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Kiswahili suffers from legislation gaps

By Prof Inyani Simala | October 9th 2015

NAIROBI: Paul Nabiswa’s opinion in The Standard (Thursday September 3, 2015) raised interesting observations on Kiswahili and the Constitution. The issues articulated deserve attention in Kenya and the East African Community where the language serves as the lingua franca.

Chapter 2 Section 7 of the Constitution of Kenya (2010) recognises Kiswahili as the national and official language of the Republic, giving it the highest status compared to other languages and provides that the State shall promote, protect and develop it.

What exactly is the meaning, intention and implication of the Constitutional provision? Why has implementation remained unrealised? Why have policies and strategies not been developed as envisaged in the Constitution? What is the relationship between the needs and rights of Kiswahili?

The status accorded Kiswahili reflects recent global events and activities that include the 1996 World Conference on Linguistic Rights, the resultant Barcelona Declaration on Linguistic Rights (1996) and the Scientific Council of professionals in Linguistic Law. The main objective has been fostering equality in linguistic rights and the promotion of international commitment in respecting the rights of linguistic groups.

While the Constitution of Kenya may pass as being innovative in language rights in general and Kiswahili rights in particular, Section 7 of Chapter 2 is a classic example of what a vague law can do as it is not sufficiently concrete to derive any guidance as to desirable means of implementation.

The provision does not include enforceable rights. The existing lacuna and implementation gap make it a soft law instrument than a binding source of law. This may account for lack of initiatives on individuals, groups of people, institutions and even the Government, for they do not have to fear legal consequences.

This leads us to wonder whether the constitutional promise is a mirage or mere symbolic claims to language rights. This is especially so considering that linguistic rights are at once individual and collective, and may include the right for one’s own language to be taught; the right of access to linguistics services; the right to an equitable presence of the language in the communications media; the right to receive attention in own language from Government bodies and in socio-economic relations.

However, read with other provisions, Section 7 has the potential for far-reaching implications, especially on policy, planning and practice of the language. These three aspects are critically important for scholars to delve into in their researches, conferences, symposia, colloquia and publications and offer deep critical analysis and important insights into the implementation challenges.

There is need to move beyond the neo-classical approach and instead apply a historical-structural perspective that places politics at the centre of the language planning enterprise.

The Constitution can only support and enforce what the Government desires in terms of Kiswahili language practices in domains like education, religion and the media.

While necessary, law in itself is not sufficient to change attitudes that people have about Kiswahili.

To change existing Kiswahili practices in the country is essentially a political and legislative process. There is need for definite policies and practices beyond the current ambiguous and uncoordinated state of affairs. A clear language policy is a part of social development.

Unlike previously when the Constitution in Kenya was biased against Kiswahili, the new Constitution has made great strides considering that language policy is what a government does either officially through legislation, court decisions or policy.

The constitutional provision of official and national statuses on Kiswahili should be seen as a binding principle, which requires further concretisation by legislation.

What is needed now is an emancipatory language policy and practice that does not view Kiswahili as being of little relevance to development.

The struggle in favour of the preservation, maintenance and enhancement of Kiswahili has to be continuously waged and ultimately won through protection and development for individual, group, national and regional benefits.

Beyond the national Constitution, Kiswahili rights need to be translated into County and East African Community constitutions and rules so that the language enjoys treble legitimacy at the regional, national and county levels.

Giving it specific status in Community and county laws will help to enhance its role where the national constitution is deficient.

 Prof Simala is Executive Secretary, East African Kiswahili Commission, Arusha, Tanzania.

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