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Army’s new language policy

Last week the Nigerian Army unveiled a new language policy in which it mandated all soldiers to learn and be proficient in the three major Nigerian languages of Hausa, Yoruba and within one year. Army spokesman Brig Gen Sani Usman said all officers and men are expected to have accomplished that feat by December 2018.

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Usman said, “The Nigerian Army has introduced a new language policy. The study of foreign and local languages is a world-wide practise among other armies in which officers and soldiers are encouraged to be multi-lingual. The policy will foster esprit-de-corps and better communication with the populace to enhance information gathering, civil-military relations, increase understanding between militaries when operating abroad and assist officers and soldiers to perform their duties professionally. It is to be noted that English remains the official language in the Nigerian Army. Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa languages could be used during Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) activities or interrogations. Therefore all Nigerian Army personnel have been given one year to learn the three major languages. Invariably, by December 2018, all Nigerian Army personnel are expected to learn the three major Nigerian languages. The standard of proficiency to be attained is the basic level. Certified proficiency level will attract Language Allowance.”

Usman also said the ability to speak the three major languages would be an added advantage to those applying for recruitment or commissioning into the Army. The new policy has its merits, especially when soldiers interface with civilians. Officers and men are often moved from one area to another so to be conversant with a language other than one’s mother tongue and English is an added advantage. It will also help to improve communication and therefore understanding with the local populace during military operations. The new policy will also help when handling top security issues as it can check leakage of vital information. Despite those merits, the army’s approach to this serious matter is wrong.

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First of all, a language cannot be learnt by issuing an order. All soldiers are adults and learning a new language is not easy for an adult as it is with a child. Therefore, setting a time frame of one year will only put the personnel under undue pressure. Secondly, the military is right now overstretched with so many operations including Lafiya Dole in the North-east, Operation Harbin Kunama, Crocodile Smile, Python Dance etc. This is not the proper time to burden soldiers with the task of learning three languages.  Whether or not they speak any language, the main language we expect soldiers to speak these days is that of subduing insurgency, militancy, secessionist agitation and banditry. The soldiers should not be given any reason to deviate from their core mandate by claiming that they were attending language lessons.

Every soldier engages in endless training sessions and courses in the course of his career, so a good way of implementing this new language policy is for the authorities to include it in the curriculum of its training programmes. Nor was there any need for the army to announce this policy, except for prospective applicants. It is even doubtful if all soldiers require language skills. It would be better to concentrate the new language policy on some units such as intelligence, signals, public relations etc. 

Similarly, the military should be careful not to step into a political minefield. Nigeria has hundreds of native languages and there are murmurs already that the three major languages seek to emasculate the smaller ones. Furthermore, pegging proficiency in the three languages as requirement for enlistment may also not be in the best interest of the Army and Nigeria, as many people fit for the job may miss the opportunity to serve. We therefore urge the military to focus on the issues that are most important to citizens of the country at the moment which is safeguarding lives and property while pursuing other initiatives with optimum caution.

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