An Open Letter To (1) The Honourable Speaker, House Of Representatives, abuja; And (2) Honourable Speakers, State Houses Of Assembly In Nigeria




Philosophers are in agreement that language is one of the most valuable   possessions of the human race, because it encapsulates the roots,   philosophy and culture of its native speakers. Not only does language   define us; but it is also the essence of our being and identity on the   global playing field. Our language is the tool for developing our   self-image and self-worth, not only as individuals, but as a nation, a   people and a civilization. Hence without the requisite use of our native   languages for serious matters of state by our Legislature, Executive and   Judiciary, we run the risk of rendering our people incapable of digging   deep into the mines of cognitive depth, knowledge and wisdom that will   distinguish us as Nigerians or Black Africans.

Viewed from the perspective of Linguistic Human Rights, it is apparent   that the Nigerian electorate is being severely short-changed by the   'overuse' of English and 'underuse' of indigenous languages in   governance, especially for legislation at the National Assembly and   State Houses of Assembly. If Nigerian legislators were truly elected by   Nigerians to make laws for Nigerians, then it is high time laws were put   in place to give opportunity for our legislative houses to involve   indigenous Nigerian languages in the legislative processes.


Although Paragraph 55 of the _Constitution of the Federal Republic of   Nigeria_ stipulates that the business of the National Assembly shall be   conducted in English and the three major Nigerian languages, it   doesn't seem as if anything has been done especially at the House of   Representatives to challenge the monopoly of English in Nigerian   legislative processes. Of course what the constitution says about the   use of indigenous languages for the business of the National Assembly   has some challenges of interpretation. For instance, the recognition   given to Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba in the Nigerian Constitution have   created the erroneous impression that other languages have little or   nothing to contribute to nation-building.  

It could also be interpreted to mean that any person who neither speaks   English nor any of the three national languages will not be able to   participate directly in the business of the National Assembly. Indeed,   the formal use of these three languages even in their primary domains   has been on the decline for decades. The cold truth starring all of us   in the face is that all of the three so-called 'major languages' can   be more accurately described as minority languages because they are   being emasculated, eclipsed and effectively sidelined by English. In   view of the advance in information communication technology (ICT), there   is no excuse for the National Assembly and the State Houses of Assembly   to continue the prevailing practice of minorising indigenous Nigerian   languages in our law-making processes.


Although it is convenient and cost effective to continue using English   alone in the National Assembly, Nigeria's position as an emerging   African democracy and a leading light in Black Africa dictates   otherwise. The continued development of the language of the former   colonial master as the sole official language at all levels of   governance in Nigeria casts a gloomy shadow on the future of the country   as an independent African nation. The global stature of English with its   attendant socio-political and economic advantages does not justify its   unquestioning acceptance in Nigeria as being “more equal” than our   less influential indigenous languages.

You are probably aware that there is a growing trend in Nigeria whereby   people are moving away from using their native language to English, the   world's foremost language of wider communication and opportunity. The   consequence of this relegation of African mother tongues under the guise   of globalisation is that several indigenous thoughts and practices that   could be beneficial to both the local and global communities are looked   down upon and jettisoned unthinkingly in favour of foreign ways. In the   past two or more decades, many scholars have written on the advantages   of using indigenous languages for governance and achieving sustainable   development in Africa. Indeed research has shown that indigenous   languages are eminently capable of coping with the demands of   modernisation especially when it comes to expressing fine details of   democracy, science and technology.

Permit me to observe that a leading African nation like ours that takes   pride in using a foreign language as official language but fails to   involve its indigenous languages in governance and the education of its   children not only threatens the survival of its linguistic and cultural   heritage but exposes its citizens to inferiority complex. Put another   way, an independent African nation that continues to entrench the   language of its former colonial master at the expense of its indigenous   languages is effectively reversing its status as an independent nation.   The decision to retain English as official language that was found   convenient and cost effective at Nigeria's independence in 1960 can no   longer be sustained five and a half decades after.

IV. THE NEED FOR A COMPREHENSIVE NATIONAL LANGUAGE POLICY   “The 'overuse' of English and 'underuse' of indigenous   languages,” observed Wale Adegbite in his inaugural lecture at Obafemi   Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in 2010, is a major cause of our   underachievement as a nation. He said further, “One reason for the   language problem is the lack of a comprehensive language policy; some of   the few language provisions that abound are either not well formulated   or not implemented.” In a publication in 1999, another world class   linguist, Emmanuel Emenanjo declared that Nigeria does not truly have a   language policy but a document that could be called a statement of   intention of what a language policy could be. Only last year, E. J.   Otagburuagu of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka too observed at the   conference of the English Scholars Association of Nigeria (ESAN), which   took place at the Federal University Lokoja , that Nigeria's language   policy initiatives and language planning have not enjoyed any   systematicity in their formulation neither have they been rigorously   enforced.

Charles Nnolim of the University of Port Harcourt equally observed that   “Nigeria has a confused and unfocussed language policy and this has   damaged national cohesion and unity.” It is against this background   that Munzali   Jibril , a renowned linguist and former Vice Chancellor,   Bayero University, Kano, observed at a lecture he delivered at Obafemi   Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in 2007, that the failure of the policy that   was designed to promote the use of the three major Nigerian languages is   mainly due to our negative attitudes, not only to the languages of our   compatriots, but also our own languages. He concluded the lecture with   the dismal prediction that unless aggressive counter measures are put in   place, in a matter of three generations or so, there will be a complete   shift towards English in Nigeria as most of our indigenous languages   would have died.

According to Joshua Fishman, in his article titled: “Nation- Nationism ,   Nationality-Nationalism”, published in 1968, “there are both direct   and indirect ties between language and nationism as well as between   language and nationalism.” He further argues that there is an   “ ideologised historical interaction” between language and   nationalism, which explains the role played by a people's language as   a symbol of their unity and the marker of their identity. Although   monolingualism is an ideal that seems to be working well in several   advanced countries with a single dominant language like France, Germany,   Japan, UK and Saudi Arabia, it is not feasible in multilingual Nigeria.   Of course the sound arguments for the retention of English as   Nigeria's official language and language of national unity cannot be   dismissed with a wave of the hand; our country's prestige and the   interests of the different nationalities that make up Nigeria should not   be swept under the carpet either.

It is in view of the above that I call on the National Assembly and the   State Houses of Assembly to help carve out distinct roles for our   indigenous languages by producing a comprehensive language policy   document that addresses the salient issues pertaining to official   language choices. The ultimate choices especially at the three tiers of   governance in the country must of necessity be informed by Joshua   Fishman's observations that language differences are not necessarily   divisive and that the quest for national integration can be achieved   through a plurilingual language policy. Notwithstanding the   international status of English, indigenous Nigerian languages need not   play second fiddle perpetually to a foreign language in their own native   land.

VI. THE LANGUAGE OF PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY   The English language has been the main weapon used by the Nigerian elite   class to gain undue economic and political power and exclude ordinary   Nigerians from enjoying their fair share of the much touted dividends of   democracy. It appears that both the Nigerian ruling elite and the   underclass are united in the perception that Nigeria belongs to the   English-speaking elite alone. This explains why the exclusion of the   ordinary people from the scheme of things in the country continues to   blossom unchecked as the elite continue to appropriate the country's   resources and plum positions to themselves using the English Language as   their sickle.

To achieve true participatory democracy in Nigeria, Ayo Bamgbose ,   Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at the University of Ibadan, has   suggested that more attention should be paid to the use of local   languages for mass mobilisation . He argued that instead of making the   masses to learn English, the language of the ruling elite, Nigerian   ruling elite must endeavour to learn the language of the masses.   Likewise, Oladele   Awobuluyi at a lecture delivered first at Adekunle   Ajasin University, Akungba   Akoko , in 2013 and later at Obafemi   Awolowo   University, Ile-Ife in 2014, wondered why black Africans stuck to the   language of their former colonial masters as if it was an inevitable   consequence of colonisation . He referred to the example of the Arabs in   North Africa and the Indians in Southeast Asia whose indigenous   languages were given prominent roles after they became independent   countries.

Please permit me to observe that our prestige and integrity as citizens   of a modern African nation are at stake if we fail to upgrade,   rehabilitate and institutionalize our indigenous languages. The   unchecked relegation of indigenous languages in Nigeria has the   unpleasant consequence of alienating future generations of Nigerians   from their roots, watering down their cultural heritage, and diminishing   their self worth as members of a race that is distinct from Arabs,   Europeans or Asian.

All patriotic Nigerians, especially the elite, need to have a positive   attitude about their mother tongue and other indigenous Nigerian   languages. They need to appreciate the inherent absurdity in promoting a   foreign language at the expense of their own native languages. They also   need to realize that their native languages are by no means inferior to   English or any other world language; hence it is in our individual and   communal interest to use and update them so that they can cope   effectively with the demands of modernization.

VII. ALL LANGUAGES IN NIGERIA SHOULD BE TREATED AS EQUALS   Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba have long been regarded as Nigeria's major   languages and the Nigerian Constitution stipulates their joint use with   English at the National Assembly. However, English remains Nigeria's   sole official language in almost all spheres of national activities. The   stipulation of the three languages for use in Nigeria's National   Assembly was born out of the need to upgrade the status of indigenous   Nigerian languages in governance and establish a sense of representation   in the context of the country's multilingual and multicultural make   up. Notwithstanding, some well-placed Nigerians whose languages were not   chosen felt sidelined by this arrangement. Besides, many Nigerians have   the misplaced confidence that the choice of English as official language   will put to rest the unhealthy rivalry between indigenous languages   jostling to serve as the country's national or official language.  

Wale Adegbite has suggested that all languages should be treated as   equals and that no preference should be given to any language(s) by   mentioning them overtly in the constitution or official documents.   Likewise, Segun   Awonusi of the University of Lagos suggested that   language policies that favour indigenous identity should be implemented   on a sustainable basis. According to him, “It is only on that plank   that the influence and perhaps subtle control of hegemonic English can   be checked in Nigeria. The various forms of bureaucracy hindering the   development of Nigerian languages should be removed.”

VIII. TOWARDS ATTAINING SOME MEASURE OF LINGUISTIC EQUITY IN NIGERIA   The current provision in the Nigerian Constitution and National Policy   on Education (NPE) that gives the highest status to English and unequal   recognition to the three major languages in Nigeria has to be revised to   meet contemporary realities. The following are some suggestions aimed at   achieving an amicable resolution to the challenges posed by the choice   of official language in Nigeria:

*After due consultation with Nigerians through state Houses of Assembly,   the National Assembly should establish a pool of up to fifteen or more   National Languages comprising the dominant language(s) of each of   Nigeria's 36 states. It should afterwards make it mandatory for each   state of the Federation to choose its official language(s) from the   pool;

*English should remain the central language of the Federal Government and   all communication emanating from it should first be in the language.   However, in addition, or as an alternative where appropriate, all spoken   or written communication meant for the consumption of the Nigerian   public must be translated and disseminated in the fifteen or more   National Languages, as appropriate;

*English should remain the central language of the National Assembly   while the fifteen or more National Languages should serve as alternate   languages. However, simultaneous translation facilities should be   installed in the chambers of the National Assembly (or state Houses of   Assembly where more than one language is used) so that honourable   members can avail themselves of the option of contributing to   discussions in any National Languages that suits their fancy;

*Ordinary Nigerians must be given the option of using either English or   the approved National Language(s) in their state/local government area   for official interactions and documentations within the jurisdiction of   Magistrate Courts and Local Council secretariats;

* Except in specially licensed international schools, the language of instruction from basic 1 – 9 in all private and public schools must be the Language of the Immediate Environment (LIE) as approved by both the local and state governments (states should be given between five and ten years to fully implement this provision);

* National Languages should be the first choice of governors, traditional rulers and other high ranking public officials, especially when engaging in official/public interactions in their primary domains.

With the adoption of a systematic language policy, Nigeria will effectively check the underuse of its indigenous languages for education and other serious matters of state. Instituting and enforcing an indigenous language- centred policy will not only save indigenous Nigerian languages from endangerment and extinction, but it will rescue them from the mortuary of irrelevance and the mass grave of globalization.

Nigeria has a better chance of gaining the respect of the world and being regarded as an equal with other nations when it uses its indigenous Nigerian languages for governance and formal education. Very much like many other tendentious practices such as denominating its contracts in dollars and over-reliance on western medicine for the treatment of African conditions, Nigeria cannot achieve sustainable development through overdependence on a foreign language. Nigeria is too endowed to look down on itself; the population is huge, young and virile and the regions are littered with abundant resources. If a country has what people are looking for; the international community will do business with it even if its people do not speak English or any of the so-called global languages.

Nigerian legislators and public policy makers need to appreciate the fact that indigenous Nigerian languages have beauty and style; power and potency; humour and history; and much more. All these amount to a heritage that should not be sacrificed on the altar of globalization. Nigerian languages deserve to be given equal opportunity with English as the language of education, business, government and formal occasions. Achieving Linguistic Human Rights in Nigeria is not expected to be an easy task, but it is worth pursuing because it has far reaching implications on the soul of the Nigerian nation, and the psyche and identity of its people as global citizens.

Elevating the status of our languages is like the proverbial bird in the hand of the little boy; it is within his power to either squeeze it to death or open his palm so that it can fly. Will the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly under your distinguished and inspired leadership give life to our indigenous languages by agreeing to use them for serious functions, or make them go into extinction by allowing the English language to continue holding sway in too many spheres of socio-economic life in the country? In the first option lies the promotion of the Nigerian identity, cultural heritage and history; while in the other lies loss of self-worth of a people and perpetual roller coasting on the conveyor belt of underachievement.

Written by Dr   Kehinde A. Ayoola .
[email protected]
08056342354,  07037624888

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