I have read certain sections of JL Austin’s work, How to Do things with Words. I did not read that book because I qualify to be described as a bibliophile; I read that book because it was part of requirements needed to get a degree. Truth be told, I have forgotten the relevant archetypes and idiosyncrasies encapsulated in the book but I know that he captured it all in a theory called the Speech Acts Theory. That theory came to life once more, after I watched the now-viral interview President Muhammadu Buhari granted to Channels Television.
In that interview, the Channels interviewer told President Buhari that prior to his administration in 2015, indicators of development favoured his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan.
In response, President Buhari said: Well, I am not sure how correct your calculations are. All I know is that we have to allow people to get access to the farms…as I have said, we just have to go back to the land…we have to go back to the land. What we have done so far, I think, is that we have achieved some successes and people ought to measure our successes vis-à-vis our problems when we started. You have given your figures as you calculated, but the important thing is this, that the farms…to produce machinery and tractors and so on…we have to build the infrastructure…’
And therefore to analyse his response to that critical question he was asked, we have highlighted certain keywords that Mr President used. They are the accentuated ones that have carried what I loosely want to refer to as having ‘peak of prominence’ – words like ‘the farms’, ‘the land’, ‘tractors’, and ‘machinery’. In mentioning these words again and again, Mr President appeared to want to say something precariously critical to our well-being; that is, in spite of the figures bandied by the Channels interviewer, there appear to be certain indices that will indicate that for real development to take place, our people must adjust their mindset about what truly needs to be done.
And the opportunity of the interview was such that Mr President appeared prepared to veer off the tangent of the discussion and discuss his own agenda and to risk leaving us all bewildered and befuddled, and to wonder at the relative strength or weakness of his mind. And so, because he asked us to reconsider partaking in at least some form of subsistence farming as a buffer to the hardship in the land, President Buhari has been lampooned and insulted and the video of that interview has gone viral. It has gone viral because like Goodluck Jonathan who was said to be clueless, Mr President appeared clueless and glum with that interview. At a time when big and small nations and countries are outdoing one another in innovative ways to grow their economies, and to be global players in tech, science and to reduce poverty, here we are with a president seemingly out of touch with the current realities of the millennium.
Even though I thought so initially, a careful scrutiny of the diction within the context of the clip making the rounds made me rethink and to reboot my system. Watching that interview again and listening with the ear of my academic training, something tells me that President Buhari, may have also read JL Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, and is somehow familiar with JL Austin’s Speech Act Theory.
JL Austin said a lot of things in his book concerning how we communicate. According to him, nearly all words – English, French, Hausa, Yoruba, Isoko, Ibo, Ibibio – have what he referred to as ‘locutionary’, ‘illocutionary’ and ‘perlocutionary’ repercussions. Simply put, JL Austin’s Speech Act Theory implies that it is almost impossible to consider what words and sentences mean without a consideration of the context in which those words and sentences are made.
Under what context did President Buhari seem to veer of the tangent of that interview and appear stupid and incoherent by asking Nigerians to return to the farms and to the land? We will analyse the agricultural potentials of one of the states in the South-South Nigeria, as an illustration to situate President Buhari’s call for Nigerians to go back to the farms. Let’s look at Benin City, Edo state where nearly 90% of all the foods – rice, beans, pepper, fish, maize, meat, cucumber, watermelon, potato, yams, lettuce, ginger, garlic – consumed by residents are foods imported from the North of Nigeria. This is so apparently because of the prevailing trend – young and old, male and female, all seem rather interested in going abroad – through the sea or desert – to eke a living. While many may engage in regular endeavours like going to school and performing low collar jobs, the vast majority are on to irregular methods of making a living that spins fast, quick wealth. In the long run, most monies that accrue from these adventures go into the acquisition of property where relatives of those sending those monies live in some kind of relative ease and comfort. If you were looking for anyone to carry out any kind of informal economic activity – artisans, welders, bricklayers, masons, technicians, farm hands, the tricycle riders – name it – chances are that you will never get a regular Bini person undertaking any of those tasks. The jobs appear too menial for them.
In contrast however, most northerners engage in both small-scale and large-scale farming, greatly subsidised by their governments in the form of subsidies, procurement of fertilisers and agricultural extension services. Agricultural endeavour in the North employs millions of young people who are engaged in revenue-generating endeavours associated with farming. While on a trip to Kano or Kaduna, you are likely to find acres and acres and acres of either millet, sorghum, maize on either side of the roads. You would not find acres of cassava, yams, pepper, beans and rice on the rich alluvial soils that make up the landscape of most of the South-south of Nigeria, especially in Edo state.
So, if you ask President Buhari about employment in Nigeria, and he tells you to go to the farm; if you ask him about exchange rate and he tells you about developing the infrastructure for the farm; if you ask him about inflation in a country where nobody is interested in subsistence farming at least, and then he tells you that you should at least consider growing some of your own food, there is nothing, I believe, clueless about that. Rather, there is everything clueless in the people who import their food.
The greatest nations of the world today are great not because they have acquired a stockpile of nuclear weapons; they are great because they can feed themselves with reasonable support from the government. And that is why I believe that President Buhari was spot on in telling us that going back to the land will cut inflation, employ our people and reduce borrowing to fund critical projects.
Global hunger Index 2020 indicated that Nigeria ranks 103rd out of 116 countries with a level of hunger ‘that is very serious’. Punch newspaper report of January 7, 2022 indicated that in 2021, and according to the CBN, Nigeria spent over $1.68bn on food importation in nine months. Do the maths, and you will find out that for a country with relatively clement weather where farming can take place for at least twice in a year, Nigeria and Nigerians have no business whatsoever being listed on a global index of world hunger.
It is my guess that because President Buhari does not possess locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary capacity, most of what he wanted to tell Nigerians, on the evening of his jaded presidency is: To Your Farms O Nigerians.
***Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku is publisher of WADONOR, cultural voice of Nigeria