The Nigerian Army recently introduced a new language policy which requires its officers and men to learn and be proficient in the three main Nigerian languages – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba – within a year. The Director of Army Public Relations, Brigadier-General Sani Usman, explained that the Army has embraced the worldwide practice of encouraging its men and women to be multi-lingual.
Nigerians who wish to be recruited into the Army, he said, should learn to speak languages other than their mother tongue. The ability of soldiers to speak the three languages will, henceforth, constitute an added advantage for recruitment and commissioning. English will remain the official language of the Nigerian Army, but the Nigerian languages will be needed for what has been described as “Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC).”
We do not have anything against the Army turning its officers and men into polyglots. Indeed, we admit the usefulness of polyglotism in communication and culture. We, however, think that the Army is being overambitious about the language learning prowess of its personnel, who would be expected to be proficient in two new languages within a year, if they are fortunate to be from one of the three main ethnic groups. But, if they are from one of the minority groups, they will have to study and become proficient in the three major languages in the space of one year. This is, indeed, a tall order.
The House of Representatives, in a probable appreciation of the difficulties this policy may pose to our soldiers, has passed a resolution on the “Need to Stop the Discriminatory Local Language Policy Proposed by the Nigerian Army.” It raised several fundamental questions on the constitutionality of the policy. The motion, which received unanimous approval, pointed out that the language policy would infringe on the fundamental rights of minorities not to be subjected to the linguistic and cultural hegemonies of major languages. The House expressed its preference for greater emphasis on the English Language, which it described as an international language, while noting that Nigeria is a heterogeneous society of more than 400 ethnic and language groups. It further argued that national discourse should, therefore, be integrative and progressive, to ensure mass involvement in national development and democratic processes. According to the Representatives, pandering to primordial and tribal biases implicit in the new language policy defeats the larger interests of the country. The House Committee on the Army was directed to liaise with the Army to ensure that the policy is not implemented.
In view of the objections raised by the House and the onerous difficulties of implementing this policy, the Army should rethink it. Our position is that the Army should encourage its officers and men to learn Nigerian languages, but it must be done through incentives and left to the choice of the soldiers. Coercion would be counter-productive. We support a “Language Allowance” which the Army is said to have offered those with certified proficiency. If the allowance is attractive enough, the Army would be surprised by the number of officers and men who would work hard to earn it.
The need for the military and other security officials to be proficient in the local languages of their areas of operation cannot be over-emphasised. The United States Army had a great need for Arabic and Afghan speakers during its invasion of Iraq and its operations in Afghanistan. Soldiers who speak the local languages are often the best source of intelligence for any army. The Nigerian Army has enough reasons to want to get its officers and men to learn Nigerian languages. But, it should not be done in military fashion, with imposition of deadlines. It is remarkable that the Army did not say anything about engaging language teachers to teach its personnel. Yet, it needs a lot of teachers in formal settings to make it easier for those eager to learn new languages and get certifications to do so. No soldier should lose his position for not being proficient in any language.