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Lexical and other matters arising


Olatunji Dare

IN the three decades that have passed since the William Keeling incident, public commentators and indeed the general public may have forgotten how much trouble can result from the casual use of a word that in other contexts seem not only appropriate but perfectly innocuous.

This realisation came as a jolt, following the verbal pummeling the South-south correspondent for Daily Trust, Eyo Charles, suffered the other day, at the hands of Femi Fani-Kayode, the unavoidable public figure with a brittle temperament and a reputation for bad manners.

But first, a refresher on the Keeling Incident.

William Keeling was a Lagos-based correspondent for the Financial Times (UK).  Analyzing data from the Central Bank and other financial institutions, he calculated that Nigeria hauled in $5 billion over and above budgeted expectations from oil export receipts following the disruption in global oil supplies arising from the 1991 Gulf war.

Keeling called this surplus a “windfall.”  One-half of the amount, he wrote, went into sustaining ECOMOG’s misbegotten intervention in Liberia’s civil war, staging a lavish – even by Nigeria’s standards — OAU Summit in Abuja, and making a down payment on an aluminium smelting plant that was sure to end up as a monument to folly, as the best authorities had warned.

Who remembers ECOMOG today, apart from the families and comrades of fallen soldiers whose bodies  were ferried home in the dead of night and buried secretly?  Nobody knows their names or their numbers.  No monument stands in their memory.   The aluminium smelting plant sputtered back to life last year after lying comatose for some ten years.  As for Abuja Summit, it remains to be said of the OAU leaders and their spouses that they came, they ate, they departed, and they savoured the experience long thereafter.

But I digress.

The Federal Government forcefully denied Keeling’s report.  But the matter did not end there.  Security agents seized him in his office several days later and put him on the next plane to London, ending his Nigerian assignment.

The Minister of Information, Chief Alex Akinyele, since deceased, said the Administration would at the appropriate time provide facts and figures that would refute Keeling’s charges.  Soon thereafter, Akinyele was reassigned to the National Sports Commission as executive chairman.  And the matter went cold.

But “windfall,” in any language, and in any connotation or denotation, became the most treacherous word in the lexicon of public commentators, mentioned only in whispers among trusted friends and colleagues but never invoked nor implied.  The term was not banned, but who wanted to be given a local variant of the Keeling Treatment that was certain to be far less benign?

Even today, you will not find that term in news or editorial copy.  From a healthy instinct for self-preservation, journalists and the media have had to cultivate a long memory.

Some 30 years later, “bankroll” now nestles beside “windfall” on forbidden ground.

Daily Trust correspondent Eyo Charles did  not get the Keeling Treatment  for asking Femi Fani-Kayode who  is “bankrolling” his new pastime of gallivanting all over the country in confected grandeur “inspecting” development projects and grading government performance in PDP-controlled states, amidst the wining  and dining and wenching that often go with that kind of enterprise.

What Charles got instead was a litany of threats and a torrent of abuse interspersed with a gratuitous tutorial on the genealogy of the Fani-Kayode clan, a lecture that served only to underscore his own boorishness.   But that is only because Fani-Kayode wields no power of any kind today. It will be a different matter of course when he becomes President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, per the auguries of the high priests of Archbishop Benson Idahosa’s Church of God Mission International

Still, I doubt whether any journalist will in the near future ask who is bankrolling whatever errand Fani-Kayode or any person of greater consequence might  be running.  That would be a pity indeed, for that question goes to the heart of the matter. Fani-Kayode still has not deigned to answer it. But it will not go away.

Watch this column for occasional updates of the glossary of treacherous words – words you employ in media work at your own peril.

This column also takes lexical notice of many abuses with which news reporting is riddled.  Not treacherous, but irritating to the cognoscenti.

In many a profile, we often read that Chief Ajayi A. Ajayi “joined” politics when he was barely out of his teens. No, he did not.  And he could not have.  He joined a political party, or entered party politics.

In an age of deregulation and privatisation and globalisation, it is perhaps inevitable that managerial skills and functions have come to count more than vision and imagination.  In many a sphere, the manager/managing director now towers above almost everyone in the firm.  “Management” is what makes the organisation tick, and virtually every institution has been reduced to a firm more or less, with a manager at the helm.

And so, we read of how “the Management” of the beleaguered University of Lagos, has done this or failed       to do that; how it has decided on a certain course of action or put off a decision.  But the university is not a firm, not even in a sociological sense.   It is fundamentally an academic institution rooted in collegiality and shared governance, with members enjoying a high degree of autonomy in their work.  It is headed by a vice chancellor as chief academic and chief executive officer.

The Registrar is the chief administrative officer.  That office in itself or together with the Office of the Vice chancellor does not constitute “the Management” of the university.  It serves mainly to provide bureaucratic support for the university to carry out its main functions of research, teaching, and public service.   You may have designated managers in service units of a university, such as the bookshop or Guest House.  But at the institutional level, there are no managers.

Any action taken by a university, any statement it issues, emanates from the university, not from a phantom Management.  That term only stultifies the institution.  You cannot talk of a university’s Management.

“Palliative” is not a word you encounter often in news copy.  Editors of the old school shun it because of its polysyllabic structure.  You cannot fit it easily into a headline where short, action words are preferred. Back then, the average reader would have had to look up its meaning in a dictionary. Even today, the average reader in societies we consider advanced cannot tell you its meaning with confidence.

But is has long entered into common usage here to signify a gesture designed to provide short-term relief from some hardship or inconvenience

A palliative is no small-bore intervention in Nigeria, however, and you don’t have to be in distress to qualify. You have only to be a person of consequence, and you can assign yourself as large a palliative as public funds at your disposal can support.  In fact, I offer it as a testable hypothesis that, for persons of consequence, the smaller the actual distress, the larger the palliative.

I can already offer empirical, albeit anecdotal, support for that hypothesis.  At the Niger Delta Development Commission, the top man took N10 million home as COVID-19 palliative, the next two in the hierarchy took N7 million.  So it went down the line, the amount varying according to rank and seniority.

But give them full marks for keeping in mind the wisdom of our people that those who eat alone are doomed to fight alone. The least person in the organisation bagged a COVID-19 palliative of N600, 000.

The National Assembly says it cannot disclose how it handled that challenge within its ranks without gravely undermining the peace and security of the nation.

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