Polyglot policy

Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai

The Nigerian Army has put forward a polyglot policy for its officers, men and women that is ruffling feathers plentifully. It wants all its personnel to be proficient in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba by December 2018.

This is said to be a directive from the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, who feels that this policy will be a good idea for national integration.

The Director of Army Public Relations, Brigadier General Sani Usman, says that those who wish to be recruited into the Army must learn to speak languages other than their native tongue. He says English will remain the official language but other languages are needed for civil military cooperation.

To be able to speak in several languages is definitely an advantage whether one is a soldier or a civilian, marketer or medical personnel. Language proficiency smoothens relations and creates an atmosphere of easy acceptability within social, ethnic or professional groups. Whether that proficiency can in itself lead to national integration is debatable, afterall the Army is a very small segment of our population.

Since the policy was announced several people have kicked up a lot of fuss. This includes members of the House of Representatives who have described it as discriminatory. Indeed, it is. This baloney of three major languages is an anachronistic carry-over from ancient times when Nigeria was a country of three regions: North (Hausa), West (Yoruba) and East (Igbo).

Apparently, it has not yet dawned on the Nigerian Army that Nigeria is, today, a country of 36 states with about 400 linguistic groups.

tTo single out three out of 400 languages and call them major is an insult to those who speak the other languages. What makes those three languages major and the rest minor? Any language spoken is a major language, the major language, to the native speaker of that language because it is the badge of his own identity.

The three languages are certainly important to those who speak them as their native tongue. So are the other languages to the others who use their own languages as their linguistic root. The three languages described as major do not have any talismanic property that makes them or ought to make them the acceptable language for everybody in Nigeria.

The imposition of those languages by the Nigerian Army must not go unchallenged. It is an imposition that tends to validate the neo-colonizing hegemonic instincts of the three tribes which have since ceased to be Nigeria’s raison de’tre. Several groups have campaigned for self-determination before and since Nigeria’s independence. This has culminated in the creation of more states and the validation of many linguistic groups as respectable identities.

The reason Nigeria has failed to have a lingua franca is because of its ethnically and linguistically polarised federation. The attempt to choose any of the existing languages as the lingua franca will be seen as an attempt to dominate the non-speakers of the chosen language. The language tiger has not been tamed in Nigeria. It is still in the wilds.

The Nigerian Army has staff from all parts of the federation. So it can be said that it has a large pool of people who speak all, or most, of the languages in Nigeria within the Army.

This policy, come to think of it, is a case study of an extremely unimplementable policy. If a soldier comes from one of the three major linguistic groups, he still has to learn two other languages. If he comes from an ethnic group other than the three he has to learn all three languages within one year. No one, not even those who have special gifts for language mastery can learn, to a high degree of proficiency, three languages in one year, that is one language every four months.

And in the unlikely event that you do acquire proficiency in the three languages how do you get to speak them everyday so that you do not lose them? Are everyday relations between the soldiers or their work schedule to be conducted in the three languages? If that is not the case, then the proficiency will begin to disappear with time and the effort spent in learning it then becomes wasted.

This policy is obviously discriminatory against and oppressive of minorities. It is a violation of their fundamental human rights including the right to equal treatment within the polity. If implemented it will create unnecessary road blocks for minorities who wish to join the Army. And if allowed to stand the policy may be copied by other federal institutions which may tend, at the end of the day, to erode the equalisation opportunities inherent in the federal character provisions.

The Nigerian Army can only carry out its duties within three theatres of war (a) within Nigeria (b) Between it and our neighbours (c) peacekeeping duties in other countries. In carrying out its duties within Nigeria, the Army already has its personnel who speak different languages, major and minor, so this new policy offers no additional benefit to the Army. Nigeria’s neighbours, Niger, Chad, Benin and Cameroons speak Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo and Efik.

In addition, they speak English and French, two languages for which there must be Nigerian soldiers who speak them fluently. In the event of a confrontation with our neighbours, language can never be a problem since we already have soldiers who speak English and French in addition to the relevant vernacular languages.

Nigeria has taken part in peacekeeping operations in Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia to mention but a few. In each case, soldiers are always chosen who meet the specific and general needs of the exercise, including cultural and linguistic compatibility. In my opinion, we have demonstrated through the years that we can meet the linguistic needs of any combat operation we may be involved in.

The truth is that today the Nigeria Army needs more training in other areas than Nigerian languages. The world has become very complicated, criminals and extremist groups more daring and creative, and the science and technology of warfare more complicated than ever before. How much do Nigerian soldiers know in these areas, for example: nuclear, chemical and biological warfare, guerrilla warfare, cyber warfare, IED science, anthrax science, suicide bombing mechanism, drones, robotism and several extra-formal forms of warfare. I think Nigerian soldiers should pay more attention to the study of warfare sciences as a means of improving their trade rather than worrying about local languages.

In most parts of the world today, English is the dominant transaction language. About four fifths of the world’s population speak it. So Nigerian soldiers should actually be encouraged to learn to speak and write English well.

As for indigenous languages the Army should actually encourage the soldiers who come from the minority tribes to learn to speak their mother tongues fluently. It is these minority languages that are more in danger of being extinct. The UNESCO has discovered that so far more than 400 of the languages spoken by minorities around the world are dying a slow, painful death.

This is caused by a number of factors: discrimination against them by majority groups; the desire by them to be accepted by majority groups; absorption by more powerful groups; lack of facilities for improvement in the orthography of minority languages; failure to pass on the language to their offspring etc.

The language of the more powerful or majority groups are unlikely to die because they are already being taught in schools in Nigeria and abroad up to the doctoral level and those who speak it are strong enough to protect them from extinction.

As things stand today, Nigeria is unlikely to have an acceptable lingua franca from any of its vernacular languages any time soon. But it does have a language that is widely spoken and is not tied to the apron strings of any ethnic group: pidgin. It has an advanced orthography, published books including a dictionary. Nigeria’s radio and television stations have programmes in pidgin English. Nollywood uses it widely in its movies and drama presentations.

More interestingly, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) now has a station that broadcasts wholly in pidgin English. It is without doubt the most widely spoken language in Nigeria today. If the Nigerian Army wants a language that is easy to learn, and which does not wear the badge of any ethnic group, pidgin English is it.

The Army’s present policy must be killed dead. It lacks merit and if implemented it will do more harm than good to Nigeria and its Army. It will bring more division than integration.

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