Uganda: Why Obote Wanted Swahili as National Language


Late last year, government declared the teaching of Swahili in all primary schools compulsory.

The directive is in sync with the East African regional integration. Save for Uganda, Swahili is either a national language, the official or unofficial language in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

But the National Resistance Movement government is not the first to try to popularise Swahili.

In July 1967, then president Milton Obote presented a paper, "Language and National Identity" at Makerere University during a four-day conference on language and nation building.

The president acknowledged that the country was facing a challenge on having a national language.

"I want to say briefly that Uganda finds difficulties in identifying herself, and that Uganda has a serious language problem. Our present policy as a government is to teach more and more English in schools. We are not unmindful of disadvantages inherent in this policy," he said.

Obote blamed the promotion of English at the cost of an indigenous national language to the colonial mentality that was adopted after independence.

"We know that English was the language of the people who were rulers. We know that many of our people learned English in order to serve in the Administration."

The continued use of English as the official language, which was a reserve for the minority, was looked at as an extension of the imperial legacy in an independent Uganda.

"English, therefore, remains the national language in Uganda when at the same time it is a language that the minority of our people can use for political purposes to improve their own political positions. Some of our people can use it in order to improve their economic status," Obote said.

From the inception of election of national representatives, English was made a national language. In the first general election of 1961, one of the key requirements for a candidate was the ability to speak and understand English.

"We have, therefore, adopted English as our political and national language," Obote said.

As a language spoken by the minority, English was to be seen as a continuation of the colonial agenda and alienation of the majority of the population. Obote warned of the consequences.

"There is a real possibility that as long as English is maintained as the official language, spoken by a minority, a charge against its use could be made on the ground that it is the language of the privileged group," he said.

Despite his criticism of the use of English, he was not oblivious to its importance.

Rooting for Swahili

Although English was not the ideal national language, Obote was neither in support of any of the indigenous languages.

"We could not, for instance, adopt Lugbara as our national language. The task of teaching Lugbara itself would be beyond our capacity. Language has an economic and political power in a country of this kind. Teaching Lugbara or adopting it could result in serious riots and instability," he warned.

The adoption of any local language was, and probably still is, a riddle. Even the taking up of the then widely spoken local languages was not as easy.

"Luganda and Lunyoro are spoken by the greatest number of our people, but immediately we adopt either of them as the official language for administrative purposes or legislation, some of us will have to go out of the government. Other areas would feel unrepresented. So, there again, we find no alternative to English," Obote said.

According to the former president, a country like Uganda needed a language that unites the country and its neighbours.

"The problem posed by languages like Runyoro-Rutoro and Luganda in the context of Uganda's geographical position is a different problem from that posed, for instance, by Swahili. It would be difficult for the Congolese who already speak some kind of Swahili to bother to learn our new national language when they know that across the borders of Uganda there are millions of people who speak a language they already know, which is Swahili," he said.

"It is possible today for the people of Uganda to communicate with people in the neighbouring countries in broken Swahili, but it is not possible for the people of Uganda to communicate with the neighbouring countries in broken Luganda."

Later attempts

When Idi Amin came to power in 1971, he, like Obote, was faced with the same problem of having a national language. He also vouched for Swahili.

Writing in a paper The Divisive Nature of Ethnicity in Ugandan Politics, Before and After Independence, Andy Lancaster says: "In August 1973, Amin attempted to address a long-standing problem by declaring that Swahili would become the official language in Uganda. This provided opportunities for people who were previously unable to exert themselves on the political level because of linguistic barriers, and because no group had a monopoly of the language, it represented an attempt at ethnic equalisation.

"The adoption of Swahili as the national language, however, proved to be one of the very few cultural gains brought about by Amin's rule."

Language and national building

The challenge Obote faced was aligning his choice of a national language with its culture.

"Swahili was taken out of schools in the past for political reasons. I am not quite convinced that adopting an African language as a national language would discourage all other languages around the country," he said at the conference.

He insisted that the need for a national language was not for political purposes only.

"We don't need the national language for the workers to talk and argue their terms with their employers. We need such a language to cover every aspect of our lives intellectually, politically, economically," Obote said.

"When I move out of Kampala to talk to the people, I have to talk in English. I lose a lot as it has to be translated through a third party. That's why they say there are no secrets in Africa."

Dr Gilbert Gumoshabe, the head of department of African Languages at the School of Languages, Literature and Communication at Makerere University, says: "We think in our local languages and later translate the thoughts into English as we speak."

This supports Obote's assertion that talking through a translator makes one lose a lot.

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