Nigeria, the self-understood ‘giant of Africa’ says it has no territorial ambition nor aspired to make Benin Republic or any other country for that matter a part of Nigeria. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement to that effect Saturday is asking the public to disregard any such interpretation of a sentence by Geoffrey Onyeama, the Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister, which is being interpreted that way.
The Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister had said during a press interview at the end of the visit of his counterpart from the Republic of Benin, inter alia that “…the president of Benin said he would like the relations between the two countries to be so close as if Benin was the 37th state of Nigeria”.
The polysemous nature of language took over from there as the Ministry and the Foreign ministers saw the statement twisted in the media to suggest or mean that the Republic of Benin is aspiring to be Nigeria’s 37th state or that Nigeria habour territorial desires. This is thus a case of an obvious attempt of the Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister to use the same jokes often made by the President of Benin but only for the jokes to turn negative in this context.
Officialdom may read ignorance or interpretive mischief on the part of journalists but, more seriously, what this (mis) interpretation draws attention to is the multiplicity of meaning that language is capable of.
It arises from the fact that whenever anybody at all speaks, he or she has carefully arranged his or her thoughts specifically for the audience being addressed. Language use is thus pragmatic or contingent and so also meaning. Taken out to another audience, the meaning could be anything. This is why language can trigger war, for example.
This is the point that people in government in particular never seem to come to terms with because they assume an unchanging relationship between the signifier and the signified in their use of language.
Matters are made worse in this case by Nigeria’s overwhelming size that makes it look a natural, territorially ambitious player. Hence the sensitive nature of any such insinuation although, by history and culture, the two are one, sans imperialist cartography. What would actually be so bad if the entire West Africa were to become one country?. After all, they would even then have less than the population of some of the new rising powers of China and India. By the logic of ECOWAS, the sub-region is already one and the only offensive usage here might be the idea of Benin Republic or any country becoming the 37th state of Nigeria.