Language will win election day in Nigeria

2015-03-15 15:00

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If you think the ability to read and write English is enough to help you understand the grammar of Nigerian politics, you’re in for a rude shock.

We invent, or at worst improvise, everything – including common political language – and the media does a good job of popularising the new phrases and keeping the dictionary fresh.

With Nigeria’s general election less than two weeks away, old words have new currency. Elsewhere, politicians canvassing for votes might be talking about their record, the social and physical infrastructure they either provided or hope to provide and, if they are pressed, just how they intend to fund these projects.

That’s sophisticated stuff. A governor in one of Nigeria’s southwest states recently upstaged the incumbent by promising stomach infrastructure. What is the use of roads and bridges when voters are hungry?

In response to the grand projects, smart social media and imaginative ad copy created by his rival’s team, the challenger bought bags of rice, salt and other staples on to which he added his photograph and party logo.

He distributed the items among voters and even rode through the streets on commercial bikes, occasionally pulling up to share a meal of roast plantain with them. In the end, stomach infrastructure won.

A video that emerged months after the challenger had won, however, revealed that stomach infrastructure got a helping hand from military authorities, who appear to have been under instructions to twist the election result.

In this photo taken on Monday, Nigerian troops patrol in the northeastern city of Mubi, about 20km west of the Cameroon border. Nigerian troops recaptured Mubi from Boko Haram militants last month
Picture: AP

Political scientist Sunday Mbah said: “You can argue about what happened afterwards, or even challenge it in court. But the fact, for now, is that the challenger found a winning formula.”

Will change prove to be the winning formula in the March 28 presidential election? It is the battle cry of the opposition All Progressives Congress and is a word that has long lost its innocence.

The chairperson of a key government agency who used the “C” word at the 78th birthday party of former president Olusegun Obasanjo was fired within days for talking about change.

The fellow committed a double sin: he not only spoke at the birthday of Obasanjo, who is one of President Goodluck Jonathan’s toughest critics, he literally carried the opposition’s banner of change and said the people should have change, if that’s what they wanted.

The only music that pleases the ear of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is “forward with Jonathan”.

Forward with 219 Chibok girls still held by Boko Haram? Forward with corruption and incompetence? Forward with power supply dipping disastrously and Africa’s giant depending on Chad, Niger and Cameroon to rescue its seized territories? Forward?

“It’s a slogan,” a party source told me. “It does not mean that we are perfect, but we know Nigerians don’t want to go back to the dark days when [Muhammadu] Buhari [the opposition candidate] was head of state.”

What’s in it for voters, anyway, since they may not hear from these politicians again for another four years?

In Kwale, a village in the Delta area considered to be a stronghold of the ruling party, when politicians shout “PDP!”, voters respond thunderously with “Share the money!”

“The first time, I was scandalised to hear it,” said Christopher Enemuwe, a local party mobiliser. “But now, we are used to it.”

Whether the money is pressed into their hands, tucked into loaves of bread or handed down through village heads, voters simply want their reward. If politicians argue that the reward for failed politicians, like failed students, is to allow them to repeat the class, it’s obvious that voters, too, are learning to load their demands.

But is this not corruption – or stealing? No. In a feat of presidential lexicography, Jonathan has said there is a difference between stealing and corruption. And that’s official.

“Corruption is white-collar language for abuse of office,” he said on TV recently, “but local people know stealing when they see a thief.”

You obviously have to shine your eyes, as it is said in Nigeria, to figure out the difference.

Ishiekwene is the group MD of the Abuja-based Leadership newspapers and a board member of the Global Editors’ Network

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