These days letters are going out of date. The post office has moved from the mainstay of communication to a dinosaur. So, we send emails, text messages, or bow to Donald Trump’s ultimate sharp shooter: the tweet.
The past, as they say, never dies. So, last week, the letter roared back from the dead. It happened in two places. One in Nigeria, the other in the United States. In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari scripted one to the National Assembly. Donald Trump fired his to James Comey, the director of the FBI and the man probing his possible collusion with Putin’s Russia.
The one letter was a hiring, the other a firing. Each let off a storm. They were written in what many will call simple sentences. Everyone should understand them. But, as it turned out, the phrases spun into a cloud of ambiguity.
Trump’s letter fired Comey apparently for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal. But the author denied and said it was all about the Russia probe. In the letter, he said he fired Comey on the advice of the attorney general. But when responding to questions, he said the counsels counted for little. His press corps agreed that the bottom line was that he fired the FBI chief.
Here at home, Buhari’s letter referred to the relevant portion of the constitution that makes Yemi Osinbajo acting president. But fire gutted out of the phrase that the “Vice-President will coordinate the activities of the government.”
The word coordinate, according to critics, belonged to a lower tier of authority. An acting president leads or heads, not coordinates, they would say. The storm roared into silence after Bukola “Eleyinmi” Saraki intervened. But that did not end the chatter around the country.
Why did it generate so much brouhaha? Does a leader not coordinate? Of course, a leader does. But coordinate is not usually the term deployed for a leader. A leader leads, heads, is a visionary, orders, etc. Those are muscular words, indicating a man in the arena.
But the storm came because language is never simple or difficult. It depends on context and sometimes the audience, or the utterer.
The Buhari letter sparked predators on both sides of a divide. The divide predated the letter. Critics were miffed when he degraded from office to home to sign files. He was absent-in-chief at FEC meetings and became holy-in-chief at Friday prayers. Even that became epileptic.
Suspicions pervaded certain quarters that his “kitchen cabinet” had corralled him. They wanted him around to do little so long as they wielded power. His absence meant their impotence. So, when the letter was unveiled, critics saw the hands of the cabal. They saw an attempt to cripple Osinbajo, to hem him in as vice-president.
Were they right? They might and they might not be. If the president did not write it, at least he read it. The letter may have been written with all the best of intention. Maybe the president has seen himself as a sort of coordinator, working with others as peers in which he was first among equals. That is washed away by his martial bearing and feudal background, though. But could it be because he sees the word the way his critics don’t. After all, sections 148 and 149 refer to the word coordinate as the president’s function. That makes him home free. Some would say, well, it was not in the context of a handover from president to acting president.
As the Senate president has indicated, though, the constitutional requirement sufficiently clears any fog of the intent. As easy as the sentence was, the epistolary flap will haunt Buhari. It will also irritate his supporters who think it is much ado about nothing.
In the letter, we had the north and south divide, the PDP-APC divide, the cabal and the others divide. A stark wall disrupts understanding. A stark wall of words. Nor is it the first time such a thing would happen. Whether in politics, religion, or even literature, words have always sparked turbulence. It might be simple, it might even be clear in its rhetorical stumble, like Rosa Parks’ “My feet is tired.” Or when Mark Twain wrote that stories of his death were greatly exaggerated.
The bombing of Hiroshima was attributed to misinterpretation of the Japanese leader’s response to the American threat. The Japanese leader had said he was considering Truman’s terms but it came away in translation as though they were ready for the Americans. When Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal…” it referred to only white men. Now, it’s everyone and gender. Even at that, Orwell’s Animal Farm still haunts, as some are “more equal than others.” Trump will agree. Ditto Marie Le Pen.
Hence French writer Roland Barthes announces the “death of the author.” According to him, “to give a text an author is to impose him on that text.” So, the writer is not writing but he or she is unknowingly a messenger of a group, a church, a tribe, a time, or consciousness. So, when a Jukun man writes, the Yoruba does not see it as the man’s views but his Jukun background.
It eliminates the individual, everyone is in a sort of chain. While Barthes sets off debates, he has been engaged by such writers as Paul De Man, Barbara Johnson, Michel Foucault. Jacques Derrida lashed back with his “the Death of Roland Barthes.” When Soyinka flayed Achebe as guilty of “unrelieved competence,” he might have subliminally fallen into the Barthian spell.
Sometimes it is a matter of the humble comma. When Jesus was at the stake, he told the repentant thief and fellow victim, “I say unto you today thou shall be with me in paradise.” Those who believe the thief went to heaven, place the comma before today and those who believe he did not put the comma after today. Or in analysing Becket’s play, Waiting For Godot, a critic described it as “nothing happens, twice.” If the comma is removed, it means something else. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, megalomaniac Malvolio misreads the author of a letter and makes himself a public fool for love.
So, when Buhari wrote that letter, the meaning left his hands. As the author, did he die, or was it the mischief of others who were imposing their own backgrounds on the words? A new book, Do I Make Myself Clear, by Harold Evans has intervened in the capacity of language to mock us. Evans is regarded as the best editor ever, having shown his mettle as editor of the Times of London. He cavils at obfuscations, long introductory sentences, clichés, abused words, etc.
What we know here is that words are not only not simple, they are never innocent. That is because we are a complicated people with lots of mischief.