Opinion: Grammar of Politics – By Sam Omatseye


When he rose from the meeting with governors, everyone understood him, or they thought they did. President Buhari wants to pick his successor, and so went the universal word. The same man who foreswore imposition, foresaw fairness, who said his successor was not “my problem.” He even said it with a cheerful sneer.

At the party convention, he extolled the democratic process. That night before his party men, the former general snapped off his epaulets, defrocked himself of any martial air, dissolved his pedigree of decrees, parted with his image as patriarch. In his babanriga and offbeat mien, he glowed as a republican. No money politics. Poohpooh unpopular persons. No bullies, no coercion. It was a scenario out of George Washington or Lincoln.

That contrasted, as many read it, with the semiotics of his offering before state executives. Did he change his mind? Was he acting with the furtive manoeuvre of a soldier, lulling the foe into snore before the onslaught? Had he evolved? Did he wake up into an epiphany, a realisation that the presidency was too important a matter to be left in the hands of the rabble called democracy.

Then his spokesman, Femi Adesina, retorted, in a sense telling everyone they did not understand their English enough. The man never mentioned zoning, never lipped out the word consensus, never said he was changing his position about the supremacy of the process over a hectoring big man. We had entered another familiar terrain: The grammar of politics.

What was the offending or offensive line? The president said: “I want to solicit the reciprocity and support of the governors and other stakeholders in picking my successor.” If you look at the sentence critically, Adesina was right. He was soliciting, but he did not say he was soliciting for his own benefit. It might be for the governors and other stakeholders. The phrase “the reciprocity and support of the governors and other stakeholders” could mean he wanted those two bodies to work together to pick “my successor.” He would just be in the shadows. So, “I want to solicit” did not mean he wanted to pick the successor. Many might have read it without regard to the words reciprocity, governors and other stakeholders. They merely read it this way: I want to solicit your support in picking my successor.” Even at that, it might also mean he wants them to follow his guide lines in picking his successor, not that he wants to identify his successor.

There is an ambiguity in the sentence. But why did the president allow a claptrap of interpretive anarchy before Adesina intervened. Was the president, known for taciturn indifference, gloating over the buzz. Or did he think it was more of a fuss before he asked his spokesman to “clarify”?

Was it actually a misinterpretation, or an afterthought? Did the president’s men agree with the widespread interpretation and became embarrassed and looked for an escape route? The syntactic tension gave rise to any reading. If anyone wanted to read it to mean he wanted to pick his successor himself, there is enough meat in the sentence to bite one’s teeth into. The language of dubious humility, “I want to solicit” could also imply a subtle threat. That is, “I want to pick my successor, I am Buhari, even if I beg I am not begging.” It is proud humility. Or subtle blackmail.

In the grammar of politics, obscurity is often a virtue. You revel in different interpretations, and you look for the one that works and take advantage of it. It is about perception, and the sentence probably is not there. It is the reader who appropriates it. It is called hermeneutics. Or reader-response theory. Just like Socrates said we know nothing and our senses deceive us, the philosopher George Berkeley argued reality only resides in our senses in a theory of empiricism to end all empiricisms. This view is used today in media studies, where what we see or hear or read is seen as a matter of where we stand. It is called selective exposure when we select what we want to see or read. It is called selective retention, in which we decide what we want to remember or retain in our minds. So, if two persons watch another person, A may remember the voice and B the skin colour. The critical one is selective perception, in which we decide what perspective we absorb. So, in Buhari’s speech many decided to say he wanted to pick his successor because it adheres to an image of him as a general and his position in picking the party chairman.
Harold Laski, author of the Grammar of Politics, wrote “they think differently who live differently.” Was this the case with the Buhari sentence, or did they decide to change course having discovered a way of escape? We may never know. What is clear is that the speechwriter was either working out a script of mischief or was incompetent. If mischief, then shame on the person. If incompetent, well, it embarrassed his master.

When Buhari met with the aspirants Saturday night, some expected him to point his fingers at the man. But he surprised those who thought he had a northern hobgoblin of agenda. He said the south, like the northern governors. He has carved the image, in some quarters, of a modern-day Mazzini, the 19th century Italian firebrand who conjoined nationalist fervour with tribe and God. so, could it be that everyone has misread him, or is he, in the Yoruba proverb, about to conjure a bird out of his pocket. That leads to another grammar of politics: the semiotics of body language. Is there a last-minute nod, or wink, or motion? We heard Garba Shehu befuddle the ear by singing a different song from what those who attended said. Is it a perception issue? We are watching.

In another grammar of politics, the words of Asiwaju were called outburst by those who did not like him, and insult by those who wanted a wedge between him and the president. They failed an important part of literary analysis: context. Many who raged did not understand even the Yoruba language, and deliberate distortion among those who did. The use of “eleyi” could be benevolent as from a patriarch or friend, or adversarial. Language is flexible and must always be handled in context. Even the Bible – God’s best gift to man – translations and exegesis have led to crisis of meanings over the ages, from trinity to transubstantiation. These same people did not bother to wonder how Tinubu could stomach for years all the barbs and conspiracies and gang-ups against him and about his role in this administration and its birth. They did not wonder at the facts. Did he lie? If he said without him no APC, was he right. Others worked very hard but after the foetus entered the womb. Facts are insults when an audience shops for error. He did not insult the president. Even Abdulahi Adamu, who ranted as though the president was a divine monarch, misinterpreted Tinubu. He did not say Buhari was in tears when he visited him. That is tendentious.

Anyway, Buhari rose above all that on Saturday, given the semiotics of their interactions. He knew the heart of Tinubu if his detractors were fishing in troubled waters. He also knows, as a party man and veteran of election battles, that his best soldier against Atiku the presidential perambulator, is Tinubu. He will not stand in his way.

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