Nigerian Leaders And Their Spoken English

by Ossie Ezeaku

The role of language in communication is very vital, especially when relating with the public. To put It succintly: when a person communicates with clarity, he would be understood and appraised accordingly. And when he cannot do so, the underlying message gets cut off. The messenger, in effect, becomes an object of doubt and suspicion.

It applies in politics. The men and women who intend to lead others but who cannot communicate their message in their chosen language have no business being in politics. Communication is the embodiment of a politician.

There were good examples: Dr. Azikiwe, Chief Awolowo and Dr. Ozumba Mbadiwe. Their life and times were a good testimony to the attributes of a politician. They were all great communicators.

Zik’s broad national appeal, and by extension, his successful shuttle diplomacy in the years leading to Nigeria’s independence was buoyed in part, due to his unassailable communication skills. Besides his charisma, he, like his peers mentioned above, spoke good English, coupled with the fact that he was fluent in Hausa and Yoruba languages as well. All of which made him the doyen of Nigeria’s politics. It is no wonder that his name has withstood the rigours of Nigeria’s historical enquiry.

When compared with their predecessors, or their African counterparts from say Ghana, Kenya or South Africa, the present crop of Nigerian politicians lag behind in spoken English The distractions of apartheid notwithstanding, majority of South African politicians have better command of English language than their Nigerian counterparts.

It is even more surprising when we take into account the fact that the black community’s education in South Africa was for decades under-funded by the successive white minority rulers. The consequence of which forced some of the notable black leaders like Cyril Ramophoosa, former ANC secretary general to study for his law degree from home.

The importance of fluency in English cannot be over-emphasized. More so, In this era of global village when heads of governments lead delegations to negotiate trade, investments and other vital interests on behalf of their nations. Former US Pres. Bill Clinton, had on several occasions, personally led US trade delegations to foreign lands, thanks to his communication skills Britain’s Tony Blair and many others have been doing that. It is the reality of our time.

Watching this generation of Nigerian politicians vacillate between English and Creole “pigeon English”, when expressing their opinions on issues was nerve wrecking. English, the nation’s official language, is assumed to be the language of instruction for the whole length of one’s education in Nigeria, and yet most of our politicians, with their impressive CVs, found It difficult to express themselves in same Language.

Many Nigerians who were privy to watch the televised debate on Pres. Obasanjo’s ill-fated tenure elongation plans have made similar remarks. The difficulties encountered by a large segment of our legislators making their arguments in English were glaring. It was that bad.

Some few days ago, we watched the trio of Buhari, Yar’ Adua and Atiku took their turns to explain their individual views to CNN’s inside Africa. After listening to Yar’ Adua in particular, my teenage daughter inquired if this was the man who once was a professor of Chemistry, I replied in the affirmative. She kept mute. Seconds later, she naively demanded to know If Yar’ Adua, as a teacher, instructed his students in English or in a local Nigerian language.You could guess where she was coming from.

But then, It brought to fore the issue of academic qualification and spoken English. The American president George Bush, was once called a moron by a Canadian cabinet minister, who later resigned her appointment satisfied with her remarks. Her reason was nothing other than George Bush’s well known problem with English language. Bush, an Irish American, and a Harvard MBA holder has also been critiqued for lacking the ability to engage in deep intellectual discourse.

Albeit in Nigeria, we’ve seen the likes of Femi Fani-Kayode, Ojo Maduekwe, Frank Nweke, Nuhu Ribadu and some others come out to express themselves convincingly in English. There was, however, the need to reappraise the standard of our spoken English.

Many would of course argue that English was after all not our mother tongue, hence fluency in it shouldn’t matter. But the fact Is that It is the nation’s official language of communication with the rest of the world. Hence, how our leaders use it to navigate the waters of global diplomacy will reflect on our image. The world of today, and the standard of the spoken English of our legislators would warrant that they take extra English language lessons.

While this, In my humble opinion, should be an interim measure, there was the strategic need to scientifically develop the three major Nigerian languages, and in time, others. This suggestion has already been articulated in respect of the Yoruba language in South Western Nigeria.

By this, there will no longer be the worries to perfect one’s English. Moreover, people will naturally be inclined to learn, and will surely do that with better out-comes, than they would have done in a foreign language.

Having done so, we’ll gradually produce a different breed of politicians and other professionals. Likely is that they would be more assertive, deep and expressive of their thoughts in the language they know better. Such new breed of politicians as we’ve seen elsewhere, can proudly engage their foreign counterparts with interpreters.

Of course, we wouldn’t be an exception in this. Progressive Asian countries have already developed their languages. They’ve done so, to the extent that their population under-go different course of studies instructed in their mother tongues. They are doing well; they turn out graduates that are well grounded in their respective disciplines.

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Niyi January 12, 2011 - 2:56 am

“Nigerian leaders and their spoken English”

At this time such topics are not really necessary. We have we more topics that matter a lot than to proof we are Africans can speak fluently are foreign language. South American and even Asian leaders do not speak English and never tried to.

Just because we were colonized by the English speakers doesn’t make us perfect in it. I call it “modern slavery” So therefore my dear friend Ossie Ezeaku, your writing is excellent but I would love to read topics that affect the Black race, Africa and Nigeria… Not some correction to a borrowed language.

FYI Yar dua wasn’t a professor. He could have been a teacher not a professor. Professor means something totally different from the qualification he had. Thank you and I hope to read your next article.

tunji May 13, 2007 - 8:03 am

i love your right up. nigeria has come of age to present those that can effectively present our view rest of the world. but if the so called leader have a defficiency in this then it become a problem.

chiddy May 10, 2007 - 4:21 pm

Well written article.I have almost given up my fight correcting people who get their grammar muddled up.Personally,the first I notice about people is how well they speak and wrong grammar is a complete turn off for me.Some think it doesn't matter but I say it does.The mediocrity holding us down as a nation can be corrected by taking a step in fixing our spoken(English) language.

Dele May 2, 2007 - 5:57 pm

It’s paradoxical to expect a mediocre speak good English, the leaders you mentioned were intelligent and can not be compared to the crop of nonentities we have as leaders today. Even though the late chief MKO Abiola stammered he spoke convincingly and good English too.

Reply May 1, 2007 - 1:06 pm

I loved your article, for it was very truthful and well written. Since English is the official language of Nigeria, it is imperative that leaders learn to communicate in it fluently. I recently married a Nigerian man and am awaiting his arrival to the states. Just last week I received my approval notice for him and my stepson to come to America. He speaks three languages very well: Ijaw, Yoruba, and English. Our relationship would not have been possible (I am African American) if he did not know how to speak English well. Without having the ability to communicate effectively, especially if you are a government official and represent your country, you will always be at a disadvantage. Your disadvantages would be not being able to effectively communicate your thoughts, ideas, and concerns. In addition, You would be at a disadvantage for you would not be able to respond to the person expressing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. And, ultimately, a disconnection will occur.

If one cannot communicate in English fluently, again I say especially if English is the official language, it makes that country look bad! I would be embarrassed at how poorly we are being represented. Nigerian government officials may have to communicate with others outside of their country. What will they do if a meeting is called to discuss a pressing issue–take a mini course in English and hope for the best!

Believe me, the world is watching Nigeria–especially with the way the elections were handled recently. We are watching, looking, and hoping for improvements. I have a special love for Nigeria with marrying a man from there and having visited there a few months ago. I CARE ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS THERE. I CARE HOW NIGERIA LOOKS TO THE WORLD.

Not being able to communicate effectively is considered a weakness–especially in public office!


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