“If you can’t ignore an insult, top it; if you can’t top it, laugh it off; and if you can’t laugh it off, it’s probably deserved.” J. Russell Lynes
Writers and public commentators struggle with the use of colorful language (insults) when writing an essay or making a comment for public consumption especially those that are meant to probe the public conscience. Of course, it is not just writers that employ abusive lines like “coward”, “thief”, “brigand”, “imbecile” etc. to describe political office holders; in fact, the master of all time of “yabbis” as he popular calls it is Fela Anikulapo Kuti- a social crusader and musician. To Fela and his fellow activists (including his brother Beko and cousin, Wole Soyinka), abusing the man at the center of power was part of the bargain of public office.
However, public disposition to use of such colorful languages vary. While on one hand a school of thought approximates the occupier of the office with the office itself- another makes a distinction between the two. The former hold that for abusive language to be used to denigrate an office holder is to reduce the respect and dignity such office should occupy. As you can safely assume, core supporters of the regime in power are usually of this school of thought – and the composition of either school of thought is quite fluid. But it will be unfair to label every single individual that holds this belief as a bootlicker, sycophant, or AGIP (Any Government in Power). For indeed, there are known cases especially amongst the less temperamental, more educated elite of individuals who no matter how evil a regime can be still believes the office of say a dictator (like General Sani Abacha) and the use of words like “despots”, “imbeciles” should not be used. Professor Wole Soyinka in his recent memoirs discussed one of such personalities as the ex-first lady Her Lordship, Justice Fatimah Abubakar who took general exception to WS colorful descriptions of Triple D (Demented Despotic Dictator) during his five locust years in office.
In recent times, I have had various people challenge not just my own description of the current perfidious regime in Abuja, but also its actors with various unseemly words. Some have since allocated to me the department of public corrections for juveniles who need help or that unseemly group of perennial critics who just criticize for the sake of it. Often times, comments like “you cannot insult the president like that” to “can you not respect the office the man holds at least” often rounded up with one liners like “shame!”, “nonsense!” is usually the retort. But perhaps I belong to the other end of the spectrum: the other school of thought.
The second school of thought on the treatise of use of colorful language on public officers separates the office and the office holder. It is their belief that first; the public office holder is not a ruler but a servant. He/She is not just a public officer holder but a public servant whose place in the society is below not on top. Can a servant dictate to his master? Can a servant whose election to a position of service now turn around to demand some respect, after being paid to be abused, criticized and pilloried? Alongside this thought process is the belief that the President is different from the Presidency. Hence, while the President could be a subject of oral frontal attack, the presidency of the nation should be spared such wrath. The issue apparently here is that there is a thin line of separation between the two especially in an all powerful, winners-takes-all presidential system of government we run in Nigeria. Can we insult Olusegun Obasanjo, without denigrating the Presidency? Can Olusegun Obasanjo fight Atiku Abubakar without dragging the exalted office of the Vice President into the mud? Can Olusegun Obasanjo and his supporters request from us some modicum of respectful language when being addressed when such respect is not being extended to his Vice President and vice versa (no pun intended)? Does a Yoruba proverb not say and I literarily translate that “if you use your relative to sweep the floor, the public will use him as a dustbin”?
As individuals we struggle with this notion from time to time quite aware of the repercussion of our decision whichever side of caution we err on. It is true that if we preserve our most stinky language for public officers we fall into the danger of denigrating not just the exalted offices of the land but our own self. If your President is dumb and you say so (apology to George Bush of course), will it not be safe then to assume that the majority vote that brought him to office has an equal or comparable Intelligent Quotient? While this notion is not founded in textbooks, this deduction is routinely made by observers and commentators. For example, I am very sure that the more louder and clearer voices of Nigerians branding their government as corrupt is directly linked to our ratings on corruption internationally as well as the reputation of Nigerians even in their private dealings.
These indices are linked but not necessarily proportional. I have indeed known and heard of more corrupt governments than Nigeria’s – even Abacha’s ; of Arap Moi in Kenya my Kenyan friends have recounted- yet Kenyans generally do not make a public showcase of their government’s insidious sticky fingers and have such not acquired the international reputation Nigerians have had to deal with over the years. The downside of this posture of course is that evil persists in the society without the consistent voice of the righteous in opposition. Hence, in the midst of waffling, speaking through the cheek and not calling a spade a spade the meanings of words gets lost in gestures, innuendoes and often misconstrued courtesy. Trust the stone hearted Nigerians, until words are said succinctly they tend not to achieve their desired effect.
Perhaps there is a compromise in the horizon. A friend recently made me a proposition: simple put, she said: “You can call Olusegun Obasanjo a fool but you cannot call President Olusegun Obasanjo a fool”. Hence in the titling of an insult an omission of the office the politician holds inoculates you from the perceived denigration of their office and puts you in the rather secured position of addressing their person and personal capacity in office without throwing away the baby with the bathwater. It is a very seedy proposition I must admit, and it appears I am all for it. I am just beginning to compile a list of insults to address to the incoming President whoever it might be while Baba OBJoke goes home to rest out of sight of the shooting range of Okey Ndibe and that other angry man called Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye: that is if Obasanjo thinks he deserves some rest since he appears hell bent on controlling his empire of cards as life chairman of his Peoples Destruction Party. Time will tell.