Do You Speak French? – Reuben Abati

Who Released, Killed And Ate Our Lion? - Reuben Abati

I was on my way back from Botswana, after attending a conference organized by the Africa Leadership Forum (ALF). This was sometime in the 90s, on that same trip was Professor Tekena Tamuno, the eminent historian of blessed memory. We boarded an Air Afrique flight from Johannesburg to Abidjan, where we were scheduled to join another flight to Lagos. But Air Afrique at the time had started having problems.

Its flights were always delayed, services were poor, and the airline had become so notorious it eventually earned the sobriquet: peut-etre Afrique. Peut-etre in French meaning “perhaps or maybe.” On this particular trip, the airline lived up to its poor reputation.

    The flight from Jo’burg to Abidjan was delayed, and we missed our connecting flight to Lagos. Our first instinct was to go to the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan, after the airline had given us hotel accommodation for the night.  When Professor Tamuno and I arrived at the embassy, the Ambassador had closed for the day. We left a message. And lo and behold, the following morning, somebody came from the Embassy to look for us. The Ambassador, a gentleman to the core, had received our message and he would like us to stop by at the Embassy before our flight back to Lagos, later in the day.  A good diplomat on foreign posting will always look out for the interest of his or her country’s citizens under whatever circumstances. We were impressed. But this is not the point of this article. It is as the title suggests, about French language and the need for Nigeria to take the teaching and the learning of the language more seriously and actively promote this in our educational institutions.

    When the emissary from the Embassy arrived at our hotel, he reportedly searched everywhere for us. We were having breakfast in the restaurant when I suddenly heard the announcement on the Public Address system that two Nigerians in the hotel had a visitor from the Nigerian Embassy. I informed Professor Tamuno, and he wondered whether I could speak French. My French was still good in those days, but French is such a precise and poetic language that does not allow any form of stammering. And if you don’t use it regularly, you could lose it or become so rusty that you dare not speak it again. Persons who speak French fluently cannot tolerate any form of incoherence; one funny look at you, you’d have no option but to shut up. So, I willingly lost my spoken French. But when I listen, I understand what is being said.

      I have had many more memorable encounters about the importance of French as a second language while attending international conferences and in the course of my work, at a time, as a government official. Virtually every international event has French as a major language of communication. More people in the world speak Mandarin, Spanish and may be Russian.  But French is not just the ninth most widely spoken language; by more than 200 million people; it is a language of international relations, and it is the second official language. At international meetings, there are translators who help non-speakers of the main language to follow discussions, but French vocabulary and syntax are imbued with such special cadence that is not fully conveyed in translation. Oftentimes, the translators can be annoying. It is not just the same thing.

     For many countries, teaching and learning another language is a matter of strategic policy.  Countries seek to connect with their neighbours and strategic partners through language. It is instructive that in the United States, Spanish and Mandarin are the two other most popular languages, the learning and teaching of which is deliberately encouraged. The United States has a large Spanish speaking population; its neighbours in Latin America also speak Spanish; the promotion of Spanish as a language in the United States builds many cultural bridges.  Mandarin is also popular because of the increasing population of Chinese-Americans.

       Is there in Nigeria any active policy to strategically promote language as a vehicle of integration and development? Nigeria is surrounded by Francophone countries: how many Nigerians speak or understand French?  When you travel to any of these Francophone countries, or even to the Portuguese speaking ones, you can’t fail to notice the large number of French-speaking persons who can also speak English. While our neighbours make an effort to learn English, making it easy to relate with them, we practically don’t make any effort to understand their own language. And as a country, we are short-changing ourselves. It is often so embarrassing to see many of our Foreign Affairs Ministry officials not being able to speak any other language apart from English, or not being proficient enough, even when they can.  When Nigerians attend international conferences within the region, they rely on translators during formal sessions and thereafter they just stand around playing deaf and dumb.  Almost all the Presidents in our neighbouring Francophone countries speak English. The day we have a Nigerian President who can have a decent conversation in French, we should slaughter a cow! We need to take a second look at the policy on the teaching of languages in our school system.

     In 1996, the General Sani Abacha administration introduced a language policy declaring French as Nigeria’s second official language. The objective as stated in the National Policy on Education (2004) was mainly to “smoothen interaction with our neighbours” by promoting the French language at the primary and secondary school level. But since then, that policy has been only on paper.  The teaching of French language was first introduced at the secondary school level in Nigeria, around 1956, at King’s College, Lagos and Government College, Ibadan.

      Later, it became a subject of study at the Universities of Ibadan, Ife, UNN, and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and over the years, other Nigerian universities established Departments of French or Modern Languages.  Colleges of Education also later started offering French, but only as a subject to be combined with a Nigerian language. At the secondary school level, it was however treated as an optional subject, and it was not taught at all at the primary school level. If there had been a determined effort to promote French as a second official language, by now so much progress would have been made.

      There are over 2 million Nigerians reportedly living in Cote D’Ivoire alone and more in the other Francophone countries in West Africa, particularly Niger, Chad, Togo, Cameroun, Mali and Burkina Faso. Nigeria may be the biggest market in Africa, but access to other West African markets makes that market even bigger.  There are millions of Nigerians travelling all over West Africa, engaged in profitable commerce on a daily basis. Some of them pick up the French language out of necessity but a properly executed language policy can fast-track Nigeria’s integration with the sub-region, encourage regional commerce and promote co-operation and understanding.  We need that integration if indeed Africa is the centre-piece of our foreign policy, beginning with our immediate neighbours. Other West African countries and even French-speaking African countries like Gabon and Burundi are consciously promoting the learning of English. Their stated reason: Pragmatism!

       Language connects people. Language defines and strengthens. I have seen situations whereby in the absence of French or English as a connecting language, Nigerians who speak Fulfude, Hausa and Yoruba connect so instantly with their West African brothers and sisters who speak the same languages.  Nigeria cannot effectively perform its leadership role in the sub-region if its people do not speak or understand the language of their neighbours. General Sani Abacha was certainly right on this point of making French, Nigeria’s default second language. ECOWAS by the way, is working on a West African Highway Project, from Lagos to Nouackchott. Is that meant to be a highway of the deaf and the dumb, trapped in cultural spaces?

       The greatest beneficiaries of linguistic integration will probably be ordinary people. Multi-lingual Nigerians do better than their mono-lingual compatriots, relatively speaking. To get certain international appointments, you need that extra language. A friend told me that Akinwunmi Adesina, former Minister of Agriculture, stole the show at the preliminary screenings for his current job as AfDB President, when he switched to French and spoke with such power of articulation and insight. There are thousands more. We need to produce more Nigerians like that. And we need those other Nigerians too, who can sell whatever from Cotonou to Lome to Niger, Chad, Abidjan and Cameroun, undeterred by language barriers, switching linguistic codes with ease.

      And it is better to catch them young.  Children learn and absorb language almost by osmosis. We need to start preparing our children for international life, within the region and beyond, by teaching them French and for those who have the capacity, Nigerian languages and other languages as well.  We must begin to prepare our future Presidents of international corporations, and Nigerians who will also, in future become Secretary Generals of the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. The obsession with wealth and the transient is making us lose focus as a country. Our greatest asset remains our children, the young, untainted ones, who need to be captured and built up, before they get sucked into the prevalent, abnormal normative value system in the country.

      By now, it should be clear that this is not just about the teaching of French as a second official language but more about the gaps and the chaos in Nigeria’s education system.  Our disruptive governance process, the forever-begin-again culture of governance, truncates so many things, and the education process gets poorly served. I have dealt with aspects of this in earlier writings and I just want to repeat the point that the education of the Nigerian child and the re-schooling of society are so tied to all matters of progress and development that we just cannot stop talking about them.  In the same manner in which we promote regional integration, we should also use language to bind the country together. Nigerian languages should be taught in schools as compulsory subjects. Where language barriers do not exist, people are always willing to listen, and in a world where the wisdom of the tribe prevails, we should encourage people to talk and listen, and remove barriers.

    There are many young Nigerians studying abroad whose parents are spending a fortune to get them to plug into this global trend but even if those children speak all the languages of the world, they may be lost to the country forever. They have little or no attachment to Nigeria’s education system and their parents may not be keen about linking them to a natal origin where electricity remains a problem, infrastructure deficit continues to grow and the future is permanently uncertain. This is why in simple terms, in this matter, the change process must begin at home at all levels.  In the end (you see?), everything is linked, but we are optimistic that all will be well, because after all, we are Nigerians: we manage to be happy in every situation.  Meilleurs voeux.

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