Beyond being used to communicate and share ideas, as primarily described, language serves the purpose of creating identities, constructing ideologies and manipulating discourses, among other functions. Like the proclamation by the pigs who control the government in the novel, Animal Farm, by George Orwell: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
One of the ways this special or advanced equality has been achieved and entrenched is through the choice of language used to describe “the more equal”. This article is, therefore, an exploration of the linguistic pattern and lexical choices that are commonly used in the Nigerian political discourse to shield “the more equal” with a view to casting light on the decadence in Nigerian society.
The readership will agree with me that a poor person who steals is a thief; an unambiguous word used to nail anyone caught in the dastardly act of taking another person’s property without permission or legal right and without intending to return it. Given the emphasis placed on moral values in Nigeria, any child would likely cry homewards if called the son or daughter of a thief.
On the other side of the coin, the English language affords “the more equal” a special phrase called “money laundering”, which happens after embezzlement has taken place. According to the online Collins Dictionary, money laundering is the crime of processing stolen money through a legitimate business or sending it abroad to a foreign bank, to hide the fact that the money was illegally obtained.
The Oxford Dictionary of English defines the verb “launder” thus: to conceal the origins of (money obtained illegally), typically by transfers involving foreign banks or legitimate businesses. This term explains the possibility of trying to legitimise stolen money either by “the more equal” or a paid money launderer.
This is only possible for “the more equal” who have their own dealings in whopping sums. It sounds better to say, “Your dad is being prosecuted for money laundering” than to say, “Your dad is a thief”, as the latter would come for those who do not have much to steal.
By extension, there is no denying the fact that the average Nigerian will be “invaded” and/or “arrested” for stealing sugar; in fact, if the thief is not met at home, his family member will have to stand in for him until he “reports” to the police station. But, of course, it is not the same approach with “the more equal” who can hardly be invaded or arrested. Instead, he is respectfully “invited” to appear before a financial crimes commission; sometimes, through a letter.
And if “the more equal” will “cooperate” (a verb which has been semantically expanded in Nigeria to mean readiness to negotiate) by returning the looted funds, then he can enjoy nolle prosequi. The foregoing is an entry made on the court record when the plaintiff in a civil suit or prosecutor in a criminal prosecution resolves not to continue the action or prosecution. In Nigeria, this decision may be made by the Attorney General of the Federation.
Still fresh and sad is the case of a first-class graduate of the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Opuofoni Freeborn Ebimotimi, who was beaten to death by a mob in Bayelsa State for allegedly stealing bread. While this promising young man could have been pardoned for being hungry, he was wasted; whereas “the more equal” with worse atrocities would have enjoyed a plea bargain. A plea bargain is an agreement that, if an accused person says they are guilty, they will be charged with a less serious crime or will receive a less severe punishment.
Read also: Subordination in English
Interestingly, too, within the Nigerian political landscape, two notable politicians who were serving jail terms for financial misconduct to the tune of a billion naira each were released by the Council of State led by Former President Muhammadu Buhari, in August 2022, because these politicians had life-threatening illnesses, and they should enjoy a “presidential pardon”, another phrase for “the more equal”.
As of today, it is not certain any statistics can prove the number of common Nigerians who die in jail due to illnesses and the dilapidated condition of the prisons. It is not likely the case that the meaning of “pardon” in the Nigerian context applies to the “ordinary citizen”.
While the phrase, ordinary citizen, means a person who is a member of a particular country and who has rights because of being born there, according to the online Cambridge Dictionary, the word has a semantic extension in Nigeria to mean a commoner. Finally, when “the more equal” are killed, it is “assassination”; but when the ordinary Nigerian citizen is killed, that is just a “killing”.
The crux of this piece is to create an awareness that language is a veritable tool for social stratification and manipulation. While this is not strictly a Nigerian phenomenon, it is unarguable that some words have served as a shield for “the more equal” in Nigeria.