"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: June 2018

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Buhari, Osinbajo, and How Not To Sympathize with Grieving People

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

President Muhammadu Buhari has now established a template for “grieving” with people who are mourning the loss of loved ones to senseless and preventable violence. It consists in disclaiming personal responsibility for the bloodletting; blaming unnamed and unnamable “politicians” for the violence; hierarchizing tragedies and giving the award for the bloodiest tragedy to his “favorites” whose misery he actually doesn’t care about because the votes of their survivors is guaranteed for him; asking for prayers; urging community leaders to get together and learn to tolerate each other; saying government is doing “something”; and bragging about his  “achievements in security.” Until the next tragedy strikes. And he repeats the same things.

While on what was supposed to be a visit to calm and reassure distraught people in Plateau, Buhari said “there is some injustice” in holding him personally responsible for the carnage in the land. However, he likes to take credit for what he considers the “successes” of his administration. During the same “condolence” visit where he characterized any personal association of the bloodbath with him as “injustice,” he said, “It is noteworthy that many Nigerians still acknowledge that despite the security challenges, this administration has made notable successes in the security sector.”

Apart from the sickening insensitivity in bragging about “notable successes in the security sector” to grief-stricken people whose relatives have been murdered, how can a president who thinks it’s unjust to hold him personally responsible for the widespread slaughterous rage in the land pat himself in the back for “notable success in the security sector” when the country is drenched in oceans of blood, when he himself conceded that “human life is becoming cheap in Nigeria” on his watch? That is the most treacherous form of narcissism I’ve ever seen in any leader all my life.

We all know that toxic self-delusion, barefaced lies, and mindless propaganda are the oxygen of the Buhari administration, but basic human decency requires that people entrusted with leadership should know when to be sober, humble, compassionate, and truthful— and when to subordinate the urges for propagandistic falsehood and self-glorification. It’s the coldest form of comfort to, in one’s moment of grief, be compelled to endure the brazen lies, cold indifference, and tone-deaf self-congratulations of a person who is supposed to be your comforter and protector.

But it gets worse. The president also told people who were already overwrought with grief that he couldn’t protect them. “There is nothing I can do to help the situation except to pray to God to help us out of the security challenges,” Buhari said, according to the Sun of June 26, 2018. In other words, in spite of bragging about his “notable successes in the security sector” while taking offense at being held responsible for security breaches, Buhari has confessed to failing in his primary constitutional duty to protect the lives and properties of Nigerians. An honorable man who is incapable of discharging his duties, who outsources solvable human problems to metaphysical powers, would resign.

Nevertheless, when the president falls sick, he doesn’t leave his fate to “prayers.” He doesn’t even have faith in Nigeria’s best medical facilities, much less in his own prayers or the prayers of Nigerians, to regain his health; he goes to London. When his son had an accident and almost lost his life, he didn’t just “pray to God” to heal him; he took him to a German hospital. But when it comes to protecting the lives of poor, helpless, and vulnerable people from wanton, preventable bloodshed, the president can’t do anything except to “pray to God to help us out.” How convenient!

We know, of course, that this is just hypocritical posturing. Why did the president not let “prayers” resolve agitations for Biafra? Why did he use disproportionate force to subdue the agitations? Scores of Biafra agitators, who did not kill anybody in their agitations for self-determination, were murdered by security forces in cold blood, and their organization was quickly declared a “terrorist organization.”

Since all we need are “prayers” to live in peace, we certainly don’t need an incompetent president who lives off the fat of the land, who doubles as a petroleum minister, who spends billions to treat even an ear infection in a foreign hospital and billions more for his official clinic in the Presidential Villa that he doesn’t use. We might as well officially live in a state of anarchy.

For his part, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo almost always visits sites of tragedy, meets with community and political leaders, mouths annoyingly predictable and sanctimonious platitudes, gives lame assurances, plays nauseatingly familiar blame games, and goes back to sit pretty in Aso Rock to bask in the glory and perks of power.

A foreigner reading Buhari and Osinbajo these past few days would think they're opposition politicians railing against an inept incumbent government that has failed to protect the lives of its citizens. He wouldn’t guess that Buhari and Osinbajo are the inept incumbents who, in fact, want to perpetuate their incompetence for four more years.

To be fair, widespread bloodstained fury predated this administration, but as I told the BBC World Service when I was interviewed on June 25, 2018, the Buhari government’s incompetence in confronting the frighteningly widening insecurity in the country is in a world of its own. The government is never proactive, is perpetually in the future (it’s always, “we will,” not “we have”), and actively takes sides in communal conflicts even in official communications. When people lose faith in the capacity of governments to protect them and to be neutral arbiters of conflicts it’s the beginning of the end.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Violating the Mother Tongue by ‘Emergent English-Phobic TC-Intellectuals’ in Nigeria (I)

My column last week about the tendency for everyday people to defend mediocrity in English usage among the Nigerian elite ignited an interesting debate. Dr. Ahmed Umar, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Federal University in Dutse, pointed out that even our native languages are not exempt from this, so I invited him to write a guest column to bring this problem to a broader audience. He graciously obliged me. Enjoy:

 By Ahmed Umar, Ph.D.
For about three decades now, Nigeria, both as an Anglophone and ‘English-administered’ country, has gloomily witnessed a steady fall of standard in many of its citizens’ competence in English. This malady appears to be dominant among the youth, who must have come into the system of education in the twilight of the ‘reading culture’ era, and the dawn of the ICT one (at least, in Nigeria, as in similar peer nations). Indeed, a country should be so gloomy if none of its approximately 500 local/native languages has been unanimously chosen as its lingua franca; if English has proven to be its only medium for administrative/official, legal and educational communication, especially at the federal level.

 The present disastrous ‘standard’ (if one may somehow sanitize the situation with this stable sememe) of competence in English in the country is aggravated by a phobic attempt by those affected to camouflage their incompetence in English (even in basic, simple terms of its usage) with such retorts as: “English’s not my mother tongue.”; “Na English I go chop?”; “Competence in English is not intelligence!”. To adequately understand the nature of this syndrome, we need to, first, examine the status of English in the broad context of language, then trace the genesis of the present power of English in Nigeria.
 
Professor Ahmed Umar
The essential role of language in the cohesion and development of any society is both a universal and linguistic truism. Between two or more individuals, no meaningful communication or transaction can ever take place without using the tool of language (verbal or non-verbal). From matrimony, to trading, to worshipping, to education, to government, language remains the sole ‘vehicle’ conveying messages between interactive participants.

The essence or value of any language in any society rests and thrives on that society’s collective recognition of that language as the tool of communication among its members (Wardhaugh, 2006). In linguistics, such a collective recognition is known as convention. Accordingly, the social categorizations of ‘language’, ‘dialect’, etc., reflect such a convention, whereby, for instance, if Mandarin is recognized by a community as its ‘language’, English or Arabic may intrude even as gibberish into that community; where only Swahili is recognized as ‘language’, Hausa or Yoruba or Igbo may be deemed a meaningless set of sounds or letters.

 Similarly, one society may have recognized more than one language in variable degrees or statuses. In Nigeria, for instance, each of the approximately 500 languages, especially the ‘major’ ones, may have sub-types or dialects. Such geographically based sub-types of a single language may differ from one another more in lexis than in structure, and may be mutually understood by all the speakers of that language, at least, in structure. All those speakers of the language constitute its “speech community” (Joseph, 2014), and, within each speech community, other “communities” could exist by variables of region, culture or other social engagements that bind them together. If, for instance, we consider Hausa as a speech community on the level of ‘language’, its ‘dialectal’ level could reveal other speech communities, whereby one community’s “barci” [sleep] could be another’s “kwana”. Within that same Hausa ‘language’ speech community, sociolectal variations may, for instance, facilitate the following varieties of naming a religious cleric: “alaramma/ustaz/shehi” [by a ‘religious’ speech community]; “malam” [by a conventional/moderate speech community], and “lakum” [by a deviant, young speech community].

 Such language variations evolve and thrive not only on the variables of regional varieties and functional (including communication) necessities, but also on social cognitive and attitudinal changes that are triggered by other changing events/factors within the affected language speech community (Murphy, 2017). To the speech communities of all those 500 languages referred to above, the greatest changes occurred when Arabic and English arrived into the area today called ‘Nigeria’. The arrival of these two languages introduced not just new formal lingual resources, but also other socio-cultural values of those languages and their speech communities (i.e., the Arabs and the English).

 Arabic came into Nigeria some 900 years earlier than did English, via the northeastern part of the country (Davies, 1956); with Arabic came its large lexicon and Islam. Consequently, today, many of Nigeria’s 500 languages and their speech communities use (mostly modified) Arabic words, especially in (Islamic) religious engagements and interactions. Indeed, before the advent of English to northern Nigeria, the Arabic language and Islam had also been the dominant systems of education, formal transactions and government, especially after the Danfodio revivalist campaigns. Remember, Hausa was existent then, but its essence, especially in education, judiciary and governance had been superseded by Arabic language and Islamic jurisprudence. So much so that, today, about 50% of the Hausa lexicon, especially in religious, social concepts, originate from Arabic.

 In turn, English came to Nigeria some 250 years or so years ago via its southern part, especially the south-western ports. With English came its lexicon, political power and Christianity. On its arrival, that colonizing English ‘speech community’ wasted no time in practically establishing English as the medium of communication in trading, legal and, later, administrative interactions and transactions. In fact, the English colonialists can be said to have laid more functional emphasis on and imposition of their language and administrative/transactional rules than propagation of their religion, Christianity, and education, these last two having been mainly done by the missionaries.

 However, because the English political power has, since its advent to Nigeria, survived and thrived, English remains the only official language of administration, dominant medium of educational communication/instruction, and judiciary. A few states in Nigeria today may be ‘informally’ conducting their legislative or administrative interactions in their local languages. However, when it comes to formally relating to the central/federal government or most foreign/international communities, those states have had to use English as their medium.

Now, since its colonial introduction to Nigeria, the English language has had a mixed practical and cognitive repertoire of values: medium of administrative/educational/legal communication and transaction; symbol of high social class; civilization; modernity; and material wealth. As an L2 (second language) or FL (foreign language), its adequate formal acquisition by Nigerians has mainly been via formal education, at school, a place or system that may have always been associated by the infantile or teenage L2 learner, from the onset, as ‘strange’, introducing a ‘strange’ language.
 The vast sociolinguistic difference between the learner’s L1 and English may not have been helpful. Eventually, as the learner grows in the system, he/she may assimilate, or even excel at, it. However, that initial cognitive value of intimidation may abide by the learner for much longer, if not a lifetime.

 In terms of regional exposure, formal Western education, as dominantly spread and symbolized by English, can be said to have been in the southern part of Nigeria for over 50 years before it reached its northern part. Consequently, the level of exposure to that education and to competence in English have since been higher in the south than in the north. In the south, learners of English as L2 have had those greater pedagogic orientations of longer exposure to English, wider use of (non-standard) English (i.e., Pidgin), better-equipped schooling (number of competent teachers, options of schools, etc.), and more frequent use of both standard and pidgin English at home.

In the north, such learners of English as L2 have had the relatively weaker pedagogic orientations of shorter regional exposure to English, narrower or, in most situations, no use of English as a lingua franca, less equipped schooling in number of competent teachers, adequate schools, etc., and less or no frequent use of English at home. But, despite these regional imbalances, a then existent ‘reading culture’ and easier interaction with English native speakers in Nigeria and abroad had produced those who had sound competence in English in both southern and northern parts of Nigeria.

A competent primary school teacher of those days, down to the early 80s, could exhibit a much better command of appropriate Standard English than many ‘professors’ of the present ICT age! Also, ask many students at the secondary or tertiary level of education today about the practical (formal/structural analyses, productions, etc.) and theoretical (definitions, conceptualizations, etc.) inputs of their lessons, they would tell you that composition (letter/essay/summary writing, minimal grammar input) far outweighs core grammar (forms/structures and analyses) in the presentations of English Language content.

The question here is: if one does not adequately know the rules of a language, how does one speak/write well in that language? So, a situation has evolved whereby many of even those who ‘major’ in English cannot speak or write it well! Bad tree bearing bad fruit; bad seed begetting bad trees! So, what has really happened to kill that golden ‘English era’ in Nigeria?

The answer to this question can be found in some global revolutionary waves that came to the shores of Nigeria in the late 90s. Before the emergence and proliferation of cellular/gsm phones and internet use in Nigeria from the late 90s to date, competence and excellence in formal Western education and, by extension, its medium (English), had meant a deep and wide ‘reading culture’.

To be concluded next week

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Buhari’s June 12 Pandering and Naivety of Yoruba Elite

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

In politics, pandering refers to the insincere, opportunistic appeasement of a group of people, usually a large electoral bloc, for the sole purpose of winning their votes. President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration of June 12 as Nigeria’s new “Democracy Day” and the conferral of posthumous awards to the late MKO Abiola and the late Gani Fawehinmi, commendable as they are, are classic cases of pandering. The pandering is carefully calculated to reverse the noticeable diminution of Buhari’s political capital among Yoruba voters ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

 From 2003, when Buhari started running for president, to 2011, he had never won Yoruba, Igbo, Northern Christian, and Southern ethnic minority votes; Northern Muslim votes, which he has always won, were never enough to make him president. In 2015, he re-invented himself as a cosmopolitan nationalist and won Yoruba and Northern Christian, or Middle Belt, votes in addition to the votes from his traditional base.

Apart from his lusterless and mediocre performance as president, one of the immediate triggers for the dramatic waning of Buhari’s appeal among Yoruba voters was his politically inexpedient extolment of the late General Sani Abacha, the persecutor of the cultural and political icons of the Yoruba people—MKO Abiola, Gani Fawehinmi, Wole Soyinka, and so on. On May 22, 2018, Buhari told supporters who visited him at the Presidential Villa that whatever people might think of Abacha, they had to concede that he would go down in the records as someone who built roads, hospitals, and schools.

This high praise of Abacha provoked mass outrage in Yoruba land, even among Buhari supporters, and threatened to erode the last vestige of goodwill he had in the region. That was particularly politically precarious, and here is why. Buhari has now irretrievably lost the Northern Christian vote. If he loses the Yoruba vote, he would be down to his pre-2015 Northern Muslim constituency. So he needed to do something radical to appease Yoruba voters.

His strategists advised him to go for the ultimate emotional appeasement: Declare June 12 “Democracy Day,” which it already is in the Southwest; honor MKO Abiola, Gani Fawehinmi, and other Yoruba icons; apologize for the voiding of the June 12 election; and even go so far as to make the outrageously inaccurate claim that “June 12, 1993 was far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than… October 1,” the day of Nigeria’s independence from British colonialism.

 Buhari did this at no personal political cost. His political base will always stand by him, irrespective of what he does. Any other northern Muslim politician who does what Buhari did would have alienated and lost his base. But Buhari’s supporters interpret this move as a “necessary evil” to get the Southwest to reelect him.

The president’s tactical emotional and political tokenism seems to have worked—at least so far. I have nothing against the Yoruba elite—and the voters they influence—for being suckers for Buhari’s appeasement. We are all suckers for something. And our emotions are a valid component of our being. June 12 and MKO Abiola are obviously tender spots for many Yoruba people—and that’s entirely reasonable.

However, while it’s legitimate to be a sucker for emotional appeasement, it helps to be self-aware of the potential for costly naivety. I’m glad that Professor Soyinka’s public pronouncements show evidence of this self-awareness. On June 12, for instance, he told President Buhari to his face, “You cannot honour Abiola in one breath and admire his tormentor in another breath.”

Other Southwest political elites aren’t this clearheaded, unfortunately. Femi Falana, for instance, in his giddy excitement over Buhari’s pandering to the Yoruba, chose the path of self-centered intellectual dishonesty to defend Buhari’s clearly unconstitutional declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day. “It is crystal clear that the president is not required by law to seek and obtain the approval of the National Assembly before declaring a public holiday in the country," Falana said on June 7.

A week later, Buhari’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, undercut Falana’s duplicity and helped to underscore the insincerity in the declaration of June 12 as Nigeria’s new Democracy Day. “As it relates to public holidays, there is truly a Public Holiday Act,” Malami said. “The Act can be amended and the process of amendment has been put in place. When the Act has been fully amended, the declaration of the President will come into effect. It is a declaration of intention, a declaration of desire and that will eventually be given effect with the amendment of the existing law.”

In other words, contrary to what Falana said, President Buhari has no constitutional powers to unilaterally declare June 12 as Democracy Day; he needs to amend the Public Holiday Act before his declaration can become legal. As always, for political reasons, the president shot before he targeted. If this wasn’t pandering, the president should have first set the process for the amendment of the Holiday Act in motion before announcing his “declaration of intention” to make June 12 the new “Democracy Day.”

As it is now, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that the legal and legislative processes required to amend the Holiday Act to make June 12 Nigeria’s Democracy Day won’t be completed before the 2019 presidential election. It is also conceivable that if Buhari wins a second term with votes from the Southwest, there would no longer be any talk of June 12 as Democracy Day. The president would shift the burden to the National Assembly, which won’t care for it. Only Yoruba states that already celebrate June 12 as a democracy day would continue to do so.

Buhari’s June 12 pandering is eerily similar to his faux sartorial and religious inclusivity in the run-up to the 2015 election. He donned the symbolic garbs of various ethnic groups and even attended church services. This was complemented with the deliberately false Internet story that he countenanced the marriage of one of his daughters to an Igbo Christian— and suchlike fabrications. Pastor Tunde Bakare even recalled, falsely it turned out, that Buhari once exclaimed “Jesus!” during a moment of intense emotion.

So the pretense to cultural and religious broadmindedness coalesced with intentionally false internet narratives to construct an image of a radically transformed Buhari who was no longer beholden to narrow ethnic, regional, and religious allegiances. It didn’t take long for this elaborate fraud to unravel.

During his first visit to the US shortly after his election, Buhari said he won’t dispense equal favors to people who gave him only 5 percent of their votes and those who gave him 97 percent of their votes. Although, he immediately walked back on the statement, his administration has shown no genuine commitment to uniting the country outside mouthing pious, disingenuous bromides about the indivisibility of the country.

Buhari may well get a second term with the help of votes from the Southwest. But one thing is as certain as tomorrow’s date: he will spectacularly fall out with the Yoruba elite whose support he’s bending over backwards to court now. He’d no longer have a need for them after 2019 and might even remember that they betrayed him in 2011. These same people would then turn against not just Buhari but the entire North. If we’re alive till then, we’d remind them that they are complicit in their own fate. An Italian proverb says, “When a man deceives me once, it is his fault; when twice, it is mine.”

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Response to Defenders of Presidential Grammatical Boo-Boos

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Every time my grammar column calls attention to grammatical infractions by members of Nigeria’s political class—from former President Goodluck Jonathan to Patience Jonathan, from ministers to governors, and from Aisha Buhari to President Muhammadu Buhari— I almost always get the same predictably familiar, knee-jerk reactions from their minions. No one seems to care when the grammatical errors of everyday people are called out.  In fact, bewailing the fall in the quality of English among secondary school students and undergraduates is a national pastime.

But when the political elite write worse English than the everyday people we delight in pillorying and someone highlights this fact, suddenly a ragbag of hackneyed defenses is invoked such as, “na English we go chop”; English is not our mother tongue; proficiency in English is not a substitute for intelligence; Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese people don’t speak English yet they are developed; insisting on proper English grammar is “colonial mentality”; so long as the message is understood, grammatical correctness is irrelevant; and so on.

I have responded to six of these escapist reactions. People who have followed this column regularly will find some of what I write here familiar.

1. “Na Grammar We Go Chop?”
When people say “na grammar we go chop?” [will grammar bring food to the table?] they are being disingenuous because the reverse is also valid: “na bad grammar we go chop?” The truth is that neither good grammar nor bad grammar from leaders brings food to the table, which makes the whole talk about grammar's gastronomic utility silly and unproductive.  Knowledge of good grammar shows evidence of learning. Atrocious grammar, at best, betrays poor learning. That’s nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps the grammar-nescient crowd should unite and compel the National Assembly to pass legislation that will make inability to speak good English the new criterion to ascend to leadership in Nigeria. Maybe that is what will bring food to the table.

2. English is Not Our Mother Tongue
Of course it’s not, but it’s precisely because it’s not our mother tongue that its mastery shows evidence of cognitive agility. But how many Nigerians can write or speak their mother tongues proficiently? How many of them can expound high-minded thoughts in their native languages? In an August 26, 2012 article titled “The English Nigerian Children Speak,” I pointed out that we are raising a generation of Nigerians whose first and only language is a deformed, ghettoized, and impoverished form of English that is incomprehensible to other members of the Anglophone world.

And in my July 7, 2013 article titled, “Multilingual Illiteracy: What Nigeria Can Learn from Algeria’s Language Crisis,” I wrote: “I am equally troubled by what I call the prevalent multilingual illiteracy of the present generation of Nigerians. A typical educated Nigerian speaks between three and four languages….

“But our proficiency in these multiple languages is gradually deteriorating. Except for Hausa and, to some extent, Yoruba, all Nigerian languages are endangered because of a lack of language loyalty, an incompetent mastery of the rules of the languages, and the tendency toward what linguists call code-mixing and code-switching, that is, an inelegant admixture of English and our native languages.

“The desire to speak English is often blamed for the pitiful state of our native languages, except that our mastery of English, on whose behalf we devalue our native languages, is also so awful that other speakers of the language can’t help but notice. (Any form of English that is unintelligible to the rest of the English-speaking world is useless.)  And Pidgin English, the other major ‘language’ we speak, is an anarchic, linguistically deficient language that not only has limited utility outside Nigeria, but that is incapable of being the medium for serious scholarly inquiry and global communication.”

3. English Mastery Isn’t Synonymous with Intelligence
First, correcting bad grammar isn’t the same thing as implying that people who speak or write bad grammar aren’t intelligent. But several studies have shown a correlation between mastery of grammar and intelligence. P.M. Symonds’ 1931 study titled “Practice Versus Grammar in the Learning of Correct English Usage” is one of the first systematic scholarly inquiries into the relationship between aptitude for grammar and high IQ. The study found that people with a high IQ grasped grammatical concepts faster than those with a low IQ.  Richard A. Meade’s 1961 study titled, “Who Can Learn Grammar?” also found a correlation between superior intelligence and mastery of grammar. Several contemporary studies have affirmed these findings.

But it is also true that there are highly intelligent people who have no mastery of grammar, not because they can’t but because they invest their intellectual energies elsewhere.

4. Koreans, Japanese, Chinese Don’t Speak English
That’s a dumb argument. Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, etc. don’t speak English because they weren’t colonized by English-speaking people. English isn’t their official language. English isn’t the language of instruction at all levels of their education. It isn’t the language of their courts. Nor is it the language of their mass media. So there is no expectation that they should be proficient in English. But English is Nigeria’s official language. It is the language of education, of government, of the courts, of the dominant mass media, etc. in Nigeria.  That means there is an expectation that an educated Nigerian should be proficient in English. Citing the examples of Korea, Japan, etc. to justify poor mastery of English by a Nigerian is a notoriously imperfect and intellectually fraudulent contrast of contexts.

Grammarians in Korea, Japan, China, etc. also take their leaders and everyday people to task on correct usage in their native languages. For as long as English remains the official language of Nigeria, it will always be fair game to call attention to the grammatical bloopers committed by users of the language. This also happens in countries where English is a native language. Donald Trump—and before him George Bush—is habitually pilloried in the media for his incorrect grammar.

 Should we decide to adopt, say, Ogoni as our official language, and the language becomes the language of instruction at all levels of our education, like English is now, then language enthusiasts would be justified to use the rules of Ogoni grammar to call out grammatical lapses.

In Nigeria, you can't proceed to institutions of higher education if you don't have a credit in English—even if you want to study mathematics or, for that matter, a Nigerian language! Yet minions of politicians don’t want anyone to point out grammatical errors in official communication, errors that would earn students a failing grade in their exams if they were to commit them. That’s hypocritical. Plus, this is a grammar column, not a general-interest column.

5. English Grammar is “Colonial Mentality”
Nigerians who dismiss mastery of English as evidence of “colonial mentality” lack self-reflexivity. The very name of our country, Nigeria, was handed to us by English colonialists, and it’s derived from English. More than 50 years after independence, we are still stuck with it. And people talk of English being a holdover of colonialism?

Well, English is now, for all practical purposes, the world’s lingua franca. Proficiency in it opens a world of opportunities. It is a ladder to upward social mobility and is the vastest repository of the world’s knowledge. As of this month, more than 50 percent of all content on the Internet is written in English. The next “rival” to English is German with 6.3 percent. Russian is 6.2 percent. Arabic is 0.6 percent.

Similarly, the majority of the world’s scholarly and scientific papers are written in English. That’s why universities in Europe and Asia are increasingly switching to English as their language of instruction. One German university president said English has become so central to global knowledge production and circulation that for scholars who are non-native English speakers, there are now only two options: either publish in English or perish in your native tongue. That’s why proficiency in English is now mandatory for South Korean academics. They can’t be tenured, i.e., be given permanent employment, if they don’t demonstrate sufficient proficiency in English grammar. So there goes number 4.

In the contemporary world, you shut out English at your own expense. It is hard-nosed pragmatism to embrace its epistemic resources both for development and for subversion.

Most importantly, though, as I’ve argued several times, the truth is that English is the linguistic glue that holds our disparate, unnaturally evolved nation together. Although Nigeria has three dominant languages, it also has more than 400 mutually unintelligible languages. And given the perpetual battles of supremacy between the three major languages in Nigeria—indeed among all of Nigeria’s languages—it is impossible to impose any native language as a national language. So, in more ways than one, English is crucial to Nigeria's survival as a nation. Without it, it will disintegrate.

6. Message, not Grammar?
Does clarity of meaning trump grammatical correctness? Maybe. But that may be true only where poor grammar doesn’t interfere with meaning itself. For instance, in Buhari’s June 12 letter, he used “distract” when he actually meant “detract.” That’s an example of an eye-catching grammatical error that can distract the reader and detract from the message!

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Obadiah Mailafia: From Fulaniphobia to Embarrassing Ignorance

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I normally don’t respond to responses to my column if the responses do no more than disagree with me. But when a response drips wet with pitiful ignorance and willful misrepresentations, such as Obadiah Mailafia’s (see his June 7, 2018 response titled “Re: El-Rufai’s hypocritical xenophobia and Obadiah Mailafia’s Fulaniphobia”), I have a duty to set the record straight in the interest of knowledge.

I will ignore his juvenile ad hominem attacks on me. It bespeaks the barrenness of his intellect that he chose to descend to unprovoked sophomoric name-calling. Ad hominem attacks are the rhetorical weapons of first choice for the intellectually weak.

Mailafia’s original article in the BusinessDay of May 11, 2018 titled “Genocide,Hegemony and Power in Nigeria,” which inspired my June 2, 2018 column, is an astonishingly ill-informed farrago of xenophobic and simplistic garbage that masqueraded as serious thought. I encourage the reader to read the column firsthand.

In the article’s very first paragraph, Mailafia deployed what he understands to be Gramscian hegemony to explain “what is going on in relation to the genocide being perpetrated by the Fulani militias in the Middle Belt of our country today.” I actually let out a guffaw when I read this. It’s an entirely illiterate misuse of the concept. Gramsci used hegemony to explain how the ruling classes in capitalist society naturalize their dominance by getting subordinate classes to accept ruling class values as “common sense” values for all. This is achieved through artful consensus building, which requires that the consent of the subordinate classes be perpetually won and re-won voluntarily, “for people’s material social experiences constantly remind them of the disadvantages of subordination and thus poses a threat to the dominant class.”

The replacement of “Hausa” rulers with “Fulani” rulers in the far north is certainly hegemonic now. No one questions it without coming across as an extremist, anachronistic troublemaker. But by what logic can hegemony explain “genocide”? Is Mailafia implying that people who are being murdered by “Fulani militia in the Middle Belt” have accepted and internalized their condition as “common sense” and that fighting the “genocide” would come across as deviant and out-of-line?

Even when Gramsci extended his theory of hegemonic domination to encapsulate physical violence, he used it exclusively to describe totalitarian states such as Tsarist Russia. He recommended a "war of maneuver," which is resistance against the state through physical violence, in such circumstances. But Mailafia didn’t even reference this extension of hegemony. He referenced ideational hegemony for which Gramsci recommended a “war of position.” Mailafia obviously used the word only because it sounds grand and intellectually fashionable, not because he understands it.

This is just one of several examples of Mailafia’s self-indulgent wooliness and pedestrianism. He also, for instance, described the racial admixture between black Africans and “North Africa and the Middle East” that putatively produced the Fulani as “biological miscegenation.”

“Miscegenation” is a thoroughgoing racist term that only white supremacists use—with a tone of violent disapproval— to describe interracial marriage between white and black people. White racists hurled that word at Obama throughout his presidency, and many of them suffered untoward consequences for it.  But Mailafia, a hate-filled, self-aggrandizing dilettante, uses the word to describe how the Fulani, his compatriots, evolved.

In both his BusinessDay article and his response to me, he repeats the claim that “Guinea” is the “ancestral homeland” of the Fulani. He got this information entirely from Wikipedia. Well, here is why the claim is unacceptably ignorant. Linguistic evidence shows that the provenance of the Fulani is traceable to what is now Senegal. In his 1971 article titled "West Atlantic: An Inventory of the Languages, their Noun-Class Systems and Consonant Alternation," Emeritus Professor David Sapir, son of famous linguist Professor Edward Sapir, found that the closest language to Fulfulde in the world is Serer, Senegal’s third largest ethnic group after Wolof and Fulani. Serer is a Niger-Congo language like most languages in West Africa. (Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president who is famous for Negritude, was Serer).

Linguists have also found a smattering of Berber words in Fulfulde, which gave rise to the theory that the Fulani are the product of the ethnic fusion of Berber and Serer people around Senegambia. Only a Wikipedia-reliant dilettante like Mailafia would describe Guinea as the “ancestral home” of the Fulani. The fact that the Fulani enjoy relative numerical dominion in Guinea doesn’t make the country, which was invented by colonialists only a few decades ago, their “ancestral homeland,” whatever that means.

In any case, ethnic identities and formations are intrinsically labyrinthine and irreducible to Mailafia’s simple-minded, vulgar empiricist, and essentialist formulations. And talking about the “ancestral homeland” of any contemporary Nigerian group, not just the Fulani, whose ancestors have populated this country centuries before the formation of Nigeria is textbook case of “othering,” which is the intellectual precursor to genocide.

 I strongly recommend that Mailafia read Jean-Loup Amselle’s discipline-defining book, Mestizo Logics: Anthropology of Identity in Africa and Elsewhere, to understand the fluidity, dynamism, and originary syncretism of ethnic formations in West Africa. The genetic ancestors of several people who self-identify as Fulani today never did so several generations ago. For instance, Amselle showed that thousands of people who were Senufo (an ethnic group now found in parts of Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana) generations ago became Fulani, and many people who were Fulani centuries ago became Bambara or Mandinka, and so on and so forth.

Mailafia has no knowledge of this vast complexity in identity scholarship and chooses to mask his ignorance with laughably infantile self-congratulation and exhibitionistic preening of ill-digested, barely understood concepts.

When I said identity is fiction even though it’s an emotionally valid, politically consequential fiction, which is a stale fact in identify studies, Mailafia’s theoretically sterile mind couldn’t grasp it. He wrote: “What he is really saying, in plain English, is this: If a madman from Damaturu wakes up one morning and solemnly declares and earnestly believes himself, to be the long-awaited ‘Mahdi’, we are, ipso facto, bound to believe him, ‘even if that’s not necessarily who they are’. Our friend has clearly read too much postmodernist trash for his own good.”  I was embarrassed on his behalf.

Let me explain this in a simpler, less convoluted way that Mailafia’s a-theoretical mind can hopefully understand. Identity isn’t just genetic or biological; it is also cultural, historical, emotional, and often arbitrary and variable. For instance, many people who are called Hausas today merely changed to that identity; a few decades ago, their ancestors were not Hausa. Yet, this fact doesn’t invalidate their claim to being Hausa because, in any case, all modern identity is syncretic and evolutionary. To understand this point, read Frank A. Salamone’s 1975 article titled, “Becoming Hausa: Ethnic Identity Change and Its Implications for the Study of Ethnic Pluralism and Stratification.” When Arjun Appadurai talked of the “paradox of constructed primordialism,” he was talking about the variability and artificialness of identity, which nescient jingoists like Mailafia ironically choose to reify.

Interestingly, Mailafia admits that his “effort to explain” whatever he wrote in his column “may not have been adequate” and that he is “prepared to concede that” his “conclusions may have been inadequate,” yet he wasted his energies to write a worthless, self-humiliating rejoinder that was high in juvenile self-praise and ad hominem attacks and low in substance and nuance.

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Nigerian Words and Expressions that are Untranslatable into English

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

I’d planned to write this article last week, but the egregiousness of the grammatical transgressions in President Muhammadu Buhari’s Democracy Day speech was too much to ignore. I was almost derailed again by the mortifying grammatical howlers in the president’s June 6 press statement that, among other things, announced June 12 as Nigeria’s new Democracy Day.

From indiscriminate capitalization, to incompetent use of articles, to inelegant, error-ridden phraseology, to misuse of words such as “distract” for “detract,” and basic proofreading errors, the letter was disappointingly subpar. It would get an “F” if a WAEC examiner in English were to grade it. We wail with distress and in national self-pity every year over mass failure in English in school certificate exams, but our president’s official speeches and letters can’t pass muster with WAEC examiners in English. What message does that send to our secondary school students? Well, that’s not my preoccupation for now.

As I pointed out two weeks ago, interlingual translation is not always possible in every circumstance. There are words and expressions that are so culturally specific that they can’t be translated into another language. I made this point two weeks ago—and in previous columns— in response to requests from some readers of this column that I share with them the English rendition of barka da shan ruwa, the special Hausa greeting to acknowledge the Ramadan fast. I said the expression has no English equivalent. See below other Nigerian expressions that can’t be idiomatically translated into English.

1. “Santi.” This Hausa word deceptively looks like the lexical equivalent of the English “satiation” or, more specifically, gastronomic satiation, that is, the joy and gratification that one derives from food. But “santi” way more than that. It also encapsulates a whole gamut of attitudes that gastronomic satiation inspires. For instance, if, as a consequence of the satiation people derive from eating good food, they wax lyrical or just become uncharacteristically talkative, they are said to be trapped by or in santi.

The closest equivalent to “santi” that I have found in American English is the expression “sugar high,” which is said when children become hyperactive as a result of eating sugary things. There is no scientific basis for the notion that children become inexorably restless when they eat sweets, but the expression exists to describe that condition. Note, though, that santi isn’t delimited by age nor is hyperactivity its marker.

It isn’t only English that has no lexical or idiomatic equivalent to the Hausa santi; many Nigerian languages also don’t. My Baatonum language doesn’t, either. I first encountered the expression in the early 1990s from my cousins in Kano, who were born and raised there. People who have never lived in Hausa society would probably still find the word and its meaning puzzling.

2.”Gyara.” The closest American linguistic and cultural approximation to “gyara” (which is rendered as “jara” in certain variants of Nigerian Pidgin English) can be found in the word “lagniappe” (pronounced LAN- YAP), which my dictionary defines as “A small gift (especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase.).” That is precisely what “gyara” means in Hausa. Lagniappe isn’t a Standard English word, and most Americans don’t know what it means, nor can they relate to it meaning.

In my December 4, 2010 column titled “Neologisms and Ebonics in American English,” I wrote the following:  “The word ‘lagniappe,’ for instance, is an exclusively Louisiana invention, even though it is now usual to hear many people in the [American] South use it….

“It means ‘a small gift, especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase.’ But this definition does not adequately capture the cultural meaning of the word. Its exact socio-linguistic equivalent is “gyara” in Hausa (now incorporated into Nigerian Pidgin English as jaara).

“It is also used to indicate any kind of addition or extras. While the word sounds and looks French, its semantic content is decidedly African. I once wrote about the intriguing convergence of French, Spanish, and African influences in Louisiana’s racial, cultural, and gastronomic landscape. This convergence also manifests in the socio-linguistic experience of the people in many ways. It is conceivable that the “gyara” culture was brought to Louisiana by former [Hausa] slaves.”

3. “Well done!” This special form of greeting in Nigerian English is a direct translation from Nigerian languages. It can’t be translated into Standard English. It is reserved specifically for a person who is working or doing something. It is an example of the appropriation (or linguistic “hijacking”) of an existing English lexical item to give expression to a peculiar Nigerian socio-linguistic habit. The way “well done” is used in Nigerian English approximates such expressions as “sannu da aiki” in Hausa, “eku ise” in Yoruba, “daalu olu” in Igbo, “ka soburu” in Baatonum (my native language), etc., which have no parallels in native varieties of the English language. That is why there is usually a communication breakdown when Nigerians use the expression “well done” in native-speaker English environments. The usual retort among native speakers is, “Well done for what?” Or “what have I done well?”

As I’ve written here many times, in native varieties of English, “well done” either functions as an adjective to describe thoroughly cooked food or meat (Example: That piece of meat is tough because it is not well done), or as an exclamation of applause— synonymous with "bravo." It is also used as an adjective to describe something that has been done well (e.g. "Thank you for a job well done"). It is never used as a special form of salutation for people who are working.

An American friend of mine who is faintly familiar with Nigerian English once asked me why Nigerians reserve a special form of salutation to acknowledge people who are doing something. My response was that it is analogous to the greetings reserved for special times of the day in the English language. We say “good morning” when we meet people in the early hours of the day and say “good afternoon” when we meet them during the midpoint of the day, etc. There may really be nothing “good” about the time we greet them. Heck, we even say “good morning” or “good evening” or “good day,” etc. to people on their sick beds! Nigerians use and understand “well done” in the same socio-linguistic context. The people we say “well done” to in Nigerian English don’t need to be doing anything well; they just need to be doing something.

4. “Sorry!” This is another direct translation from Nigerian languages, which makes no sense in Standard English. Nigerian English has extended this word’s original native English meaning. The word’s dictionary meaning is that it is an exclamation to indicate an apology or to ask an interlocutor to repeat or clarify something you don’t understand during a conversation. In Nigerian English, however, it is used as an exclamation not just to express apology but to express concern or sympathy for a person who has had a freak accident (such as when someone skips a step and falls) or a person who has suffered a personal tragedy (such as when a person loses a loved one).

 Nigerians say “sorry” whether or not they are personally responsible for the accident or the misfortune of the person to whom they say “sorry.” This usage of the word, which is completely absent in native varieties of English, is an approximation of such expressions as “sannu fa” in Hausa, “pele” in Yoruba, “ndo” in Igbo, “kpure kpure” in Baatonum, etc.

The closest that native English speakers come to saying “sorry” in ways Nigerians say it is when they say something like “I’m sorry to hear that (you lost your dad!)” to a person who is bereaved, etc. But note that “sorry” in this context is synonymous with “sad,” not to “sannu” or “pele” or “ndo,” etc. in native Nigerian languages. The real linguistic equivalents in native varieties of English to the Nigerian English usage of “sorry” seem very distant and lacking in empathy and warmth.

 In America, for instance, if someone misses a step, falls on the ground and breaks an ankle, the usual expression to show concern would be to say something like “Oh my God, are you OK?” I wish someone would tell them: “Of course, I am NOT OK! Can’t you see I’m bleeding and have a broken ankle?” As Elizabeth Pryse, author of the hugely popular English without Tears, once noted, the expressions that native English speakers use to show concern for other people’s personal tragedies and misfortunes come across to Nigerians as unfeeling, cold, and detached. Most Nigerians feel offended when native English speakers say “take care,” “watch out,” “are you all right?” etc. when they have freak accidents.

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Saturday, June 9, 2018

Great News on Discontinuation of HND in Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The most consequential news story this week, for me, wasn’t the 2019-reelection-fever-inspired declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day and posthumous honors to the late MKO Abiola and the late Gani Fawehinmi; it was the federal government’s decision to discontinue the Higher National Diploma, retain the National Diploma, convert Kaduna Polytechnic and Yaba Tech to city universities of technology, and the conversion of polytechnics to campuses of nearby universities for the award of B. Tech degrees.

I have written several columns advocating these policies for years. I must thank education minister Malam Adamu Adamu for taking these bold and praiseworthy decisions for the future of Nigeria’s education. I hope he will also either bring back teachers colleges or reform the curricula of our colleges of education to make them responsive to the pedagogical needs of elementary education.

I am taking the liberty to republish a condensed version of my September 10, 2016 article titled “Einstein was a Polytechnic Graduate:Thoughts on Nigerian HNDs,” the last of several columns I wrote advocating the policies the federal government just announced:

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 offering 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, Pakistani, 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.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Buhari’s Democracy Day Speech is a Grammatical Embarrassment

By Farooq A. Kperogi, PhD
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

People have asked why I have never subjected President Muhammadu Buhari’s English to the crucible of grammatical analysis like I did former President Goodluck Jonathan’s on several occasions. There are two reasons for this. One, being a PhD and a former lecturer at a higher education institution, Jonathan came to the Nigerian presidency with an intellectual capital that no president or head of state before him had. This fact raised expectations that he would be a model of grammatical and rhetorical felicity in his communication in English.

Buhari, on the other hand, came to the Nigerian presidency in 2015 with perhaps the lowest intellectual cachet of any president in recent memory. There are doubts that he ever sat for a school certificate exam. Even his zealous supporters famously said, in the run-up to the 2015 election, that even if all he had to present as his educational qualification were a NEPA bill, they would still vote for him, indicating that intellectual vitality wasn’t one of the expectations they had of him. So pointing out the grammatical errors of someone who wasn’t even expected to speak grammatically correct English by both his admirers and critics is a waste of time.

The second reason is that Buhari actually speaks far better English than Jonathan does. In spite of Jonathan’s high credentials, his spoken English falls short of the standards expected of an average secondary school student. He does not understand rudimentary rules of subject-verb agreement that most people learn in junior secondary school, has trouble with tenses, and can’t seem to be able to speak basic idiomatic English. (To see where I chronicled Jonathan’s troubles with the English language during his presidency, read my April 16, 2010 column titled, “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was Embarrassing!”; my January 27, 2013 column titled, “President Goodluck Jonathan’s Grammatical Boo-boos”; and my January 18, 2015 column titled, “President Jonathan’s Awkward Grammatical Miscues on the Campaign Trail”).

In spite of appearances to the contrary, Buhari speaks decent English. If you get past his heavily Hausa-inflected English accent, you will find that his syntax is almost perfect and that he speaks impressive idiomatic English. He has occasional troubles with consistency in using the past tense to describe past events, but that’s an issue that most nonnative English speakers struggle with. So, ironically, the man who came to the presidency with the least intellectual cachet speaks better English than a man who has the distinction of being Nigeria’s most credentialed president.

Democracy Day Grammatical Bloopers
Nevertheless, it is apparent that facility with proper grammar isn’t the forte of the president’s speechwriters. Nor is a concern for memorable, inspiring, and elegant prose. The speech the president delivered on May 29 was peppered with embarrassing grammatical errors, avoidable stylistic ugliness, sleep-inducing turns of phrase, and mind-numbing platitudes. I point out some of them below:

1. “Our nascent democracy.” In the very first sentence of the speech, the president referred to Nigeria’s 19-year-old democracy as “nascent.” That’s an inexcusable misuse of the word. Nascent means “beginning.” No one in his right mind would describe a nearly two-decade-old political system as “beginning.” “Our nascent democracy” is a stereotyped, clichéd expression that Nigerian politicians have been enamored with for years; they don’t want to let go of it even when it no longer makes sense. Clichés are overused, ready-made expressions that save intellectually lazy people the trouble of thinking. But it’s time to retire that maggoty expression to the verbal garbage where it properly belongs.

2. Inconsistent capitalization: The president’s speechwriters demonstrated the capitalization skills of a lower-level elementary school kid. It’s impossible to point out all the capitalization errors in the speech. In some places, “administration” is written with an upper-case “A” and in others with a lower-case “a.” “Change” is capitalized in the middle of sentences. So are “Anniversary,” “Government,” “Local Governments,” “Organizations,” “IDP Camps,” “International Community,” “the Elders,” “Billions,” etc. Well, the basic rule for capitalization is that only proper nouns are capitalized. Common nouns are never capitalized unless they begin a sentence.

3. “Naira” shouldn’t be capitalized, either. Throughout the speech, the president’s speechwriters capitalized “naira.” But currency names are never capitalized unless they begin a sentence. It should be, “billions of naira,” “millions of dollars,” “several euros,” etc., not “billions of Naira,” “millions of Dollars,” “several Euros,” etc. When specific amounts are mentioned, as was the case in the Democracy Day speech, use the symbol of the currency.

4. Subject-verb disagreement. In at least one place in the speech, the subject of a sentence disagrees with its verb. Look at this sentence, for example: “The unfortunate incidences of kidnappings, herdsmen and farmers clashes in several communities which have led to high number of fatalities and loss of properties across the country is being addressed and the identified culprits and their sponsors shall be made to face the full wrath of the law.”

The subject of this sentence is, “The unfortunate incidences of kidnappings, herdsmen and farmers clashes in several communities.” That is clearly a plural subject. But the verb that follows the subject in the sentence is the singular “is”! If you strip the sentence of its appurtenances, you would have, “The unfortunate incidences is being addressed.” The proper verb should be “are,” not “is” since the subject is “incidences.” Plural subjects should agree with plural verbs and singular subjects should agree with singular verbs.

By the way, “the full wrath of the law” isn’t a Standard English expression. I have no space to expound it, but people who are interested in the origin of the expression should read my June 26, 2016 column titled, “‘Face the Full Wrath of the Law’: Q and A on Nigerian, American and British English.”

5. “Amnesty of forgiveness.” The president said, “The Voluntary Asset and Income Declaration Scheme (VAIDS) aimed at expanding tax education and awareness has offered the opportunity for tax defaulters to regularise their status in order to enjoy the amnesty of forgiveness on overdue interest, penalties and the assurance of non-prosecution or subject to tax investigations.” What in the world is “amnesty of forgiveness”? Amnesty itself means forgiveness, so VAIDS makes tax defaulters enjoy “forgiveness of forgiveness”?

6. Punctuation. The president’s speechwriters obviously don’t know the function of a semi-colon. They think it’s used to introduce a list. Well, that is what a colon does.

7.  Other avoidable errors in the speech are, “loans had been disbursed to 4,822 societies in the 36 States and FCT, while another 370,635 are awaiting release of funds.” Use “had” only when an action has been completed in the past and has no effect in the present. Example: “In 1960, loans had been disbursed to 3,000 women.” That’s evidently not the case here. So it should have been, “loans have been disbursed.”

 The definite article “the” has also been misused in many places in the speech such as, “in order to sustain the international best practices and ensure safety and security” and “by the Boko Haram.” The definite article is unneeded in both phrases.

Finally, “private-owned Universities” should be “privately-owned universities” (in American English, it would be “privately owned universities”; note the absence of a hyphen between “privately” and “owned”), “hitch free elections” should be “hitch-free elections,” and “violence free process” should be “violence-free process.” The last two examples are what grammarians call compound modifiers or compound adjectives. They are groups of words, always joined by a hyphen, that modify the nouns that come after them. For instance, “violence-free” is a compound adjective that modifies “process.”

Why This Matters
Presidents, by virtue of the enormous symbolic power they wield, have an outsize influence on grammar and usage. Their errors can become new norms and can confuse people who look up to them for guidance. Most importantly, important presidential speeches, such as the Democracy Day speech, often outlast their time. 

That is why speechwriters invest time and energy into making them remarkable, quotable, and fitting. Incidentally, last week, President Donald Trump’s two letters (one to the leader of North Korea and the other to a retired high school teacher) were also the subject of vicious critiques and parsing by American grammarians and journalists. So Buhari is in “good” company.

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