Presidential Media Chat: The Language Problem

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?


11 thoughts on “Presidential Media Chat: The Language Problem

  1. Inasmuch as the president is trying to communicate with the majority of ppl, which is the right thing, they’re better ways for him to make his points rather than in these manner. This makes him look like he’s grasping at straws rather than satisfactorily answering the question.
    For instance, on his wife being accused of money laundering, he could have gone, “my wife is a private citizen. If there’s a case against her, nothing stops it from being brought to court”. This has effectively shifted the burden on her accusers rather than this watery defence.
    However, the defences he offers make him out to be lacking in intellectual capacity and only those who don’t know better and those blinded by loyalty will not notice.
    He can do better than this. He should do better than this.


  2. I’m not the type to dabble in tabloid gossip, the quality of the president’s diction is no concern of mine. However, what I want to point out is the quintessential porous leadership that is a hallmark of President Goodluck’s regime (pun intended). The most grievous thing is his resolve to engage in recriminations and blame shifting as opposed to assuming responsibility.


  3. It is beyond the language problem. While I agree that processing your thought in your non-native language can always create some problems in bringing out the intended meaning; it is equally the case that without striving too hard, you can communicate meaningfully. Language and logical capability are the twin elements/traits that distinguish us humans from other animal species. And among humans your educational attainment have tendencies to augment and elevate your capability for the two traits above and beyond the average person. Here we have a president who is paraded as having the highest academic attainment. I am not saying that GEJ should speak like Mr Obama or any other savvy public figure: all that the man is expected to do is to at least inspire confidence when making his point both by being logically coherent and linguistically eloquent. The #AmericaWillKnow jibe was borne out of an attempt to rationalize that no such amount as $50b was ever missing: both in the language and the logic he got it wrong. I’m sure you will recollect he alluded to Aliko Dangote being the richest man in Africa and that it would be difficult for Dangote to take out even $5b out of his money: that shows poor understanding of the meaning of Dangote being wealthy as well. (Remember also that even amongst his numerous Independence Days and Democracy Days speeches; gaffes similar to the ones in the last Presidential Media Chat were committed. So, it is in the man and it is very disappointing.)
    In sum, you nailed it that we got the leader we deserved and it is a tragedy that this is happening to Nigeria.


  4. L’etat, c’est nous. Le President, c’est nous aussi <- too true! We need to look in the mirror. He is a product of the system.


  5. Interesting and I dare say humorous take on “The Language Problem”. Sometimes, I forget that many Nigerians are illiterate, as you point out, because I am surrounded by my literate friends. GEJ is ‘speaking’ the language and ‘logic’ of the people, which isn’t as simple as it sounds (there are shades & layers of meaning). These people will come out to vote on election day, while my literate friends and I tweet about it in ‘educated’ prose!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.