By Farooq A. Kperogi
In his hopelessly incompetent attempt to explain away President Goodluck Jonathan’s proverbial cluelessness and verbal primitivism, presidential spokesman Reuben Abati inflicted enormous violence on metaphors—and meaning itself. This ignorance is especially remarkable because Abati has a degree in English and literary studies. First the background. On February 2, 2012, President Jonathan, while justifying the withdrawal of his support for the reelection of former Governor Timipre Sylva, said the following to his favored candidate, Seriake Dickson: “You have brought people from Abuja to Yenagoa today. The only thing I want to tell you in the presence of Bayelsa State is that I was here in this place some months ago and Bayelsans stoned [Governor Timipre Sylva]. You must work hard to make sure that Bayelsans don’t stone you. The day I come here and Bayelsans stone you, I will follow and stone you.” Pundits in the Nigerian media were justifiably outraged by the president’s endorsement of the stoning of the former governor of his home state and his pledge to participate in a future stoning of Dickson should he behave like Sylva—whatever in the world Sylva did. Abati accused the president’s critics of “quoting him out of context” and of “interpreting him literally.” And then he launched this ignorant semantic and interpretive violence on metaphors and meaning: “The commentators should know that words have embodied meanings, and that in cultural contexts, languages lend themselves to idiomatic and metaphorical expressions which may carry heavier weight as signifying codes. The word, ‘stones’ in the present context need not be read literally. Rather, President Jonathan was urging Messrs Dickson and Jonah to be prepared to deliver good governance if elected into office. He was also reminding them of the cost of failing to do so, namely the anger and rejection of the people, which may not necessarily be in the form of actual ‘stone-throwing,’ but may manifest as civil apathy.” First, what the heck is “in cultural contexts, languages lend themselves to idiomatic and metaphorical expressions which may carry heavier weight as signifying codes”? That’s basically a hotchpotch of meaningless and sterile words strung together to overawe the ignorant but which is actually profoundly illiterate. But I will leave that—and other awkward solecisms in the essay— for now. I had written here about the tendency for Nigerians to misuse the word “metaphor” (see my article titled “On ‘Metaphors’ and ‘Puns’ in Nigerian Media English”) in everyday newspaper discourse. Abati has taken this a notch higher. He said President Jonathan was being “metaphorical” when he said Bayelsans stoned former Governor Sylva and when he said he would “follow and stone” Dickson should he behave like Sylva. Oh poor metaphors! They are now hijacked by an ill-informed and lying Nigerian public official and burdened with extraneous significations in the service of explaining away presidential clumsiness.