Nigeria’s Art of Flowery Language

In a series of letters from African journalists to the BBC, novelist Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani touched on the art of Nigerian verbosity.  First published on BBC Africa on February 5, 2017.

By: Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani

My friends in the international media are perplexed by the flowery language often used in press releases from Nigerian officials.

The pretentious diction, dying metaphors, and padded sentences would make George Orwell somersault in his grave.

Take, for example, this paragraph from a press release by the Nigerian parliament:

“The seminar is aimed at making good the promise of the National Assembly that we are on the same page with the President Buhari led administration and in line with the legislative agenda, that there is a synergy between the National Assembly and the Presidency in the fight against corruption.

“It is to reaffirm the point that you cannot clap with one hand. It is our way of saying that there must be a legislative strength to back the anti-corruption stance of the present administration.”

Here is another example, this time a paragraph from a Nigerian military press release:

“The Nigerian Army in synergy with other security agencies under its constitutional mandates… acted responsively in order to de-escalate the deteriorating security scenario in-situ.

“Instructively, the military and other security agencies exercised maximum restraints against the odds of provocative and inexplicable violence that were employed against them…

“It is rather inconceivable for any individual or group to have decided to inundate the general public with an anecdote of unverified narratives in order to discredit the Nigerian Army in the course of carrying out its constitutional duties despite the inexplicable premeditated and unprovoked attacks…”

Such long-winded passages can also be found in the local press, which commonly use expressions such as “the remains of the deceased have been deposited in the mortuary”, “men of the underworld”, “hoodlums” and “tantamount to insubordination”.

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Foreigners wonder why Nigerian government officials do not opt for simpler language.

Are they intentionally trying to confuse the public or to conceal information?

Well, these press releases are simply following an age-old Nigerian tradition of verbal ornamentation.

For us, important information has always been best conveyed with grandiloquence.

Writing a love letter

Back in my teenage years, long before the era of texting and sexting, there was only one way for a Nigerian boy to prove his sincere feelings for a girl: By writing a love letter.

Any boy serious about catching the attention of the girl he fancied knew better than to do it in simple English. He had to find the right big words.

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If his vocabulary was lacking, there was always that nerdish classmate of his who, for a fee in cash or kind, could take on the role of scribe plenipotentiary.

Either that or the boy could copy verbatim from a love letter already written by someone else.

And so, the typical love letter that many of us Nigerian girls received went something like this:

“My dearest, sweetest, most magnificent, paragon of beauty, I hope this letter finds you in a current state of sound body and mind.

“My principal reason for writing this epistle is to gravitate your mind towards an issue that has been troubling my soul.

“Even as I put pen to paper, my adrenalin is ascending on the Richter scale, my temperature is rising, the mirror in my eyes have only your divine reflection, the wind vane of my mind is pointing north, south and east at the same time.

“Indeed, when I sleep, you are the only thought in my medulla oblongata and I dream about you…”

If these sweet nothings were from a boy in whom you had absolutely no interest, the thing to do was to set his letter ablaze, enclose the ashes in an envelope and promptly return to sender.

Nigeria’s notorious 419 internet scammers adopted this same tradition of using high-sounding words.

Persuading gullible foreigners to part with millions of dollars and pounds is serious business, definitely not a task for everyday words and simple sentences.

A typical excerpt from a 419 scam letter reads something like this:

“Dear Sir,

“I do not come to you by chance.

“Upon my quest for a trusted and reliable foreign businessman, I was given your contact by the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I hope that you can be trusted to handle a transaction of this magnitude.

“It is risk-free, as all modalities have been put in place for a smooth and successful conclusion.

“Thus, I crave your distinguished indulgence and honest cooperation to guarantee that this mutual transaction will be executed under a legitimate agreement that will benefit you and lend credence to my humble belief in your honesty and trustworthiness.”

Like the 419 scammers and the love-struck lads, many Nigerian government officials choose the path of verbosity, expansiveness, and repetition in their press releases.

Of course, it is tempting to, as usual, blame the British for all this, for bringing us their English language and their pen and paper.

But then, communication was not any less complicated in the days before Nigerians learned to write press releases in English.

‘Wear out your listeners’

As veteran Nigerian journalist and author Peter Enahoro noted in his 1966 classic, How to be a Nigerian, the power of Nigerian oratory is measured by the strength of the speaker’s legs – and what better way to ensure that your speech never ends than to punctuate every sentence with a proverb or parable about the tortoise or the monkey.

According to Enahoro: “A sprinkling of logical conclusions is permissible but not vital… If there are two ways of making a point, one short, the other long, plug for the longer route… The idea is to wear out your listeners because the power of your oratory will be determined by the strength of your endurance.

“If your listeners save their sanity and survive you, then you have made a poor speech.”

Despite modern technology, the general rules of Nigerian communication have obviously not changed much since Enahoro’s observations.

Many still hold on to the ancient belief that complexity of message is proof of power, intellect, and influence.

That supposed proof is probably more important to the Nigerian government official than whether or not you understand what he is trying to say.

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Of grammy nominations & shadow Patriotism

When news broke that Ghanaian Reggae artiste Rocky Dawuni had earned a Grammy nomination – making him the first ever Ghanaian to get on the scheme – I don’t quite remember I had the courage to explain to those around me why my emotions run the gamut from utter composure; through sadness and to sobbing quietly.

Indeed, it was a development that left a lot of people giddy with anticipation. A Ghanaian had managed such a feat and nobody had a justification for feeling anything other than extremely happy…. and in truth, neither did I – far from it! I was somewhat happy for him but recent disturbing developments in Ghana had me a bit worried and I fervently prayed that this, unlike many others, wouldn’t go down the same road. But drat! Before I could say the final Ameeeen…. Horror of horrors! My greatest fear was upon me [us]. The sudden patriotism of Ghanaian ‘celebrities’ had be awaken on social networks and there was no turning back.

A bit of a background

Until quite recently, say about 10ears ago it was great to see any Ghanaian excel at a global stage and we often claimed their determination, sense of self-belief, hard work and their apparent never-say-die attitude in our stride; their achievements as Ghanaian – as if it had anything to do with it. Folks like Osibisa, the Ramblers Band, E.T Mensah, Kofi Annan were all worthy global ambassadors… sold Ghana to the world in their own inimitable way that made us all proud to be associated with them. I quite remember how back in primary school, I smugly basked in the awesomeness that Kofi Annan – then the UN Secretary General – was Ghanaian. That was a novelty…. And a Black star shining, by extension also I meant I was shining by association. Those, in my humble opinion were the merrier times.

That was way before the advent of social media where you’d have people purring out in numbers to spryly publish vaguely inspirational emoji-laden visceral claptraps purportedly in support of somebody in contention for a top global prize or as a congratulatory missive to someone for having hassled his/her way through a very rough patch to come to global acclaim even though those self-styled patriots never gave a rat’s ass when their support was most needed and sort for. The production line for these hashtag driven bandwagons were not operational and patriotism wasn’t reduced to an avenue to clamor for a few RTs and likes.

A wind of change is blowing through the entertainment scene in Ghana. Its effects have left all objective observers quite perplexed. Reggie n Bollie have hustled their way through thick and thin in the UK since ominously leaving the shores of Ghana and are now getting some sort of recognition for their efforts and now every tongue [thumb] in the ever talkative blogosphere……… every tongue that can taste pepper and salt are rallying ‘support’ for them, attempting to partake in the fame [and fortune] they’ve found. You see large swathes of the social media space in Ghana making an erroneous claim that their [Reggie n Bollie] hassle as a “Ghana success story.” I really never cared much about whatever was going in the UK and certainly not a reality show which I stood no chance of watching from my base in Accra but my attention was drawn to it when it became apparent Reggie N bollie’s ‘good deeds’ were earning them some rave reviews in the UK and around the world.

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This wiped up quite some reaction and a gratuitous sense of patriotism amongst folks on those social media spaces (facebook, Instagram, twitter and more annoyingly WhatsApp), canvassing for votes for them ever since they made it to the finals of the UK X-factor. My obvious worry with this kind of ‘patriotism’ is that, it tends to cut out all those who are not Ghanaian from the fanfare and it creates and a We-against-the-world sort of scenario. That could potentially be injurious to their hopes in the competition. What if the millions of Brits decide to play a similar patriotism card and opt to vote for their own irrespective of their performances, what will become of our Reggie n Bollie? That would threaten and eventually defeat the purpose of the TV show in the first place. It is a popularity contest and by the sheer law of averages, we are in the least stead to be playing the nationality card here. The numbers simply does not support us.

Several Ghanaians around the world have shown endeavor and have supported Reggie n Bollie throughout their X-factor journey, but those who’ve actually provided the wings on which they’ve flown to where they are today are the Brits, not the social media activists in Ghana – no matter how well they mean. So if we keep in this harming precedent we’ve set, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn they are in fact sauntering farther and farther away from the X-factor crown.

What’s even more alarming is our on-air personalities’ [celebrities] sudden knack for clamoring for votes and public support even though they wallowed in Laodicean indifference when Reggie Zippy and Bollie were back home(Ghana), struggling to make headway in the careers. Does it matter that they probably would never have had such a massive endorsement if it were a local competition in Ghana with the same endeavor they shown which is giving them all the attention?  Does it matter that it had to take citizens of the UK to tell us how good our ‘own’ were? … and what’s it with all the talk of “Ghana flyng High” spluttered all over the social media landscape? With nebulous comments like “Ghana to the world!” My friend had so many repetitions of ‘Ghana to the world!’ splashed across his TL that the comment was virtually coming out of his ears. In his subsequent bout of high fever, he swore he could see his tombstone crawling with several ants, all bearing little flags that read, “Ghana to the World!” [I jest]…

Mr. Dawuni’s success is evidently due to his being such a gregarious person, showing genuine interest in his chosen career. Anyone with such enterprise as prosperous as his “Branches of the same tree” album in my motherland would have been standoffish and pompous. Not so our Rocky. Since his nomination, he’s taken every opportunity to talk down the enormity of his achievement and roped-in some acts in Ghana – singling them out as his inspiration for the work he’s done. Modesty has gotten a new definition. That virtue has taken my respect for him a notch higher and I really hope he goes one better – be the first Ghanaian to actually win a Grammys.

If only my people supported our own no matter what. If only we never talked down our own while praising others. If only we didn’t have to wait for some other people to appreciate our own before we see the quality of our own, maybe…. Just maybe… Yemi Alade wouldn’t have mustered enough courage to dig into Stonebwoy for winning a BET award over her.

The Business of Music : The Wiz Way