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Modernising Ijaw language



Definition/clarification of Terms
Ijaw and Izon are interchangeably used linguistically to refer to the language spoken by Ijaw people spread along the Western and Southern seaboards of Africa covering the following countries — Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroun, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. The administrative borders drawn by the colonial powers, inherited at independence by modern African states, are at variance with cultural borders. Administrative borders, as an accident of history, must be subordinated in any language project. This brings us to the diachronic approach to Ijaw historicity.

The Ijaw Bebe Tolumo Programme is a pilot project aimed at reviving and modernizing the Ijaw language by the Bayelsa State government under Governor Seriake Henry Dickson. Its success qualifies it as our case study. “Ijaw Bebe Tolumo” means “Learn/speak Ijaw” in Izon. We refer to this initiative simply as the Ijaw Bebe Tolumo Programme.

Publications by the following language cluster committees have been faithfully reproduced here. The committees are the Epie Cluster Committee, Kolokuma Cluster Committee, Mein Cluster Committee, Nembe Cluster Committee and Ogbia Cluster Committee. Their template could be replicated in reviving other indigenous languages on the brink of extinction.


British colonialism, though roundly deplored in nationalist discourse, was a modernizing rite of passage for many indigenous peoples as it brought Western wonders like medicine, weapon and formal education to their doorsteps. Unlike their peers, the Ijaw of Niger Delta did not need colonialism to attain modernism. They were already a modern people if by modernism we mean a people’s ability to evolve a functional society with organized labour, internationally recognized government and standing army/navy for defence.

By the 16th Century Ijaw city states maintained trade and diplomatic ties with Europe. During the 1835 coronation of King William Dappa Pepple of Bonny, Her Majesty, the Queen’s Naval officers on the West Coast of Africa were ordered to sail to Bonny in a man-of-war and give him 21-gun salute befitting a monarch (Harold JR Dappa-Biriye, “Essays and Speeches: Volume One.” 2007.135).

It was in education, however, that Ijaws stood out. Between 1856 and 1861, Princes George and Charles, sons of exiled King William Dappa Pepple of Bonny, were educated in London. Their father enrolled them there while pleading his case against the treachery of Consul John Beecroft who 1853 deported him to Ascension Island. Also, the Ibeno Obolo Ijaw 1885 wrote the Presbyterian Church headquarters in Europe requesting for a priest, according to Arc. Esoetok I Etteh who once headed the Ijaw National Congress, INC, Eastern Zone. Reverend SA Bill who was sent down established the Qua Iboe Church.

For the Ijaw colonialism was a great setback rather than catalyst for development, going by Observation (b) of the Kaiama Declaration: “That but for economic interests of the imperialists, the Ijaw ethnic nationality would have evolved as a distinct and separate sovereign nation, enjoying undiluted political, economic, social, and cultural AUTONOMY.” The Ijaw man who tamed the mighty Atlantic entered the 20th Century a “protected” man wallowing in his own indignity. From being a collector of import duty he became the recipient of the handout called Comey as the British subjected him to “neglect and derision,” observes Isaac Jasper Boro in “The Twelve-Day Revolution.”

Crisis of Identity
It was in culture that his loss was total. To paraphrase Franz Fanon, British colonialism gripped the Ijaw man by the feet shaking out of his head all form and content before tossing him aside a hollow man. His emasculation was accomplished through a combination of military brutality in the name civilisation, racist theology that encouraged self-guilt and half education that made critical thinking a burden. The end result was a contented entity not bothered by earthly pursuits. His was not an isolated incident but the norm anywhere colonialism took root in Africa.

In his seminal and award-winning “Zaire and the African Revolution,” Professor Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu comes to the same conclusion as Fanon. Through what he faults as “government by paternalism,” Belgian colonialism degraded the Congolese mentally to make their perpetual exploitation possible: “By providing minimum educational levels sufficient to produce labourers, clerks, and ministers, and by providing the Congolese with healthy bodies and full stomachs, through a paternalistic colonial policy, Belgium was confident she would rule a satisfied Congo forever.” It was in rejection of this slavish policy that African freedom fighters also rejected the Judeo-Christian religion as a necessary step in dismantling colonialism.

Without cultural compass the Ijaw man was condemned to learn other people’s history while his own gathered mould. Miabiye Kuromiema, 5th president of Ijaw Youth Council, IYC, was to lament his acculturation, “The social studies I was taught… impacted me deeply with the stories of the ancient Ibo nation, the ancient dynasties and kingdoms of the Yorubas, the ancient Hausa peoples and emirates….I compared and contrasted their respective systems with those of my native Ijaw which though were not taught in schools were told me by my father.”

Then in the fullness of time Harold Dappa-Biriye emerged to flagellate the Ijaw man out of his colonial-induced slumber. The brevity of this essay does not permit even the briefest comment on all that Dappa-Biriye said and did in the territorial emancipation of the Ijaw man except to confirm he was one of the greatest Ijaws that lived. Dappa-Biriye emancipated Ijawland but mortality denied him space to emancipate the Ijaw culture. That would be his heir Henry Seriake Dickson’s burden.

From Dappa-Biriye to Dickson
“When my father was alive,” Dappa-Biriye’s daughter, Ibitomie, calmly recalled, October 6, 2015, “Seriake Dickson carried his bag everywhere. I was very close to my father so I know that they were always together. Dickson wasn’t a big man then and wanted to learn.”
“And what did they talk mainly about?”

“You can ask him that but he was always in this house and everywhere with the old man. My father was his political teacher. There were other young men coming to learn from my father but Dickson was keen and wanted to learn.”

In African society the son who carries his father’s bag to important village meetings ends up wiser than his peers. “Carrying father’s bag” is traditional mentoring and continuity rolled in one. The Grand Old Man of Ijawland must have believed in Dickson to single him out for such rare privilege.

Dappa-Biriye canvassed for “territorial space” in an asymmetric federation dominated by predatory neighbours. The issue of Ijaw culture was secondary as survival was everything. By the time the only all-Ijaw Bayelsa was created globalisation was here. Dickson’s struggle, therefore, is for “cultural space” in a global village where cultural diversity works in reverse. The great Dappa-Biriye passed on 17th February 2005. Six years later Dickson asked Bayelsan electorate for mandate to implement the Dappa-Biriye Manifesto he rebranded “Restoration.”
Restoration Actualities

Politically, Restoration is Pan-Ijaw aimed at uniting Ijawland East, Central and West. Economically, it encompasses Dappa-Biriye’s economic blue print for reviving Ijaw predominance in pre-colonial mercantilism. Culturally, Restoration is inward-looking for the mental wholeness of the Ijaw man. Whereas British colonialism destroyed the Ijaw man’s self-confidence through its “Bantu education,” Restoration would infuse an assertive spirit in the Ijaw child through quality education. In Dickson’s own words, it would reposition “the culture sector of the state and aimed at achieving global recognition for the Ijaw race.”

Since our concern is the cultural agenda of Restoration, it becomes pertinent to highlight some of its core values. According to the Bayelsa State Ministry of Culture and Ijaw National Affairs, it aims to (1) Hasten the revival, repositioning and development of Arts and Culture of the state towards the economic well-being of the Ijaw People (2) Identify the cultural diversity and heritage of the state for proper management; and (3) Establish, with the approval of the state governor, museums, galleries, monuments and craft centers for the promotion of Arts and Culture.

Its triple drive would (a) Recognise Ijaw fallen heroes and their legacies. Kings Jaja of Opobo and William Koko, Dappa-Biriye, Boro, Ernest Ikoli, Prof. Tekena Tamuno, Air Captain Ibikare Allwell-Brown, Chief Wikezie, Rex Lawson, King Robert Ebizimor, Melford Okilo, Col. Ambakederemo Okoro, Captain Amangala, Tony Enguribe, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, etc, are accorded their rightful place in an African history with fresh perspective (b) Celebrate Ijaw living greats like Professors Ekpebu, Turner Isoun, Ebiegberi Alagoa and Tam David-West, HRM Alfred Diete-Spiff, Rear Admiral Fingesi, Ek Clark, Gabriel Okara, JP Clark, Sam Owonaru, Goodluck Jonathan, etc, are made the reference point for 21st Century Ijaw nationalism; and (c) Modernise the Ijaw language and its dialects to empower their speakers.

On becoming the executive governor of Bayelsa State 2011 Dickson immediately created the Ministry of Culture and Ijaw National Affairs, headquartered in Ijaw House, Yenagoa, as the flagship of Restoration. Then at the 5th Executive Council meeting the “IJAW BEBE TOLUMO” programme was unveiled.
Ijaw Bebe Tolumo

Its objectives are to (1) Develop, promote and encourage the teaching and learning of Ijaw language (Nembe, Ogbia, Epie, Mein, Kolokuma, etc,) (II) Train sufficient Ijaw language teachers (III) Produce texts/literature in Ijaw language (IV) Produce a composite Ijaw language dictionary (V) Develop the Ijaw language to be taught and examined in JSS, SSS, degree and higher levels (VI) Make the Ijaw language as the medium of instruction for the first three years of primary education; and (VII) Develop a standard/common Ijaw language for all of Bayelsa State.

Professor Kay Williamson developed the orthographies of Izon, Nembe and Epie dialects; and got the National Educational Research and Development Council, NERDC, and National Council on Education, NCE, to approve them. Building on her foundation, the Ministry of Culture and Ijaw National Affairs, mandated to make a success of “Ijaw Bebe Tolumo,” constituted the following committees: The Epie Cluster Committee, Kolokuma/Izon Cluster Committee, Mein Cluster Committee, Nembe Cluster Committee and Ogbia Cluster Committee.

Each committee implemented a three-tier Planning/Writing Workshop, Review/Critique Workshop and Editorial Workshop. The idea was for a methodic research and production of the requisite orthography, curriculum, language books and teachers without which the regulatory bodies would not approve the languages for learning in schools and higher institutions. Committees did their jobs well and NERDC and NCE approved the teaching of additional Mein and Ogbia languages.
From 2011-2015 the Ijaw Bebe Tolumo Programme produced and translated the following books listed in order of committee:

• Epie Cluster Committee: Adu Waan Sini Mi Ibi Epie: Primari 1 (Epie Mathematics 1); Adugo Ibi Epie: Primari 1 (Epie Reader 1); Adu Waan Sini Mi Ibi Epie: Primari 2 (Epie Mathematics 2); Adugo Ibi Epie: Primari 2 (Epie Reader 2); and Adugo Ibi Epie: Primari 3 (Epie Reader 3). In addition, the following works from Professor Kay Williamsom were produced: Ibi Onu Epie 1; Reading and Writing Epie and Counting in Egene, Epie-Atissa and Zarama. The total number of textbooks is eight.

• Kolokuma Cluster Committee: Izon Go Fun 1 (Izon Reader 1); Izon Ye Kienyemi Bara Dawai Fun 1 (Izon Mathematics 1); Izon Go Fun 2 (Izon Reader 2); Izon Ye Kienyemi Bara Dawai Fun 2 (Izon Mathematics 2); izon Go Fun 3 (Izon Reader 3); and Izon Go Fun 4 (Izon Reader 4); Izon Go Fun 5 (Izon Reader 5); Izon fie book; Izon fie book 1; Izon fie work book 1; CD/VIDEO; Izon fie audio CD; Izon fie audio CD1; Izon Go Umgbomo Dawai (Video) and a translation of “Kpingalololo Mo Ba Zini Oloama Mo (Moonlight Games). The total number of eleven text books and three audio CD were produced.

• Mein Cluster Committee: Izon Go Fun (Izon Reader 1); Izon Eye Kienyemi Bara Dawai Fun 1 (Izon Mathematics 1); Izon Go Fun 2 (Izon Reader 2); Izon Ye Kienyemi Bara Dawai Fun 2 (Izon Mathematics 2); and Izon Go Fun 3 (Izon Reader 3). Translations: Kala wonii Mo kala Akpalu Mo (Little Snake, Little Frog by Gabriel Okara). Produced a total of six text books.

• Nembe Cluster Committee: Nembe Bibi Ye Kien Bara Dawaoi Diri: Puraimari 1 (Nembe Mathematics 1); Nembe Bibi Go Diri: Puraimari 1 (Nembe Reader 1) Nembe Bibi Ye Kien Bara Dawaoi Diri: Puraimari 2 (Nembe Mathematics 2); Nembe Bibi Go Diri: Puraimari 2 (Nembe Reader 2); and Nembe Bibi Go Diri: Puraimari 3 (Nembe Reader 3). Translated works from Prof. Williamson: “Reading and Writing Nembe” and “Nembe Bibi Titari Go Diri.” Committee produced a total of seven books.

• Ogbia Cluster Committee: Adiri Orua Owai Onu Ogbia: Apiraimairi 1 (Ogbia Mathematics 1); Adiri Ogbia 1 (Ogbia Reader 1); Adiri Orua Owai Onu Ogbia: Apiraimairi 2 (Ogbia Mathematics 2); Adiri Ogbia 2 (Ogbia Reader 2); and Adiri Ogbia 3 (Ogbia Reader 3). Translated works from Prof. Williamson: “Reading and Writing Ogbia,” “Opuru Adiri Ogbia.” Other works include: Adiri Onu Ogbia1; Adiri Onu Ogbia 2 and Adiri Onu Ogbia 3. A total of ten text books were penned by Committee.
The Ministry of Culture and Ijaw National Affairs produced and printed the above comprising of three audio CD/Videos and 43 texts as approved by the Ministry of Education. It also:

• Partnered the Center for Niger Delta Studies of Niger Delta University, NDU, in the training of Ijaw language teachers. For the 2008/2009 session the center instituted a Diploma in Izon Language Programme (DIP ILP).

• Paid the tuition fees for 110 Ijaw language trainee teachers for the 2012/2013 session, 109 teachers for 2013/2014 session and 98 trainee teachers for 2014/2015 session.

• Paid bursary to all trainee teachers.

• Explored working understanding with Bayelsa State College of Education, College of Education Warri and University of Port Harcourt.

• Completed the training of 26 Izon language teachers (Diploma), 13 Izon teachers (NCE), 15 Ogbia teachers (NCE/B. Ed/Retired teachers), Nembe teachers (NCE/B. Ed/Retired teachers), and 10 Epie teachers (NCE/B. Ed/ Retired teachers). Some 278 teachers were being trained in 2014 out of which 87 graduated by December of same year.

• Selected six primary schools within the Yenagoa metropolis and three other primary schools in each Local Government Area, LGA, for the pilot implementation process. Language books and materials were issued free to the selected schools leading to monumental success.


The golden bullet of the President Muhammadu Buhari government was the decision to license illegal refineries. The multiplier effect of this common sense approach in securing our environment and energy needs, in our humble estimation, will surprise even Senator Ben Murray Bruce.
Likewise, a practical approach to reviving African dying languages must be thought-out and adopted. We are a people transiting from oral tradition to literacy. This realization does not mean that Africans dislike reading; it simply means evolution is in progress. A civilization in transition must be buoyed even with measures considered extreme. The alternative is a relapse never to rise again.

The Achille’s heel of the Ijaw Bebe Tolumo Programme is shifting the burden of speaking and writing Ijaw to primary and secondary pupils while hoping that a change of heart could make their parents comply. But in life things don’t work that way. There must be utilitarian reason why lawyers, diplomats and the private sector must read and write “Nembe Bibi Ye Kien Bara Dawaoi Diri: Puraimari 2.”

If Ijaw is dying because none speaks it, is the solution not to enact laws compelling people to speak and write it when they present themselves for medical treatment, business registration, job recruitment or modular refinery contract? None speaks a language for the love of it. There must be a benefit speaking it.

• Chigachi Eke ( and Dr. Felix Tuodolo (


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