Citizenship is a Room full of Elephants – An Engagement with the Reply by van Pinxteren & Oloruntoba-Oju on Citizenship and Language

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It’s nice to be recognised, even for the wrong reasons. Over the past year or so, we have been thinking and writing about citizenship in Africa very much in the spirit of inspiring conversation and further reflections in dialogue with both development policy makers and fellow academics. Rather than an exhaustive lexicon of the concept and its implications, we focussed on citizenship as a pillar of legal and political state-building and argued for “A more genuine investment in the promotion and defence of full citizenship rights and obligations as a step towards better governance”.

In response to our recent DiA blog post on Politics, Citizenship and African Governance, which summarises some of these reflections, van Pinxteren and Oloruntoba-Oju point at “The Elephant in the Room: Citizenship and language”. They bemoan that we do “not discuss the role that language plays in promoting citizenship”. We plead guilty. Indeed, there are several aspects neglected, as in most contributions we know, dealing with citizenship. Several elephants in the room, if you will. Language – as a potentially constructive contributing factor – is among these.

Our critics observe: “In an article in Forum for Development Studies the authors do mention language, but always with a negative connotation: as exacerbating domestic tensions, as articulating clientelist relations, or in connection to colonial divide-and-rule policies.” We indeed refer to language in ways intended to alert readers to asymmetric power structures and the potentially negative impact language might have.

Following a reference to the same study by Mamdani on Citizen and Subject highlighted by van Pinxteren and Oloruntoba-Oju, we state: “Colonial policy and administration thereby reinforced, and in some cases constructed deep-seated particularistic identities based on local cultural traditions and languages. It also spatialised racial and class inequalities. These historical developments illustrate how the state, through an array of provisions, can (ab)use its power of definition by creating barriers to citizenship.” (p. 6)

We then point out that “divides contribute to domestic tensions in several African countries, exacerbated by religion and language (such as in Nigeria and Cameroon).” (p. 8) We finally observe: “Existing power structures are often criticized for remaining, to a certain extent, shaped and affected by clientelist relations based on group bonds characterised by regional-particularistic collectives of people sharing the same local culture and traditions (as articulated through language and ethnicity).” (p. 15) These statements are intended to contextualise language – and ethnicity – as variables used in asymmetric power structures, not least under the hegemonic rule of a central state authority. This emphasis, we believe does not preclude a more productive or enabling role of language in relation to citizenship, but emphasises a key theme in the vast literature on the subject, central to our argument regarding state-citizen relations.

Following their opening salvo, the “reply” does not engage with our blog further but presents an own narrative – which is a welcome and complementary contribution. Nigeria (which does not feature prominently in our texts) is the only case referred to. As it happens, an article ahead of the Nigerian elections recently pointed out: “the experience in multi-religious societies where religious communities vie for resources and power does point to some dangers for peace, development and democracy.” – Feel free to replace religion by language – and let us all confess that in none of our texts does religion play the role it deserves – just as much as language – as one among many factors related to citizenship.

Returning to language: policies that already exist in some African countries and their impact (or lack thereof) contribute nuance and alternative perspectives to the Nigerian case study. The model that the authors suggest (recognition for a limited number of national languages together with the former colonial language, following the example of India) has already been applied elsewhere on the Continent.

Since the 1970s, for example, Upper Volta – while keeping French as the official language – has attributed a specific status to Mooré, Jula and Fulfuldé as widespread languages (langues nationales véhiculaires de grande diffusion) out of the 60 languages spoken in the country: while the policy shift has had limited impact on everyday use in official contexts, it has featured prominently in the renaming of the country as Burkina Faso during Thomas Sankara’s revolutionary junta. South Africa is another example that comes to mind, with its post-apartheid constitution that granted official status to nine more languages beyond English and Afrikaans, although this has not prevented recent controversies and protests concerning the legacy of colonial languages in higher education.

This is not to mention those cases where an African language has become the only official language (such as Somali in Somalia), have multiple official African languages (such as Amharic, Afan Oromo, Afar, Somali, Tigrigna in Ethiopia), or include an official African language alongside a language of colonial heritage (such as Kiswahili and English in Tanzania or Kirundi and French in Burundi).

Kiswahili is particularly interesting because of its regional spread and as a lingua franca in the East African region. The African Union recognizes African languages too. Article 11 of the Protocol on Amendments to the Constitutive Act of the African Union states that “the official languages of the Union and all its institutions shall be Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Kiswahili and any other African language”.

Similarly, the claim that no political speech is held in African languages and that media remain focused on European languages does not resonate at all with multi-lingual realities in countries such as Senegal, Burundi or Tanzania. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nationally televised inauguration of the new Zulu King Misuzulu in late October 2022 like other speakers partly in Zulu (which is not his language). Namibia’s first Head of State Sam Nujoma on many occasions addressed a local audience in his mother tongue. Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa often articulates his views in Shona. There are certainly many more examples, which all testify to the fact that the use of local languages plays a role in power relations.

As the authors suggest: “we can no longer afford to discuss citizenship in Africa without confronting the issue of language, the elephant in the room”. It can also serve as an appeal that language can no longer be discussed without adding citizenship to the elephant in the room. It certainly is correct to diagnose that engagement with citizenship in African countries lacks sufficient attention paid to language – by no means anything exceptional when it comes to our approach. But discussing language seems to display mostly a similar abstention from engaging with citizenship as a normative-legal framework of entitlement or exclusion.

Even pioneering advocacy of multi-lingual intra-state communication, most notably by Neville Alexander’s The Power of Languages and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s engagement with languages, among others in Decolonising the Mind and The Language of Languages as far as we know present no solution beyond creating awareness for the essential role of local languages in culture, identity and communication.

Leaders of anti-colonial struggles also articulated their views in the colonial language, for instance Amilcar Cabral, aware of the link between liberation and culture or the treatment of colonial-cultural implications by Frantz Fanon, to mention only two prominent examples. One can note, anti-colonial movements mobilised and campaigned in the colonial language – and maintained it as the official medium of the sovereign state, while also – when and where possible – using a regional language: During the decades leading up to the independence of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the early 1960s, Swahili functioned as an international means of political collaboration. It enabled freedom fighters throughout the region to communicate their common aspirations even though their native languages varied widely.  

In Zambia, Mubanga Kashoki, a linguist and long-time promoter of African languages, argued, that the question of which language to adopt as the language of the Zambian state was strongly tied to political considerations of national unity promoted under the slogan of ‘One Zambia One Nation’. A balance was thus sought, between the official colonial language of English – that was pragmatically maintained to avoid the emergence of ethnic nationalism – and the promotion of a multi-linguistic landscape through education and the media.

What might be seen as a rather pragmatic decision within the confinements of a so-called nation state institutionalised at Independence and in almost all cases within the confinements of colonial boundaries imposed on local communities, thereby forcing these into an entity or separated them into different countries of belonging, finds no mercy in the eyes of van Pinxteren and Oloruntoba-Oju.

As they point out: “it is fiction to think that African educational systems will be able to give enough of its people sufficient knowledge of English – just as the European systems would not be able to do this if Europe were to choose to use Mandarin Chinese as its common language.” Well, China was no colonial power in European countries, imposing Mandarin as official language before their foreign rule was ended, leaving the language behind in all documents codifying norms and laws. Why should “Europe” (or “Africa”, for that matter) chose an entirely different language never directly connected to its history and state formation?

Instead, there is a misleading pseudo-solution suggested: “in Germany, Hochdeutsch is used by speakers of Bavarian, Franconian, and a number of other German-like languages. These are not all mutually intelligible – but learning formal Hochdeutsch is a lot easier for all these speakers, than learning, for example, Polish or Yoruba would be.” So where is the Hochnigerian, the Hochnamibian or the Hochcameroonian – feel free to add – which can follow the same trajectory? (Though we note how Kiswahili acts as a common language across national borders and hundreds of local languages in the east of the Continent.) The authors at least concede: “the language ecology of Nigeria is more complex than that of Germany.” All the local German dialects mentioned are variations of German as a shared language.

This does not exclude jokes, which are often used to self-confidently distance with pride the cultivated local dialect from Hochdeutsch. The federal state of Baden-Württemberg, where Schwäbisch- and Badisch-Alemannisch are the main local languages (not free from harmless animosities between the two groups), used to welcome visitors at public places like Stuttgart airport with the slogan “We know everything. Except Hochdeutsch” (Wir können alles. Ausser Hochdeutsch). As a survey established, the slogan (introduced in 1999) became the most popular and best known of all federal German states, known by 70% of all national respondents.

Declared as a “reply”, the authors offer a welcome emphasis on the role of languages in mainly the Nigerian context, but limited engagement with our article(s), nor with citizenship. As they admit: “Stating the problem is easy – finding answers is difficult.” To end on a positive note: We couldn’t agree more.

Jesper Bjarnesen (@BjarnesenJesper) is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala.

Cristiano Lanzano (@stiannu) is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala.

Henning Melber (@HenningMelber) is Associate at the Nordic Africa Institute and President of EADI (

Patience Mususa (@PatienceMususa) is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala.

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