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OPINION

Nigerian Indigenous Language Newspapers And National Development

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Being a keynote speech presented by Sam Nda-Isaiah, Chairman, LEADERSHIP Group, at a 2-day national annual round table at Arewa House, Kaduna, on Monday, 15th May, 2017.

I still don’t know why the organisers of this programme chose me to deliver this keynote speech, but it is probably because the LEADERSHIP Group of which I am chairman and founder has LEADERSHIP Hausa, a vernacular newspaper, on its stable. So, although I am not an expert on the subject, I am, by the fact of LEADERSHIP Hausa alone, an interested party. I therefore concede.

It’s obvious that Nigeria’s policymakers have consistently failed to understand the influence or the power of indigenous language media. If they did, they would understand that indigenous language newspapers are a force for good and can also be a force for mischief and manipulation. Foreign policymakers surely understand this better than we do. That is why, for instance, we have the BBC Hausa Service, VOA Hausa Service and similar radio services by the French, Germans and the Chinese. Of course we are aware of Arewa24 TV recently launched by the Americans for counter-terrorism.

There have been several indigenous language newspapers but the one that many of us especially in these parts would remember is Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo published by the New Nigerian Newspapers. It is sad that a newspaper as influential as Gaskiya was allowed to die. Then there was Albishir from the stable of the Kano State government-owned Triumph. Among the Yoruba-speaking people we have Alaroye, and among the Igbo-speaking people we have or had Ogene.

Nigeria’s indigenous language newspapers should have fared much better. The first-ever newspaper established in Nigeria was a Yoruba language newspaper called Iwe Iroyin fun awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba, meaning “newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba”. The newspaper was first published in 1859 by Reverend Henry Townsend, an Anglican missionary in Abeokuta. As we can see, this was before the official formation of the entity called Nigeria in 1914. Townsend’s motive for establishing the newspaper was to inform and educate. His objective was social service and not profit-making. This newspaper opened the door to several other Yoruba newspapers but had to be rested eventually because it was not self-sustaining.

Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo, the most famous Hausa language paper, was established in 1939, and was taken over by the New Nigerian Newspapers when the latter was established in 1966; it survived until 2013. That means it survived for more than 70 years. That’s a record. The Triumph Newspapers established Albishir which was influential in its time. Both have been rested.

A significant development in the history of indigenous newspapers in Nigeria was the establishment by Chief MKO Abiola of three indigenous newspapers on the same day: Amana in Hausa, Isokan in Yoruba and Udoka in Igbo. They did not survive the death of the publisher in 1998.

Today the main Hausa publications are LEADERSHIP Hausa, Aminiya, Rariya (now an online newspaper) and magazines such as Muryar Arewa, Mujallar Fim and Mahangar Arewa.

Vernacular newspapers do not do well because of limited circulation and the lack of advertisements to sustain them. There are still no daily vernacular newspapers. But the sway of these publications should not be underestimated. They are the most consequential publications among the masses of our people. And that makes them very key to any strategy at national development as well as a dangerous tool in the hands of troublemakers. The Hausa online community, for instance, is among the most vibrant in the world.

It seems there is another indigenous Nigerian language that we have continued to ignore – and I don’t think there is any newspaper in that language. It is probably larger than the rest of the indigenous languages as we know them. I am referring to “Pidgin English” or “Broken English”. The “Broken” there is pronounced “Brokin”. Our own Pidgin English is indigenous to Nigeria and children start speaking it from very early age, many before starting primary school. It has approximately 30 million native speakers in Nigeria and approximately 100 million speakers in West Africa. Members of each of the nearly 400 ethnic groups in Nigeria can converse in Pidgin English, even though each group has its own slight addition and modification.

We must take advantage of this God-given language, codify it and deploy it immediately as a medium for the unification of our people. Language is the strongest unifying force among disparate peoples.

Pidgin English is just like the Afrikaans language of southern Africa. Afrikaans can also be called “Pidgin Dutch” or “Broken Dutch” but the whites of South Africa have been smart enough to codify theirs. It is now one of the official languages in South Africa and it is spoken also in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Just like the whites successfully did with Afrikaans in South Africa, we too could codify our own Pidgin English. There is already a Pidgin English Bible designed to reach the approximately 100 million Pidgin English speakers in West Africa. We must now begin to have Pidgin English newspapers.

Let me give you a little anecdote at this point: Two of my children are in boarding school in Switzerland. The school has students from all over the world but English is the official language in the school. French is taken as a subject. My children came on vacation one day and I heard them speaking Pidgin English. I was alarmed. Before they went to the school, they didn’t understand what Pidgin English was. You would therefore understand the alarm on my face when I heard them speaking it. When they saw my shock, they started laughing at me. They said Pidgin English came in handy in school. Apparently the school has many Russians and Arabs and these students always “harassed” them with their language, obviously saying snide things about them – things that kids do everywhere.

Then my daughter said a few of the Nigerians in the school, especially those from the south, started speaking Pidgin English among themselves, and they too joined, learning it by force and quickly too. Students from other countries who heard them speak this language knew these Nigerian schoolmates of theirs were speaking some kind of English but didn’t understand a thing. My children said that was how they regained their freedom and respect to the extent that one of the Saudi boys came and wanted to be taught this unique Nigerian language. I was impressed with their story. That was when I knew how important Pidgin English is and how, like many other resources in Nigeria, we are wasting it.

Conclusion

Indigenous language newspapers have had very low shelf life because the publishers in most cases established them for the sole purpose of educating and informing the people, and in many cases to advance their political aspirations. However, indigenous language newspapers, like any other newspaper, must be run as a business if they must be sustained. That is the only way to go.




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