Why indigenous languages should be used in national, state assemblies, by Ayoola

Dr Kehinde Ayoola

Dr Kehinde Ayoola


By Kehinde Ayoola

February 28, 2016

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.

What does the Nigerian constitution say about indigenous Nigerian languages?

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.

The benefits of using indigenous languages at the National Assembly

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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’s future is in your hands

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.

Dr Kehinde Ayoola teaches at the Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State and could be reached via kehinday77@yahoo.co.uk or 08056342354



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