- This post is about the removal of what the Nigerian political and economic establishments called "Arabic inscriptions" on the Nigerian currency (the Naira) on 28th Feburary 2007 in new currency notes that removed the ajami (Hausa written in Arabic script) writing that indicated the denomination of the respective currency note and replaced it with Roman alphabet. The full historical overview of how the Arabic "script" came to become part of essentially northern Nigerian Muslim Hausa educational package is given in Manuscript Learnability and Indigenous Knowledge for Development – Hausa Ajami in Historical Context. This is a paper I presented at the International Conference on Preserving Nigeria’s Scholarly and Literary Traditions and Arabic Manuscripts Heritage held on March 7th and 8th, March, 2007 Arewa House Kaduna, Nigeria, organised by Arewa House, Ahmadu Bello University, in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy, Abuja.
I doubt if there is any other group of Africans who hang out their ethnic dirty laundry like Nigerians. I accept, for the most part such ranting are probably not personal; they are basically religious – the Christian versus Muslim divide, rather than any feeling of superiority of one ethnic group over the other. Any such feelings of superiority are part of a religious template that sees acquisition of education as the central criteria for judging the value of a whole people. Thus education, not religion, is the central fulcrum around which the Nigerian nation wobbles.
Southern Nigerians acquired education through Christian Missionary activities from about 1849 (Ajayi 1965, Ayandele 1955, 1969, Bassey 1991, Adelabu 1971). Such education became the mainstay of acquiring Westernized modernity. Inevitably Western education brought by Christian missionaries to Nigeria became equated with Western Christian values. For the most part, Christian southern Nigerians are happy with this because it makes them “civilized” -- in the absence of any cherished antecedent cultural values. Thus any other worldview is considered barbaric.
Northern Nigerians, specifically the Hausa and the Kanuri acquired education through conversion to Islam since 1250 (Aliyu 1972, Zarruk 1978) and in Kanuri kingdom, even earlier. The constant eddy of scholars from north African learning centers throughout 14th to 17th centuries ensured a sustained scholastic tradition in Muslim northern Nigeria (Palmer 1903, Philips 1989, Al-Hajj 1968, Lovejoy 1979, Hiskett 1965, Graham 1966, Hunwick 1996, Dobronravine 2002, Adamu 2007, Chamberlain 1975, Mohammed and Khan 1981, Barkindo 1988).
Northern Nigerians therefore had a longer exposure to the concept of learning and literacy than southern Nigerians. A universal basic education was indeed introduced around 1464 in the city of Kano when new methods of indigenizing the Arabic script to Hausa phonology were created. This led to the creation of a novel way of writing out Hausa language in a script the young scholars will understand . It is this method of indigenizing Arabic script to Hausa language that became ajami. It became one of the main ways of educating young pupils in northern Nigeria. Do you remember all those “almajirai” you see in northern Nigerian cities? Well they are fluent in ajami writing.
Ajami, therefore, is any literacy strategy in which any language is written in Arabic. Over 50 languages are currently written in the script (Adamu 2007). Let us look at the parallel sphere. If any African language is written in Romanized characters, it can be called Ajami. Ajami therefore is not Islamic, anymore than Romanized alphabets are Christian.
However, in a new era of reform, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) decided to remove the “Arabic” script from the Nigerian currency in new currency notes launched on 28th February 2007. The removal of ajami script on the Nigerian currency reflected the deep-rooted religious divide that is Nigeria, because the Arabic script was seen as religious – and Nigeria is considered a secular country. This equates Arabic with Islam – ignoring the huge number of Arab Christians that exist throughout The Middle East.
The logic of the removal of the what the Nigerian economic establishment call “Arabic inscription” on the Nigerian currency given by the Nigerian Government was premised on using a Roman inscription that is available to all Nigerians (even if in mutually exclusive languages), rather than an exclusive script tied down to a particular religious culture. According to the Governor of CBN, Professor Chukwuma Soludo during a sensitization visit to the Sultan of Sokoto,
I will also like to inform you that the removal of the Arabic inscription on the notes is not targeted at any group or religion but rather to promote our language and cultural heritage…As you can see, Naira is the symbol of our nationalism and our pride. It is pertinent to let you understand that Arabic is not one of our national languages and it was inscribed on the notes forty years ago because the majority of people then, can read it in the northern part of the country to the detriment of their counterparts in the South (ThisDay, 16th February 2007, posted to the web 19th February 2007 at http://allafrica.com/stories/200702190519.html).
It is interesting that a main argument was that the presence of ajami on Nigerian currency was seen to the “detrimental” to southern Nigerians (who presumably do not understand it) – yet the inclusion of Roman lettering is not seen as detrimental to non-Roman literate northern Nigerians (especially non-Muslim Hausa, who presumably do not understand it). In this warped logic, it is therefore easier to alienate Muslim Hausa northern Nigerians than southern Nigerians, especially since a Christian is the President of the country (and a Christian Governor of the Central Bank facilitated the alienation). Of course when a Muslim becomes the President, the arguments might be revisited – and reversed; which another subsequent Christian president will also revisit, and so on endlessly.
The inclusion of the script on the Nigerian currency by the colonial administration was an acknowledgement of the rich literary heritage of a vast number of people who could not read the Romanized script– and not a strategy to impose Islam on anyone in Nigeria. Certainly the British colonial administration had no reason to propagate Islam. Yet on the currencies circulated by the same administration the “Arabic inscription” was conspicuously present, as in these specimens of earlier Nigerian currency show.
Further, other multicultural countries do pay such homage to multiple literacies in their currency notes. The Indian currency, for instance, has 14 language scripts , including Urdu (ajami) – despite Arabic not being part of its national languages. Examples are located here.
And while not explicitly stated, the links made by the Nigerian economic establishment with Arabic to Islam seems to be part of a move to “de-Islamize” Nigeria – scoring a point particularly in the way most northern Nigerian States re-introduced Islamic Shari’a in their governance from 1999 led by Zamfara State, and the earlier issue of Nigeria’s membership of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in January 1986, which the Nigerian Christian (as well as Marxist Muslim) groups were against. The Christian views of these debates are given here.
It is not clear where the arguments along the religious lines would end because some significant symbolism of Nigeria is decidedly Christian. For instance, the Eagle that characterizes the Nigerian coat-of-arms is a symbol of Christ and his Divine nature, of regeneration by baptism; it is also an emblem of St. John the Evangelist. Because it soars upward, the eagle is a symbol of the resurrection or ascension of Christ. Thus the eagle symbolizes baptized Christians, who have symbolically died and risen with Christ.
And the horses? If you look hard, you will see Christian symbolism there too. And not all nice, either. According to this source, in Biblical times, the horse was primarily a vehicle of war (Jer 6:23; 50:42; 51:27). The sudden appearance of one or more horses was an omen of war or deadly misfortune. Before the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Land of Promise, Moses instructed them, "He (Israel's king) shall not multiply horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses..." (Deu 17:16). Moses told the Israelites, the Lord was to be their confidence in war rather than armies with their horses and chariots (Deu 20:1-4). The psalmists considered the horse "a vain hope for safety" and encouraged Israel to place their trust in a God who was pleased by faith rather than by strength (Psa 20:7; 33:17-19; 147:10-11; see also Prov 21:31).
Further, the color of a horse is very important in determining its symbolism. White horses symbolize the sun, the moon, the sea, the heavens, justice, and holiness. Most sacred horses are white. During the Middle Ages, virgin heroes, saints, and Christ were depicted riding upon white horses. At the end of the age, Christ and His heavenly armies arrive, mounted on white horses (Rev 19:11-15). However, to dream of a white horse is considered an omen of death. Don’t forget, the Nigerian coat of arms has two white horses – surely an invitation to a double death, then. Thus if we are to take the symbolism argument further, we might as well start thinking about changing the Nigerian coat of arms with its Christian theology – as Nigeria being a secular nation, we can’t afford a particular religion to dominate. Once you start along this road, there is no knowing where it might end up.
Thus if we are to change the animals on the Nigerian coat of arms to appease to Muslim sensibilities, I have quite a few suggestions. The eagle can be replaced by a rat – for the rat represents the most accurate depiction of Nigerians and their leaders – thieving lot that they are. Get rid of the Christian horses and replace them with lizards, again another Nigerian political symbolism – slithering away from real political responsibilities.
I must say therefore that the most sober historical reflection on this issue is surely Nowa Omoigui’s New Naira Notes – Languages and Scripts; Can of Worms, which is a balanced recapitulation of the historical development of the Nigerian currency. Both the antagonists and protagonists will certainly benefit from the historical information – thus enabling them to escape from being labeled eunuchs in the harem of historical epistemology.
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