Some public commentators interested in life in Nigeria have observed that Nigerians generally have a good sense of humour and are among the happiest people in the world. Whereas being the “happiest” is not synonymous with having quality in life or being pleased with one’s circumstances, Nigerian humour and happiness may be just a therapy for the difficult and unimaginable circumstances that Nigerians have found themselves over time on account of bad governance and corruption in public life. Displaying a sense of humour may, in this case, be a sign of resignation to one’s fate, or to say, one has to learn to live with what appears difficult to change. But there is also something admirable in learning to cheer up while confronting terrible circumstances, what the late Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, humorously captures as “shufferin’ and smilin’” (suffering and smiling). Although Nigerians cannot smile away their social problems but must deal with them, they recognise, too, that humour could serve as a veritable sarcastic weapon in confronting the objectionable circumstances they have been living in. This presence of corrective humour has again manifested in the recent protest against the government’s withdrawal of subsidy on the cost of locally-consumed petroleum products in the oil-rich country. Nigerians embarked on a massive protest both within the country and overseas, deploying social media such as Facebook in circulating information and coordinating their activities, just as was the case with the Arab Spring.
Anti-government humour that has been featuring in the protest, it should be noted, exists in various modes such as still-life images manipulated with photo-editing software, cartoons, jokes posted as Status updates on Facebook, parodic adverts circulated as SMSed greetings, and several other creative pieces. Here is a sample of one of those humorous texts, this time parodying the advert of transport service (which is an aspect of life in Nigeria that would likely be badly affected by the removal of petrol subsidy):
Now available for sale in different sizes
We can also train and equip ur dog, goat, ram etc to carry u around. They don’t use fuel or gas. Visit us at our office, No 1, Oil Subsidy Road, Alison Madueke Junctn, Goodluck Close, Off
Okonjo-Iweala Street, by Labaran Maku Avenue, Sanusi Lamido District, Abuja. Or call
080-ABUJA-GEJ. Enjoy the promised fresh air.
The parodist in the text above very effectively connects the proponents of the subsidy removal with the imagined location of the service provider/advertizer. Diezani Allison-Madueke (the Petroleum Resources Minister), Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (Nigeria’s President), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria’s Finance Minister), Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank), and Labaran Maku (Nigeria’s Minister for Information) feature in the deixis of memory and imagined spatiality of the crisis. They are therefore being presented to us as the “direction” to the crisis, invariably being held responsible for the consequences on ground, which also includes a return, an unfortunate retrogression, to crude means of transport, an increase in mass suffering instead of its alleviation. In that case, the last line, “Enjoy the promised fresh air,” becomes an irony, for the ride entails a return to hardship, and not necessarily an attempt to experience a holiday-like fun of donkey ride!
One also notices an interesting penetration of the subsidy issue into the lexical repertoire of popular Nigerian (bilingual) speech in English. One does not suppose that such words that have been humorously created to capture the temper of the time would stay and become acceptable in formal communication. As vogue expressions of the moment, they are definitely bound to drop off public communication with time, or be merely remembered when it comes to considering how language documents and interrogates Nigeria’s historical and political experiences.
But one should also be interested in the semiotic structures of these subsidy-related expressions, their explicit and implicit meanings, as well as the basis for their use in the current crisis in Nigeria. The English word “subsidy,” which is at the heart of the crisis, and is defined in Investopedia as "A benefit given by the government to groups or individuals usually in the form of a cash payment or tax reduction. The subsidy is usually given to remove some type of burden and is often considered to be in the interest of the public," is also central to the humorous lexical creations that have featured in the discourse in social media in relation to the Nigerian protest. Indeed, “subsidy” has already proved to be a slippery term which the major actors in the crisis have been wrestling with too. Following the widespread condemnation of the withdrawal of the subsidy as heartless, the counter-discourse that there has indeed been no “subsidy” on local consumption of petroleum, which means that government is deceiving Nigerians in continuation of the culture of fraud, and the counter-argument in the public debate that government is not sincerely looking for a way of improving the Nigerian situation but looking for more money to share among the corrupt politicians, government representatives in their rhetoric have tried to reinvent the term to convince Nigerians. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, had, during the public debate on the subsidy issue (prior to its removal) offered a reconceptualization of subsidy as “rent.” This shift in the semiotic of subsidy was mainly because he discovered in the context of the debate that the term “subsidy” was in trouble and that sticking to it endangered his pro-government position in that debate. The option he took, as a clever and perceptive debater, was to abandon the term and shift to another that he considered favourable to his position, and which, in our thinking, presented technical difficulties for ordinary Nigerians to deal with. Rent is not exactly the same thing as in “house rent; its clarity only depended on “experts” like Sanusi Lamido to provide to Nigerian masses. Is it not the elite, Plato’s “guardians,” like Lamido and Okonjo-Iweala, who should mint signs and signifiers and feed the people with their meanings, and guide them towards lofty political goals? So, no more “subsidy” but "rent," this shift midway in the discourse obviously revealing the slippery nature of government, a government that seems to see governance as a game of hide-and-seek, or more preferably what Wole Soyinka calls “hide-and-speak” in his poem, “Telephone Conversation.” In conversing with Nigerians, government would either prefer that meaning continues to shift, obviously demonstrating its unwillingness to cooperate and work in line with people-sensitive democratic principles.
In the emergent humorous subsidy-related lexis, Nigerians have demonstrated their disillusionment in democratic governance in the country, their perception of what government calls “subsidy-removal” as a national tragedy (or a sign of the beginning of national tragedy). The term “subsidie,” a phonological play on “subsidy,” effectively suggests that there is a thin boundary between the phonological spaces of the two words, and, analogically, a thin boundary between what the Government's term is supposed to mean and what Nigerians think it means. (Of course, the use of “subsidie” by some Nigerians in their being sarcastic about the Government’s notion of subsidy interestingly recalls the use of “subsidie” as the spelling of “subsidy” in Middle English). However, Nigerian users of “subsidie,” in narrating a contemporary national experience, are not really interested in the old spelling of the word but in the occurrence of “die” in its structure (SUBSIdie), even if this is merely a matter of orthographic resemblance. The semiotic of death in the subsidy talk, what I loosely call “SubsiTalk,” draws attention to the conspiracy theories and fears circulating about subsidy removal. One of such texts issued on 11 January 2012 by Economic Intelligence Press Forum based in New York, titled “Who Is Behind Subsidy Removal?” points towards a grand international conspiracy, alleging that the subsidy removal is a “Lethal Option” which is “plan by the Billionaires and their surrogates … to kill the Black African people directly by imposing high cost of living … lamentable even more because their presidents have shown total ignorance and lack of sensitivity” (Ellipses mine).National death is therefore foregrounded in the reinvention of subsidy as "SUBSIDIE."
Given the frightening and alarming nature of "the Lethal Option" mentioned above, wouldn't a spiritualization of hope for redemption or protection become attractive to embattled Nigerians? A friend circulated a joke about an Igbo person naming his son who was born during the subsidy crisis “Chibusubsidim,” which means “God is my subsidy.” Igbo speakers in Nigeria sometimes demonstrate their bilingual and bicultural attributes by mixing English and Igbo, even to the point of creating lexical items that are half Igbo, half English. Oliver de Coque, a major Igbo highlife musician, had, in one of his albums, condemned this speech orientation, which he calls “Engligbo.” The refrain of the major track in that album says, “Onye asuzila Engligbo o o!” (Let no one continue to speak Engligbo). What needs to be noted, however, is that Engligbo is not only a representation of Igbo cultural hybridity but that it also has some deliberate creative relevance in postcolonial Igbo speech. It also comes handy in the Igbo practice of language-based humour. Surely, Igbo speakers, just like other Nigerians, have cause to play with language and laugh at themselves and their situations.
In the coinage and use of “Chibusubsidim,” the fictional Igbo person that gave his son that name is actually continuing what has been there in Igbo cultural onomastics. In Igbo tradition, people could be named in remembrance of particular events or situations, or as a means of fashioning a philosophy of life for the bearer of the name. In this regard, there are such names as “Aghadi” (There is War, or War is On), given to a child born in wartime, for instance the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967 to 1970); Uzoaro ("On the road to Arochukwu," which registers where and how the bearer was born); etc. Some Igbo people, given their orientation to Western life and culture as well as the influence of Pentecostal Christianity, consider such names backward-looking or obsolete, preferring the use of Igbo names with “Chi” in their structure, or such names that have no Igbo outlook, like “Favour,” “Promise,” “Miracle,” etc. The name “Chibusubsidim,” stands midway between a modern Chritianization project in Igbo culture and an orientation to hybrid semiosis. The English word “subsidy” is harvested and inserted within the lexical structure of “Chibu—m” (Chi+bu+X+m), as in “Chibuikem” (God is my strength). In such insertion, “subsidy” is phonologically transformed to fit into the host Igbo phonological structure; in other words, it is by virtue of its transformation functioning in that context as an Igbo part of the compound word. It is therefore an Igbo-based lexical semiotic transformation, even when the ordinary Igbo speaker in the local area would find it difficult to figure out what that part means.
One can find similar lexical practices in Igbo Christian evangelical music. In one of Obi Igwe’s songs, one finds such forms:
I na-aga church na-ezu ohi
Ekwensu mere gi something
Ekwensu gburu gi nwaayo
Eziokwu o finishiri gi
Ekwensu deceivuru gi
Words like “finishiri” and “deceivuru” are as humorous as they raise interesting issues about the structures of English words patterned as Igbo words. One cannot help laughing at the recreation of the English suffix (-ed) Past marker as an Igbo Past marker, “-ri” and “-ru.” Nigerian lexical playfulness and creativity in relation to social experience is therefore a significant aspect of social semiotics in the country and which one needs to follow in studying trends and the life of signs in Nigerian public culture.
The name “Chibusubsidim” might as well be treated as a percolation of perspectives expressed in the media, especially social media, where many Nigerians go in recent times to share ideas and benefit from the views of others. I had, in fact, also written in my Facebook Status Update on 6 January 2012 (at 12.48AM): “God's SUBSIDY in my life has not been withdrawn. God isn't as heartless as those who present such withdrawals to their countrymen and women as a New Year gift!” Perhaps I am one of those already bearing the name, “Chibusubsidim,” without even realizing it!
The joke about petrol subsidy crisis in Nigeria also features in local greeting forms. One could hear neighbours and work partners in the South-Western part of Nigeria softening the tension of the crisis by jokingly saying to one another, “E ku subsidy!” (Well done for subsidy). Generally, Yoruba culture admits and encourages the use of greeting for almost every situation, indeed emphasizing the necessity for communion and the idea of being with the other in life experiences. So, there are greetings for existing human situations, as well as greetings for situations that are yet to unfold! There is greeting for working as well as for resting. Why shouldn’t every aspect of life matter? And why shouldn’t the removal of petrol subsidy be something encoded in the greeting ritual so that as people meet and mix, they have to reflect on emergent social problems instead of pretending they don’t exist, or that they don’t need to be confronted? E ku subsidy therefore suggests an invitation to action, a reminder of an obligation to think about a problem, as well as an opportunity to laugh at the idea of subsidy and governance in Nigeria.
Nigerian SubsiTalk is Nigerian public discourse telling the story of the country's travails in a way that invites closer attention to language and human condition in the contemporary Nigerian society. Mikhail Bakhtin, operating under the pen name “Volosinov,” argues in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language that the sign is a site of struggle, a location where meaning is contested, or is the focus of power struggle in society. That position is very true in relation to the semiotic of “subsidy” in current petrol crisis in Nigeria. It is particularly gladdening that many Nigerians are aware of the fact that government and its functionaries are doing things with words with the Nigerian people and are determined to interrogate it and demonstrate that their own semiotic also matters in giving the nation state a direction.