Nigerian currency of N1,000, N500 and N200 denominations has Ajami – non-Arab language Arabic script – on them. Some argue this is not secular, while others say it is the only way a portion of the population can understand what is written.

Nigeria’s colonial past still affects life decades later. Nigeria has three major ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the west and Igbo in the east. It became an independent federal republic on October 1, 1960 after being a British colony in the 19th century, its current formation being shaped by the British by combining the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and Northern Nigeria Protectorate in 1914. 

While the country’s official language is English, the local ethnic languages are also spoken widely. The current problem with the Nigerian banknotes stems from the belief that any Arabic script is an indicator of Islam, while the country is supposed to support freedom of religion, with large populations of Christians in the south and Muslims in the north. 

Recently, a lawyer in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, has demanded that the country’s central bank (NCB) remove the Arabic script from naira banknotes. The Arabic script, in the Hausa language, denotes the currency value of the money.

According to Nairametrics, Chief Malcolm Omirhobo, who filed the suit before Justice Mohammed Liman, contends that “having Arabic inscriptions on the naira notes portrays Nigeria as an Islamic state, contrary to the country’s constitutional status of a secular state.”

However, in a New Yorker article from December 2015, Musa S. Muhammad, an archivist in the city of Kaduna, tells Caelainn Hogan that he believes “This is politics between South and North.” The letters on the currency, he tells her, are as secular in origin as the Roman alphabet used in modern Bibles. “Any non-Arab language written in Arabic script we call Ajami,” he says. “They feel that this is religious, but it’s not.”

Ajami script, that is, non-Arab language written in Arabic script, is also used in some other African countries, Nairametrics says. According to the BBC these include, “among others, Swahili in East Africa, Tamashek, the language of the Tuaregs in North and West Africa, and Nigerian languages like Kanuri, Nupe, Yoruba, Fulfulde and Hausa”. It predates the arrival of Western colonisers and Christian missionaries, and thus the Latin alphabet in Nigeria.

Chief Malcolm Omirhobo, who, according to Nairametrics, says he does not know what the Arabic inscriptions mean, has asked the court to order the CBN to replace them with either the country’s official language –English– or any of Nigeria’s three main indigenous languages: Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo.

The problem with doing so, however, is that there is a populace in Nigeria who have not had Western education and are only versed in Arabic lettering. Mannir Dan Ali, writing for the BBC, points out “The Ajami writing on each naira note is for the benefit of the tens of millions of Hausa speakers, who can only read and write in that script, which is taught in schools across the north. Such people could go to court to argue that their own rights were being infringed should the Ajami inscription be removed.”

The New Yorker article was written a year after a new 100 naira bill was introduced in Nigeria, which proved to be controversial because it replaced Ajami with Latin letters. According to the article, “Some Christians supported the move as a step toward de-Islamizing Nigeria, while many Muslims called it Islamophobic.”

According to the BBC, the controversy goes back even further: “The row first began a decade ago when, to commemorate Nigeria's 50th anniversary, the 50 naira note was redesigned. Four years later for the centenary of the country's creation, the 100 naira too was updated.”

According to the Cable, “currently, there is Ajami script on N1,000, N500 and N200 notes.”

The Cable explains that “the argument against the Arabic inscription on the naira notes is that it is a violation of sections 10 and 55 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Section 10 of 1999 Constitution reads: ‘The Government of the federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion.’”

“The notion is that Arabic and Islam are the same, and this has led to accusations that the Arabic “symbol” on the naira connotes religion and promotes Islamisation. However, section 55 specifies that the country’s affairs must be conducted in English, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa.”

The Cable concludes that: “Since Ajami script is in Hausa language and is not a symbol of Islam or any religion, many will argue that no law has been violated.”

Source: TRT World