July 19, 2024

PENKELEMESI: The mistrust of rhetoric in African politics

  • July 7, 2024
  • 5 min read
PENKELEMESI: The mistrust of rhetoric in African politics

By Wale Okediran

DISTINGUISHED ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me as your guest speaker to this event which is the final stage of your 3-day conference on the theme, ‘Rhetorics of/in Crisis: Centring Global African Epistemologies.’ After such a hectic 3-day exercise on a very important theme, my duty this evening is to assist you to relax, wind down and enjoy a delicious dinner with a light-hearted speech concerning what many people have observed as the declining power of rhetoric in African politics.

For the purpose of this evening’s discourse, I have borrowed the title of my short speech, PENKELEMESI from a Nigerian politician, Adegoke Adelabu who was famous in the 1950s for his eloquent, crowd-pulling and occasionally highfalutin speeches. Adelabu is often mentioned in Nigerian history as the author of that expression: ‘Penkelemesi’, a Yorubanisation of the phrase, “Peculiar Mess” which Adelabu, known for his deep knowledge of English, had used on many occasions to describe his political opponents. Not understanding what he meant, the non-literate section of his audience translated the phrase into vernacular as ‘’Penkelemesi’’.So powerful was this rhetorical expression that ‘penkelemesi’ soon became a rallying cry for the politician by his supporters who even turned the word into a song;

Adelabu, penkelemesi

Centuries later, Adelabu’s grandson, Adebayo Adelabu a banker-turned politician, who is now Nigeria’s Minister for Power, still found the expression very useful during his political campaign. It is also to Adegoke Adelabu’s infinite credit that the phrase also inspired the title of the 1994 memoir of Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years – A Memoir (1946-1965).

As you will all readily know, the art of rhetoric, which has been described as the art of persuasion, had a very noble beginning since it was first used in the time of Aristotle. It is one of the three ancient arts of discourse along with grammar and logic/dialectic. As an academic discipline within the humanities, rhetoric aims to study the techniques that speakers or writers use to inform, persuade, and motivate their audiences. Therefore, the word, ‘rhetoric’ is associated with sophistry, and the use of language to convince others of your views in a way that is superficially tantalizing and momentarily convincing.

One of the things I learnt during my campaign for a position of a Member of Parliament in Nigeria was how to effectively use rhetoric. I am sure many of us are conversant with the phrase “You campaign in poetry, and govern in prose”! This phrase is often attributed to the American politician and former New York Governor, Mario Cuomo. This quote highlights the difference between the idealistic and inspirational language used during political campaigns (poetry) and the practical, detailed, and often less glamorous work of actually governing (prose).

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Dr. Wale Okediran

During a political campaign, candidates often use lofty language, grand visions, and emotional appeals to inspire and rally supporters. This poetic language is meant to capture people’s imagination, convey a sense of hope and possibility, and motivate voters to support the candidate. However, once a candidate is elected and becomes responsible for governing, the focus shifts to the practicalities of implementing policies, making decisions, and managing the day-to-day operations of government. This work is often more detailed, complex, and less glamorous than the rhetoric of a political campaign.

In essence, the phrase suggests that while it is important to inspire and motivate people with grand ideas and visionary language during a campaign, the real test of leadership comes in the day-to-day work of governing, where attention to detail, pragmatism, and effective decision-making are crucial.

In my tripartite careers as a medical doctor, politician and writer, I have benefitted a lot from rhetoric. In order to effectively practice their professions, doctors must persuade patients and their carers that they know what they are doing and that their decisions are sound. In the same vein, writers usually use many rhetorical devices for the purpose of evoking different reactions from the reader or listener while reading or listening to their works being read. This is why my own view of rhetoric is that of a tool that can be used for good or evil to influence the world around us. Rhetoric is how we use language to achieve a goal in any situation, whether to persuade, inform or entertain.

Unfortunately, this original nobility is gradually being lost as many people believe that the word now connotes deception, sophism, and cunning — especially when used in (political) speeches. As opposed to the intentions of its original designers, rhetoric nowadays in Africa and many parts of the world has a negative connotation as a vehicle for fake political and dubious agendas. The reason for this development is not far-fetched.

As long as many continue to use rhetoric for less than noble intentions, the power of this veritable tool of persuasion will continue to decline. As expert rhetoriaticians, it is your duty to interrogate the way forward out of this ‘peculiar mess’. I am sure that you would have extensively debated this burning issue during your 3-day discourse.

Thank you for listening.

* Dr. Okediran, Secretary General, Pan African Writers Associationl, delivered the lecture at the dinner/awards ceremony of The African Association for Rhetoric (AAR) on July 5, 2024 in Accra, Ghana

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