Monday, April 16, 2007

Paradigmatic Shift in Literary Ignorance – Removal of Ajami from Nigerian Currency Notes

  • 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 rarely bother to visit Nigerian "Naija" websites on the web or any other group of politically motivated Nigerians. I know what I will find -- the usual vituperative tirade against northern Nigerians, Muslims, Hausa, ad nauseum. Southern Nigerians have three fundamental articles in their crusade against northern Nigeria: Islamic fanaticism, conservative feudalism and the “born to rule” syndrome. No matter how many groups of Nigerians you interact with, these three form the main focus of the divide in Nigeria. They are the main reasons why Nigerian "unity" is virtually impossible.

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

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.

Abubakar, Aliyu (1972) Al-Thakafatul Arabiyyati Fi Nigeriya, 1750-1960 (Arabic Literature in Nigeria, 1750-1960). PhD Thesis, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, 1972.

Adamu, A. U. (2007). Manuscript Learnability and Indigenous Knowledge for Development – Hausa Ajami in Historical Context. Paper 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, organised by Arewa House, in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy, Abuja (link posted on this blog).

Adelabu, A. (1971). Studies in trends in Nigeria’s educational development: An essay on sources and resources. African Studies Review 14 (1) April 1971, pp. 101-112.

Ajayi, J.F.A. (1965). Christian missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891: The making of a new elite. Evanston, Il.: Northwestern University Press.

Al-Hajj, M. (1968), A Seventeenth Century Chronicle on the Origins and Missionary Activities of the Wangarawa, being a translation of Waraqa maktuba fiha asl al-Wangariyin al-muntasibin lik-shaikh Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. Muhammad Qithima. Kano Studies, Vol 1. No 4. 1968, pp. 7-16.

Ayandele, E.A. (1955). The missionary impact on modern Nigeria, 1842-1914: A political and social analysis. New York: Humanities Press.

Ayandele, E.A. (1969). Traditional rulers and missionaries in pre-colonial West Africa. Tarikh, 3 (1), 23-37.

Barkindo, B.M (1988). The Role of al-Maghili in the Reforms of Sarki Muhammadu Rumfa (1463-1499) of Kano: A re-examination, Kano Studies New Series Vol 3 No 1, 1987/88 pp. 85-110.

Bassey, M.O. (1991). Missionary rivalry and educational expansion in Southern Nigeria, 1885-1932. The Journal of Negro Education, 60 (1), Winter 1991, pp. 36-46.

Chamberlain, J.W., The Development of Islamic Education in Kano City, Nigeria, with emphasis on Legal Education in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 1975 p. 52.

Davis, T.J. and Kalu-Nwiwu, A. (2001). Education, ethnicity and national integration in the history of Nigeria: Continuing problems of Africa’s colonial legacy. The Journal of Negro History, 86 (1), Winter 2001, pp. 1-11.

Dobronravine, N. (2002) Hausa Ajami Literature and Script: Colonial Innovations and Post-Colonial Myths in Northern Nigeria. Paper presented at the Second International Colloquium African Muslim Responses to the State, with Special Reference to the Colonial Period, held on 15-19th May 2002, and organized by the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), Program of African Studies, Northwestern University, Chicago.

Graham, S.F. (1966). Government and Mission Education in Northern Nigeria, 1900-1919 - with special reference to the work of Hanns Vischer. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.

Hiskett, M (1965). “The Historical Background to the Naturalization of Arabic Loan-words in Hausa”, African Language Studies, VI (1965), I8-26.

Hunwick, J. (1996), Sub-Saharan Africa and the Wider World of Islam: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 26, Fasc. 3. (Aug., 1996), pp. 230-257.

Lovejoy, P. E. (1978), “Notes on the Asl Al-Wangariyin” Kano Studies (New Series), 1 (3), 1978.

Mohammed, A., and Khan, M. B (1981). “From Cradle to Grave: The Contribution of Ulama to Education in Nigeria. Kano Studies Vol 2 No 2, 1981 pp. 110-145.

Murray, A.V. (1935). Education under Indirect Rule. Journal of the Royal African Society, 34 (136), July 1935, pp. 227-268.

Palmer, H.R. (1908) The Kano Chronicle, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 38 (Jan. – Jun., 1908), pp. 58-98.

Pasch, H. (2004). Competing scripts: The introduction of the Roman alphabet in Africa.’ International Journal of the Sociology of Language.

Philps, J.E. (1989). “A History of the Hausa Language” in Kano and Some of her Neighbors edited by Bawuro Barkindo. Zaria: Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1989 pp. 39-58.

Zarruk, Rabi’u Muhammad (1978) “Dangantakar Hausa Da Larabci”, in Ibrahim Yaro Yahaya and Abba Rufa’i (eds), Studies in Hausa Language, Literature and Culture – The First Hausa International Conference, Center for the Study of Nigerian Languages, Bayero University, Kano, 1978


Salisu said...

Yes this really exposes the real "mob mentality", ignorance of history and lack of foresight – that led to the removal of Ajami from Nigerian Currency Notes. In so doing, they might have open a lot more can of worms than they thought they have solved.

Thanks a lot for this write-up,
Salisu U. Danyaro.


I enjoyed reading your perspective in this well written post.

I, however, have to challenge a few of your arguments. Nigeria has various national languages. English is considered a national language to help various peoples communicate with each other. It is therefore used to teach students all around the country. It, thus, is not unreasonable to expect that northerners would or should be familiar with English on their currency. The reverse, southerners familiar with Ajami, is not plausible. On that basis alone, it makes sense to not have Ajami on the currency or at least include it with other lanuages (written in whatever script is chosen) on Naira notes.

Your comment on OBJ's religion and the religion of the CBN governor is confusing and I am hoping for some explanation. The currency with Ajami was released during their administration right? Or was it during the Abacha regime? If Abacha instituted those currency notes, then maybe there could be some valdity to your suggestion. If not, well...

As to Christian symbolism, I am a Christian and have never heard of the connection between an Eagle and Christ. If anything, the Eagle siply reflects the national bird, not a religion. And, regarding the analysis about St. John, you would be referring to Catholicism, which, I think, does not reflect a majority of Nigerian Christians. Thus, you might have gone a little overboad on the generalization.

As to your analysis of the horses, and the discussion on rats and lizards, I won't go there because that seemed rhetorical. In fact, if I follow you line of argument, one could claim that horses are refletive of the northern equestrian tradition. I wonder how that would fit into your analysis.

I am curious about your opinion on otehr Nigerian issues and will peruse your blog to see if you have touched on them. It is a shame that you do not frequent other Naija blogs. I think your perspective could be beneficial to many of the conversations others ar ehaving about Nigeria and its future.


Anonymous said...

i wanna send warm loves, the author of this page, and all nice persons who made the pade what is now,

i just wanna 2 comment on the following topics:

1: almost all northerners speak hausa, regardless to their tribes, hausa untes us, as northerners and represents us, my experience shows me that northerners understands hausa more than any other language, why not use hausa as our special langauge

2: english reflects colonialism and symbolyses it , if i may put it that way, we wanna have free nigeria, i still have difficulties expressing myself in english and i deeply think it is not an african langauge, why should it imposed on us
3: i hope u will post next articles in both hausa and english ,and probably arabic ,as to enble us understand it,

Anonymous said...

asslam alaikum

it is wrong to remove the ajami script from the currancy

it is like saying we are not part of this country

it is like saying we have no history

it will be crime against our culture tradition, religion, such a misguided action paves the way to ,,,,,,,,,,,,,, this is cultural genocide
are they saying we are not nigerians

finally sir?

i eagerly want to have the answer to this question

did the government remove the script from the currancy or not?

shin anriga an cire rubutun ajami daga kudin namu ne ko kuwa kukarin hakan akeyi?
inaso bayani saboda ni yanzu ba'a gida nakeba