Nigeria is a linguistically diverse country akin to the Biblical Tower of Babel, with over 223 million people who speak over 500 different languages across various regions. Among these languages, Nigerian Pidgin English has emerged as a widely used lingua franca, fostering communication among various ethnic groups and facilitating national unity. This article proposes the recognition of Nigerian Pidgin English as an official language in Nigerian courts to ensure access to justice, to promote inclusivity, and preserve cultural identity.
The Historical and Sociolinguistic Context of Nigerian Pidgin English
Nigerian Pidgin English, a Creole language derived from English mixed with other indigenous languages, has evolved over decades as a means of communication between diverse linguistic communities within the country. Due to its widespread usage and acceptance as a medium of informal communication, Pidgin English has become an integral part of Nigerian culture, thereby bridging communication gaps between people of diverse educational backgrounds and social classes in Nigeria.
Nigeria is estimated to have between three to five million people who primarily speak Pidgin English in their day-to-day interactions, and a total of about seventy-five million people in Nigeria who are fluent in Pidgin English, recognizing the same as a “second language.” The informal language developed to the extent of having its dictionary, written and published in 2017 by Ola Rotimi, and is now easily accessible on websites such as ‘Naija lingo’
Despite the many benefits that arise from this uniform and generally acceptable manner of communication among Nigerians, our nation’s colonial background has forced the use of the English Language down our throats, so much so that the English Language is recognized as the official language of Nigerian courts. This trite principle has been emphasized in a plethora of decided cases. In the case of MADU v THE STATE, the Supreme Court stated thus;
“It is an undisputed and well-settled principle of law that the English Language is the Language of the Superior Courts of Records in Nigeria.”
In addition, the court in DAMINA v THE STATE, held that a court of law is presumed to be illiterate in any document written in any Nigerian local language as it cannot comprehend its content no matter the dexterity of the Judex in that language. It is entirely the responsibility of any party that intends to rely on such documents to translate that document from its original language to the language of the Court. The Court cannot call for its translation or interpretation suo motu (on its own) as to do that will amount to making a case for the appellant which is not the duty of the court.
In BABARINDE & ORS. v. THE STATE, the Court held that it is a cold fact that Yoruba vernacular has never been the official language in the Nigerian courts.
While case law explicitly recognizes the English Language as the official language of Nigerian Courts, the Nigerian Constitution provides a leeway for the possible recognition of other indigenous languages, however, this provision is specific to the affairs of the National Assembly. Section 55(3) of the CFRN 1999 (as amended) states thus:
“The business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English, and in Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba when adequate arrangements have been made therefore.”
I contend that the Nigerian Judiciary should glean from the example of the usage of the three major Nigerian languages alongside the English Language by the National Assembly. By instituting the use of these indigenous languages, the National Assembly has in some sense, and to some extent, preserved our cultural identity. The political systems in Nigeria must reflect the Nigerian heritage. We cannot accept the Western definition of civilization to such an extent that we no longer appreciate or take pride in the languages, dresses, foods, or historical roots that make us Nigerians. The National Assembly’s recognition of the three majorly spoken Nigerian languages is a pointer to the possible recognition, perhaps in the future, of Nigeria’s Pidgin English, given the widespread use and acceptance of the language.
We can further take a cue from several other Commonwealth Nations that recognize their indigenous languages as Official Languages used in their Courts. In India, while English was the predominant language of the Indian legal system during British colonial rule, India is a linguistically diverse country with twenty-two (22) officially recognized languages. English continues to be used as an associate official language at the federal level, but many Indian states use their regional languages, such as Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, and others, for their court proceedings.
Malaysia is another Commonwealth country with linguistic diversity. While English was historically used in the legal system, Bahasa Malaysia (Malay) is now the primary language of the courts. However, English remains an essential language in legal education and in some specific federal courts. English is one of the official languages in Singapore and is commonly used in its legal system. However, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, and Tamil are also recognized as official languages and are used during legal proceedings.
South Africa has eleven (11) official languages, including English and Afrikaans. English is widely used in the legal system, especially in higher courts, alongside Afrikaans and indigenous languages in specific regions or for specific cases.
There are homogenous, non-commonwealth countries such as France, Spain, Germany, China, and Japan, among others, where there is usually one generally acceptable language other than the English Language, and such languages are deemed as official Languages alongside the English Language. This is usually possible as a result of the uniformity in the language and culture of the citizens in these countries. In the Nigerian context, Nigerian Pidgin English serves as ‘the one uniform language’ that unites the various language groups and social classes within Nigeria. It can therefore sufficiently serve as a second official language having its root and uniqueness from the Nigerian cultural heritage.
CHALLENGES & BENEFITS
Recognizing Nigerian Pidgin English in courts may present challenges such as standardization, interpretation, and the potential resistance from conservative elements. Developing a standardized legal vocabulary and ensuring consistency in its usage will be crucial to avoid ambiguity. Additionally, training judges, lawyers, and court personnel in the use of Pidgin English may require significant effort and resources.
Furthermore, the use of the English Language is already commonplace in urban parts of Nigeria, hence adopting the Nigerian Pidgin English during court proceedings will not be embraced, rather it may be deemed unnecessary and futile.
Another challenge to consider, is the recording of court proceedings in the Nigerian Pidgin English. This may prove difficult as the written form of the Nigerian Pidgin English is presently underdeveloped.
It is also pertinent to note that the Nigerian Pidgin English typically bears an informal tone, which the observance of court-room etiquettes will not permit. If this language will be adopted, it must be refined to fit the legal lingua standard, conveying utmost regard for the bench at all times.
The benefits of legalizing Nigerian Pidgin English are, however, numerous. It will enhance access to justice for those who are more comfortable communicating in Pidgin English, particularly individuals from rural or marginalized areas. I therefore recommend that the Nigerian Pidgin English should be recognized as an official language in Area and District courts situated in rural communities where indigenes are unfamiliar with the English Language.
This recognition will foster inclusivity, ensuring that no Nigerian is disadvantaged due to language barriers in the legal system. Furthermore, acknowledging Pidgin English’s role in Nigerian culture can serve as a means of preserving linguistic diversity and national identity.