The Nigerian National Language Question: Arabic as a Viable Option




Abdul-Hafeez Adeniyi Ahmad Adedimeji,

 Department of General Studies,

FountainUniversity, Osogbo.


Tel: +2348059310129& +2348121521380


1.0 Introduction 

 The need for every country to have a national language that will serve as a unifying factor for its entire citizenry is crucial for its identity and germane to its harmonious relationship, mutual coexistence and development. Many countries in the world are lucky to have a common mother tongue while most other countries resort to adopting one of their numerous indigenous languages as the national language. This national language may be the official language that the country uses for documenting its formal engagements and\or establishing its diplomatic relationships with other countries and may be different from it. Every citizen of a country understands and\or speaks the national language although there may be other languages that are sectional or regional. It is the absence of this national or common language in Nigeria that makes this paper proposes the suitability, viability and sustainability of Arabic for this purpose. While the paper does not shy away that this language may be linked to Islam in one way or the other, it relies on the fact that it is the only Nigerian indigenous language, being the native language of Shuwa Arabs of the present-day Bornu State, with international appeal to argue for its adoption. The juxtapositions and illuminations of roles and contributions of Arabic to the nation’s history and West African architecture are some of weapons this research relies on to advocate that Arabic should be embraced by all Nigerians regardless of their socio-religious affiliations and the geographical locations.




2.0 The appalling Nigerian language situation

Language is the most noticeable feature of social entity and the most enduring aspect of any culture. Culture, as opined by E.B. Tylor (Anne Cooper and Elsie A. Maxwell 2003: 148)  is “that complex whole which included knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society”. Language is very critical to the preservation of cultural heritage of any given society and very vital to  its harmonious coexistence. Nothing can be more truthful and realistic in this regard than the Arabic saying which goes thus: “He who learns the language of a people becomes immune to their ploy”. It is also the most major distinguishing factor between human beings and other living creatures and the most highly developed form of communication that man is endowed with. Its essence, significance and status as a social activity is evident in Augusta Phil Omamar’s (2003: 27) conceptualization thus:


Language, whatever else it may or may not be, is the most important, most often used and most highly developed form of human communication. It is, in a sense, what sets humans apart from other animals which also happen to communicate in the sense of transmitting information of one kind or the other from a sender/source to a receiver. The big difference in the case of humans is not just that both sender and receiver are human as would naturally be expected, but also that the message is either sent vocally through the air and the vocal organs, orthographically by making particular kind of marks on paper.


Nigeria, being the most populous African country, is being looked upon to take its rightful position in leadership position of the continent. Apart from the numerical strength that naturally gives the country an edge above other countries, the assertion that  the country is naturally endowed amounts to stating the obvious.  Reader (Reader, J. 1997: 660) observed thus: “The surge of optimism which has accompanied the transfer of power in Africa has been especially evident in the case of Nigeria. With the continent’s largest population, experienced politicians, an efficient civil service and the benefit of a strong, diversified economy, Nigeria was expected to be at the fore-front of economic and political progress in Africa leading the continent’s transition from an under –developed to a developed region”.

However, the materialization of the above hope remains a mirage due to a large number of factors too numerous to mention here. What this writer is pre-occupied with at this juncture is how multiplicity of languages has contributed to the backwardness or retardation of the country’s socio-political and economic spheres. In other to establish the enormity of the problem, let us first take a brief look at the country’s linguistic setting.

To try to determine the exact number of languages indigenous to Nigeria is a daunting task. Estimates have ranged from 200 to 400. The fundamental problem is a linguistic one: the problem of differentiating language from dialect, of deciding how to classify a particular speech system that serves for communication within a social group. In a situation of such multiplicity, it is not surprising (though not inevitable) that greater prominence that some languages enjoy over others is determined by number of speakers. Again, for lack of reliable statistics, it is impossible to be precise, but there can be no doubt that the number of native speakers of three of Nigeria’s languages, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, runs to several millions(Jowitt, D. 1991: 9). Apart from the three languages, languages like Kanuri, Fulfulde, Tiv, Efik, Ibibio, Edo, Nupe, Gwari, Igala and Idoma have millions of people that are speaking each of them as their mother tongue.

It is this multi –ethnic situation that threw up the country’s immediate post –independent rulers and the first generation of politicians who have been accepted as national heroes. While the duo of AlhajiAbubakarTafawaBalewa and Sir Ahmadu Bello represented the interest of the Hausa – Fulani tribes of the North, Chiefs ObafemiAwolowo and, to a lesser degree, Samuel LadokeAkintola were regarded as leaders of Yorubas while Dr. NnamdiAzikiwe who was then assisted by Sir Michael Okpara held the sway the Igbo –speaking Eastern Nigeria. Each of these tried their best to protect and project the interests of their tribes and  ethnic entities. In other to actualize this and towards leaving their indelible marks in the annals of history, each of the above-mentioned national heroes left no stone unturned to make their people the dominant tribe in the affairs of the country (Adedimeji, A.A.A. 2012: 125).

This scenario led to a lot of unhealthy rivalry, accusations and counter –accusations that heated up the polity and threatened to tear the nation to shreds. The events that led to the nation’s protracted civil war that occurred between 1967-1970are too glaring to expatiate on at this juncture. This situation has made Adedimeji (Adedimeji M.A. 2012: 166) to conclude that, naturally, “ the language question assumes a critical and controversial dimension in a multi-lingual country, a typical example of which is Nigeria, with several languages competing for roles when the question is unduly politicized and sentimentalized”.

One measure that the successive military governments that ruled the country thought will break the backbone of predominance of three major tribes on the national scene, the unnecessary rivalry between them and what resulted from their overbearing posture at the regional level was states’ creation. The then powerful three regions were continually broken into smaller and weaker states that stand now at 36 and the Federal Capital Territory (F.C.T.)       

           However, states’ creation and breaking of the country into smaller units had, rather solve the pathetic situation, aggravated Nigeria’s ethnic and social problems. The hitherto smaller tribes who counted very little or nothing in the scene during the era of regions have become supers and formidable challengers in the present-day states. With each of them insisting to be officially recognized, virtually every tribe in each of the states want its language recognized and given its due by airing news and events in its mother tongue.

           It is in response to these divergent agitations that Jowitt (Jowitt, D. 1991:9) asserted that in old Plateau State which consists of the present Plateau and Nasarawa States, news was usually given in no fewer than eleven languages while in the old Bendel State, which has been broken to Edo and Delta States, the situation was not far from being similar as news is being aired in seven different languages. In Kwara state which is one of the smallest states in Nigeria, the present writer who has worked in the state for some years can attest to the fact that news broadcasts and some other vital programmes are duplicated in most public Radio and Television stations in not less than five different languages.

In a nutshell, the multiplicity of Nigerian indigenous languages has been a curse to the country more than a blessing. It has led to shedding of blood, intra-friction, inter-friction and bitterness between contending tribal leaders who are always at each other’s throat. In addition to this, it has battered the country’s image abroad and contributed in no small measure to the economic retardation and retrogression of the country. Not few people in and outside the country believed that the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election won by the late business mogul, Chief MoshoodAbiola and the political impasse that followed the silly and sinful action was due to the reluctance of the then military government headed by a Northerner to hand over power to a freely and democratically elected Yoruba man from the South. (Adedimeji, A.A.A. 2012: 126). Or else, how can one justify the then military junta’s  annulment of election won by a candidate adjudged to be one of the best brains and most detribalized Nigerians?

This ugly situation and the need to have a national language that will unify all Nigerians regardless of their affiliations and the geographical locations where they hail from make the consideration of Arabic for this purpose at this juncture desirable and imperative. I need to assert here that English which is the country’s official language is incapable of playing this role as experience has shown that a larger percentage of Nigerians do not speak it due to its elitist nature on one part and the fact some groups or individuals still regard it, rightly or wrongly, as a colonial imposition that is better discarded.


3.0     Arabic presence in Africa and its acceptability in the world

Although it is right to refer to Arabic as the liturgical language of Islam, it does not derive its significance from the noble religion alone. Rather, it is an international language which enjoys a very wide acceptance. It is has played a vital role in the socio –political life of the early West African Empires.

For example, the famous Mansa Kankan Musa who ruled the Old Mali Empire between 1307A.D. and 1332A.D. utilized his connections with the Arabs to better the lots of his subjects and consolidate his hos on government. His historical pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324A.D. was a landmark event in the history of the Empire and a turning point in the prosperity of its economy. It is difficult to forget the laudable role Mansa Musa’s connection with the Arabs played in the life and educational development of his people. AsOjelabi (Ojelabi, A. :19) noted:

“On his return, Musa came back with Arab scholars to Mali who helped in raising the standard of learning and the form of architecture. Among others, Es-Saheli, a Spanish Arab who was also a poet accompanied Musa home. Saheli helped to build the magnificent brick mosques of Gao and Timbuktu. He also built a stone palace for Musa in Timbuktu. The Sankore mosque in Timbuktu also served as important centre of learning. The standard of learning was as high as in a modern university. This was evidenced by the fact that a teacher brought from Mecca by Musa had to be sent to Morocco for a three year further training before he could teach at Sankore”.

In fact, Mansa Musa’s real claim to a place of distinction came in consequence of the foreign recognition he gained for Mali. As a result of his pilgrimage, Mali was recognized as world power. Under Musa, Mali established diplomatic missions in Egypt, Arabia and Morocco. He cultivated a somewhat intra –personal friendship with the Sultan of Fez. In 1339, Mali was represented on a world map with the inscription “Rex Malley” while other maps in 1375 bore witness to the existence and greatness of Mansa Musa’s Mali Empire (Ojelabi, A: 13).

This situation of acceptability of Arabic in Africa is not limited to Old Mali Empire alone, it is a fact that Arabic has harmoniously related, and still relating, with the continent. It ranks as the language that has the most influence on African languages, especially Swahili, Hausa, Wolof, Fulfulde and Yoruba. In addition to the major African languages, there are in Nigeria, such other languages such as Nupe, Ebira and Igala that have a large chunk of Arabic lexical items. In fact, Swahili which is one of the major African languages and, perhaps, the most widely spoken of all them derived its name, as attested to by reader, from Arabic. According to Reader (Reader, J.1997 :175-176): “The name itself comes from Arabic Sahil, meaning shore or coast, and could be translated to as “coast dialect”.


At the contemporary level, Arabic is socio-politically on the sprawl across international borders. The spate of spread and importance of Arabic, for example, is evident in the very frequent use of Arabic on the electronic media by the B.B.C., the V.O.N. and the Voice of Nigeria. The Dutch, French, German and Russian national radio stations continually air Arabic versions of their programmes regularly over their network. Besides, Aljazeera (High Arabic Version of CNN’s programme), beams news and programmes to the Arabic –speaking world with this all-important language. The numerous Arabic –satellite transmitting stations beaming programmes to the world give credence to the continuous rise of Arabic internationally. Currently, Arabic is being used as one the languages at the United Nations (U.N.) and at such regional groupings such as the African Union (A.U.) and the Economic Community of West African States (E.C.O.W.A.S.) (Aje, S.A. 2004: 12).


4.0 Prospects and benefits of Arabic as Nigerian national language

The advent of Arabic to Nigeria, as common to all African and world countries whose people embraced Islam, is closely linked to the advent of the religion to the country. This has been as far back as eleventh country. This means that the advent of the language to Nigeria has already clocked 1,000 years. This is because of the fact that “Mai UmmeJilmi (better known as Ibn Abdul Jelil) was the first Bornu-ruler to accept Islam in 1085. DunamaDabeleni was the next ruler to accept and this was in the 13th century”(Ojelabi, A: 13).­

With the above fact, Arabic is the first foreign language that made successful incursion into the Nigerian soil. In fact, referring to Arabic as a foreign language is not accurate as it is known that the Shuwa Arabs of the present – day Bornu State, although relatively small in number, speak Arabic as their mother tongue. So, this writer is very comfortable to say categorically that Arabic is the only indigenous Nigerian language that enjoys global widespread and international acceptance.

Also, Nigeria stands to benefit economically and socially if Arabic is given its rightful place both at the official and unofficial quarters. There is virtually no country in the world today, except the Vatican, perhaps, that has no teaming Muslim population that stands at, at least, tens of thousands. As  at 1978, the Muslim world population was estimated to be 700 million people. This figure must have doubled by now. The most populous Muslim nation is Indonesia which had 135 million Muslims as at then. It is followed by Bangladesh which had 75 million. Standing in the third position is Pakistan with the 73 million Muslim populations. Other populous Muslim nations are: India, Turkey, Nigeria, Egypt and Iran which had 65 million, 40 million, 35 million, 34 million and 33 million Muslims respectively(Al-Kiyaali, A. 1990: 1\189) . The figures quoted above must have doubled by now since more than thirty five years have passed after the quoted estimation. In short, apart from 35 countries that are officially recognized as Muslim\Islamic countries, about 17 countries which include Nigeria have large Muslim population that ranges between 38.7% and 98% (Anne Cooper and Elsie A. Maxwell 2003: 261-262. All thesecountries where teeming number of Muslims reside have large numbers of patrons and admirers of Arabic.

The fact that Arabic is a widely-accepted medium of communication and a very important language to numerous people at the global level is emphasized by Encyclopedia Britannica when it describes it as “of over-whelming importance as the language of the revelation of Islam and of the Qur’an, which Muslims regard as the epitome of literary excellence”.

Although, in the light of the afore-stated reality, it is right to refer to Arabic as the liturgical language of Islam, it does not derive its significance from the divine religion alone. Rather, it is an international language which enjoys a very wide acceptance. It has also contributed in no small measure to human civilization. The wide acceptance, universality and vintage status of Arabic vis-à-vis other international languages is chronicled by Oladosu(Oladosu, A.G.A.S. 2012: 10-11), relying heavily on a research published by the duo of Chejne and B. Whitaker in 1969 and 2009 respectively, in these glittering words:


Arabic is a universally recognized language, occupying a position which is not less in status and rank than that occupied by other international languages like English, French or German. It has long been adopted by the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), as a tool for political and diplomatic exchange. Arabic has native speakers in Africa and Asia, emigrants in North and South America and many non-native speakers scattered around the world. In Africa, it is the native tongue of countries like Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara and the Sudan. In Asia, it is the medium of expression for countries like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Qatar, Yemen and Palestine. By 1969, it was estimated that, altogether, Arabic was being used as liturgical language by more than four hundred million (400,000,000) people. Currently, Arabic ranks sixth in the world’s league table of languages. It is spoken as a mother tongue by an estimated 186 native speakers. The five languages ahead of Arabic are Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, English and Bengali.


From the picture painted above, we can notice the vintage position  Arabicoccupies in the contemporary worldand the rank of Nigeria in the comity of highly populous Muslim nations. Most of the above-named countries are more developed than Nigeria economically, technologically and militarily. Also, the numerical strength of these countries cannot be overlooked. Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf nations which, although smaller in Muslim population than Nigeria, have Arabic as their mother-tongue and official language. The economic and strategic importance of these Gulf States in the contemporary world, especially Saudi-Arabia and United Arabs’ Emirates, cannot be over-emphasized. The assertion that these highly-endowed nations influence the contemporary global politics amounts to stating the obvious.

At the continental level, majority of North African countries that include: Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia and Algeria are Arab countries. In the sub-region of  West Africa, Morocco and Mauritania are Arab countries while a large population of  Senegalese and Gambians patronize and speak  Arabic. The summary of this proposition is that adoption of Arabic as the national language is not, and should not be seen as, a self-serving agenda of the Muslims alone but a holistic approach of making the country more relevant to many African countries, better integrated into the world and benefit from the enormous resources of the Arabic-speaking countries through bilateral trade that can be facilitated by sharing their language.

Another factor that makes Arabic the most viable alternative to English is the fact that it is the only language that Nigerians, indeed the world at large, acquire willingly without thinking of any material gain. It predated English by centuries and has, therefore, become part and parcel of millions of Nigerians and their means of communication that does not know state and regional barriers. This fact has been buttressed by Jowitt(Jowitt, D. 1991: 21) who asserted thus:

“English is not the only non-indigenous language learned by Nigerians. Long before the first Englishmen visited the coast of Nigeria, Arab missionaries, explorers and traders had brought their language to what is now the Northern part of Nigeria. The more intensive Islamization of North in the nineteenth century resulting from the Jihad of UsmandanFodio meant a great increase the number of Nigerians learning Arabic for religious purposes, chiefly in Koranic (sic) schools, and this increase has undoubtedly continued to the present day, especially as many facilities have been created for the study of Arabic at Secondary and tertiary levels. From Arabic, numerous words have entered into the vocabulary of certain Nigeria languages, notably Hausa was written in Arabic script. For some Nigerian Islamic teachers or students, Arabic potentially serves not only as a language of study and religious observance but also for inter-personal communication; and many of them know Arabic better than English. One small group in Borno State has Arabic as its mother-tongue”.

From the above, we can deduce that the decision to adopt English as the Nigeria’s official language was not well thought by the first generation of our indigenous rulers. I heap the blame on the first set of our indigenous rulers because they had the ample opportunity of changing the status quo immediately the colonialists granted independence to this country. This writer is surprised to discover that the colonialists, despite their selfishness and well-known cultural imperialism agenda, never openly declared English as the official language. This fact was exposed by another Christian researcher who  said inter alia:

“The colonial government never expressly declared English as the official language of Nigeria. The tradition going back to the Roman Empire was simply assumed that the colonized adopt the language of the colonizer since the colonizer cannot be expected to operate in anything except in his own mother tongue” (Banjo, Ayo 1996: 66).

Talking about preservation of Nigerian history and its heritage, Arabic has paid its dues.Arabic language can serve as a veritable tool for the attainment of mutual cohesion and national harmony in Nigeria if it is viewed from the fact that it is the oldest language of civilization in the entire West African sub-region. “Before a single West African son knew a word in English or French, some of his people must have learnt Arabic and in many cases started to write various African Languages in Arabic characters, just as English and French are written in Roman characters” (Abubakre, 2004: 5).

Besides,Oloyede (2012: 29) has chronicled that “ no one can deny the intellectual and administrative roles of Islamic scholarship in pre-Independence and administrative Northern and South-Western Nigeria as Arabic Language was a saving grace for Africa’s original contribution to knowledge”.

To buttress the noble role that Arabic language has played in the history of modern-day Nigeria and the fact that it has served as a carrier of civilization and torch – bearer of progress in the nation’s immediate and remote past history, a vivid testimony of  reputable Christian historian and renowned  academic, Kenneth O. Dike, is relevant here:

As an historian myself, I have taken the keenest in this development, for it is through the aid of these Arabic documents and these written in African language in the Arabic script that the scholar will be aided in his task of unlocking the secrets of the African past. It has been a revelation to the whole world of scholarship to realize for the first time that Africa before the European penetration, so far from being a dark continent where the light of scholarship shone brightly, as the Arabic works now being discovered bear testimony… The Arabic scholars of the present, drawing upon the writings of the Arabic scholars of the past, will be able to bring before us the events and happenings of the past ages of Nigeria and so help us to write a history we may rightly call our own” (Oloyede, 2012: 2/48).

The vital roles the contemporary Arabic scholars can play in unlocking the nation’s history as well as the pivotal position of Arabic in beaming the light of knowledge on the African continent are not farfetched, as can be seen from the above-quoted testimony. This reality portrays the language as part and parcel of Nigeria and demonstrates that it is a viable and suitable answer to our national language question as its adoption will surely engender scholarship, facilitate harmony and limit or eradicate the frequent tribal confrontations  and ethnic violence that are unfortunately rampant in our polity.



The fact that Arabic has served as a means of historical preservation and an  indigenous language in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general is evident from the above study. Also, the fact that that it is one of the most powerfuland widely-accepted languages cannot be over-emphasised. This paper has used this historical and linguistic facts to buttress that the glorious past of Arabic can be rekindled if official recognition is accorded to this benevolent language by our governments in the various levels and fair-minded scholars begin to see reason  why it deserves to be recognized as our national language so that the country will not only continue to unlock its past through it but mutual and harmonious co-existence between its various nationalities could be achieved on one side and Nigeria will attain accelerated development through bilateral and regional co-operation with the relatively rich and more developed Arab and Islamic countries.



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