Jonathan's Embarrassing US Visit: A Response To Critics

There are few articles I've written in the past that can outrival my last week's piece on Acting President Goodluck Jonathan's U.S. visit in terms of the intensity of reactions it generated from readers.

The response has been predictably a gallimaufry of commendation and condemnation. (I will publish some of the emails I received in due course). But what struck me the most - and what I think is an even greater tragedy than Jonathan's heartrending show of embarrassing shallowness - is the uncritical, simplistic, and intellectually barren justification of Jonathan's embarrassing slips by a few "scholars" in a scholarly internet discussion group that I am a member of. This week's column is inspired largely by the discussions in that forum.

Let me start by saying that I have nothing against Jonathan. In fact, a good friend of mine is his close confidant and assistant. And I appreciate the fact that his elevation to the position of acting president has saved Nigeria from the brink of a giddy precipice. So I can understand if people think my rather harsh criticism of him may be a little indelicate given our current national circumstances.

But I can't ignore an acting president who actually said there has never been any crisis between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria and that there will never be. What have always existed, Jonathan said, have been sectarian crises (or, to be faithful to his rendition, "sectoral crises") between Muslim factions, which the Western media habitually mistakes for Muslim-Christian clashes! How do you ignore that kind of presidential cluelessness?

How do you ignore a leader who didn't know that there are currently only three serving INEC commissioners and that the others have retired? I don't live in Nigeria but I know this from merely keeping up with the news.

Jonathan's problem during his visit here wasn't merely one of avoidably appalling grammar and unmentionable protocol blunders; it was also one of a disturbing deficiency of substance in his speeches and interviews. That anybody would excuse, tolerate, and even celebrate this presidential mediocrity is disturbing, to say the least. I only hope we will democratize this new-found toleration for presidential mediocrity and extend it to every subsequent occupant of Aso Rock irrespective of geographic and ethnic origins.

People who think I was obsessed with Jonathan's grammar and comportment (and I pointed out only three grammatical slips, although he hardly uttered a word that wasn't a mockery of the English language) fail to realize that the whole point of his trip to America was to impress Americans and buy himself - and Nigeria - some legitimacy in the process. He didn't come here to govern Nigeria. So judging his performance in terms of his eloquence, grammatical correctness, substance, etc is fair game.

When my critics say "no be grammar we go chop," they are being disingenuous. This criticism implies that it is all right for Jonathan to speak atrocious grammar, comport himself like a "bush man," not know basic information about Nigeria, as long as he can provide "stable electricity, security, good roads, free and fair elections, and good schools, etc," as one critic put it. But how the hell do they know he will do that, anyway? What inspires the confidence that Jonathan will be different from the other clueless, lying, thieving leaders that preceded him? Maybe they know something I don't know.

Oh, sorry, I get it: it's because he spoke awful grammar, made embarrassing diplomatic gaffes, betrayed crying ignorance of the basic facts of his country - the new standards by which to judge Nigerian presidents' effectiveness! Oh, great! But wait!! His predecessors were not radically different.

Perhaps we should all unite to stop the National Assembly from implementing the new legislation that requires prospective office holders to have post-secondary school qualifications (in English!) as preconditions for ascension to elective offices. In fact, let's compel the National Assembly to pass legislation to make inability to speak good English and ignorance of Nigeria the new criteria to ascend to leadership in Nigeria.

How about that? Sounds good?

Some people charge that I am somehow being "neo-colonial" in insisting that Jonathan and any other leader speak acceptable English when they represent us abroad. My critics say French, Korean, Chinese, etc leaders speak their native languages and get foreign language translators to interpret for them when they travel abroad. Fair enough.

But do the French, Koreans, Chinese, etc use English as the language of instruction all levels of their education, in their courts, and in their mass media? Do they use it as the language of government, indeed, as the "official" language of their countries? No! Well, we do in Nigeria. So citing those examples is a notoriously imperfect and intellectually fraudulent contrast of contexts.

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! The Nigerian National Assembly has recently passed legislation that makes the possession of a post-secondary school qualification a requirement to run for office - any office. And you can't acquire post-secondary school qualification in Nigeria if you don't have a credit in English.

Goodluck Jonathan presumably passed "O" level English before proceeding to study for a bachelor's degree, a master's and then a PhD. Yet he committed errors that should prevent anybody from passing "O" level English.

In any case, most of us so-called educated Africans have abysmally low levels of proficiency in our native languages, unlike citizens of the countries cited above. We learn and think in the languages of our former colonial overlords. That's a reality that no romantic, mushy "Africanism" can gloss over.

Plus, the idea that a Nigerian leader can speak any language other English and get translators to interpret for them while representing Nigeria abroad betrays so much pity-inspiring naiveté. First, as I pointed out earlier, few African leaders have sufficient proficiency in their languages to effectively communicate high-minded diplomatic thoughts in them. Second, the truth is that English is the linguistic glue that holds our disparate, unnaturally evolved nation together.

Although Nigeria has 3 dominant languages, it also has over 400 mutually unintelligible languages. And given the perpetual battles of supremacy between the three major languages in Nigeria - indeed among all the languages - it is practically 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!

I am not implying that African leaders should not speak their native languages when they travel abroad, but the truth is that if Obasanjo, Yar'adua, Jonathan - or any other Nigerian leader - were to choose to communicate in their native languages while representing Nigeria abroad, the backlash at home would be immense. It would alienate other people who don't speak their languages.

Yar'adua is still heavily criticized - and rightly so - for choosing the BBC Hausa service to announce to Nigerians that he wasn't dead, although his interview was recorded in both English and Hausa.

Let's for once be truthful to ourselves.

Author can be reached at farooqkperogi@gmail.com. He blogs at www.farooqkperogi.blogspot.com