Nigeria: Ethnic Minorities, Justice and Languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Jan 27 15:04:49 UTC 2007

25 January 2007

Ethnic Minorities, Justice and Languages

I picked up a yellow-covered book recently which happened to contain the
rules of the Nigerian civil service and flipped through it casually,
promising myself to read the book with greater commitment in the future.
To my astonishment under the language examination section, only three
local languages stood clearly apart for usage, but it stipulated
separately, that any other local language can be used, provided there is a
reasonable reason to do so. A wind of thoughts possessed me. Why arent the
Igbo,Yoruba and Hausa languages subjected to such stricture? Why the
qualification? What is so special about these three languages? In a
country of many languages - this is a travesty and one that must be
rectified quickly if sanity, justice, development must prevail. I think it
is time that all Nigerians plunge their hands into helping drag Nigeria
out of the doldrums.

These corrections are imperative in securing a united and coherent
Nigeria. Anything short, is to mind, a marriage of delusion and deception.
Prevarication and adamant hold of the status quo portends disaster for the
country. Some minorities whose languages are treated with utmost
contemptment hold the country with oil , from which an almost
mono-economic Nigeria thrives and achieves international recognition in a
world swarmed by its battered image of 419 and established corruption. It
smacks of ingratitude and wickedness to sponge their oil, despoil their
natural habitat and accord their language such low status. Nigeria can be
great only if certain frameworks are put in place to ensure a habitable,
peaceful environment where all are given a fair share of opportunity;
nobody is subject to apartheid. Nigeria must move in this regard to secure
and guild them through the path of evenly paved roads.

Perhaps, no other section in Nigeria suffers from such inhumane disregard
than oil producing enviroments.They not only contend with poor national
,state and local governments but treacherous evisceration of their water
and land; desecration of their natural trades. The stark, ungrateful,
barbarous excavation of their mineral resources is compounded by the
lethal injection of language apathy. Our national languages must be
stretched to include all languages. Dialects within languages must also be
allowed to assume written and spoken dimensions. Every language must be
accorded a sense of health. Allowed equal access and importance in the
running of government, presented to world in equal measure as well as
other protocols the use of languages espouses in modern life.

Every language is important and none should be thrown away. Being a
speaker of two non-Nigerian languages  to varying degrees - I appreciate
the beauty ,benevolence ,fraternity language brings. I have shocked many
by suddenly speaking their languages. Questions, excitement, merriment
swirl around. How, when, where did you learn the languages, they ask All
of a sudden you are grafted into a large world of new companions. Once in
a workplace, people who couldnt speak English but spoke French came for a
service. A senior manager demanded if anyone knew how to speak French.
Nobody in sight could, and the only one who seemed to be around from the
minute French-speaking pack was far away. I tendered myself and engaged
them in the French language amidst the euphoria, to the relief of our
guests and my workplaces delight. It wasnt my job to attend to them as my
workplace had a clearly delineated division of labour but they reaped from
their diversity. A subjective CV(curriculum vitae) would emphasize not
just the obvious contents of your abilities  education attainments  but
other thin-lined competences. The languages you speak however numerically
slight could turn into a pot of gold. I have always wondered why certain
details should be put on CVs but I have come to find out that
organizations have wide reaches and tap into different innate capacities
of the individual. The special hobbies you do that turns others off may be
useful in other contexts  keeping a wine collection and obsession with
nature may prove to be unwinding in the future. So therefore, a country
must harness every strength within, to surge a mighty expression.

Every language has to be given human life; the speakers must be made to
feel a sense of relevance .The Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, has
language as one of their grievances against the majority Sinhalese whose
language reaps the bounties of national relevance in the Island. The Tamil
Tigers are the first in recent history to embark on suicide bombing. Their
first suicide attack involved a lorry bombing at an army camp in 1987,
which killed 40 people and in the years that followed at least 200 Tamil
Tigers blew themselves up. The conflict between the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government is Asia's longest and
bloodiest separatist war, claiming more than 60,000 lives since the LTTE
launched its bid for Tamil independence in 1972the war has seen off
successive Sri Lankan governments. Thousands have died since the eighties.
Their language is a cut of wonderful design and artistry. This injustice
incenses them heavily. Sidelining people can have a very devastating
effect as the Sri Lanka case appears to show.

Every language carries with it depth. Language not only serves as
linguistical vehicles, they hold histories in sacred vaults accessible in
titillating increments. Some languages never advanced to written stages
but compensated with deep stores of oral histories, sayings, handed down
for centuries. Reading about the history of certain people might lead to a
wall but introspective interviews unearths stories, myths, mysticism,
folklores cached within and referenced in linguistical abstracts. Sadly,
the Nigerian constitution only gives imminence to the Igbo,Hausa and
Yoruba languages. These languages, according to the 1999 constitution,
shall form the basic indigenous communication used in running the national

The European union comprises of 23 member states and 27 languages. On
joining the EU, each national government decides what language or
languages to adopt. The citizens of each country decide. No language is
foisted on any country. The 50 year-old body has an official who overseas
multilingualism in the person of Commissioner Leonard Orban. Nigerian is
long overdue for a compromise that would breathe life into the teeming
polyglot ethnicities strewn across 356,667 sq miles.

In Nigeria, there are more than 50 languages that are spoken by less than
hundred people; Sambe for example is spoken by six people in a Kaduna
village (source: Research on minority languages in Nigeria by Roger
Blench, 2001).

Dr. Uwe Seibert, of the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Faculty
of Arts at the University of Jos writes : Talking about the languages of
Nigeria one may say that, unless they are documented and developed, they
may be gradually given up in favor of more prestigious languages, and with
time they may be forgotten completely.

By prestigious languages he may mean more acceptable languages to the

He laments the inactivity of many languages and predicts a bleak future:

Many languages are no longer actively spoken by the younger members of the
language community. They may still be able to understand the language, but
they prefer to speak English, Hausa or some other language of wider
communication among themselves and to their children. The consequence is
that these languages will become extinct in the next generation. In fact
there are some Nigerian languages that are nearly extinct (e.g. Holma, a
Chadic language spoken in Adamawa State) or have already ceased to exist
(e.g. Auyokawa and Teshenanci, two Chadic languages formerly spoken in
Jigawa State).

The Nigerian Language policy is one of the many threads of imbalances
plaguing our country.
There has to be an immediate reversal to create a system of fairness
across the board. I have heard people say that it is impossible to embrace
every language spoken in Nigeria, so therefore we must stick to a selected
few. Perhaps, they would appreciate the need for proactivity if their
languages are mashed and threaded with abject ridicule...relegated to
irrelevancy .There are more than six extinct languages in Nigeria ; a
tireless, masculine overdrive should occupy our immediate existence not
just to incorporate every language in Nigeria but other issues that would
impact positively on minorities to reflect and engender a just Nigeria .


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