Presidential words: style and substance

Whenever a head of state speaks, his words attract a lot of attention. We pay attention to what he says and how he says it. His words are studied, analysed and turned over for meaning and possible policy slants. In addition his every gesture is watched and analysed, modulation of his voice measured so as to gauge his meaning. Presidential words are, indeed, a source of livelihood for many people.

Whenever a head of state speaks, his words attract a lot of attention. We pay attention to what he says and how he says it.

His words are studied, analysed and turned over for meaning and possible policy slants. In addition his every gesture is watched and analysed, modulation of his voice measured so as to gauge his meaning. Presidential words are, indeed, a source of livelihood for many people.

The presidents have not disappointed. They have given us memorable words and phrases, defined new concepts and generally added to our lexicon. And there is such a variety of style as to warrant a full study of presidential linguistic stylistics.

In East Africa this stylistic variety is in abundance.
Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was the star rhetorician as philosopher, teacher and writer.

He originated new ideas or refashioned existing ones to suit changing circumstances. He then went on to explain them to his audience in writing or in speech. Nyerere had the singular ability of communicating complex issues to peasants and intellectuals alike.

To intellectuals, he presented his ideas in neat, logical argument. To peasants, he broke the ideas into manageable elements and presented them in familiar terms. He was at ease with elther group.

To him we owe the popularisation of such expressions and concepts as self-reliance and self-sufficiency that have become permanent features of our political lexicon. There are other memorable ones like African socialism and ujaama (villagisation). These are no longer in current usage, except in academic circles.

Two other important features that Mwalimu Nyerere bequeathed us are the earnestness and conviction with which he held and communicated his views, and personal integrity.

From the cerebral Nyerere, we got the very opposite, the self-proclaimed “man of few words but action” – Idi Amin. He did not contribute to our political vocabulary.

Nonetheless his speeches were memorable for his mangled use of the English lsnguage – he loved to end his statements with, “completely and also”.

Amin is also remembered for bringing bafoonery and ruthlessness, in equal measure, to politics. His greatest contribution, perhaps, is that he became the standard measure for brutality and a butt for all manner of jokes.

In Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni we have a wonderful story-teller. He rarely reads his speeches, and when he does, he can put his listeners to sleep.

Which is why he often discards his written speech and tells stories liberally spiced with proverbs from his native tongue and other Ugandan languages, and humorous anecdotes. Then he is in his element and can hold forth for hours.

In another age he could have been a star fire-side performer.

Museveni’s contribution to political lexicon? Not much in English. There are some memorable catch phrases in Ugandan languages that he uses mainly as mobilisation slogans. Many of these have been so popular that they have passed into ordinary speech.

Listening to our very own President Paul Kagame, one cannot fail to notice which direction he wants our politics to move. There are words and concepts which are always present in all his speeches.

Very often they are repeated many times in the same speech it is difficult to miss them.

You will hear “leadership, leader” or their Kinyarwanda equivalent in practically all his utterances. They will usually be said in the same breath with “responsibility”. They will be followed by “integrity”. Then there will be “service, work and choice”.

The connection between all these words/concepts is obvious. The president uses every opportunity to define what leadership is in terms of public service and private enterprise.

He wants to impress it on the leaders that they have a responsibility to discharge and a service to deliver; that leadership is not an entitlement for selfish interests or self-aggrandisement, but means accountability to the led. In the same way he wants the led to be able to demand service and accountability from their leaders.

The repeated use of these words is not simply a fashionable linguistic innovation. It marks a philosophical shift in the defintion and style of governance.

Their power also does not come from their uniqueness. They are actually ordinary words in daily usage. Their power comes from the passion and conviction with which the president uses them.

For him, they are both moral and practical exhortations to Rwandans to perform to the highest levels of their ability and integrity.

So, political and civic positions are not personal entitlements, but more a responsibility that can only be offloaded when one has accomplished his mission to the satisfaction of those for whom it is intended.

And so the president will patiently teach, explain and repeat his message. The choice and repetition of the words and concepts are not for purely rhetorical purposes.

Rather they are like the aims of a lesson from which certain principles are to be learnt, or a sermon from which moral and social imperatives are to be drawn.

East Africa has had a wide variety of presidential linguistic styles that have made respective presidents’ speeches memorable.

Nyerere wrote and spoke with a philosophical flair. Museveni is the story-teller in the finest oral tradition.

With Paul Kagame, we get the linguistic equivalent of scientific precision. There is no room for ambiguity.

Ends

 

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