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‘How linguistic skill fosters economic growth, social integration’



The 2019 commemoration of the World Arabic Language Day on December 18 took a new dimension with the hosting, by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), Jeddah, Saudi Arabia of an international Arabic poetry competition featuring seven finalists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco, Nigeria and Mauritania. Nigeria’s Dr. Saheed Ahmad Rufai beat others to win the First Prize. In this interaction with SULAIMAN SALAU, the curriculum expert and multilingual scholar, narrates how he got to participate in the contest and the significance of linguistic skill to economic development and social integration.

What prompted the emergence of the International Arabic Poetry Competition?
The international poetry contest featured as a part of the celebration of the 2019 edition of the World Arabic Day. Prompted by the need for the promotion of linguistic as well as cultural diversity in the world, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially proclaimed 18 December as the Arabic Language Day. The decision was approved by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1993 in recognition of the place of Arabic as the sixth official language of the world body. The decision was also in honour of the long history of the Arabic language and the many works of literature and philosophy that are written in the language.

It may interest you to learn that the United Nations characterizes the Arabic language as a pillar of the cultural diversity of humanity and one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, used daily by more than 290 million people. The world body posits that “In the diversity of its forms, classic or dialectal, from oral expression to poetic calligraphy, the Arabic language has given rise to a fascinating aesthetic in fields as varied as architecture, poetry, philosophy and song and gives access to an incredible variety of identities and beliefs and its history reveals the richness of its links with other languages”.


In view of the significant role played by Arabic in knowledge, promoting the dissemination of Greek and Roman sciences and philosophies to Renaissance Europe, it has been a major concern that the language cannot sufficiently fulfill to date, the role of a vehicle for science, research, and development research in a manner that is akin to the gains accruing to the developed world through the instrumentality of languages.

The foregoing explains the rationale for the international competition which witnessed rounds of elimination before the final stage that featured seven countries among which Nigeria, which emerged winner, was the only non-Arabic speaking country.

How did you come about partaking in the competition?
I was hired as an International Curriculum Consultant by the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah which was appointed Grant Agent for the World Bank/Global Partnership for Education projects in Central Asia. My task was to provide technical formulations for the transition of the Central Asian republics involved, from the traditional system of education to the competency-based curriculum. I was also required to make technical formulations for the development of a Common Framework of Learning for Arabic Language. Such technical formulations as expected from me were intended to culminate in the provision of a globally acceptable or internationally recognized Common Curriculum Framework covering Teaching, Learning and Assessment. However, being a Consultant whose involvement in the project is essentially technical, I am not authorized to speak in the name of the Development Bank with regard to its excellent role in this laudable initiative. Yet, it suffices to thankfully say that the formulations I made for the Common Framework in close consultation with key stakeholders have received nod of approval and, if further promoted by political stakeholders, shall be attaining the implementation stage soon.


What is your take on the importance of learning Arabic Language at this time of global concern over insurgency which is perceived to be more pronounced in the Arab world?
The importance of learning a foreign language, especially the languages of the modern world, of which Arabic is one, is common knowledge. It has been established in the literature that languages are major vehicle of interaction and mobility globally. The positive effect of such skills on wages, employment probabilities, economic opportunities at individual, national and international level cannot be overemphasized. That explains why developed countries are taking the lead globally in promoting their respective languages through political and diplomatic machineries. The place and status of languages such as English, German, Portuguese, and French at the international arena in attracting foreign investments and rewarding economic exchanges to their national, regional or cross-national domains, is well known. However, the kind of impact and success story recorded with regard to the languages of the developed countries may not be altogether true of Arabic language whose national, regional, sub-regional, and even community varieties are numerous. Therefore, there is a long-felt need to attempt in the context of Arabic a replication of such a successful experience of the languages of the developed countries by modelling best practices in teaching, learning and assessment with an eye on economic development and social integration. That laudable objective was deemed achievable through the instrumentality of a common framework of reference which comprises elements of curriculum content, pedagogical directions, instructional materials, assessment procedures, as well as certification and accreditation instruments, all of which constitute the deliverables in my assignment as an Education Consultant.


What do you think of Arabic Language in educational policy in Nigeria?
The language should be accorded attention in educational policy-making. The Federal Government is hereby enjoined to support the system in the interest of schools and institutions in the formal education system as well as the parallel Islamic education system in the country. The bitter truth is that most of those who established Arabic schools these days lack what is required to operate such schools. This same argument applies to Islamic schools like the Olore Rehabilitation Center in Ibadan and centres of similar nature across the country. There is an urgent need for a systematic intervention by the government. Once standardized, Arabic learning has the potential to contribute to economic development and social integration. There are several universities and other institutions teaching Arabic as a language or academic discipline and they are potential beneficiaries from Arabic learning. Similarly, employees of international organizations, agencies and Diplomatic missions. Also, individuals seeking proficiencies in Arabic language for employment opportunities, cultural exchanges, tourism or other reasons. Arabic language is equally relevant to research institutions, foreign investors, tourists, news correspondents and others. The government’s failure to facilitate the systematization of its teaching, learning, and assessment may be tantamount to educational wastage!


May I quickly allude to a line of argument that I recently advanced in one of my articles in a national daily. The Almajirai are characterized as out-of-school children in view of the fact that most of them do not attend conventional primary or secondary school. Nigeria being the country with the highest number of out-of-school children numbering almost 14 million, seven million of them being in the Almajiri education system, 5.2 million of them as nomadic children, while 1.7 million are the internally displaced ones. The fact that such a large number of Nigerian children are not in school portends an unfavourable future for the national economy. While this represents those who are out of school, there is another large percentage of Nigerian children who are in school but not learning. For instance, while the dominant thinking about the Almajiri schools is that they are restricted to the 19 northern states of the federation, this writer is familiar with schools of the same orientation in some South-western cities like Ibadan, Iwo and Osogbo as well as North-central cities like Ilorin, Ganma, Kabba and Okenne.

Similarly, I am well familiar with many government-owned or public schools even in Lagos State, unarguably the most developed and most cosmopolitan in Nigeria, that are worse than some of those characterized as Almajiri school or Makarantar Allo. That speaks volumes about the state of schooling or learning in Nigeria. I argued that what the Almajiri system, or any other neglected educational system of that nature, needs are modern competencies and outcome-based ingredients that will make it function well in the face of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4. Unfortunately, this once highly productive system has now become a victim of skewed analysis and erroneous diagnosis which unfortunately confused the Federal Government to threatening a ban thereof. Any deficient education system could be fixed by experts based on technically sound formulations. A technically sound reform of the system will certainly be comprehensive, inclusive, systematic and contingent upon structural curriculum changes, but must be approached with a strong political will. Curriculum making is not what every education scholar can pronounce upon. The government needs to genuinely seek technical guidance at the appropriate quarters, in order to get it right.


Where is the ancestral origin of Dr. Ahmad Rufai?
I am a native of Ibadan, having been born of an Ibadan father and an Ilorin mother. My paternal family house is Ile Oota Compound in Idi Ikan, Ibadan Northwest, which is an early settlement geographically located close to the Ogunpa-Agbeni axis of the Ibadan North Local Government Area of Oyo State. My great grand-father Adewale, was one of the victorious armies of the Oyo Kingdom who camped in Ibadan around 1829, having originated from Ile Alaodi, Atiba in the Oyo Kingdom. He was the elder brother of Olugbode, both of them conspicuously wearing their keke tribal marks Adewale later settled at Idi Ikan while his brother, Olugbode settled at Ita Baale. He had large mass of land in Ido, Eleruku and Elenusonso. Some of his children, who were contemporaries of Adesina, the father of Sanusi Adebisi, a migrant from Efon Alaye, later traversed an expansive geography to settle at Ido while others settled at Elenusonso whereas Eleruku was used as their farmland. Some of the earliest migrants Adewale accepted to settle down with him in Idi Ikan were Egungun worshippers.

Yet, he accommodated them. My own grandfather, Ahmad Rufai Adeyemo was the last child of Adewale. Adeyemo’s last wife, Sarata, a lady of Ilorin ancestry, was my maternal grand-mother, who begot Saheed Ayinla, the son of Ahmad Rufai Adeyemo. The fact that I was named after my grand-father explains why Ahmad Rufai is both my name and my surname, with my father’s name, Saheed, interfacing between the two. Hence, I am consistently Saheed Ahmad Rufai instead of Ahmad Rufai Saheed Ahmad Rufai in all official records. It may interest you to learn where my family compound’s name, Ile Oota, originated from, but you have to assure me you won’t laugh over it. My great grand-father, Adewale, a wealthy community leader, had many slaves both males and females many of whom he took as wives. So, whenever he was asked about the price, rate or cost of any female slave, for possible purchase, he would say, n’otaa n’o fe eleyi n’iyawo ni meaning, I am not selling but would rather take her as a wife! People thereafter started calling him, Baba Ootaa, meaning, the man who declined the sale of his slaves! This interesting subject shall constitute a full chapter in my memoir, My Ancestry. The family house is located opposite the First Baptist Church, Idi Ikan. You know you have assured me you won’t laugh over my forebears’ refusal to sell some of their female slaves! It is a captivating storyline. Believe me!


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