Publication

Politicization of language in Africa

16 April 2022  | By Ashenafi Endale

When Jomo Kenyatta, the first Premier of independent Kenya, ordered the first parliamentary session to speak in Swahili in 1974, the MPs were in complete chaos, as they spoke only in English. Kenyatta addressed the Parliament in Swahili nonetheless, which was big news at the time. But the oddity remains, for a country native to Swahili. Later, the Parliament had to amend the constitution to include English as a working language, to save itself from childish-like miscommunications and even misconceptions on some policy matters.

Today, eleven African countries have adopted Swahili as the official working language, and is spoken by close to 150 million people, mainly on coastal areas of the continent stretching from Somalia to Mozambique and central Africa.

Currently, advocators of Swahili are also taking root in Ethiopia, as they request the Ethiopian government to make Swahili an official working language.

“Making Swahili an official working language will bring enormous benefits for Ethiopia, especially in integrating with regional economies and finally, Africa’s unity. Ethiopia, which is an icon of African unity, must adopt Swahili as a pan-African language,” stressed Emani Yohanni, advocator at the Africa United Initiative Organization or Ethiopian Swahili community – a civic organization licensed and established a year and half ago in Ethiopia.

The organization is mainly supported by the Tanzanian government.

According to Yohanni, the organization requested Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education to include Swahili in the education curriculum and has asked for a plot of land to establish a Swahili cultural center in Addis Ababa.

“We are waiting for a response,” said Yohanni.

The Addis Ababa University inked an agreement with Dar es Salaam University to teach Swahili at a master’s level on February 9, 2022.

But the biggest win for Swahili advocators came in February, when the African Union adopted the language as an official working language during its 35th summit.

One of the disadvantages for Ethiopia failing to adopt Swahili as its working language is regional economic benefits it could derive. One of the reasons the East African community (EAC), a regional economic block, did not accept Ethiopia as a member, is because the country did not adopt Swahili, according to insiders.

The EAC, which uses Swahili as its official working language and is based in Arusha Tanzania, embraced the Democratic Republic of Congo last week, as the eighth member of the block. The acceptance enables the DRC, one of the most resource rich African economies, to use Kenya’s Lamu port.

In fact, Uhuru (means freedom in Swahili) Kenyatta, who is also the current chairman of the EAC, has been pushing for DRC’s acceptance. The DRC is one of Swahili speaking countries that adopted it as its official language. This clearly shows how Kenya is using Swahili as a binding force for regional economic benefits.

However, officials at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the EAC has no considerable benefit to offer for Ethiopia.

Nonetheless, insiders believe Ethiopia is restraining from joining the EAC in fear of dumping mainly from Kenyans and Rwandan industries.

Ethiopia is a member to Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) but has a poor integration index even in these regional blocks.

While regional economic blocks in Africa usually work on geographical locations, experts state that such organizations must be based on economic functionalities.

For instance, Ethiopia, historically and currently trades with eastern and northern Africa, than the southern part of Africa.

A language has economic power, only when it provides integrative and instrumental motivation benefits. This means a language is powerful only when it can be used for communication at a wide level as a language of science, politics and research.

Bedlu Wakjira (PhD), professor of linguistics at the Addis Ababa University Department of Humanities, said Swahili cannot offer these integrative and instrumental motivational benefits for Ethiopia.

“First, Swahili has not become a political and scientific language. Secondly, it will be cumbersome for Ethiopia to adopt an additional working language while we could not manage even the diversified domestic languages,” said Bedlu.

Recently, PM Abiy Ahmed’s administration decided to adopt five domestic languages as an official government working language, which has been limited to Amharic. The new language policy, which includes Oromifa, Somali, Afar, Tigrigna and Amharic, is similar to what Bedilu recommended in his previous book, except Afar is replaced by Sidama.

“Now, children in Ethiopia learn three languages in school, which is their mother tongue, one of the five official working languages and English. If Swahili becomes the six working language, it will be unmanageable for Ethiopia, apart from the additional education expenses it bears,” said Bedlu adding, “Even if Ethiopia adopts Swahili, it will be only for its political significance, not for economic and scientific empowerment.”

However, Yohanni said Africa’s aspiration for economic and political integration, cannot be realized without adopting indigenous languages as an official pan-African working language.

“For instance, PM Abiy called for the establishment of an African media house during the 35th AU summit. If the media house is going to use English, French or Portuguese, it cannot be an African media house,” stressed Emani.  

In terms of population size that speaks the language, Swahili leads the continent, followed by Amharic, Yoruba and Oromifa. However, Bedlu says it will take an intensive homework to make Swahili a pan-African working language.

“Language is a basic ingredient for integration. But unifying Africa with language is difficult, if not impossible. Swahili will even complicate Africa’s unification. English is simpler to unify Africa,” said Bedlu.

For Yohanni, it is time for African scholars to advocate for their languages to replace colonial languages, and stride towards a unified Africa with its own indigenous languages.

“Colonial languages divided Africa. Even the AU is divided along French, English, Portuguese, Arabic and Spanish speaking African states. This has to end. We must develop our own indigenous languages and adopt them as working language for Africa’s unification,” Yohanni concluded.

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