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Interrogating Multilingualism, national development in Nigeria


Title: Multilingualism and National Development in Nigeria
Author: Prof Chris Uchenna Agbedo
Publisher: University of Nigeria Press Ltd, May 2019 and sponsored by TETFUND
Pages: 404
Year: 2019
Reviewer: Onyedika Agbedo

Chris Uchenna Agbedo’s Multilingualism and National Development in Nigeria: Issues and Challenges examines the multilingual situation in Nigeria. It interrogates the apparent failure to manage centrifugal and centripetal forces in a manner that will douse the flaming embers of conflicting ethno-linguistic identities and forged a core cultural consensus with a language or languages of expression that would have paved way for national solidarity, national integration and unity.

It further explores the interconnectedness of Nigeria’s national development challenges and endemic inability of the Nigerian state over the years to articulate realistic language planning policy and implementation strategies and integrate the abundant linguistic resources into the national development plans.

The obvious absence of a functional language policy that could have effectively addressed issues of ethno-linguistic identities, linguistic diversity, and multiculturalism, (which breed socio-economic and political inequalities that tend to define typical multilingual societies) poses fundamental challenges to national development struggles of Nigeria.


As a way forward in this regard, the author posits that seeking enduring solutions to the national development challenges of Nigeria would ab initio, require solutions to the problems occasioned by Nigeria’s failure to plan her languages.

In specific terms, the 404-page book discusses the concept of multilingualism in the global world and narrows it down to the Nigerian perspective. It exposes the two-part nature of multilingualism as a blessing, on the one hand, and as a curse on the other hand.

The author in the preface contends that usually, in any given speech community, which is either monolingual/monocultural or multilingual/multicultural, there are centrifugal and centripetal forces operating simultaneously. The centrifugal force (tendency towards ethnic, sectional and regional solidarity or unity) and centripetal force (tendency towards national solidarity and national cultural identity) tend to be continuously locked in a constant struggle for supremacy over each other.

In situations where the centripetal force gains the upper hand both linguistically and culturally, the movement would be towards a national character. The American context (that is U.S.A.) typifies this situation. Although the various languages and cultures that transplanted into the ‘new world’ environment engaged in constant struggle for survival that had the potentials of impacting negatively on the national solidarity and cultural identity, the national or centripetal force has usually gained an upper hand at all times.

The second situation obtains in Nigerian context where ethno-linguistic loyalties are strong because the centrifugal forces have been well entrenched before the emergence of more recent centripetal force, which canvasses national solidarity, taking roots in administrative capitals.Unfortunately, in the Nigerian situation, even in cities and capitals, which are disposed to being melting pots of cultural types, the pattern of life tend to imbue the centrifugal forces with more divisive vigour and potency, thus paling into insignificance the centripetal forces.

The fundamental challenge of such multilingual setting as Nigeria is mainly that of forging a core cultural consensus with a language or languages of expression that would make way for national solidarity, national integration and unity. It goes without saying that the use of more than one language in daily life is a fundamental feature of all human societies. Virtually all nations on earth are characterised by multiplicity of languages. The essential difference lies in the disposition of these intrinsically multilingual societies to manage these centrifugal and centripetal forces in a manner that will douse the flaming embers of centrifugal forces on the one hand and entrench the centripetal forces that make for national identity on the other.

For those serious minded-nations that have recorded significant progress in this delicate balancing act, multilingualism is more of an asset, a blessing than a liability or curse. However, the reverse seems to be the case in such countries like Nigeria that appear roundly confounded by the realities of multiplicity of languages to the sorry point of surrendering wholly to the centrifugal tendencies. The issues and challenges deriving from this situation form the thrust of discussions in this book.

It is on this premise that the foundation of this book was laid. The book has 10 chapters. The first centres on the basic concepts and issues in multilingualism. Therein, the author explores linguistic diversity in general terms and how it relates to the Nigerian situation, the concept of multilingualism and its types as well as the concept of speech community.

In chapter two, the author x-rays the sociolinguistic implications of multilingualism, which include but not limited to language contact, bilingualism, linguistic borrowing, code-switching, pidgin and creole, language attitude, language endangerment, language attrition, language death and language revival.These issues as they play out in the international community and in different speech communities in Nigeria are discussed. How ethnic groupings affect multilingual and multicultural nations is the preoccupation of chapter three.

One of the ways in which ethnic groupings affects a multilingual nation is that it compounds the language problems of such nations. This language problem manifests and escalates where there is no functional language policy. This, as espoused in chapter four of this book, is the bane of a multilingual Nigeria that has robbed the country of the limitless opportunities of yanking off the inglorious toga of marketplace invested on it by Lord Lugard and attaining the full status of a sovereign nation.

In chapter five, the author traces the political history of Nigeria from the time of amalgamation in 1914 to the present time. The author contends that the political sector of Nigeria has been characterised by power imbalance among the ethnic groups, thus leading to ripple effects in socio-economic, cultural and other spheres of national life.

Chapter six chronicles the political problems of Nigeria under these headings — Nigeria’s fragile federation: the delicate balancing act, political/electoral violence, history and pattern of electoral violence in Nigeria, 2011 general elections and post-election violence, zoning controversy and succession quest, ethnicity and ethno-religious crises in Nigeria, patterns of ethnic conflicts in Nigeria, rise of ethnic organisations and militias in Nigeria and ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria, among others.

In chapter seven, Agbedo avers that mono-cultural economy and resource curse syndrome, importation regime of petroleum products, the fuel subsidy phenomenon; economic recession and Nigeria’s debt burden are the economic problems bedeviling Nigeria as a multilingual state. Other social and allied problems such as corruption, violent crime and terrorism in Nigeria, and infrastructural deficits in the country are discussed in chapter eight. These, according to Agbedo, have eaten deep into every sector in Nigeria.

In chapter nine under the title, “Multilingualism and sustainable development in Nigeria,” the author advocates a linguistic reawakening, a kind of paradigm shift in the nation-building struggles and argues that a functional National Language Policy Model, which tallies with the UNESCO’s position favours “the maintenance of linguistic and cultural diversity, advocates maximum utilisation of languages in the public sphere in a manner that every language community is disposed to conserving, preserving and maximising the development of its ethno-linguistic identity and ensuring the optimal use of its language at given levels of the public sphere while at the same time guaranteeing full participation in the socioeconomic and political life of the nation.”

In the last chapter of the book, Agbedo suggests that the way forward to deliver Nigeria from its multilingual problems are through evolution of a realistic National Language Policy in Nigeria, redressing the indigene-settler problem, dismantling the ‘Mistake of 1914’ and ‘Mere Geographical Expression’ Ideologies.


The author concludes that the co-existence of two or more languages is rarely in itself the cause of tension, conflict, disunity and war; instead, it is failure to embark on a deliberate language planning that ensures equitable distribution of commensurate functions to languages of the private and public spheres that instigates conflict, tension and war, which by extension constitute national development challenges.

In summary, he reiterates the thesis that drives the book by noting that multiplicity of languages, “was intended by Nature to confound human reasoning and render mutual communication impossible, thus providing veritable ground for breeding unending mutual suspicion, misunderstanding, quarrels, acrimony, unhealthy rivalry as natural characteristics of interpersonal relations of human beings.”

Drawing his inspiration from the Biblical story of Tower of Babel, the author contends, “multiplicity of languages has come to be accepted as a liability or curse”. Nonetheless, developed countries over time, according to him, “have appreciated the overriding importance of language planning, thus turning multiplicity of languages into an asset or blessing. Unfortunately, the author regrets that “developing, undeveloped and ‘underdeveloping’ countries such as Nigeria that roundly failed to appreciate the need for deliberate language engineering of the type being witnessed in the developed nations of the world are paying the costly price of failure to plan their languages. The cost is in terms of national development problems and challenges that could have been adequately addressed right from the early formative years of nationhood. In the case of Nigeria”, continues Agbedo, “the problems of multiplicity of languages have been terribly replicated in the political, economic, and social domains in a manner that questions the wisdom that informed the formation of a corporate and sovereign entity called Nigeria. For the author, “the attempt to seek solutions to the national development problems of Nigeria would ipso facto require solutions to the problems occasioned by Nigeria’s failure to plan her languages.”


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