WEEKEND MUSINGS WITH DR. NOWA OMOIGUI
New Naira Notes - Languages and
Scripts; Can of Worms
Much has been written about the newly
redesigned Naira notes.
There is a brewing controversy about
the removal of ajami script (which translates the value of the naira
to Hausa, written in ajami script). In an opinion piece in the
Guardian, (Saturday March 3rd, 2007) Reuben Abati wrote: "The Ajami
inscription on the old N10, N20, N50 notes, which was widely
regarded as an implantation of the interest of the North on the
nation's currency is gone."
There is another brewing controversy
about the insertion of only three of Nigeria's many local languages,
Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba, written in latin character. In the same
opinion piece, Reuben Abati wrote: "...the CBN has again unwittingly
thrown up yet another problem: the Wazobianisation of Nigeria, the
thinking that only the three major ethnic groups make up Nigeria or
that they are more important than the other 400 plus ethnic
None of this, ofcourse has any thing
to do with the economic value or purchasing power of the currency.
Nor does it have anything to do with addressing Nigeria's many
pressing national problems.
Nevertheless, these are controversial
issues. And controversies have a way of becoming festering sores if
not checked. Various commentators have joined the fray, representing
different interest groups - ethnic, regional and religious.
I am unclear as to why the Governor of
Central Bank (supported by an outgoing President) chose to dabble
into these matters without getting himself better educated or
allowing a national discussion on the issue before plunging ahead.
It seems we like to wake up trouble. I do not recall the late Chief
Obafemi Awolowo ever complaining about ajami script, or the absence
of Hausa, Ibo or Yoruba in roman alphabet, even when he was the
Federal Commissioner for Finance. Nor was the issue up for
discussion during the constitutional conferences that preceded
Nigerian independence. Nor was it a subject of discussion during the
1999 or 2003 elections. It popped up in electronic and print media
fairly recently. If there were hearings on the matter in the
National Assembly, I missed them.
This commentary is designed to shed
some more light on the matter, so as to stimulate informed debate.
Hopefully, after a more robust and representative discussion,
supported by the facts (not emotions), we can find a compromise, so
that this does not become a national distraction.
There are two issues - Language and
There are two contending scripts -
Ajami (a Persian version of Arabic writing used to translate Hausa)
and Latin (Roman).
There are two groups of contending
local languages - Hausa, Ibo, and Yoruba - on one hand and Nigeria's
many other indigenous languages on the other, whose speakers feel
slighted. English, written in roman (latin) character, as Nigeria's
official language (on account of Nigeria's common history of British
colonialism), is not the source of controversy.
The reader should note that a language
can be designated as "official", "officially recognized",
"co-official", "National", "Major", "Principal", "Minor",
"Legislative", etc. There can also be defacto "main" languages,
"media of instruction" etc. Usage varies. What gets put on currency
is generally the officially recognized national language or
languages of a country.
Anyhow, first, some history:
Lets get this clear. Neither Ajami
script nor Roman alphabets originated with either Islam or
Arabic writing PREDATES Islam. Even
Aramaic, which Jesus spoke, was written in "Arabic writing." The
Koran was first written in "Arabic writing" - many years later -
because that was what was most available locally. Ajami (Persian)
script version of "Arabic writing", was used to translate other
languages like Hausa, Fulani etc, as Islam spread to West Africa. It
is not Islamic in origin.
Modern English alphabets are not
"Christian". They are Latin (Roman) alphabets, in use for the
purposes of English since the 7th century. Before that English was
written in an indigenous Anglo-Saxon Furthorc Runic alphabet. Latin
(Roman) alphabets have been in existence since the 7th century
BEFORE Christ. Because all languages derived from Latin (as are most
European languages) are written in Latin alphabets, European
christian missionaries adopted it in spreading their religion
elsewhere. But they did not create it.
Thus, although Christianity and Islam
played a role in spreading these alphabets, neither alphabetical
system is inherently religious.
It bears emphasis too that funny
enough, the numerals on Nigeria's currency i.e., 1, 2, 3, etc are
Arabic numerals. There is nothing religious about the origin of
"Arabic numerals" either. They are widely accepted in the Western
To pre-empt mischief makers it also
bears emphasis too that the national colours of Nigeria -
Green,White, Green - are not Islamic in origin. The Nigerian
National and Merchant Flag and Jack which codifies these colours,
was chosen after an open competition in 1959, designed by a
christian student from Ibadan, Michael Taiwo Akinkunmi. The green
represents agriculture; the white, peace and unity.
Long before Nigeria's independence
one-tenth penny coins issued in British West Africa, (including
Nigeria) in the late thirties had what appears to have been a Star
of David (Hexagram) on one side. It should be noted, however, that
the hexagram as a symbol has been known for thousands of years in
historical, religious and cultural contexts to many non-jewish
communities - including Islam and other religions. It was only
adopted by Jewish groups in the 17th century.
It should be noted, therefore, that
ALL inscriptions on the Nigerian currency are foreign - whether
Ajami, Roman/Latin, or English, alphabets or numerals. There are no
truly indigenous "Nigerian" alphabets or numerals. None. Our
languages are written in 'foreign' script. The truth is that we are
a colonized people and our "national" symbols bear the scars of
various layers of colonialism over time, as we were subjugated,
incorporated and amalgamated (and in some cases, excised) - in
series and in parallel.
Ajami script (as a written translation
of currency value to Hausa, which is widely spoken in West Africa)
has been reflected from the very first time paper currency was
printed for Nigerian use (either for British or indigenous Traders).
"Ajami" was placed on the currency by the British (before Northern
and Southern Nigeria were amalgamated in 1914), as the only
alternative, non-roman, local form of writing in British West Africa
at that time, as a translation of roman english - which was
available to Christian missionaries, their African students and
followers, British traders and British colonial officers. The rest
of us who were not hitherto exposed to Islamic scholarship (which
dates back centuries, and you can recall the University of Timbuktu
to boot), had no form of writing, let alone orthography, so we were
"represented" by English, written in roman character. Previously, we
had our own barter "economy" and other forms of local currency -
Meanwhile, as missionary based
education caught on, the "rest of us" became disciples of written
roman alphabets. But there was and still remains a substantial
element of Islamic and informal education in parts of Nigeria which
used (and still uses) ajami. Therefore, Ajami was not put there by
any indigenous "Nigerian" for political imagery, although,
admittedly, any given script has political and cultural
connotations. But viewing it through the prism of current political
rivalries - as Abati suggests by saying it is "an implantation of
the interest of the North" - is an oversimplification. It is even
more unfortunate that the Governor of the Central Bank has been
quoted as saying that "It is pertinent to let Nigerians understand
that Arabic is not one of the national languages and it was
inscribed on the notes 40 years ago because the majority of people
then can read it in the Northern part of the country to the
detriment of their counterparts in the South."
If he has been correctly quoted,
Soludo seems to be unaware that (1) what was inscribed is not
"Arabic". It is "Ajami" - a version of Arabic alphabet used to
translate Hausa; Any person who cannot speak Hausa cannot read the
Ajami script reflected on the currency; (2) Shuwa Arab is a distinct
nationality in North-Eastern Nigeria, and therefore Arabic (or one
of its versions) IS one of Nigeria's national languages (among many
others); (3) Ajami script was inscribed on the currency long before
"40 years ago", which, if Soludo is right, means 1967 the year
Nigeria's civil war began! In truth, however, before the Nigerian
pound (replaced in 1973 by Naira and Kobo), the old West African
Currency Board (WACB) pound (previously known as West African Pound
(WAP) when originally conceptualized in 1907) was in use, first from
1912 in restricted distribution, and then more generally from 1918
until 1959 in Nigeria, 1958 in Ghana, 1965 in Gambia and 1964 in
Sierra Leone. Liberia also used the currency until 1943 when it
changed to the U.S. dollar. British Southern Cameroon used it too,
from 1916 when invaded by Britain, until the plebiscite of 1961. The
WAP - from which the post-independence currencies of Nigeria, Ghana,
Sierra Leone and Gambia were derived - also had Ajami inscriptions
on it; and (4) There was no "detriment" to anyone else who was
literate as long as English (in roman character) used widely in the
South (and many parts of the North) was also reflected. Roman and
Ajami scripts were the only two alphabet scripts used in formal
education in Nigeria, whether Western or Islamic, although roman
script is now far more predominant, especially among the westernized
elite. Even Hausa as a formal examination subject these days is
tested in roman alphabet - courtesy of British colonialism. But
Soludo seems to be confusing the language and the script issues. Any
language can be written in any script.
That said, let us talk about language.
A country that has been afraid to ask
that respondents identify their tribes of origin and languages
spoken, in every "accepted" national census since 1963 (over 40
years ago), has no business pretending it has "major" languages. The
notion of three major languages may or may not be a hoax for all we
know. There are no credible recent census data that show that the
combination of persons who can read, write, understand and
communicate in one or more of all three so called "major" languages
constitute more than 50% of Nigerians.
Again, in his opinion piece, Abati
says, "It is instructive for example that the country's Constitution
recognises only the three main languages spoken by the three most
populous ethnic groups. Section 55 of the 1999 Constitution states
as follows: "the business of the National Assembly shall be
conducted in English and in Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba when adequate
arrangements have been made therefor".
This deserves comment because Abati
misquotes the totality of multiple references to Language in the
Constitution. Nowhere does the Nigerian constitution actually
categorically define any language of Nigeria as "Main". And nowhere
does the constitution of this country say its monetary instruments
should reflect Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba to the exclusion of other
indigenous languages. Those who have taken this upon themselves are
sailing in uncharted waters.
What the Constitution says is as
Section 55: "the business of the
National Assembly shall be conducted in English, (note the comma)
and in Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba when adequate arrangements have been
made therefor". In other words, English, without qualification, is
the official "legislative" language of the National Assembly. But as
long as adequate arrangements are not in place, "the business of the
National Assembly " cannot be conducted in Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba.
What those "adequate arrangements" are is open to interpretation.
Could it mean, for example, "Following the liquidation of all other
languages spoken by Nigerians"? Or could it mean, "Following
adoption by relevant Houses of the National Assembly"? Or could it
mean, "When arrangements are in place to translate English, Hausa,
Ibo and Yoruba to some or all other languages spoken in Nigeria"?
Who determines when "arrangements" are "adequate"?
Section 97. "The business of a House
of Assembly shall be conducted in English, but the House may in
addition to English conduct the business of the House in one or more
other languages spoken in the State as the House may by resolution
approve." Here, it is clear that English is the official language of
Nigeria. Even then, more locally spoken languages can be used, but
only if approved by resolution of the House of Assembly. This throws
up the question I raised above, i.e. "Following adoption by relevant
Houses of the National Assembly"? We can all recall the failed
attempt to elevate Yoruba to the status of a language of legislative
use in the Lagos House of Assembly.
In outlining qualifications for
election to executive offices and legislative positions, the same
constitution insists that candidates be "educated up to at least
School Certificate level or its equivalent"; This is specifcally
defined in Part IV, 318 as follows: "School Certificate or its
equivalent" means .....(iii) the ability to read, write, understand
and communicate in the English language to the satisfaction of the
Independent National Electoral Commission,..." It is not enough, in
the eyes of the constitution, to "read, write, understand and
communicate in Hausa, Ibo or Yoruba."
The Constitution also states:
35 (2). "Any person who is arrested or
detained shall be informed in writing within twenty-four hours (and
in a language that he understands) of the facts and grounds for his
arrest or detention."
36 (5). "Every person who is charged
with a criminal offence shall be entitled to -
(a) be informed promptly in the
language that he understands and in detail of the nature of the
(e) have, without payment, the
assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand the language
used at the trial of the offence."
Based on these provisions, stated or
implied, how does the Central bank justify its decision to
exclusively use English, Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba on monetary
instruments? Is it saying that millions of Nigerians who cannot
speak or read English nor can they speak or read Hausa, Ibo or
Yoruba in either ajami or latin alphabet have no right to use
Nigerian money? This kind of symbolism is dangerous and has the
potential to undermine national security. Ordinarily, a
counter-argument would be that the previous currency notes were even
less inclusive. Perhaps. But having opened that line of argument -
after many years of tolerating it - the Bank exposed itself to
aggressive cross-examination when it decided not to go the whole
way. Letting sleeping dogs lie is not always a bad thing.
Ajami has persisted over the years on
the currency - and in some other national symbols - partly as a
historical memento, although the British themselves later imposed
roman alphabets in the formal teaching (and examining) of both Hausa
and English language. They also introduced Latin into school
curricular and used Latin mottos here and there (as in some of the
schools I attended) - like Kings College - 'Floreat Collegium', FGCW
- 'Pro Unitate'; University of Ibadan - 'Recte Sapere Fons' - all
owned and funded by the Federal Government of Nigeria guided by a
constitution that does not recognize Latin as a national language of
Nigeria. Just as such Latin mottos persist in some Nigerian schools
and institutions, so do Ajami scripts and roman English in others.
Because of its history (derived from the Royal West African Frontier
Force), the Army, for example, has Ajami script on its cap badge
("Victory is with God Alone"). But the Navy and Air Force do not -
because of their own peculiar institutional history. Such is the
patchwork of modern Nigeria.
As a historicist, one can appreciate
these dynamics without getting emotional. We should learn to let
sleeping dogs lie. If anyone were to propose changing the motto of
either Kings College, FGCW or the University of Ibadan to Roman
English (and/or some combination of local languages) many old
students, myself included, would be unhappy. Man is a creature of
habit. At this rate, one hopes some hare-brained person does not
suggest that the Army motto be rewritten in latin script to
incorporate Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba. Then another person will come up
and demand that the Navy and Air Force include Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba
on its own badges, along with English.
On one hand, the matter can be
simplified: "Nigeria" is "Nigeria" by virtue of the British
conquest. Beyond English, imposing any other local language on
everyone amounts to internal colonialism. We certainly have the
option of going back to cowries!
On the other hand, we all know that
this is more about political symbolism than anything else. Many
Nigerians have watched, helplessly, over the years, as pictures of
so called "great men" were placed on our currency, less for their
actual greatness (relative to others who have been just as great or
greater) than for the politics of their places of origin.
Users all over Nigeria instinctively
recognize the numbers (and pictures) on the currency and know their
value without reading whatever the alphabets are saying. Abati asks:
"But how can the CBN possibly accommodate up to 400 different
tongues on the Naira? " He assumes that all 400 tongues have to be
reflected to better capture most Nigerians - a common tactic to
obfuscate. Many so called "tongues" are sub-dialects of a much
smaller number of languages. In any case, nothing stopped the
government from printing new denominations that carry other
languages and or orthography. A multi language security background
imprint could have been weaved into the design - after an open
national competition. Furthermore, other than English, which should
be consistent (because of our common history of British conquest),
every single note/denomination does not have to have the exact same
local languages and alphabets repeated in each and every
denomination. With multiple denominations and values a lot of
opportunity exists to be inclusive and culturally reflective without
making people feel slighted or reminded daily of the "politics of
power and population" - as Abati put it. We can live and let live as
we manage each other in this big tent called Nigeria, constructed,
not by anyone of us who find ourselves within it, irrespective of
how we got here, but by others who have long come and gone.
Now lets return briefly to the
question of a script. Although published in roman script (consistent
with the dominant script used in modern Nigerian education), there
is nowhere in Nigeria's constitution that roman or latin script is
identified as the official or national script of Nigeria. Granted
that Ghana and Sierra Leone no longer use ajami scripts of West
African Pound heritage, although Gambia does. But there is nowhere
in the Nigerian constitution that other scripts (whatever they may
be) are specifically forbidden from use. Thus, nothing is lost if
ajami is retained as part of the design - especially given the
historical significance - as long as other cultural expressions are
A government always has to think
carefully and consider its circumstances before it makes a decision.
The unintended consequences of policy can be more dicey than the
policy itself. In all they do, policy makers must always ask
themselves this question: "Because we can, should we?"
When, all of a sudden, without public
debate, sensitization or hearings you remove something that has been
there for almost 100 years, on the eve of your departure from
office, do not be surprised if some people get upset and start
reading meanings. If you then proceed to use some but not all
languages and scripts of modern Nigeria after bringing it to
everyone's attention that the one that is there is not
representative, better be prepared to say why.
A can of worms has been opened. Lets
join hands to close it.