Presidential Media Chat: The Language Problem by @TexTheLaw

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The presidential media chat of the 4th of May 2014 was another opportunity for Nigerians to hear their president “unscripted”. As with most  media chats he has hosted since becoming president, yesterday’s also provided canon fodder for those looking for gaffes to fuel the next internet meme.

In his previous media chats, President Jonathan provided such timeless soundbites as “Stock market business is not a jackpot business”, “Wikileaks is just like a beer parlour gossip”, and “Libya is just like someone is carrying a pot of water on his head and it just fell and broke, GBOA.” When asked to comment on allegations of his wife being investigated for money laundering after reportedly being apprehended with $13million dollars at an airport, his response was “Have you seen $13m in cash? Is it something one person can carry? Can only you carry it?”

Last night, his response to a question on the claims by ousted CBN governor that $50billion in oil proceeds was unaccounted for, was first of all “Oil money gets missing in every administration.” Then, after some wiggling and wriggling, he concluded that “$50billion cannot be missing and America will not know. America will know. It is their money. Where will you keep $50billion dollars?” And this was after he relayed Sanusi’s claim that the money was missing from over 18 months’ proceeds.

There is the argument to be made, with some merit, that these expressions are unbecoming of the president of any country, not only from a language perspective, but also from one of logic. If one person cannot carry $13m in cash, how about 10 people? When last did Patience Jonathan travel without an entourage? And if never, what suggests she couldn’t have arranged one on the said occasion? $50billion, over 18 months, shared between several people is not a lump sum block of money waiting to be seen and known by America.

However, it may be that the language problem exceeds the logic obstacle. A PhD having challenges with either language or logic is something of an oxymoron, but here we are. I do not intend this to be disparaging but it appears that meanings frequently get lost in translation  when the President transits from the language he thinks in to the one he is required to speak in. It is a problem many multilingual people with unequal levels of fluency would face.

For instance, and this is probably an indictment on me, when I’m speaking in Yoruba, I find myself thinking or processing the conversation in English. Thus, sometimes, I am halfway through a “transliteration” before I correct myself and use the proper Yoruba phrases. For many native Yoruba speakers, it is the reason why you’d hear someone say “What did you carry in the exam/race” when asking for the person’s position – Ki l’o gbe?

It may be the reason why the President’s wife, tearful, lamented,”There is God o! There is God o!”, for either ‘God is real’ or ‘God sees all this’.

It may be why the President said, last week, “I  have lived three quarters of my life on earth” (and the other quarter on Mars, it was joked) when he meant that he had expended 3 quarters of his life expectancy. Or why he said, last night, when defending but not really defending MEND, “MEND are not terrorists…I’m not defending MEND because I’m from the Niger Delta”, when a clearer version was probably “Do not think that because I’m from the Niger Delta I’m defending MEND.” I do not know. I’m guessing.

Besides problems with translations and transliterations however, there are also issues with  his unique choice of words. “Every administration has missing oil money”; “Terrorism in Nigeria is because, well you know, if you want to attack the Black race, and Nigeria is the centre of the Black race…”; “They have advised me, I won’t say from where, that I shouldn’t attack Sambisa Forest, so that the Boko Haram won’t melt into the general populace…”; “We are the current champions, we hold the trophy, we hold the shield – let APC inform us who is the challenger…” all do leave a lot to be desired.

Many also complained about the very basic level of his illustrations. For example, to explain rebasing, he used a farming allegory about taking account of more produce than was previously customary. I thought it was a functional example, really, but this brings me to the wider issue of the general levels of education, reasoning and argument in Nigeria. The President is our everyman. He is the people in your neighbourhood, the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street; the people that you meet each day. Millions of us cannot write letters or emails without several lines of bad grammar, many cannot hold a rational argument (or any argument for that matter) without quickly descending into insults and ad hominems, and millions more are functionally illiterate. L’etat, c’est nous. Le President, c’est nous aussi.

We are unlikely to have an Obama/Cameronesque leader, in my opinion, until we become like the people that Obama and Cameron lead – in business, in national conscience, in political engagement and, most of all, in learning and literacy.

I suspect that the majority of the Nigerian people would have found last night’s media chat satisfactory. Or, at the very worst, the President’s performance did not affect his approval rating by too much. For people that would harp on eloquence and inspiring speech though, it must be said that the number one contender from those challenging the PDP for its trophy is not much better. So, will use of language really count when we go to the polls in February?

Rotimi Fawole

Rotimi Fawole

Rotimi is a lawyer whose practice areas over the years have been largely within corporate/commercial and intellectual property law. He’s a music lover, plays the guitar and the piano and supports the Arsenal. His other musings can be found on texthelaw.wordpress.com and he tweets from the handle @texthelaw.

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