The recent statement by Nigeria's Imo State government making it compulsory to study the Igbo language at all levels of education in the state is one in a string of similar pronouncements since Nigeria's political independence in 1960.
Igbo is already spoken widely in the country, but efforts to promote it in education have been resisted.
The three major languages in Nigeria are Hausa (60 million native speakers), Yoruba (40 million) and Igbo (25 million). The Igbo are found everywhere in Nigeria and their language is commonly spoken in major markets and trading points. But Nigerian Pidgin, spoken by about half the population of the country, is widely used by young people in Igboland. English, the official language, is also gaining entry into domains of use previously restricted to Igbo.
In 2009, the Anambra Igbo Language Bill was presented to the state House of Assembly, to encourage the use of Igbo in all spheres of social life. The present governor of Anambra State, Willie Obiano, pronounced in 2017 that it was mandatory for all school pupils to study Igbo. Other Nigerian languages have been similarly promoted in education, for example Ibibio and Yoruba.
By making local languages compulsory in education, the government hoped to stimulate pride and discourage the encroachment of English and Nigerian Pidgin. It's also reasoned that a widely spoken language will be more efficiently taught and a more effective tool for mass communication.
But studies have shown that educators are not adhering to the policy for indigenous language in education.
Policies in place
The 1999 Nigerian Constitution is one of the documents that promotes the use of Nigerian languages. It refers to the need to use indigenous languages in all state houses of assembly and to use Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba in the National Assembly.
The 1988 cultural policy makes statements about the essential role of language in the transmission and preservation of cultural values. The Nigerian Broadcasting Code makes it mandatory for some programming to be done in indigenous languages.
The National Policy on Education considers the teaching of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba in all schools to be a necessity for national unity. It stipulates that children should initially be taught in their mother tongue but gradually introduced to the language of the immediate community, and later to English.
Problems in practice
Calls for the compulsory teaching of Igbo have not been effectively implemented, however. Not only is there a severe shortage of Igbo teachers and teaching materials, it also seems that students are not interested in learning the language. They don't see it as being useful to them. They don't need a credit pass in the subject to gain admission to a university or to get a job.
A number of studies have shown that many students and parents of Igbo extraction find ways to avoid the subject.
Studies have also shown that many Igbo teachers lack training in how to teach the language. Teaching Igbo is not regarded as prestigious and even qualified teachers often decline such jobs.
The governments in Igboland do not lead by example in this regard. Speaking Igbo is usually reserved for partisan political activities and socio-cultural events. Government officials hardly ever speak Igbo in serious government business that deals with economic matters, state security and the judiciary.
Competing languages and identities
Nigerian Pidgin is used more widely than any of the three major languages. It is spoken across all ethnic groups and easily accepted for its perceived neutrality. Pidgin is used in all forms of media and all spheres of national life. Nigeria has radio stations that use Pidgin exclusively, and the British Broadcasting Corporation has a pidgin language service.
This spread of Pidgin may be adding to the fear that Igbo will be lost.
The various calls for the promotion of indigenous languages are not unconnected with the idea of maintaining ethnic identity in the face of multiculturalism and globalisation. In Nigerian political and social life, ethnic considerations overrule the national interest. Language is the most potent form of identity politics in Nigeria. So the promotion and greater use of Igbo or any indigenous language may have political tones.
The way forward
If governments in Nigeria want to counteract the growing dominance of English and Pidgin, they will do well to use indigenous languages in government business. For example, they could be used in reading the yearly budget speech, giving state broadcasts and performing other important government functions in the judiciary and legislature. The Lagos State House of Assembly does sometimes conduct its proceedings in the Yoruba language.
These efforts should be supported with budgets to produce teaching and learning materials for education. Students interested in studying these languages at advanced institutions of learning should be given full scholarships. Making a credit pass in a Nigerian language compulsory for admission to university would enhance the prestige of these languages in education.
In making pronouncements about the compulsory teaching and learning of Igbo, the government and people must help create the enabling socio-cultural milieu for the promotion of the language. Otherwise the latest call will just be ignored - as previous have been.
Author: Maduabuchi Sennen Agbo - Senior Lecturer, Linguistics , University of Benin