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Tinubu, New York Times, South Africa and the ‘Jet’

Although I am barely good at it, I have deep fondness for the Nigerian variety of Pidgin; the one language that binds us all together…

Although I am barely good at it, I have deep fondness for the Nigerian variety of Pidgin; the one language that binds us all together as a people and a nation. I sometimes marvel at the originality and ingenuity behind the creation of this language, for example, in a verb phrase over sabi, or its noun phrase, over sabiness, and how perfectly these words fit into the various contexts in which they are used in our authentic Nigerian creation.

Who created Nigerian Pidgin? And how did it come into daily usage all over the country? I don’t have any answers, of course, but I still marvel at the linguistic richness behind expressions like trouble dey sleep, yanga go wekam, which aptly capture the situation with President Tinubu’s government for most of the past two weeks. First, the government’s appearance in a New York Times story, and the official response to that story is a clear example of trouble dey sleep, yanga go wekam or of over sabiness as we might say in this proper Nigerian English. Next, there is the government’s response to a viral video by Aisha Yesufu on the president’s outing in South Africa for a presidential inauguration event. And finally, there is the no-small-matter of a new jet for the president.

If the government had not demonstrated its ‘over sabiness’, at least two of the three issues would not have generated the sort of social media storm—and public opinion trouble for the government—that they did over the week. Let’s take the viral video in which Aisha Yesufu alleged that President Tinubu was ignored by his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, who was being sworn in on the day. Presidents do not attend events in foreign countries to which they are not officially invited, and Tinubu would not have been there without such an invitation from the South African government. And once so invited, his host, Ramaphosa, could not, diplomatically speaking, deliberately ignore a Nigerian president—which would then concern all of us—or any other president for that matter.

But people on social media can say what they want, and anyone reading, listening or viewing can also believe what they want, regardless of the facts. Indeed, fake news, misinformation and disinformation thrive in our current age not because people are so good at creating them on social media but because many more others are so good at believing them, sometimes regardless of any contrary information or opinion. Those who wanted to believe what Yesufu alleged would believe it, regardless of any information to the contrary. As political science research has long confirmed, people interpret new political information mainly in terms of their pre-existing biases, which is what makes fake news so insidious in a democracy.

So, there was really no need for any long official rebuttal of her claims. And if any were warranted, a picture or video showing Tinubu and Ramaphosa at the event would have more than sufficed. These were later released, yes, but by engaging someone like Aisha Yesufu directly, you are legitimising her claims, and making it easier for mainstream outlets to see ‘news’ in the whole issue. No self-respecting newspaper or broadcast media reported what she had said, but as soon as the government joined in, headlines like “Presidency slams Aisha Yesufu over allegations of Tinubu being ‘disgraced’ in South Africa” began to appear in the mainstream media. The Vanguard newspaper even had pictures of Yesufu and Tinubu paired, implying some equality between the two, and thus an instance of poor journalism.

And this is important because if crude but fringe voices on social media are legitimised by government officials or mainstream media, then our nascent democracy will be up in flames, a lesson that democracies in Europe and beyond are now learning the hard way.

This brings us to the New York Times story. Really, what was the point of that long ‘rejoinder’ by Presidential Adviser on Information and Strategy and veteran journalist, Mr Bayo Onanuga? I am a subscriber to the New York Times and I read it nearly every day. Yet, I missed that story on Nigeria until I saw it trending on X, and then went back to read it. The NYT story did just two things. First, it stamped a human face to the various impacts of the government’s signature policies of subsidy removal and naira devaluation. Second, it borrowed an authoritative voice; Dr Zainab Usman, a Nigerian economist and Oxford graduate who has recently written a book about the Nigerian economy, to the effect that the government has so far been unable to deal effectively with the consequences of its own policies.

Missing in the NYT story, however, is the most important point of all. The Nigerian government implemented these policies in large part because the World Bank and IMF have for long mounted a strident campaign that subsidy removal and naira devaluation were the only ways left to salvage the Nigerian economy from its long-term distress, and therefore both share in the responsibility for the story NYT tells about Nigeria today. But if, for obvious reasons, the government could not say that in its rejoinder, then there should not have been any rejoinders at all. Certainly, there was no need to share the picture accompanying the story and have it circulated to millions of Nigerians who otherwise would not even have known about it. This was, it must be said, a classic example of trouble dey sleep, yanga go wekam.

This brings me to the thorniest of all three issues: a new presidential jet for the president. And here too, there is a hint of poor public management, and unnecessarily so. Otherwise, as I used to tell people in the newsroom; the government is not always wrong on every issue, and it is the journalist’s job to fully understand all sides to an issue, including the government’s perspective, before they do the story. A presidential jet is no personal property; and cannot be auctioned off to a president or vice president when they are leaving office in the way we so routinely do with other vehicular government property. Second, as many news stories on this issue indicate so far, we are literally wasting billions on aging aircraft that are still unreliable. This means that sooner or later, new ones will still have to be procured to avoid the rather unfortunate but still frequent crashes we have had with official helicopters in recent years. Why waste billions on old stuff when you will still have to buy the new stuff anyway?

Thus, rather than insult Nigerians on a sensitive issue as the Senate President, Senator Godswill Akpabio, has reportedly done, why not simply publish the report of the House of Representatives Committee on the presidential jets? By making the report public, Nigerians will get to know all the views of the independent experts on the status of the current jets and the need for new ones to the minutest details and people can make up their minds. But then in Nigeria, government processes are sometimes rather like a solution looking for a problem.

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