How Buhari is chang­ing Nige­rian English

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Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari’s gov­ern­ment has failed to bring about the “change” it promised Nige­ri­ans in 2015, which prompted his party to change its slo­gan from “change” to “progress,” but both the pres­i­dent and the po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere he has in­spired has changed the face of Nige­rian English in no­tice­able ways. Be­low are ex­pres­sions that emerged in Nige­rian English be­cause of Buhari.

1. “Body lan­guage”: No one who pays at­ten­tion to Nige­rian pol­i­tics will fail to no­tice the in­cip­i­ence­and mis­use- of this ex­pres­sion at around the as­cen­dancy of the Buhari pres­i­dency. Sup­port­ers of the pres­i­dent who had no log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for the rel­a­tively sta­ble power in the coun­try in the af­ter­math of his elec­tion at­trib­uted it to his “body lan­guage.”

The pres­i­dent’s sup­port­ers also said his “body lan­guage,” not de­lib­er­ate pol­icy changes, would fight cor­rup­tion and in­au­gu­rate a new dawn in the coun­try. Any­one who only un­der­stands Stan­dard English would be mys­ti­fied by this. By “body lan­guage,” Nige­rian English speak­ers mean aura, that is, the in­tan­gi­ble but none­the­less per­cep­ti­ble qual­ity that a per­son in­spires.

As a com­mu­ni­ca­tion scholar, I teach body lan­guage, which we call ki­nesics or ki­ne­sis in the schol­arly lit­er­a­ture. It ba­si­cally means the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of mes­sages, both sub­tle and overt, through the move­ment, in part or in whole, of the body. If I shake my head to show dis­ap­proval, I am us­ing body lan­guage. If I spread my five or ten fin­gers to call some­one a bas­tard, as we do in Nige­ria in mo­ments of in­flamed pas­sions, I am us­ing body lan­guage. And so on and so forth. That’s how the ex­pres­sion is un­der­stood in in­ter­na­tional Stan­dard English.

The no­tion of “body lan­guage” as the de­ter­rent ef­fect that the fear of a per­son in­spires is uniquely Nige­rian, and it started with the Buhari regime. You can’t read a per­son’s “body lan­guage” if you don’t phys­i­cally see the per­son and ob­serve their bod­ily mo­tions. In­vis­i­ble body lan­guage can’t make some­thing hap­pen. I had imag­ined, per­haps in­cor­rectly, that peo­ple who talk of “Buhari’s body lan­guage” know enough to know that no one would have any clue what they are talk­ing about out­side Nige­ria. I thought they weren’t ig­no­rant of the Stan­dard English mean­ing of the ex­pres­sion; I thought they were merely in­ten­tion­ally con­tort­ing and ex­pand­ing the ex­pres­sion’s tra­di­tional mean­ing.

But, ap­par­ently, that’s not true. Most peo­ple use the ex­pres­sion out of ig­no­rance of what it re­ally means. For in­stance, while re­ceiv­ing mem­bers of the Mus­lim Busi­ness­men and Pro­fes­sion­als in his of­fice on April 20, 2018, ac­cord­ing to the Van­guard, Vice Pres­i­dent Yemi Os­in­bajo said, “There is no cor­rup­tion in the pres­i­dency un­der the cur­rent gov­ern­ment. This kind of body lan­guage is what is sav­ing this coun­try a lot of money now. Like what is hap­pen­ing in JAMB, Cus­toms, FIRS, NPA, FAAN, NIMASA where we have wit­nessed im­proved rev­enue col­lec­tion and re­turns to gov­ern­ment for un­spent re­sources.”

From the per­spec­tive of Stan­dard English, that’s a sense­less waste of words that doesn’t com­mu­ni­cate any­thing. How can “body lan­guage” save the coun­try a lot of money?

My own sense is that who­ever came up with the ex­pres­sion was con­sciously im­bu­ing an ex­ist­ing English ex­pres­sion with a new mean­ing in the ser­vice of a new, un­lex­i­cal­ized re­al­ity. But then many peo­ple started us­ing the ex­pres­sion with no con­scious­ness that the mean­ing as­so­ci­ated with it is in­ten­tion­ally non­stan­dard; that it is a strictly made-forNige­ria ex­pres­sion. I am not, by any means, dis­cour­ag­ing the use of the ex­pres­sion in Nige­rian con­texts. I ac­tu­ally think the re-se­man­ti­ciza­tion of the ex­pres­sion is ev­i­dence of linguistic creativ­ity.

2. “Tech­ni­cally/tech­ni­cal.” The Buhari ad­min­is­tra­tion de­ploys the word “tech­ni­cally” or “tech­ni­cal” to mod­ify and cover up bla­tant lies. When the pres­i­dent’s prom­ise to de­feat Boko Haram by De­cem­ber 2016 didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize, the gov­ern­ment in­sisted nev­er­the­less that it had “tech­ni­cally de­feated” the group even when killings con­tin­ued and still con­tinue.

On May 3, 2018 when Buhari sur­rep­ti­tiously stopped in Lon­don to see his doc­tors af­ter his Amer­i­can visit, his me­dia aide called it a “tech­ni­cal stopover.” “They had a tech­ni­cal stopover in Lon­don,” pres­i­den­tial spokesper­son Garba Shehu told the Punch. “I am sure if you keep your ears to the ground, you will hear of his ar­rival soon.”

In ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tions in Nige­ria, peo­ple now use “tech­ni­cally” or “tech­ni­cal” to joc­u­larly cover up any ob­vi­ous lie. Some­one who failed his school cer­tifi­cate ex­ams, for ex­am­ple, said he “tech­ni­cally passed.” Peo­ple who lose elec­tions also say they have “tech­ni­cally won” it.

3. “Fa­tally wounded.” Nige­rian mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties pop­u­lar­ized this ex­pres­sion when they claimed, in Au­gust 2016, that they had “fa­tally wounded” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. To fa­tally wound some­one is to cause them to die from the wounds you have in­flicted on them.

Nige­rian mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties in­sisted that by “fa­tally wounded,” they meant se­verely wounded. But fa­tal means “bring­ing death.” A fa­tal ac­ci­dent is an ac­ci­dent in which peo­ple die. “Fa­tally” is the ad­ver­bial form of “fa­tal,” and it means “re­sult­ing in death.” In fact, the us­age ex­am­ple given for “fa­tally wounded” in the 2014 edi­tion of the Collins English Dic­tionary is, “fa­tally wounded in bat­tle.” Fatal­ity also means hu­man death. So when I say there has been a de­crease in ve­hic­u­lar fa­tal­i­ties, I am say­ing fewer peo­ple now die in road ac­ci­dents than in the im­me­di­ate past.

4. “Hate Speech”: This is now an all-pur­pose term for any strong crit­i­cism of the in­com­pe­tence of the Buhari gov­ern­ment. It is now used in a mock­ing and joc­u­lar way on Nige­rian so­cial me­dia to call at­ten­tion to dev­as­tat­ingly vig­or­ous crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment.

The Stan­dard English def­i­ni­tion of hate speech has no re­la­tion with how the Buhari ad­min­is­tra­tion wants it to be un­der­stood. Cam­bridge Dic­tionary de­fines hate speech as, “pub­lic speech that ex­presses hate or en­cour­ages vi­o­lence to­wards a per­son or group based on some­thing such as race, re­li­gion, sex, or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion (= the fact of be­ing gay, etc.)”

5. “Cross the red line”: This is a Stan­dard English id­iom that means to act in a way that goes beyond the bounds of ac­cept­able be­hav­ior. Buhari coopted this ex­pres­sion in the ser­vice of his creep­ing tyranny. Dur­ing his na­tional broad­cast on Au­gust 21, 2017, he said, “In the course of my stay in the United King­dom, I have been kept in daily touch with events at home. Nige­ri­ans are ro­bust and lively in dis­cussing their af­fairs, but I was dis­tressed to no­tice that some of the com­ments, es­pe­cially in the [sic] so­cial me­dia have crossed our na­tional red lines [sic] by dar­ing to ques­tion our col­lec­tive ex­is­tence as a na­tion. This is a step too far.”

To cross the na­tional red line has now come to mean to defy the tyranny of the Buhari regime. The ex­pres­sion has given rise to hu­mor­ous de­riv­a­tives such as “na­tional red line crosser,” which means peo­ple who have no qualms call­ing out the in­com­pe­tence and high­hand­ed­ness of the Buhari regime. 6. “Soft tar­gets”: This is a dis­taste­fully

de­ceit­ful The no­tion of “body lan­guage” as the de­ter­rent ef­fect that the fear of a per­son in­spires is uniquely Nige­rian, and it started with the Buhari regime. You can’t read a per­son’s “body lan­guage” if you don’t phys­i­cally see the per­son and ob­serve their bod­ily mo­tions. rhetor­i­cal strat­egy of the Buhari regime to min­i­mize the hor­rors of Boko Haram’s atroc­i­ties against or­di­nary peo­ple. The gov­ern­ment says Boko Haram now only at­tacks “soft tar­gets.” This is merely a eu­phemism for poor peo­ple who, in the es­ti­ma­tion of the Buhari regime, are in­con­se­quen­tial and worth­less. To call vic­tims of mur­der­ous ter­ror­ist bru­tal­ity “soft tar­gets” is to de­hu­man­ize them even in death. Un­for­tu­nately, many peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly from the north­east, have ac­cepted this linguistic de­hu­man­iza­tion of peo­ple at the bot­tom of the so­cial lad­der.

7. “In­tegrity”: This word has lost its Stan­dard English mean­ing in Nige­ria. Among Buhari sup­port­ers, “in­tegrity” is a myth­i­cal and un­de­fin­able qual­ity that only Buhari pos­sesses. But to Buhari crit­ics, it’s a word that in­spires de­ri­sion and that serves as a cover for fraud, cor­rup­tion, and in­de­fen­si­ble eth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions. Buhari is now mock­ingly called “Mr. In­tegrity,” par­tic­u­larly when news of the un­to­ward deal­ings of the regime he heads comes to light.

8. “The other room”: In re­sponse to his wife’s un­usual crit­i­cism of his ad­min­is­tra­tion dur­ing a well-pub­li­cized BBC in­ter­view, Buhari said, in Ger­many, that his wife be­longed to his “kitchen,” his “liv­ing room,” “and the other room.” It was a de­mean­ing, be­lit­tling sex­u­al­iza­tion of his wife be­fore the world.

“The other room” has many mean­ings in Stan­dard English, but it gen­er­ally means a place where al­co­holic drinks are sold and served. How­ever, Buhari in­fused a new mean­ing into this phrase. By “the other room,” the pres­i­dent meant his bed­room. It was one of the pres­i­dent’s low­est mo­ments in 2016, but his un­pres­i­den­tial ver­bal in­dis­cre­tion en­riched Nige­rian English’s lex­i­cal reper­toire. “The other room” is now a handy eu­phemism for “bed­room” in Nige­rian English.

Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari

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