by Farooq Kperogi
President Buhari’s political brand is going from being the most linguistically innovative in the run-up to the last general election to being lackluster and plagued by grammatical and creativity deficits.
In my April 26, 2015 article titled “From Febuhari to General March for Buhari: Buhari’s Linguistic March to Aso Rock,” I observed that “In the battle for the hearts and minds of voters, enthusiasts of President-elect General Muhammadu Buhari on cyber space were incredibly linguistically creative. They came up with original, persuasive, catchy, memorable, and thought-provoking puns, which helped construct a rhetoric of inevitability of Buhari’s victory. President Jonathan’s supporters were caught flat-footed by the unassailable rhetorical ingenuity of Buhari’s supporters; they came up with no original puns of their own, and merely reacted with thoughtless and rhetorically impoverished comebacks to the rhetorical demolition of their candidate.”
President Buhari’s media team is reversing this gain. See below my itemization of the ways in which the president’s spokesmen are soiling his linguistic brand.
- “Wailing Wailers”: There is probably no clearer evidence of the creativity deficit of the president’s media men than that they’ve deployed the term “wailing wailers” to describe critics of President Buhari.
There are two things wrong with that expression. One, “Wailing Wailers” is a historically positive term. It betrays spectacular creativity deficit to insult your opponent with a term of esteem. Anyone who knows a little bit about music history knows that “Wailing Wailers” is one of the earliest names of the reggae band formed by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in Jamaica.
When the band was formed in the early 1960s, it was called “The Teenagers.” A few years later, the band’s name changed to “The Wailing Rudeboys.” The group again changed its name to the “Wailing Wailers.” This change of name coincided with the time it was discovered by an influential Jamaican producer, who gave it national and international prominence. After some more years, the group changed its name to simply “The Wailers.” When Peter Tosh pulled out of the band, it came to be known as “Bob Marley and the Wailers.”
I grew up on Bob Marley’s music, and one of my trivial bragging rights is that I know every single song Bob Marley sang from the late 1960s till his death in 1981. To use the name of a progressive, emancipatory, anti-imperialist, pan-Africanist musical group as a term of insult is the height of ignorance!
Let’s even assume that Adesina didn’t know of the “Wailing Wailers” (which is unlikely, given his age and the fact that Bob Marley was a sensation in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s when he came of age), as a grammatical category, shorn of any association with Bob Marley and his band members, “wailing wailers” is an idiotic turn of phrase. What else should wailers do but wail? Laugh? Smile? Well, they are wailers because they wail, which makes “wailing wailers” pointless and, frankly, unimaginative phraseology. It’s like saying “writing writers,” “singing singers,” “lying liars,” “fighting fighters,” etc. That’s meaningless and unintelligent waste of words.
This, of course, does not indict the original “Wailing Wailers.” It was a trademark name, and trademark names enjoy the license to break grammatical conventions in the service of creativity. Just a few examples will suffice. A well-known India-based Coca Cola company called “Thums UP” (with a thumps-up emblem) was probably so named in error, but when Coca Cola bought the company, the “error” in its name was left untouched. “Dunkin’ Donuts,” a popular American brand, misspells “doughnut” deliberately.
Brand names are also notorious for leaving out apostrophes in their names. Prominent examples are Starbucks Coffee, Barclays, Michaels, etc. Two prominent Nigerian examples are Peoples Daily, which should properly be “People’s Daily,” and All Progressives Congress, which should properly be “All Progressives’ Congress.”
So brand names intentionally contort the conventions of grammar for creativity, humor, marketing, etc. Adesina’s “wailing wailers” isn’t a brand name; it’s just illiteracy. And the illiteracy he started is spreading and percolating in Nigerian cyberspace every day. Now Buhari’s army of self-appointed social media defenders habitually tag critics of the government as “wailing wailers” and imagine themselves to be saying something meaningful. No, “wailing wailers,” as a historical term, is a badge of honor. As a turn of phrase to insult an opponent, it’s imbecilic.
- “Military Industrial Complex.” In an August 7, 2015 presidential news release, President Buhari was quoted to have said, “The Ministry of Defence is being tasked to draw up clear and measurable outlines for development of a modest military industrial complex for Nigeria.” “Military industrial complex”? I cringed in embarrassment when I read this. Buhari most certainly didn’t say this. It was his media aides who put those words into his mouth. As a military general who went to school in the United States, he would never knowingly say he wants a military-industrial complex for Nigeria.
“Military-industrial complex” (note the hyphen between “military” and “industrial”) is a pejorative term that was first used by US president Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 17, 1961 in his exit speech. It refers to the evil, war-mongering, profit-inspired conspiracy between arms manufacturers, certain elements in the US military, and some members of the US Congress. This conspiracy ensures that the US Congress budgets huge sums of money to the military to fight often needless and unjust wars with countries around the world. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are the consequence of the influence of the US military-industrial complex. Wars cause arms to be manufactured and sold, which brings money to the pockets of arms manufacturers, the legislators who support war, and the generals who execute it.
President Eisenhower was worried about this triangular conspiracy of war-mongers. That was why he said, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
Now, the presidential media team quoted our president as advocating the development of what an American president warned against more than 40 years ago. That isn’t right. There is a (disapproving) semantic fixity to the phrase “military-industrial complex” that no Nigerian presidential media team can undo. Many Western journalists actually sniggered when they read the press release.
“Military-industrial complex” has inspired many spin-offs, such as “prison industrial-complex,” which describes the conspiracy of private prison companies, lawmakers, lobbyists, vendors of surveillance equipment, etc. that has led to the explosion of prison populations in the United States and elsewhere. My friend, Professor Pius Adesanmi, also coined the term “mercy industrial-complex” to describe the complicated concatenation of emotional and financial motivations for perpetually calling attention to the dire poverty in Africa by wily Western do-gooders. Also called poverty porn, mercy industrial-complex both plays on the philanthropic heartstrings of western donors and provides “balm for uneasy consciences,” to quote Adesanmi.
So Nigeria should not develop a “military-industrial complex,” however “modest,” except the president’s media team has a meaning of “military-industrial complex” that is exclusive to them, which would mean they aren’t communicating since communication depends on shared codes and symbols to be effective and meaningful.
- “Honorary doctorate degree.” In the presidential news release announcing the appointment of Mr. William Babatunde Fowler as the new boss of the Federal Inland Revenue Service, Femi Adesina wrote: “Fowler, who holds an Honorary Doctorate Degree [sic] of the Irish International University is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria and the Business Management Association of the United Kingdom.”
Well, “doctorate” is a noun, and it can’t qualify another noun. Only adjectives (and attributive nouns, which “doctorate” isn’t) can modify a noun. The adjective that Adesina was looking for is “doctoral.” You can say someone has “an honorary doctorate,” “an honorary doctoral degree” or, rarely, “an honorary doctor’s degree,” but not “an honorary doctorate degree.”
- “Rake up murk.” In an August 5, 2015 news release, the president’s media team wrote: “Only those rabidly determined to find faults unnecessarily will cook up falsehood in a futile effort to rake up murk where none exists.”
Murk means fog, or anything that impairs visibility in the atmosphere. You can’t rake murk, however hard you try. But you can rake “muck,” that is, dirt. The conventional expression is “rake muck,” which was popularized by American president Theodore Roosevelt, who derisively described hard-hitting investigative American journalists as “muckrakers.” Although it was intended to be an insult, American journalists wore it as a badge of honor, and today “muckraker” is synonymous with a fearless investigative journalist.
Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Journalism and Citizen Media at Kennesaw State University, Georgia, USA. He owns a blog, Notes From Atlanta where this article was first published, and tweets from @farooqkperogi.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.