Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa

The conventional approach to the analysis of language pluralism in the new states of Africa has been to label Africa’s nations “tribes” and to identify the project of cultural homogenization of the tribes who live within the boundaries of the internationally accepted state boundaries as one of “nation building.” In this postindependence commentary, the recognition of a Luo or an Igbo nation was seen as retrograde, but embedding the Luo tribe into a “Kenyan nation” or the Igbo peoples into the “Nigerian nation” was seen as progressive. Ideology, education, and the political wizardry of charismatic founding fathers would provide the nurturing for the integrated growth of these new nation-states.
Language issues never sat well in these abstract discussions of nation building. To be sure, Julius Nyerere, the most eloquent proponent of the nation-building project, could champion Swahili as Tanzania’s national language. Many historical factors made this project feasible. Islamic trade routes brought Swahili as a lingua franca to all reaches of the country; Swahili is structurally close to the Bantu languages of Tanzania; German and British colonialists relied upon Swahili for colonial administration; no language group made up more than 10 percent of the country’s population; and the people whose mother tongue is Swahili were never considered as a political threat to any other group. Charisma was still crucial. Nyerere’s translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Swahili demonstrated not only the literary skills of the country’s first president but his commitment to the ideal of weaving the Sukuma, Nyamwesi, Haya, Zigula, Yao, Nyakyusa, and other groups into a single nation.
But for most newly independent African countries, the only language that could apparently serve as a lingua franca was the language of colonial domination. Nation building for Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Zaire meant defining the nation — at least in its language component — in foreign terms. How could the cultivation of English in Nigeria, or of French in Senegal, be called “nation” building?
What most analyses of nation building ignored…is that rulers may have a greater need to construct states (that is, to establish effective social control over a bounded territory) than to build nations. They may therefore have interests at odds with societal groups….Their battles with societal groups are not necessarily a matter of modern nationalists confronting anachronistic tribalists. These battles have much to do with the terms of the state’s domination over society. The concern…is to see how one component of the nation — language — gets pulled into the battle for the institutionalized domination over society by a ruling cadre, otherwise known as state building.
—  David D. Laitin, Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa, 1992

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