While I was spending Christmas with some friends in another part of town, a colleague of mine called to say that she wanted to come to my house with a ‘message’. I said she could leave it there in my absence, and I imagined that it was probably some kind of written communication.
On reaching home, I found waiting for me, instead, the biggest frozen chicken I had seen in my life, together with a bottle of wine, a heap of powder milk sachets, and many other goodies. The ‘message’ was a Christmas present from her and her husband.
I told myself that I should have known. In Nigerian English, ‘message’, which in the Oxford dictionaries is defined as ‘written or spoken piece of information that you send to somebody or leave for somebody when you cannot speak to them yourself’, has taken on extended meanings. It is always something passed on to someone by someone else, but often these days it is some kind of enticing gift, concrete in form, which may be naira notes.
‘Message’ in its original meaning is perhaps neutral, because a message of this kind might bring either pleasure or pain to the recipient; but when it comes in the form of a frozen chicken it naturally brings only pleasure. So perhaps the extended meaning of the word is an example of the figure of speech called euphemism.
I cannot remember ‘message’ having this extended meaning when I first came to Nigeria in 1963. But, like any language or any variety of language, Nigerian English has grown, has developed, with various words acquiring new meanings that they lack elsewhere, in British or American English for example. Linguists call the process ‘semantic extension’. Just because these meanings do not feature in those other Englishes, some Nigerians still regard them as ‘wrong’; but it is likely that the number of such Nigerians is reducing.
In his recent PhD thesis (British English) or dissertation (American English), my friend Dr Kingsley Ugwuanyi of UNN has shown that younger Nigerians today have generally favourable attitudes to Nigerian English.
There are many other examples in Nigerian English of ‘extension’. Another friend, Professor Oko Okoro of UNILAG, drew our attention, in his book Exploring Nigerian English: A Guide to Usage, to the special Nigerian use of ‘equally’. This has come to be widely used with just the same meaning as ‘also’ or ‘likewise’, but the meanings that appear first in the Oxford dictionaries are somewhat different: ‘to the same degree’, or ‘in equal parts’.
However, these dictionaries also show (facetiously let us say that they ‘equally’ show) that the word can be used to introduce another idea that you think is just as important as what you have just said, as in ‘I’m trying to do what is best, but equally I’ve got to consider the cost’. In other words, ‘equally’ here is used just as it so often is used today in Nigeria.
Nigerian English continues to grow in other ways. One is that a word, which belongs to one ‘part of speech’ is made to belong to another as well. ‘Swallow’ as a verb fundamentally means ‘make food go down into your stomach’, but long ago in Nigeria it came more narrowly to mean ‘make food go down into your stomach without chewing it’, as when someone eats eba or amala or pounded yam.
More recently in Nigeria, however, ‘swallow’ is now also (‘equally’?) used as a noun, meaning the kind of food that is swallowed in the sense just given. Thus in an eating-place some weeks ago I saw listed in chalk on a blackboard these names of items on offer for consumption that day: ‘Rice Yam pottage Swallow’. If you ask someone what he or she will eat, the answer might be ‘I will take swallow’. This is not to say that, in British and American English, ‘swallow’ is always a verb and cannot be a noun: in fact, as a noun it is the name of a quite common bird found in the countries concerned.
Another way in which Nigerian English has grown is by ‘borrowing’ from Nigeria’s indigenous languages. A good current example is ‘japa’, a verb ‘borrowed’ from Yoruba and meaning ‘leave Nigeria for a better-paid job outside the country’. Like many borrowed words, it can feature both in Nigerian Pidgin and in Nigerian English (which are, of course, two different things).
Another friend, Dr Ganiu Bamgbose of LASU, has written this poem, where the last word of each line comes from Yoruba, and has given me permission to quote it:
You dey complain of sapa
But you dey spend like apa
Small thing una wan japa
To survive there no be epa
(You complain of being broke/but you spend extravagantly;/at the slightest chance you want to leave the country/but to survive there is not child’s play.)
One has to be well over forty years old to remember that in the 1980s there was a TV character called Andrew who always wanted to ‘check out’ of the country. A verb ‘to Andrew’ then came into use and meant just that – to check out; another example of a word that is first used as one part of speech but later also as another.
We do not hear it today; and its history shows that Nigerian English can change not only by growing, with some expressions being added over the years, but also by contracting, with some other expressions being lost.
Discussing language is a pleasant, innocent, and interesting occupation. Language nevertheless represents social and other realities, and as we reflect on some of the words discussed here we are reminded of one ever-increasing trend of our time, which ‘japa’ encapsulates: the number of educated Nigerians who want to leave the country and find better-paid employment outside.
Laughter usually accompanies the utterance of ‘japa’; but the trend is an alarming one, perhaps not for the individuals who embody it, but for the country as a whole and its future.
Professor Jowitt, FNAL, is a lecturer in the Department of English, University of Jos. He is the author of Nigerian English Usage (Longman Nigeria 1991) and Nigerian English (DeGruyter Mouton 2019).
The Challenge is for Nigerian Youth:
If we fall prey again, we will have ourselves to blame and no one can say how many more knocks Nigeria can take before it tips over. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Future is not emotion. I challenge the youth to arise. Let nobody pull wool over your eyes to divide you and/or segregate you to make you underlings. Nigerian youth, wherever they come from, North or South, East or West need education which is now denied to over 20 million children; Nigerian youth also need skills, empowerment, employment, reasonably good living conditions, welfare and well-being.
My dear young men and women, you must come together and bring about a truly meaningful change in your lives. If you fail, you have no one else to blame. Your present and future are in your hands to make or to mar. The future of Nigeria is in the same manner in your hands and literally so. If for any reason you fail to redeem yourself and your country, you will have lost the opportunity for good and you will have no one to blame but yourselves and posterity will not forgive you. Get up, get together, get going and get us to where we should be. And you, the youth, it is your time and your turn. ‘Eyin Lokan’ (Your turn).
The power to change is in your hands. Your future, my future, the future of grandchildren and great grandchildren is in your hands. Politics and elections are numbers game. You have the numbers, get up, stand up and make your numbers count.
Let me say it again, loud and clear, Nigeria has no business with insecurity, poverty, insurgency, banditry, unemployment, hunger, debt, division and disunity. We are in these situations because advertently or inadvertently, our leaders have made the choices. They have done the best they could do. Let them take their rest deservedly or not and let them enjoy their retirement as Septuagenarians or older.
I became Head of State at 39 and at 42, I had retired into the farm. When it was considered necessary, I was drafted back into active political life after twenty years of interregnum. I came back at 62 and by 70, I was on my way out. Others like General Gowon and Enahoro became national leaders at 33 and 27 respectively and General Gowon at the helms of leadership of Nigeria at the highest level.
The vigour, energy, agility, dynamism and outreach that the job of leadership of Nigeria requires at the very top may not be provided as a septuagenarian or older. I know that from personal experience. And it is glaring out of our current experiences. Otherwise, we will be fed with, “The President says” and we will neither see nor hear him directly as we should. Yes, for some, age and physical and mental disposition are not in tandem.
But where and when they are with obvious evidence, they must be taken into account for purpose of reality. And yet it is a job in our present situation where the team leader or captain of the team should be up and doing, outgoing inside and outside and speaking to the nation on almost daily basis visibly and as much as possible interactively and meeting his colleagues all over the world on behalf of Nigeria.
Youth of Nigeria, your time has come, and it is now and please grasp it. If not now, it will be never. I appeal to you to turn the tide on its head and march forward chanting ‘Awa Lokan’ (Our turn) not with a sense of entitlement, but with a demonstrable ideological commitment to unity and transformation of Nigeria.
Leave the past, face the future:
Can we let the past go? I appeal to the young Nigerians to stop inheriting other people’s prejudices and enemies. Make your own friends and stop inheriting your father’s enemies.
Let’s stop criminalizing and demonizing one another on the basis of the civil war on which we are all wrong. And let’s praise and thank God for preserving the oneness of Nigeria.
The Scripture says that if God would take account of all our wrongdoings, nobody would be able to stand before Him. While not suffering from amnesia, let us stop still fighting and reacting to the civil war in our hearts, minds, heads and our attitude acrimoniously. Let’s stop living on our different wrongs or mistakes of the past: treasonable felony, Tiv riot and its handling, first military coup and its aftermath, second military coup, Araba, pogrom and the civil war, all in the 1960s.
And more recently OPC, Egbesu, MASSOB, IPOB, Boko Haram and banditry. No region can claim to be innocent or to be saintly. And no justification will suffice. In our respective individual or regional positions, we have done right and we have done wrong. It is therefore not right for any of us to be sanctimonious to see ourselves as saints and the rest as devils incarnate.
Just let us agree to move forward together in mutual forgiveness, one accord, inclusive society, equality and equity. Together and without bias and discrimination, fear or favour, we can have Nigeria of one nation in diversity, in truth and in practice. Let us honour, cherish, respect and even celebrate our diversity, which is the basis of our potential greatness and strength.
If we will only continue to harp on wrongs done by each of us individually or collectively, we will never be able to stand together. If we will continue with wide brush to paint a national or sub-national group as bad and never to be trusted with leadership because of past error or mistakes that some of them were responsible for and treat their offspring as inheritors, it will amount to great injustice that will surely lead to no peace, no security and no stability for development and progress.
First, no group is faultless; second, for the greatness of the whole, we need one another as constituents of the whole; third, we cannot be talking and working for Africa’s integration and for Nigeria’s disintegration at the same time. Why for instance should I be stigmatised or despised because of my place of origin, place of birth or where I come from? Where I was born, by whom I was born and when I was born were not choices made by me. They were choices and prerogatives of God. Any antagonism against me on that basis is unfair and is tantamount to fighting against God, the Creator.
Such derogatory attitude and mindset do not build any human institution let alone a nation. While not forgetting the past, let us put the past behind us for it not to continue to mar our present and our future and that of the coming generation. We must rise above primordial animalistic instincts and behaviour. Yes, we are human and higher than animals in the wild. Let us develop national ethos and national characteristics that can take us collectively to the promised.
My dear young men and women, let me assure you that there are only two tribes of people in Nigeria a tribe of good people and a tribe of bad people. You are either a good Nigerian of Igbo extraction, Kanuri extraction, etc., or a bad Nigerian of Yoruba extraction, Ijaw extraction etc.
I will at this juncture want to commend the politicians as they have generally been reasonably civil in their campaigns without making politics as a call to war against opponents. Genuine and fair competition conveys greater legitimacy in any political rivalry or competition. A situation where people in authority and power assume such positions through foul and despicable means and continue to espouse and act in ways that only engender conflict or war by subverting legitimacy of power and authority does not augur well for the polity and as such, the moral foundation of the government and the society will be terribly weakened.
May God help, save, protect and sustain Nigeria for all Nigerians, for Africa and for the human race. We can only continue to play politics of ethnicity, religion, region and moneybags at the peril of our country and to self-destruction. We need selfless, courageous, honest, patriotic, in short, outstanding leadership with character and fear of God beyond what we have had in recent past.
None of the contestants is a saint but when one compares their character, antecedent, their understanding, knowledge, discipline and vitality that they can bring to bear and the great efforts required to stay focused on the job particularly looking at where the country is today and with the experience on ￼the job that I personally had, Peter Obi as a mentee has an edge.
Others like all of us have what they can contribute to the new dispensation to liberation, restoration and salvaging of Nigeria collectively. One other important point to make about Peter is that he is a needle with thread attached to it from North and South and he may not get lost. In other words, he has people who can pull his ears, if and when necessary. Needless to say that he has a young and able running mate with clean track record of achievement both in public and private life.
In conclusion, I want to bring to our remembrance part of the great speech ￼that Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa made on October 7, 1960, on the occasion of Nigeria being admitted as the 99th member of the United Nations:
“Cooperation is for each man to be true to his religious belief and to reaffirm the basic principles of his particular creed. It may be that, when we hear the world crying out for peace, we may receive the inspiration to deal with these intractable problems and be able to really devote all our resources to the advancement of mankind by applying those eternal truths which will inevitably persist long after we ourselves are utterly forgotten.”
The Tafawa Balewas are gone. But the eternal truths inevitably remain and persist that cooperation, friendship, justice, equity, love and fear of God which are hallmarks of the three religions practised in this country are the basis of our full and fulfilled lives and living as Nigerians. In faith as Nigerians, we must pray and relate with God as it depends on Him and at the same time, in faith also we must work as it depends on us. Then we will win.
May God continue to help us individually and collectively.
Yours ever,Olusegun ObasanjoJanuary 1, 2023.