Humboldt Research Fellow: Dr Onwu Inya - Metaphors of Democracy

2024-05-06 The visiting scholar at the Institute of English Studies analyses language and modes of speech in the Nigerian parliament. His research findings can help to strengthen the young republic.

Onwu Inya ©Leuphana/Teresa Halbreiter
"The scholarship is very prestigious. It increases my chances of getting a professorship in Nigeria," says the post-doctoral researcher.

When legislators use linguistic expressions that compare democracy to plants, buildings, pillars and business contracts, they make their arguments and policy positions accessible to fellow legislators. Dr Onwu Inya calls such linguistic phrases “metaphors of democracy”. He says, “investigating the metaphors of democracy that dominate the discourses of legislators in the Nigerian Senate reveals how the nascent process of democratization in the nation has been framed, characterized, problematized and what solution paths are being proposed”.

The post-doctoral researcher is conducting research at the Institute of English Studies as a Humboldt Fellow until 2025. He is being funded with the George Forster Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The fellowship is aimed at post-doctoral and experienced researchers, particularly from the Global South. The scholarship provides him with financial and non-material support: "Prof Dr Anne Barron is a proven expert in my field of research. That's why I chose Leuphana," explains Onwu Inya. He also has access to online resources at the University of Lüneburg that would otherwise not be available to him and can use the LinA-LAB for data analysis. "The scholarship is very prestigious. It increases my chances of getting a professorship in Nigeria," says the post-doctoral researcher.

As a linguist, the researcher from the Federal University of Technology in Akure, analyses the discourse in the Nigerian parliament, among other things. He systematically analyses a corpus of almost two million words of legislative debates from the Nigerian Senate. The data shows that legislators portray themselves positively as "resilient defenders" of democracy and the legislative institution. The executive, on the other hand, is seen as, sometimes, acting in contrast to democratic consolidation. "Our research contributes to the understanding of the tense and polarised relationships between the branches of government in a presidential political system in an emerging democracy. Debates are the key to democracy," explains the researcher. Democracy in Nigeria is still very young and many parts are not yet as stable as in Germany, for example, says Onwu Inya.

He is one of the few researchers to have analysed modes of speech in an African parliament. So far, mainly Western democracies have been analysed linguistically. Onwu Inya is interested in how people use language to present their position: "As a discourse analyst, I analyse statements and the way in which they are made."

In a project funded by the American Council of Learned Societies /African Humanities Programme on the pragmatics of short stories in the context of health advice from Nigerian doctors and laypersons, the researcher investigated communication on health topics on Twitter. Through small stories, participants constructed a sense of community and thus more understanding of health issues. For example, young people were told that energy drinks can lead to high blood pressure - actually a disease of old age: "Our study results show that teenagers actually reduced their consumption as a result of these stories."

Dr Onwu Inya studied English language and literature at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria and completed his doctorate in discourse analysis and legislative debates at the University of Ibadan. He has been a Lecturer since 2021 and a Senior Lecturer from 2023 in the Federal University of Technology, Akure, conducting research at the Institute for Technology-Enhanced Learning and Digital Humanities. Onwu Inya will be a visiting scholar and Humboldt Fellow at the Institute of English Studies until 2025.


  • Prof. Dr. Anne Barron