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Federalism is the answer, after all – Part 58

By Editorial Board
02 December 2021   |   3:40 am
The consequences of the skewed nature of the Nigerian state are boundless. One fundamental area in this regard is the undermining if not ossification of indigenous languages, especially that of the minorities.

The consequences of the skewed nature of the Nigerian state are boundless. One fundamental area in this regard is the undermining if not ossification of indigenous languages, especially that of the minorities. The Movement of the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) alarmed by this development in the 1990s articulated a response to it in the Ogoni Bill of Rights to the extent that it desired internal autonomy of people to develop the Ogoni language in an estimated population of half a million. In the din of the call for restructuring, it is often not accented that a truer federation, in other words, genuine federalism will allow the full development of our indigenous languages. Even the big three, namely, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa are by no means weaned from the proclivity towards extinction. We therefore believe a restructured Nigeria based on true federalism underlined by internal autonomy both fiscal and political, will allow for a focused development of our indigenous languages and survival of our histories.

In his argument for a federal state structure for Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo emphasised the language imperative for a federal constitutional design. He argued in his ‘Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution’ (1966) that “we should be reminded that of all the cultural equipment of a people, language is the most formidable, the most irrepressible, and the most resistant to diffusion, not to talk of fusion. It lies at the base of human divisions and divergences. And historical evidences of an irrefutable nature have shown firstly, that YOU CAN UNITE BUT CAN NEVER SUCCEED IN UNIFYING PEOPLES WHOM LANGUAGE HAS SET DISTINCTLY APART FROM ONE ANOTHER; and secondly, that the more educated a linguistic group becomes, the stronger it waxes in its bid for political self-determination and autonomy, unless it happens to be the dominant group (emphasis in original).

Federalism allows for full development of the culture of a people, and should be so for the peoples of Nigeria. To be sure, the 2018 Ethnologic Data listed Nigeria as having 526 languages. Of these, 519 are said to be living languages while seven are already extinct. Of the living languages, 509 are indigenous and ten are non-indigenous. Furthermore, 19 are institutional, 78 are developing, 348 are vigorous, 30 are in trouble and 44 are dying. A recent report on the “Status of Indigenous Language Broadcasting in NIGERIA” by a Communications Scholar, Prof. Umaru Pate, says, “Of the figure, three are national major languages, 13 are state languages, and over 44 are local languages.” According to the report, “Languages considered either too small or non-dominant in any existing political or administrative territory were not listed. Some of the languages are spoken across states with national prevalence and large number of speakers while the majorities are restricted to specific locations in the states and local governments.”

It is interesting to note the general condescending approach of our country’s universities to the study of indigenous languages. Apart from the three main languages – Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo and others like Edo (Bini), Kanuri, Fulfude and Urhobo, which are taught in some universities across Nigeria, virtually all the languages of the minority groups are not taught even by universities located where the languages are largely spoken.  For instance, neither the University of Port Harcourt, Federal University, Otuoke and Niger Delta University offer Izon (Ijaw), the language of a group said to be the 7th most populous in the country nor any local languages in the Niger Delta in spite of their location in the area. This is not salutary to the earlier epic work by acclaimed British Linguistics Scholar, Prof. Kay Williamson to promote the Izon language.

In the entire South-south, only the University of Benin, which offers Edo up to PhD level and Delta State University, Abraka that teaches Urhobo at present up to BA level, promote any form of indigenous languages. Although the BA Linguistics/Urhobo began in the 2002/2003 academic session in the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Delta State University, Abraka, it is yet to be upgraded to post graduate level. Recently the Esan Okpa Initiative (EOI), a newly created socio-cultural association with a vision to advance the cause of the Esan people, located in the central senatorial zone of Edo State, raised the alarm that the Esan language and culture was on a downward slide, facing imminent extinction.

It is sad to note that despite operating in Plateau State that has over 70 indigenous languages, the University of Jos also does not teach any local languages. Neither does the Federal University, Wukari, the Taraba State University or the Kwararafa University offer any of the indigenous languages of the state said to be numbering over 40. None of the over 230 languages in the Middle Belt are taught in any of the universities including the University of Abuja, Nassarawa State University, Federal University, Lafia and all the universities located in Benue State. In fact, many of the indigenous languages particularly in the North where Hausa is more widely used as a language of instruction are dying because they are not taught in schools. All this takes place in a context where our universities are becoming citadels for teaching French, Russian, German, Spanish, Turkish and other European languages instead of becoming centres for learning and teaching of indigenous languages. We need to urgently bring them back from the brink and make them take the lead as we strive to breathe life and promote our indigenous languages. This desire can hardly materialise without a federal state structure.

There may be renaissance in the wind. Interestingly, Tiv language is not only taught at the Federal College of Education, Katsina Ala but all primary and secondary schools in Benue State. Also, in February 2017, the Akwa Ibom State Governor, Udom Emmanuel directed that all secondary schools in the state must teach Ibibio, now offered as a course at the Akwa Ibom State College of Education. Miffed that Ibibio was not taught in schools up till that time, the governor directed the ministry of education “to ensure that Ibibio language is taught in all public secondary schools in the state beginning from the next academic session…Teaching of indigenous languages would help the younger generation appreciate their mother tongue and culture as against foreign languages.”

The efforts of some Houses of Assembly in the Southwest to use Yoruba as a language of business, though restricted are noteworthy. The EOI has also resolved to stem the tide by committing huge resources, deploy technology and float mini language clinics in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and the Diaspora to promote Esan language and culture massively. It has also called on the Edo State government to reintroduce the study of Esan language, which was previously offered at WASCE, in its school curriculum, at the primary and secondary school levels in Esanland, comprising five LGAs of the state, and decried the non teaching of the language by the 40-year old state owned Ambrose Alli University (AAU), Ekpoma.

We fully endorse the proposal by the Nigerian Association of Linguistics to the Federal Government via the Nigerian Education Research and Development Council (NERDC), to ensure that Nigerian universities teach the language of the areas where they are located. Also other local initiatives should be supported with huge resources to produce teaching and learning materials for teaching of indigenous languages while students interested in studying these languages at the tertiary levels should be given full scholarships. Also making a credit pass in a Nigerian language compulsory for admission to the university would enhance the prestige of these languages. We are also at one with the suggestion of linguistic experts that the local languages should be offered as a combined honours course with contemporary courses like IT, Computer Science, Communications etc to make them more attractive.  Nevertheless, all these efforts will be more meaningful in a restructured Nigerian state along the path of federalism.