise to pervasive feelings of deep, bitter anger and ill-will in the system.

So in 1992, under the Further and Higher Education Act, the “binary divide” was abolished, and all the 35 polytechnics in the UK were elevated to universities and given powers to award bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees. There are no more polytechnics—and the HND qualification— in the UK.

 Most other countries with British-style binary divides have also eliminated the distinction between polytechnics and universities to varying degrees. In Australia, polytechnics were elevated to “universities of technology” in the 1990s.

Hong Kong, a former British colony like Nigeria, upgraded its two polytechnics—The Hong Kong Polytechnic and the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong—to universities in 1994 and 1995 respectively.

New Zealand also merged all its polytechnics with existing universities and allowed only one—Auckland University of Technology (formerly the Auckland Institute of Technology)—to transmute into a full-fledged university in the 1990s.

 Greece abolished its polytechnics and upgraded them to universities in 2001. In South Africa, from 2004, polytechnics, known as technikons, were either merged with universities or upgraded to “universities of technologies,” although with limited rights and privileges.

In Germany, polytechnics can now, in addition to diplomas, award bachelor’s and master’s degrees in technical and vocational subjects (and in some humanities and social science courses such as communication studies, business and management, etc.) but cannot award PhDs.

In Sierra Leone, where polytechnic education began only in 2001, the country’s three polytechnics award bachelor’s degrees in a limited number of courses, in addition to awarding sub-degree diplomas and certificates.

 Kenya, another former British colony, merged its polytechnics with older universities and made them degree-awarding institutions since 2009. And Ghana has announced plans to convert its polytechnics into “technical universities” starting this month.

In India, Pakistan, and Singapore, polytechnics don’t grant higher education qualifications; students are admitted to a 3-year diploma program in technical and vocation fields from what we would call SS1 in Nigeria, that is, after the 10th year of formal schooling. So Indian, Pakistan, and Singaporean polytechnics are actually an alternative to traditional secondary education; they are not higher education institutions like Nigerian polytechnics are. (India’s “institutes of technology” award bachelor’s degrees and aren’t the same as “polytechnics.”)

Malaysia’s premier polytechnic, Ungku Omar Polytechnic, offers bachelor’s degrees in addition to diplomas and advanced diplomas. Other polytechnics in the country only offer diplomas and advanced diplomas.

What the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Hong Kong, Greece, Kenya, etc. achieved in the 1990s and 2000s— that is, abolition of the often unfair binary between polytechnic and university qualifications—had been achieved in Albert Einstein’s polytechnic in 1909, five years after he got his diploma there. It was, like most other polytechnics in Switzerland, elevated to a full-fledged university, although it is still fondly called “Poly” by its students, staff, and alumni to this day.

Almost no country in the world, except Nigeria, retains the binary divide between polytechnics and universities. Nigeria has no business being the lone exception.

So this is my recommendation to education minister Adamu Adamu: The HND should be abolished forthwith. However, the OND should be retained to supply the nation’s middle-level labor pool and to serve as a foundational qualification for entry into B. Tech. degree programs.

Small and mid-sized polytechnics should continue to offer the OND and big, resource-rich polytechnics like Yaba Tech, Kaduna Polytechnic, IMT Enugu, Federal Poly Auchi, etc. should be upgraded and converted to full-fledged universities of technology.

Having taught mass communication on a part-time basis at the Kaduna Polytechnic 16 years ago, and knowing that polytechnic students are just as good—and as bad—as university students, I am eager to see Nigeria join the rest of the world in eliminating the unfair binary divide between universities and polytechnics.

As Dr. Waziri’s example shows, we’ve been burying our Einsteins for years. That has got to stop.

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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Zuckerberg, Facebook and Why Hausa is a “Unique” Language

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

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg sparked a raucous socio-linguistic debate in Nigeria after he disclosed in Lagos that Facebook’s platform now supports the Hausa language. But his words were quickly twisted to suggest that he said Hausa was a “unique language.”

I looked everywhere on the Internet for the exact quote where he said Hausa was a unique language. I didn’t find any. This is what Biztech Africa quoted him to have said. “I am proud of putting Hausa language on the platform. I know with time more languages from Nigeria will also go live.” The News Agency of Nigeria had a different quote. It  quoted him to have said, “I am glad we support Hausa and we are planning on supporting a lot more languages soon.’’

So let’s be clear that Zuckerberg never said Hausa was a unique language. Nor did he, as some Nigerian websites misquoted him as saying, proclaim being “proud” of Hausa.

But even if Zuckerberg didn’t say Hausa was unique, it sure is a fascinating language for these 5 reasons—and more.

1. Hausa is far and away Nigeria’s, nay West Africa’s, most widely spoken language. According to several estimates, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, it is spoken by up to 50 million people both as a native language and as a non-native language. This means it is outrivaled only by Swahili as the most widely spoken language in Africa.

2. Hausa is also emerging as Nigeria’s only non-ethnic language, by which I mean it is spoken as a lingua franca by millions of people who are not ethnically Hausa. Although Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Fulfulde, and other major Nigerian languages have tens of millions of speakers, the speakers are, for the most part, ethnically affiliated with the languages. For instance, although Yoruba is also spoken in Benin Republic, Togo, and  Cuba and many other Caribbean nations, it is spoken mostly by people who ethnically identify as Yoruba.

In Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, Cote d'Ivoire, Sudan, etc. Hausa is spoken by millions of people who also speak their native languages. No West African language is spoken as a second language by as many people as Hausa is.

There are more than 25 million non-native Hausa speakers, according to many estimates, and the number is growing courtesy of the increasing reach and popularity of the Hausa movie industry called Kannywood. That means there are nearly as many people who speak Hausa as a native language as there are who speak it as a non-native language. Like what has happened to the English language, in the near future, there may be more non-native Hausa speakers than native Hausa speakers.

 It is now usual to distinguish between native- and non-native speaker varieties of Hausa in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation. There is even pidginized Hausa called Barikanci, which is spoken by non-native Hausa speakers in military barracks.

Hausa is a lingua franca in 16 of northern Nigeria’s 19 states. The only northern Nigerian states where Hausa isn’t widely spoken are Benue, Kogi and Kwara.

3. Hausa enjoys enormous language loyalty in ways no other Nigerian language does. First, most Hausa speakers who are educated in English are also educated in Hausa. That is, they can write as proficiently in English as they can in Hausa. You can’t say that of speakers of other Nigerian languages.

Second, Hausa speakers don’t subordinate their language to English or even Arabic. By contrast, the Igbo language has the distinction of being the only endangered language that is spoken by millions of native speakers. Typically, languages are endangered because of the numerical insignificance of their native-speaker base, or because younger people refuse to speak them. This fate is often suffered by minor languages with low social and cultural prestige.

But Igbo isn’t just spoken by millions of people in Nigeria, it also enjoys high social prestige. However, the preference for English and Nigerian Pidgin English is endangering the language. That is why in 2012 UNESCO predicted that if nothing is done to reverse the trend the Igbo language could disappear from the world’s linguistic map by 2025. This is obviously overly alarmist, but several Igbo scholars are taking this prediction seriously.

4. Hausa has a rich written tradition that goes back to hundreds of years. For instance, Kano Chronicle, a palace-centered monthly publication, was first published in Hausa (and in Arabic) in 1503 and continued for many years before it stopped publishing. It predated Iwe Irohin fun awon Egba ati Yoruba (“newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba people”), which was first published in 1859 by the Reverend Henry Townsend.

5. Hausa has an extensive lexical repertoire. Apart from its own rich native vocabulary, it has borrowed liberally from Kanuri, Arabic, Fulfulde, Tuareg, and, lately, English—the same way that English has borrowed, and continues to borrow from Latin, Greek, Arabic and other languages.

Hausa is also perhaps the only Nigerian language that has grammatical gender for noun distinction. Every Hausa noun is either masculine or feminine.

Clarifying the Misconceptions about Hausa’s Linguistic Superiority
While Hausa is a rich, deep, structurally beautiful language, it isn’t superior to any language. No language is. As Michael Stubbs points out in his book, Language, Schools and Classroom, “It is accepted by linguists that no language or dialect is intrinsically superior or inferior to any other, and that all languages and dialects are suited to the needs of the communities they serve” (p. 30).

That Hausa is a fascinating language doesn’t mean that it is superior to any language— or that other languages are inferior to it. Here are popular misconceptions about the Hausa language that I’ve decided to explode:

1. Hausa is the first written language in Nigeria. That is not true. Although the ajami script (an improvised Arabic orthography) emerged in Hausaland around the 1500s, it is not the first writing system in Nigeria. Ajami was preceded by an indigenous writing system called nsibidi in what is now Cross River and Akwai Ibom states by hundreds of years.

The earliest record of nsibidi dates back to more than 1000 years. It was an ideographic alphabet that was written on pots, calabashes, stools, walls, leaves, etc., which British colonialists initially derided as "a kind of primitive secret writing," but which actually produced an elite corps of literate people who used it to write court judgments and to chronicle history.

In his article titled “Early Ceramics from Calabar, Nigeria: Towards a History of Nsibidi,” American art historian Christopher Slogar quoted J.K. Macgregor to have said the following about nsibidi in the 1900s: "The use of nsibidi is that of ordinary writing. I have in my possession a copy of the record of a court case from a town of Enion [Enyong] taken down in it, and every detail ... is most graphically described."

It is worth mentioning that a kind of indigenous, nsibidi-like Hausa alphabet that is neither Arabic-based nor Latin-based was discovered in Maradi in southern Niger Republic in 2004. It was discovered by a Nigerien Hausa by the name of Aboubacar Mahamane. But no one has determined when the alphabet was invented. Did it predate ajami or did it come after ajami? Dr. Donald Zhang Osborn, an American scholar who specializes in African languages, brought this alphabet to the attention of the world.

2. Hausa speakers were widely literate before colonialism. This is a common claim that has no basis in facts. Although literacy in Arabic and ajami existed in Hausaland before British colonialism, it was never widespread at any point in history. Being merely able to read and write in Arabic isn’t functional literacy. Like most northern Muslims, I can read and write in Arabic, but I can’t claim to have functional literacy in the language because I can’t communicate in it.

As Billy Dudley points out in his book, Parties and Politics in Northern Nigeria, according to the 1921 census, the literacy rate in the north (including Arabic literacy) was a mere 1.9 percent. By 1952, the literacy rates in Arabic were 10 percent in Zaria; 8 percent in Kano; 4.8 percent in Katsina; 4 percent in Niger; 2.2 percent in Plateau; 2 percent in Borno; 1 percent in Benue (p. 106).

Like Latin in Medieval Europe, full functional Arabic literacy in northern Nigeria was the exclusive preserve of a few clerical elite. It was never democratized literacy.

3. Some commentators suggested that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg privileged Hausa over other Nigerian languages because of Afro-Asiatic solidarity. Zuckerberg is Jewish, and Hebrew, the ancestral language of Jews, belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family—in common with Hausa.
Well, while that is true, Zuckerberg’s immediate ancestors were Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish, not Hebrew. Yiddish is a Germanic language, although it has a sprinkling of Hebrew and Aramaic words in it.

4. Modern Hausa people have always spoken Hausa. That is another misconception. First, according to the late Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman, “Hausa” isn’t even a Hausa word; it’s derived from the ancient Songhai word for “southerners,” which makes sense since Hausa people are located south of the Zarma and Dendi people of Niger Republic (who are the modern descendants of the Songhai people). The first known use of the term Hausa (in English?) dates back to 1853, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Second, a landmark 2009 DNA study by Sarah A. Tishkoff and 21 other researchers titled “The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans” shows that most modern native Hausa speakers are actually Nilo-Saharans who share genetic affinities with people from Borno, central Chad, Cameroun, and South Sudan. They adopted the Hausa language through elite emulation thousands of years ago. That’s why linguists are often careful not to use language as a basis to make judgments on ethnic origins.

In my April 3, 2016 article titled “Nigerian Languages are More Closely Related Than You Think,” I pointed out that “linguistic similarity isn’t always evidence for common ethnic or racial origin. For instance, although the Hausa people speak an ‘Afro-Asiatic’ language, they have little or no Eurasian element in their genetic profile while the Fulani who speak a Niger-Congo language have substantial Eurasian elements in their gene pool.”

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ibrahim Waziri: From HND in Nigeria to PhD in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

What you will read below is the inspirational story of a 29-year-old Nigerian from Bauchi who graduated with an HND in Electronics Engineering from the Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi, in 2009 and wound up getting a PhD in Information Security from Purdue University last month.

His journey started when he sent me an email in late 2009. He wanted to know if his HND would qualify him to study for a master’s degree in the US. I told him yes, and sent him links to two articles I wrote about studying in the US. I also guided him on how to take the GRE and TOEFL and how to apply to US universities.

I didn’t think what I did would amount to anything. I have rendered countless such mentorships to several people. But two years later, I got an email from Ibrahim (now Dr. Waziri) that he was enrolled in a master’s program at a university here in Georgia thanks entirely to my guidance, which I frankly didn’t even remember until I searched my email archive. He even visited me in my home.

A few years later, he was accepted to the prestigious Purdue University to study for a Ph.D. He graduated a month ago with high honors and has accepted a well-paying job in Washington DC. To say I am delighted and proud of this energetic, passionate young man’s success is to understate the incredibly overwhelming joy I feel.

I requested Dr. Waziri to write a short piece detailing his journey to serve as an inspiration to many young people with HNDs who think their educational journeys have ended. Enjoy it:
Dr. Ibrahim Waziri
Getting a Ph.D. from an American university has always been dream. But like many HND graduates, I always wondered if I would be able to continue with my studies in the US with a Nigerian HND. Would the HND be recognized as the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree? I had no clue until I came across Prof. Farooq Kperogi’s Weekly Trust column and blog.

In November 2009, I read Prof. Kperogi’s article titled “Studying in America: What you need to know.” After reading the article, and understanding how the process of getting accepted into an American University was, I emailed him to inquire whether my HND was equivalent to an American bachelor’s degree. He answered my questions, provided in-depth guidance, and later published another article titled “HND and American Universities,” which provided a step-by-step guide on how an HND graduate can continue studying in the US.

 Following guidance from Prof. Kperogi’s article, I submitted my OND and HND transcripts to the Word Education Services (WES) for evaluation. (WES is the largest international credential evaluation service in America and Canada). The evaluation results said my HND was equivalent to an American bachelor’s degree.  

At the time my transcripts were under evaluation, I prepared for and took my Graduate Records Exams (GRE) and benefitted from the resources Prof. Kperogi generously shared with me. I got impressive scores. I applied for the master’s program at Georgia Tech, Southern Poly State University, and Georgia Southern University. I got accepted into Georgia Southern.

In August 2012, I started my Masters of Science degree in Applied Engineering (with a focus in Information Technology) at Georgia Southern University. It is at Georgia Southern that I met my mentor and amazing professor by the name of Prof. Jordan Shropshire, who is now a Professor of Computer Science at the University of South Alabama. I worked in Prof. Shropshire’s lab as a Research and Teaching assistant were I learned how to conduct research and mentor students. 

I worked on different projects relating to Network Security and Cloud Computing, which resulted in my first academic publication. My performance during my master’s program was really impressive to the point that I got inducted into the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, the oldest and most selective honor society in the US. This is what my mentor, Prof. Shropshire, said about me:

Ibrahim was my best graduate assistant at Georgia Southern University. He is intelligent, professional, and responsive. He completes complicated projects on time and under budget. A patient man, he excels at explaining complex subjects to non-technical persons. Even under the most stressful conditions I don't think I've ever seen him lose his cool. For these reasons (and many others) I wouldn't hesitate to hire him again.
– Source: Ibrahim Waziri’s LinkedIn profile.

In May 2014, I graduated with my master’s degree. Immediately after, in August 2014, I started my Ph.D. in Information Security at Purdue University, one of the best universities in the world. I worked extremely hard, taking more classes than required per semester. Because of the rigor of the research training I got from my master’s degree program, I was able to work on my dissertation while doing my course work. This enabled me to complete my 90 hours coursework and dissertation in 2 years. This is unusual. Ph.D. education in US universities typically lasts a minimum of 4 years.

I graduated with my Ph.D. in August 2016. My research areas are Network Security, Cloud Computing, and Virtualization Security. I have published and presented papers relating to Firewalls, Phishing Attacks, Cyber Forensics, etc.

While at Purdue University, I worked as a Cyber Anti-Fraud Analyst for RSA, the Security Division of EMC. And I also interned as a Cyber Security Analyst for the US Federal Government, working with USITC in Washington DC. This is what Prof. Sam Liles, one of my professors during my Ph.D. program, said about me:

Ibrahim showed exceptional understanding of how to analyze malware and problem solve in a class he took with me. His work with volatile malware samples and structured laboratory problems shows a lot of promise. If you are looking for a savvy thinker and capable individual, he is the right person. I enjoyed watching his thinking processes and following along as he solved several complex problems. Almost always forgotten when recommending somebody, but very important is that Ibrahim is simply a nice guy and easy to get along with.
– Source: Ibrahim’s LinkedIn profile.

I currently work as a Security Research Engineer in Washington, DC. I still consider myself a student and want to gain more in-depth hands-on experience in the ever-changing Cyber Security field. But, ultimately, I want to come back home (Nigeria) to help tackle the Cyber Security issues Nigeria faces. You can look me up on LinkedIn or on my personal page at iiwaziri.com.

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