What exactly is this ‘Arabic sign’ on Nigeria Naira notes? Is it Arabic or Hausa?
Long before the British colonial government thought of amalgamation — or brought Western education to Nigeria — Arabic script had been introduced to Hausaland (in modern-day northern Nigeria) by traders and scholars from across the Sahara.
The proper term for this ‘Arabic sign’ is Ajami. It is an Arabic-derived African writing system.
The Hausa people used the Ajami script to write in Hausa language — hence the confusion that it is ‘Arabic’.
In much of Eastern Africa, Arabic-derived script is used to write Swahili, although the language itself is Bantu-based.
Since African languages involve phonetic sounds and systems different from the Arabic language, there were adaptations of the Arabic script to transcribe them.
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This is similar to what has been done with the Arabic script in non-Arab countries of the Middle East and South Asia, with the Latin script in Africa or with the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet.
“Utend̠i wa Tambuka” is an epic poem dated 1728. The language is Swahili but the script is Arabic-based.
This is confusing. What we see on the naira is clearly Arabic but you are saying it is Hausa.
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The ‘Arabic sign’ on the naira is actually Hausa language written in Arabic script.
As explained earlier, in the pre-colonial era, the Hausa people took the Arabic script and made it their own.
A typical northerner can read Ajami even if they do not understand the Latin script that is used for English.
The northern part of Nigeria did not embrace Western education early, and there is a strong resistance to it in many parts till today.
But most northerners are versed in Ajami, having undergone Arabic-based Quranic education as children.
Okay then. Should Arabic script still be on naira notes? Why not the common Latin?
The argument against the Arabic inscription on the naira notes is that it is a violation of sections 10 and 55 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Section 10 of 1999 Constitution reads: “The Government of the federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion.”
The notion is that Arabic and Islam are the same, and this has led to accusations that the Arabic “symbol” on the naira connotes religion and promotes Islamisation.
However, section 55 specifies that the country’s affairs must be conducted in English, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa.
Since Ajami script is in Hausa language and is not a symbol of Islam or any religion, many will argue that no law has been violated.
Nigerian laws are silent on the script for writing, although the most common is Latin.
Nigeria used pounds and shillings as national currencies before the change to naira and kobo in 1973. Both had the Ajami script.
I am holding a N10 bill right now. I can’t find any Arabic script on it. Are you sure of all you have been saying?
In February 2007, the government removed Arabic script from some lower-denomination notes. It said that Ajami was no longer necessary because most Nigerians could now read and write in English.
The government also said it removed Ajami in order to conform to Nigeria’s 1999 constitution.
In 2014, the Goodluck Jonathan administration issued a new N100 note to commemorate the 1914 amalgamation.
Naira Goma (N10) was written in Hausa with Ajami script until 2007
In 2007, Naira Goma was changed from Ajami to Latin script
On the previous banknote, the words “Naira Dari” — Hausa for “one hundred naira” — appeared in Ajami.
Now, the Hausa was printed, like the Yoruba and Igbo, in Latin letters (English).
This was highly controversial and was viewed in religious and political contexts.
Currently, there is Ajami script on N1,000, N500 and N200 notes.
And there is a wide call for it to be removed totally as we now have more English educated Hausas.
In November 2020, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) opposed a suit before the federal high court in Lagos seeking to remove Ajami (Arabic) inscriptions on the naira notes.
CBN told the court that it will cost a lot of money to discard existing notes and print new ones without Ajami.
It also said Ajami is not a symbol or mark of Islam, but an inscription to help non-English speakers who are Ajami literate.
The apex bank made the submission in a counter-affidavit to a suit filed by Malcolm Omirhobo, a Lagos-based lawyer, before Mohammed Liman, presiding judge over the case.
In January 2020, Omirhobo had filed a suit against the federal government, CBN, and attorney general of the federation over Arabic inscription on naira notes.
Omirhobo argued that Nigeria is a secular nation and urged the court to declare it illegal, unlawful, and unconstitutional for Arabic language to be inscribed on naira notes rather than English language or Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo.
However, in its counter-affidavit deposed by Abiola Lawal, CBN said: “Ajami inscriptions on some of the country’s currencies do not connote any religious statements or Arabian alignment.
“The inscriptions on the country’s currencies do not and at no time have they threatened the secular statehood of the nation or have they violated the constitution of Nigeria, as every design and inscription was finalised with the approval of the relevant government bodies.
“The naira notes retained the inscriptions with Ajami since 1973 when the name of the Nigerian currency was changed to naira from pounds.
“Ajami was inscribed on the country’s currency by the colonialists to aid those without Western education in certain parts of the country, who, back then, constituted a larger part of the populace.
“Ajami is not a symbol or mark of Islam but an inscription to aid the populace uneducated in Western education in ease of trade.”
CBN further said removing Arabic inscriptions from naira notes “would cost the tax-paying Nigerians and federal government colossal sum of money to discard the existing naira notes and print new ones in satisfaction of the plaintiff”.
Similarly, the Nigerian Army opposed Omirhobo’s suit seeking to remove Arabic inscriptions on the army’s logo, urging the court to throw it out.