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 minorities."


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 Script.


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 Christianity.


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 world.


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 - including cowries.


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 follows:


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 offence;

(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 given vent.


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.