Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Wazobia: the tale of three nations

by Iniobong Udoidem

Iniobong Udoidem of Catholic University, Washington, reexamines the arguments for the adoption of three national languages in Nigeria as a means of national integration.
The Wazobia programme, adoption of three national languages in Nigeria as a working means of national integration, is a tale tinged with wishful bric-a-brac. When William Shakespeare said that "life is a tale told by an idiot", he did not definitely intend that human beings should make themselves idiots in order to tell tales. But that they should be intelligent enough to recognise the tales that people tell about life as told by idiots. The Wazobia ballyhoo is nothing but an ill-advised systematized docketing process that is aimed at the destruction of Nigeria's nationhood. Why do I have to live in one country and speak three national languages when I could have lived in three nations and spoken one language in each of them? It is unfortunate that while civilized nations are emphasizing integration through the use of a common language, Nigeria is systematically sowing the seeds of discord and disintegration by perpetuating a "Tower of Babel' oriented programme.

The insignia of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has the inscription: UNITY AND FAITH, PEACE AND PROGRESS. Since the emergence of Nigeria as an independent nation in 1960, every administration has always, at least nominally, been concerned with ways of fostering unity and of inculcating faith in our fatherland, ways of procuring peace and enhancing progress while upholding the liberty of the citizens and the autonomy of the nation.

When the Wazobia programme was proposed, it was a welcomed idea. I even argued in a college debate for the motion that a "lingua franca" is an indispensable necessity if Nigeria is to get anywhere in national integration. I defended the concept of Wazobia as a perfect form of tri-lingual marriage. My dream was that Nigeria was on the move of assembling the best of Nigerian linguistic geniuses and philologists who would come together with a long-term project of evolving a common language for Nigeria with the Wazobia structure that is, building a language with a triadic combination of Ibo-Hausa-Yoruba, or Hausa-Ibo-Yoruba, or Yoruba-Hausa- Ibo words, depending on which word has the most suitable root. The concept of Wazobia was so nationalistic and patriotic that a friend of mine once remarked to me that for the purpose of reflecting a national character in a country of about 250 languages, there would be nothing wrong if here and there, words from other linguistic groups would be interjected into the language structure. Such was my dreamland and my belief.

For the past four years, I have been in the United States of America for studies. In 1984, my passport expired nd I had to have it renewed. I went to the Nigerian Embassy in Washington D.C. for passport renewal forms. It was here that I first experienced what I describe as the tale of three nations.

Episode One: The first person that I been met in the passport office was a Yoruba man. He spoke in Yoruba to me. Presuming that perhaps he was not aware that Ibo, Hausa, Ibibio, Isekiri etc, were also Nigerian languages I said politely to him, "sir, I do not speak or understand Yoruba". He then flared so: "Are you not a Nigerian?" answered, "I am." Then he added why can't you speak Yoruba? Don't you know that it is a national language of Nigeria? At this point I realized all that it was about. I then decided to ridicule him.

I spoke a few words in Ibo to him words that I learnt years ago from my poor friend, the meaning of which I couldn't even recall any more). He did not understand Ibo. He looked at me and said nothing. At this point, I reached for the passport renewal forms that were on his desk and before he could prevent me, I snatched a copy and left the office. My fear now was what will happen when I return the room. My only saviour was that I didn't tell him my name, and what is more, the passport photograph I had in my passport was taken years ago when I had no beard and looked markedly different from the person he saw whose face was covered with beard. My rationalization worked. I decided to send my passport and the reewal form through my Yoruba student friend. So it worked and I had passport renewed.

Episode Two: This was when I had go to the Embassy to have my student foreign exchange estimate approved. This time my interlocutor wa Ibo. Like the Yoruba man in the passport office, he too spoke in Ibo to me . I looked at him and said wazobia." He then said "don't you speak Ibo?" I said "why?" He reponded, "it is your national language." Since I did not want to get into a conflict with him because it was neceessary that I should have my estimate approved, I handed him my estimate and said nothing by way of comment. It was after this second experience that it dawned on me that each of the three tribes that had been signed with the seal of majority was trying to sell their language as the national language.

Episode Three: The third episode which I described as the last trauma of desperation was in January of 1985 when I visited Nigeria. I observed on the national television that each of the three tribes (Ibo, Hausa and Yoruba) had a programme which was cued towards teaching the people of Nigeria its language. It was at this point that I asked myself "how many languages do I have to speak to be a Nigerian? Then I realized that the aim of Wazobia had been defeated.

Each of the three tribes is fighting desperately to sell its language as the national language. The question is: Why should one live in one country and speak three national languages when he or she could have lived in three nations and spoken one language in each?

This might sound harsh and un- patriotic, but in my opinion, the most unpatriotic citizen is one who makes programmes for his country from which the children of tomorrow will reap sorrow. In fifty years time when they should have been reaping the good fruit of past ingenuity, our Our children will live to suffer the seed of discord and conflict that we have instituted to eat up the fabric of our nationhood. Wazobia and Psychological Warfare The components of wa-zo-bia is significant for analyzing the psychological warfare of "wa", the "zo", and the "bia". Wa in Yoruba means come, zo in Hausa means come, bia in Ibo means come. The significance of these words is that each linguistic group, while maintaining the autonomy of its position invites the others to come to him. Not one of them is willing to move to the other or make concessions for the sake of national unity. The Yorubas feel that Yoruba should be the national language, the Hausas and the Ibos feel the same way. The result is a linguistic warfare.

The logic is that by adopting three national languages, we have in principle agreed to have three nations in one country called Nigeria. The effect of this is constant psychological warfare. Anyone who has been to any of the Federal establishments in Lagos will definitely agree with my story. In any office where a Yoruba person is the boss, with other Yoruba workers, Yoruba becomes the official language, the same is also true of Ibo and Hausa officers

Surely the adoption of three languages as national languages is not out of the spirit of patriotism but out of fear of one another. The "marriage" is not out of love but out of hate. The problem is that the "trio" are mutually stricken by what I describe as "dominophobia" the fear of domination. Because of this fear, they are always at a psychological warfare with one another. The Logic of Choice and the Majority Syndrome The principle of choice and the majority syndrome are most pertinent in discussing the Wazobia issue. In a country of about 250 languages, I, for one, do not understand the principle by which the three languages were chosen. Some of my friends tell me that these are the three majorities. But simple mathmatics, logic and even common sense show that this is a ludicrous idea. There can never be more than one majority of the majorities.

If the country cannot agree on a true majority whose language can be accepted as a national language, then it is immoral for anyone to select three out of 250 languages. What is the principle that is used in the selection? Why can't the same principle be used to select one from three? If the three majorities cannot agree among them- selves on who is the true majority, then they have no rational or moral justifi- cation to think of themselves as the majorities. What about the fourth linguistic group, what about the fifth, etc? These other linguistic groups have a right to think of their languages as a national language. Recommendation Since the immediacy of agreement as to who the true majority is not within our immediate purview, I dare, there- fore, to suggest that the idea of Wazobia as a worked-out combination of the different linguistic forms in the country would be a most worthwhile long-term project. If this sounds un- realistic and cumbersome, then an alternative which will rid the trio of their 'dominophobic' sensitivity would be to choose a language from any of the other linguistic groups that is often politically numbered among the minorities. The reason for this choice is that there would be no fear of possible domination by this group.

In my opinion, the two proposals are more viable than the adoption of three national languages. I therefore call upon the Federal Military Government of Nigeria to act without delay by putting an end to the divisive pro- gramme of three national languages in one country

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