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The Politics of Language 

Jideofor Adibe , PhD, LLM


I have a great deal of sympathy for Rod Blagojevich, the embattled Democratic Governor of the state of Illinois in the United States. I am not in support of what he was alleged to have done. But I have sympathy for him because he appears to be the proverbial unlucky fellow who, as the Igbo would say, gets water stuck between his teeth. His alleged crime of political horse-trading is actually believed to be the spice of politics.


Constitutionally Rod Blagovich has the right to appoint a successor to the Senate seat vacated by Barrack Obama following his election as the President of the country. The day after the elections, Blagovich was taped telling an aide: "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for fucking nothing. I'm not gonna do it." He was subsequently arrested by the FBI on suspicions that he was poised to ‘sell’ the seat to the highest bidder. Blago has vowed to fight on after the Illinois House of Representatives voted by 114 to one to start his impeachment process, clearing the way for a trial in the state senate which could result in his removal from office.

A crucial question is whether any other Governor in the USA would have just appointed whomsoever comes to his or her mind without doing any political and economic permutations of any sort? Quite unlikely.

Consider a case that is very similar to Blagovich’s.

In New York State, Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of JFK Kennedy, is reportedly the favourite to be appointed by Governor David Paterson of New York as a replacement for Hillary Clinton's soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat. The argument here is that as a celebrity, she would be able to help the Democratic Party raise tons of money. In other words, Governor Paterson would benefit because Caroline Kennedy is expected to use her celebrity status and family brand name to raise loads of money for the 2010 elections in which he will also be on the ballot. So what is the actual difference between what Blagovich was alleged to have done and what Governor Paterson may end up doing? As Fromma Harrop noted (“Welcome to ‘Nepotism Nation’”, Realpolitics.com, December 28, 2008): “Would someone please draw a dark line of distinction between what we call a scandal in Illinois and business as usual in New York? Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell a vacant Senate seat, while New York Gov. Paterson is expected to give a Senate seat to the woman whose family can raise lots of money for his benefit.”

The different treatments given to the Blagovich and Kennedy cases amply illustrate the role of language, especially how language could be used to frame what is ethically acceptable and what is not, even if the same meaning is being conveyed. Blagovich may have been guilty of being too direct, of veering off the ‘normal’ language code of horsetrading in American politics. You could find yourself on the other side of the moral divide, if not outrightly committing a crime, if you step outside the acceptable language code for expressing virtually the same thing in politics.

Language could also be used to frame international political discourses. For instance a word like ‘dictatorship’ implies a regime that represses its people, making ‘mass revolt’ against such a regime heroic since it implies a moral fight to throw off oppression. Given Americans’ love of freedom, tagging any regime that America does not like a ‘dictatorship’ automatically justifies any state action against that regime in the eyes of many Americans. Similarly accusing any regime of possessing ‘weapons of mass destruction’ frames the discussion of an impending Armageddon, which then justifies any action to prevent it.


There is again the fine ethical line between the words ‘lobbying’ and ‘bribery’. In the US, lobbying is estimated to be a 4- billion dollar industry. But what do lobbyists do? Put simply, lobbyists try to influence lawmakers to achieve a particular legislative outcome. Supporters of the lobbying industry contend that with the exponential growth in the power of the US federal government, it is not corruption, but self-government in action, for people to hire the services of professional lobbyists to put their own case strongly before those who make the laws. However, the problem here is that lobbying does not take place in a University seminar-style setting. It takes place in the real world where politics, power, influence and money mix, making it often difficult to draw the line between this and bribery. You could go to jail for bribery, but provided you use appropriate language and walk the fine line, lobbying is accepted.

It is however not only America or the West that uses language to frame political discourses. In Nigeria for instance, the late Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu has been rightly ridiculed for being a proponent of ‘amala politics’. In one in interview, he reportedly vowed never to forgive a Governor he helped to put into office because the Governor refused to surrender to him ‘just’ ten percent of his security vote. Despite the justifiable moral outrage at what Adedibu was reported to have said, was he actually not being condemned for veering off the acceptable language code used to make such requests? Would there have been a moral outrage if the late Adedibu had accused the Governor of ‘reneging on his promise to provide logistic support’ for the ‘popular project’ of ‘feeding the thousands of hungry people’ that daily converged in his Molete residence?

In a recent newspaper interview, Chief Victor Umeh, leader of APGA, was reported as saying that he was pressing on Governor Peter Obi of Anambra state on the need to ‘carry everyone along’, especially those who contributed to his success during his court battles. Decoded, was Chief Umeh really not saying he was begging Governor Peter Obi to find ‘something’ for some of the party faithful and his own loyalists?

When ‘Sir’ Chris Uba accused his elder brother, Andy Uba, of stealing his ‘structure’ in Anambra state, what was he really talking about? Decoded, was he not simply talking of his thugs and others who supported his aspirations, including hangers-on on his payroll? What would have been the press’s reaction if Uba had simply talked of his ‘boys’, or worse still his, of his ‘thugs’, which was what it was really all about?


Jideofor Adibe is editor of the multidisciplinary journal, African Renaissance and publisher of the London-based Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd (www.adonis-abbey.com). He can be reached at: editor@adonis-abbey.com


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