- The Nigerian Constitution of 1999 so far only exists in the country's official language; English. In an effort to upgrade local languages and to deepen citizen knowledge of democratic principles and values, the government of Nigeria has now ordered a translation into Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. Smaller languages are to follow.
According to linguists, there are about 500 languages spoken in Nigeria today, and the country is place in one of the world's highest language diversity area. Given this diversity, Nigeria has strictly followed the principle of only having one official language; that of the former colonial power.
Despite the official status of English, three local languages have become dominant for communication between people of different ethnic origin, following geographic zones of Nigeria. The so-called "lingua franca" of the north is Hausa, Igbo is understood by most in the south-east and Yoruba dominates the south-west.
These three "multi-ethnic" languages, which are wider spoken than English in rural areas, are now slowly being upgraded by Nigeria's federal government. In what the authorities call "a deliberate effort to deepen the citizenry knowledge on the process of governance and to entrench democratic principles and values," the 1999 Constitution soon will become available in Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba.
Nigeria's Minister of Information and National Orientation, Chukwuemeka Chikelu, who played host to the translation team leaders in his office on Thursday, in a statement said that the translation of the Constitution into local languages was aimed at "acquainting the people with the democratic processes in order to appreciate fundamental principles of justice, equality, fair-play as well as to understand their rights and obligations under a democratic setting."
The Minister reiterated that the constitution was "a veritable tool for good governance in a democratic system of government." He stressed that it was therefore imperative for all stakeholders to be aware and have knowledge of the contents of the constitution. This, the government holds, could only be done by providing the text in the languages best know to citizens.
Furthermore, Mr Chikelu announced that the translation of the Constitution into the three Nigerian major languages was only the first step taken towards translating the constitution into other Nigerian languages.
The Minister did not indicate which languages would be next and how many languages would be considered. The two northern languages Fulfulde and Kanuri - spoken by millions and locally used as "lingua franca" - will probably be considered. Most of Nigeria's 500 languages are only used by a very small number of speakers.
The official beginning of the translation process began with the leaders of the team of language experts' visit to Minister Chikelu in Abuja. The team leaders included Professor Saidu Mohammed Gusau of the Bayero University, leading the Hausa team, Professor Kola Owolabi of the University of Lagos, leading the Yoruba team and Professor Sam Ugochukwu, also of University of Lagos, leading the Igbo team.
Speaking on behalf of the team leaders, Professor Owolabi in a statement issued today said that though the federal government move to translate the Constitution into local language "is belated, it is a big and historic venture that would encourage people to be proud to speak their local languages." It will be the first time in Nigeria's history.
According to the Nigerian government, the team has now three months to submit the draft of the translated version of the Constitution, which will be reviewed by other language experts before the final document will emerge.
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