Friday, April 18, 2008

Politics and Language in Africa's Postcolonial Experience

The writings of Ali A Mazrui and Alamin M Mazrui on language and Africa in The Power of Babel: Language and Governance in the African Experience, and in several other publications have provoked me to think deeply about the legacy of language policy in Africa. The thoughts that I outline below come from my engagement with the ideas set forth by these and other scholars.

The development of language and politics in postcolonial Africa has taken divergent paths in different African states. In some cases specific language groups have expanded, while others have shrunk or even vanished. This could be attributed to improved communication in the geographical and linguistic senses, colonial and post-colonial language policies, the work of language promoters (including missionaries, ministers of education and broadcasting and, to some extent, teachers and linguists).

In sub-Saharan Africa , official state languages (in which all official business, including the running of the government and national education, is carried out) have tended to be of European origin. To be more specific, these languages have often been the languages of the colonial powers that once administered these African states. In these cases, while the official language is English, Portuguese, French, German or Spanish, the fact of the matter is that only a tiny elite section of the populations of these countries can use these languages.

Sometimes, the official language of an African country is also its language of national unity. An example is Uganda where the official language of government business in English, and the national language, which is supposed to unite all different linguistic and ethnic groups is also English. In a nation such as Kenya , English is the official language, and Kiswahili, the national language, is spoken by a larger proportion of the population
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The immediate consequences of having languages of European origin in modern African states are many. For one, foreign policy formulation is usually in the hands of a Western language-speaking elite, which accords disproportionate importance to these languages. Secondly, as the Western languages are keys to major sources of information relevant to foreign policy, policymakers fluent in, say, Portuguese, are more likely to learn about the Lusophone world, and therefore, to promote commercial and political interactions with these regions, as opposed to Francophone or Anglophone regions. Furthermore, these languages are important in orienting the formation of the future elite, so that Kenyans and Nigerians, regardless of their religions, would be more likely to seek admission into British and American universities than into French and Portuguese universities.

On a more local level, the use of European languages in these sub-Saharan states has had the effect of restricting political participation to those who have good command of these languages. In several of these states, the parliamentary language of debate, the language in which the national constitution is written, and the language in which legal procedures are carried out is the ex-colonial language.

It so happens that men within these states are more likely to speak these languages than are their female counterparts. This is attributable to the greater number of educational opportunities available to males. This implies that any attempts to increase female participation in politics would require either a review of the language policy (where politics and parliament are concerned), or a longer-term campaign to make it easier for women to learn the ex-colonial European languages. Looking at the wider picture it becomes clear that not only women, but also the larger populations of these states have been alienated from the law and from political participation by the use of Western languages in judicial and legislative processes. This has deepened the remoteness of the constitution from the citizenry, and may have contributed to the perceived irrelevance of the constitution in most African states, thus slowing down the development of a constitutional culture in most African countries. In addition, it has denied the majority their democratic rights in their democratic right of participation in the formulation of laws.

In Tanzania , the Swahilinization of the legislative process has resulted in greater democratization. There is wider citizen participation in Parliament and it is easier to mobilize more people into the country’s law-making processes, which has, in turn, helped enrich Kiswahili’s legal and constitutional vocabulary.

Of course, there are exceptional cases: within sub-Saharan Africa there are states where the ex-colonial European languages are not the sole languages of national import, or where they simply do not factor into official government business. In Kenya , the use of both Kiswahili and English for parliamentary debate increases the chances for political participation of a wider segment of the population. Interestingly, it was a dictatorial intervention by President Jomo Kenyatta’s in 1974 that introduced Kiswahili into the national assembly. However, the legislation continues to come before parliament in English, thus resuscitating the original problem of linguistic exclusion.

In Somalia , at the time of independence in 1960, Arabic, English and Italian were all adopted as official languages. It was only in 1972 that a military decree of President Mohamed Siad Barre replaced these foreign languages with the official language of Somali (which was more fitting as it was spoken by practically all Somali nationals).

In Tanzania , the unchallenged rule and authority of Julius Nyerere and his CCM (Revolutionary Party) ensured the success of Tanzania’s Swahilinization policy. Across the border, in Uganda, it took a military dictator, Idi Amin Dada, to declare Kiswahili a national language in 1972. These instances all imply that the survival of language policies in favor of African languages could be linked to the survival of autocratic regimes. In other words, the most successful experiments in language planning in Africa might not have been possible without semi-autocratic governments. That is troubling.

It could be argued that there is a link between the use of European languages in African states and continuing white domination over blacks. However, at the same time, one cannot ignore the very real unifying effect of the use of European languages in modern African states, where national identities only appear to transcend ethnic ones. In these states, communalist languages such as Hausa, Luo, Kikuyu and Luganda are directly associated with tribal identity. Thus, in Uganda , any suggestions to use Luganda as a national language would imply the cultural hegemony of an already powerful ethnic group within the state. Other communities would resent such apparent privileging of the culture, traditions and values of the Baganda over their own, and this could very easily lead to the fracturing of the state. In Nigeria , there was similar resentment towards the adoption of Hausa as the national language. These two cases demonstrate that English has a quality that makes it especially suited for use as a language of national unity in some contexts: its ecumenical nature. As an ecumenical language, English is extra-communalist and transcends boundaries of ethnic and racial classification within both Uganda and Nigeria.

In Ethiopia, where Amharic is the national and official language, and in Eritrea, where Tigirinya has the same roles, there is a long history of a consolidated empire, the existence of a national identity, an orthography for the language in question, and a widespread Christian religious identity. All these existed long before the creation of the modern state in Africa , and they have ensured the carrying over of these languages into the running of these respective states.

Further north, in Arabophone Africa, are the Maghrebian countries, and Libya and Egypt . In the Maghreb , the post-colonial governments have adopted language policies aimed at gradually phasing out French and replacing it with Arabic. French colonial policy, especially in Algeria , was especially damaging towards the concept of an Algerian Muslim identity: the French adopted a divide and rule policy by which they tried to reinforce the differences between Berberophone and Arabophone populations. Thus, the postcolonial Algerian government has been especially intolerant of cultural identities other than the Arab Muslim one that they adopted for their nation.

These nations are somewhat reliant on the use of French in their educational and political systems, and because this dependence could not be eliminated upon independence, the drastic Arabization programs adopted in Algeria have sometimes done more harm than good. In Morocco and Tunisia , where the Arabization programs have been less extreme, the importance of French is recognized. In both states, Arabic is the national language, and French is the language of business.

In Egypt , the supremacy of Arabic has been challenged far less strongly. Egypt has actually provided the Arabic language teachers for the Maghrebian Arabization programs. This is partly due to British colonization and the longer and more intense pre-colonial Arabization of the Egyptian population in comparison to the Maghrebian ones. In addition, Egypt, where the al-Azhar University is located, is an important religious center in the Muslim world.

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This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name Rose Kahendi as the writer.

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