The “Unblerra” Incident: Judging a Book By It’s Crass Cover


“Any lady who is First Lady likes being first lady. I don’t care what they say, they like it.”

Richard Nixon, former US President.

By now, almost every Nigerian with a mobile phone, a Blackberry or internet access at the very least must have heard about the First Lady’s infamous “Unblerra” gaffe. While this is not the first time or the first First Lady for that matter to display an obvious poor command of the English language, I’d say this is one too many. I received the “Unblera” audio clip on Saturday morning to be precise, while I was still in bed but after listening to it, I screamed and laughed so hard that I literally almost fell-off my bed (which is not even that big to begin with). For those of you who haven’t heard about the incident, the First Lady was recorded to have referred to Umbrella as “Unblerra” while addressing a crowd of supporters on behalf of her husband for the forthcoming elections. For those of you who haven’t heard the clip or who just cannot get enough of it, here it is below:

Apart from this incident, there have been so many other similar cases  for instance, the First Lady was reported to have said while addressing a gathering of youths that “I am a mother to you all, I will mother you”. Another rib-cracker is one where she was reported to have addressed a gathering of widows as “My fellow widows…” and also referred to children as “childrences” pronounced shildrences. Now the problem here is not about the fact that her spoken English is heavily accented, that is not the problem at all because everyone has an accent like it or not. Even in Britain where the English language originates from, different people have different accents depending on what region they come from – a person from Scotland or Wales speaks very differently from someone who is from say, Central London; Americans depending on the state, region or even from different parts of one city have different accents like the  Jersey accent which as a result of Italian influence has a distinct sound from others within New York City, there is the Texas drawl as well etc. However the First Lady’s problem is more of a grammatical one, the structure of sentences, conjugation of verbs, quantifying nouns as singular or plural. No one is expecting Dame Patience to speak perfect Queen’s English but there are some basic grammatical errors that are completely inexcusable for a First Lady to commit as an “educated” wife (with a Bachelors degree for that matter) of the most powerful person in the country.

I understand that it would be most unfair not to acknowledge that Dame Patience Jonathan is not the only culpable one here. The immediate former First-Lady Hajiya Turai Yar’Adua wife of later President Umaru Yar’Adua was no better. During her reign as First-Lady (and boy, was that something to remember, she really did reign literally), her spoken English was the butt of jokes all around the country. At times, it provided a comic relief away from serious, burning, national issues especially the issue of insecurity and kidnapping in the country. I remember there was a time when a particular story was going round that at the Commissioning of a hospital in Sokoto state, she was addressing a group of women and she said alleged to have said “My husband loves women” she probably meant that her husband always had the interest of women at heart.

Beyond the rib-cracking laughter this clip and incident evokes, it is really a sad and serious situation for the entire Nigerian society. Increasingly, all important aspects of our national life, particularly in matters of leadership have been hijacked and commandeered by mediocrity at the very best. A country brimming with so many intellectuals, PhD holders, professionals and professors from different walks of life – from Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala and Oby Ezekwesili of the World Bank to Justice Aloma Mukhtar of the Supreme Court and Dr. Hadiza Galadanci, renown gynecologist – just cannot get it right when it comes to leadership and people who represent us. With these kind of language “skills” from a First Lady, you wonder why non-Africans still think we live in tiny huts, are all plagued by disease and hunt game for dinner! Please do not get me wrong, I am not using this as an avenue to attack the First Lady, Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan, rather it is more of a constructive criticism and a lamentation of so many incidents that are increasingly signifying a degeneration of all aspects of leadership in Nigeria.

Furthermore, it appears that Nigerian First ladies as women (women being women) of recent have displayed an uncanny penchant and love for the limelight and publicity and with that power and influence for the sake of it, not for any greater good. While this is not entirely unique to Nigeria as there are instances around the world where there were powerful First Ladies who indeed were in the spotlight, but for different reasons based on their accomplishments – how they empowered women and the under-privileged, how they inspired other women and by implication complimented their husbands’ performance in office. From Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama to especially Eva Peron who I have singled out was the wife of Argentina’s President Juan Peron from 1946 – 1952 was one of the most powerful, affectionately remembered first ladies especially in Argentina. She is reported to have built hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the elderly and single mothers; she campaigned successfully for labour and women’s rights in Argentina.  These are all powerful, intelligent, smart and of course beautiful, women whose very comportment, body language and communication skills conveyed their strong personalities within.

In contrast, what we have here are First Ladies craving for publicity just for the sake of it, as an end in itself not as a means to better the lives of people, better the lives of women and children and the poor, disadvantaged and unprivileged members of the society. We cannot easily forget the immediate former First-Lady Turai Yar’Adua who because of her love for publicity at a point virtually eclipsed her husband late President Yar’Adua in public events, media clips, TV and newspapers. At a point, Turai was everywhere, everyday – from NTA, AIT and Channels; to all the major newspapers; public events and even State events. Infact sometime in 2009  Turai attended the 53rd Session of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from September 14 to September 18 in Vienna Austria it was simply astonishing that the First Lady went there on behalf of the country rather than the Minister of Foreign Affairs whose mandate it is to represent the country on such matters. In Turai’s case, it was not just her love for publicity but her love for and exercise of raw power. In those days, it was an open secret that Turai had enormous influence in the appointment of key government officials – from Ministers and Ambassadors to DGs, Chairmen and Board Members of parastals, and she was the main person to be lobbied in government. In the case of the current First-Lady Dame Patience, granted she did not and has not displayed the desire for raw, naked power like Turai did even though one cannot in a hurry forget the incident with the Rivers state governor where she challenged him (an elected official) in public, she seems to display similar publicity-hugging tendencies like her predecessor.

I am digressing a bit, but my main point is that if our First Ladies are so dependent on the limelight and the glare of publicity, even if does not serve the public interest or a larger altruistic motive, then at the very least craving for the limelight alone should even be a motivating factor for them to improve on their communication skills and abilities not just in terms of spoken English, but their body language, comportment and demeanor. As a spouse of the President, the First Lady should know that she is also a representative of the entire country and since like we have seen, our First Ladies tend to arrogate additional powers and responsibilities to themselves, then they should perform those additional duties very well.

Thus given the power and resources these Ladies wield and commandeer, it shouldn’t be difficult for them to invest in enrolling in or given their elevated status and probably for security reasons, hiring a specialist or coach in improving oral communication, etiquette and diplomacy. This is because the image a leader and his wife present to the international world speaks volumes about a country in question now that Nigeria aspires to be one of the top 20 economies by 2020, what image do the President and his wife project to the world, how does the First Lady inspire and affect the lives of fellow women – no I don’t mean setting the pace and unbeatable record in expensive shopping trips in Dubai, Paris or other parts of the world but in terms of empowerment. This is because in public matters, sometimes a book is judged by its cover first before the inner content is explored.

N.B.

On a lighter note, here is the “remix” version of the speech. You know how mischievous people can capitalize on things like these. Hilarious stuff!

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9 thoughts on “The “Unblerra” Incident: Judging a Book By It’s Crass Cover

  1. Seriously, you write like farooq kperogi. There are strong similarities in the way you make comparisons and analysis.
    Da gaske nake yi, its not a feel-good-message.

  2. The Umblerra incident is great comic relief. I laugh so hard every time I listen to it. It will definitely be one of Mrs Jonathan’s ‘greatest hits’. On a more serious note, you’ve said it all. I like your point about accents. We all have accents indeed. What’s important is the ability to make error-free and coherent sentences or statements. One can learn to speak well in public. If Madam Patience accepts she has a problem, she should engage the services of experts. Like you said no one expects her to speak like the Queen. She just needs some brushing up. Did you notice that Turai improved slightly in coherence towards the end of her reign? Perhaps with time and exposure they gain confidence and speech improves. Sometimes one can ‘blow arrow’ due to anxiety and all that.. Talking about Turai, did she really attend IAEA summit? Na wa o, Interesting!

    The need to play down the role of first lady has always been talked about. It’s not like the wife of the president should not have any role whatsoever in the society. That’s not realistic, esp in the society we come from. There should be very strict bounds and limits in terms of her involvement in the running of government. We have heard of how certain first ladies were so powerful they determined who should be appointed to key government positions. That should not be the case. It made the headlines some time ago when Madam Patience went to Rivers State and publicly questioned and criticized Governor Amaechi on some of his programmes. Imagine that!

    On the crazy notions some people here have about Nigerians or Africans generally, it’s interesting. The other day my Pakistani friend said something like ‘you guys drink blood in Africa’ and you have ‘tribes’ (in the sense of some red-eyed warriors holding swords and running around in the bush) and I was like ‘ehh’? Yes, in my place as a cow is being slaughtered some people take the fresh blood and fry it. It tastes like liver. But blood pudding is eaten all over the world. People who eat it are not savage people. I did not want to have an unnecessary exchange with my friend about the problems in his own country so I just politely disabused him of his funny notions about us. Our country is not heaven but we definitely don’t live on trees or ‘tiny huts’. Even in my village huts are becoming rare structures. Its amazing some of the modern architectural wonders there. A cousin of mine who visited our village from the US for the first time a couple of years ago said that’s the first thing that struck him. Obviously he grew up hearing about the huts and thatched leaking roofs we all live in..lol. Many Nigerians are working hard (not ‘eating’ government money), earning good money and living comfortably. There are many other funny things I’ve heard some of which may be inappropriate or indecent to say here. My comment is becoming a long thing btw

    Interesting article indeed. An great blog you’ve got here. More power to you. We are looking forward to the next one.

    • Yeah I agree with you, Turai did improve slightly towards the end, and yes she did attend the IAEA conference and even met with Mohammed El-Baradei the then IAEA chairman…when I saw that on TV I was shocked. When it comes to limiting the power of First Ladies, I really don’t see that happening, because they naturally love publicity, it’s slightly better if they already have their own careers prior to getting to that position. Example, Justice Fatima Abubakar, General Abdulsalam Abubakar’s wife – people hardly heard of her during her husband’s regime probably because she was too busy with her career. Maybe I’m wrong… on people’s perception of Africans, that is an entire topic on its own. All I can say is that I have had to convince at least 10 people that I am from Nigeria in Africa and not a British Nigerian, or from the Carribean. Why? Because they think most Africans cannot communicate well in English and other stereotypes. Thanks for the compliments.

  3. YES BOSS!why most at times we laugh to such issue call it accent or grammatical erros,it stiil comes down to lack of professionalizing mother tonque interferance only give us identity, like you rightly mention to know a hausa man from a yoroba man/woman who have the absent of the letter (H) hausas(P for F). if this first ladies office is been utilise as it surpose to we will not be here discussing pronouciation rather talking about developmetal things they have done.Hillary Rodhan Clinton-first lady who have attended cabinet meeting,headed by policy task forces and scheduled policy meeting with president and senior advisers, so if turai deed that as far its not contrary to the law of the land she is well come, 1992-2001 During the clinton’s tenure,there was a heated debate on the role of of first lady by the media in an artticle, (history and the role of firstlady of jan,15 1996. so a first lady should be a hostess,we want them to be charming and lovely and first wife and all that,but should not get too much involved in policy matters and for heaven’s sake should never cross the between professional activities and law and legistilation.Dame have no reason not learn to say her gramma and pronouciations well.’ i hope that someday,someone,will take the time to evaluate the true role of the wifeof a president,and to assess the many burdens she has to bear and the contributions she makes’ president Harry s. Truman. mrs zee keep the good job

    • Yeah I agree, if the First Ladies that have been there have been utilizing their privileged position to do make a positive difference in the lives of people in the society, then such things would be trivial issues.

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