As President Muhammadu Buhari’s aircraft taxied along the runway of the Abuja International Airport on Saturday, a presenter at one of Nigeria’s popular Pidgin radio stations announced to his listeners:
“The president don show.”
This Pidgin expression translates to “The president is back,” an explanation that Nigeria’s president has returned after a 103-day medical vacation in London.
Since the launch of the Wazobia FM, the first Nigerian station to broadcast fully in Pidgin, in 2007, the language has gained increased popularity as a medium of choice for broadcast across the country and the sub-region.
On Monday, the BBC launched its BBC Pidgin, the first African digital service that aims to provide news, current affairs and analysis of Nigeria, West and Central Africa, as part of the biggest expansion of its World Service since the 1940s.
“We are really excited that this is the first fully digital service that the BBC is offering in Africa and it is a really exciting opportunity for us,” Bilkisu Labaran, the BBC Nigeria’s Editorial Lead, said in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
“Pidgin is a real language of opportunity across the region, spoken by millions across the West and Central African region. It is spoken by 75 million people in Nigeria alone. By the time you to Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Liberia, you are speaking to millions and millions across this region.”
The West African Pidgin English, also known as the Guinea Coast Creole English or Broken English, originated during the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the late 17th and 18th centuries where it served as a language of communication between the British slave merchants and local African traders.
It gradually spread across other parts of West African colonies as a useful trade language, particularly among local ethnic groups who spoke different languages.
There is no official figure as to the precise number of Pidgin speakers in Nigeria but estimates say as a second language, it is spoken by about half of the population – up to 75 million people. And as one moves from southern to northern Nigeria as well as across the sub-region, variants of the language are common among the speakers.
Ms. Labaran said the variants of Pidgin across the region would serve as an opportunity to encourage a lot of engagement from the BBC’s audience.
“We have a network of reporters from Ghana, Nigeria, and others so we could reflect those variations,” she said.
“But with that engagement with our audiences, we will get inputs from them or have a robust debate on what’s the best way to write this word or that word, you know, we will encourage all of that so we could engage one another in agreeing on what’s the standardized way of writing something.
“This is an opportunity, Pidgin is an informal language; it’s not a written language so the BBC sees a role here in encouraging a discourse to reach that consensus so that we will take that opportunity of Pidgin being a lingua franca across the region to communicate.”
As part of the British government’s new investment through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, FCO, the sum of £289 million worth of investment would be channelled towards the launching of 12 new languages – six of them from Africa including three from Nigeria.
In addition to BBC Pidgin, broadcasts will also be launched in Afaan Oromo (Ethiopia); Amharic (Ethiopia); Gujarati (India); Igbo (Nigeria); Korean (North Korea, South Korea); Marathi (India); Punjabi (India, Pakistan); Serbian (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina), Telugu (India); Tigrinya (Ethiopia, Eritrea); and Yoruba (Nigeria, Benin, Togo).
Currently, the BBC World Service delivers content around the world in English and 28 other language services on radio, TV, and digital, reaching a weekly audience of 269 million people. In Africa, contents are delivered in English, French, Hausa, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Somali, and Kiswahili.
But the Pidgin Service hopes to make inroads in a region where the language is not accepted as an official lingua franca and its use in schools are frowned upon by the authorities.
Linguists, however, maintain that Pidgin is a full language in its own right and has grown to become a language of communication among young people mostly due to its ability to bring people together as well as its expressive and fun nature.
In 2014, then US ambassador to Nigeria, John Entwistle, caused a stir among listeners when he responded in Pidgin to a question on live radio about his government’s threat to sanction Nigeria after the country had signed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) bill into law.
“People talk about sanction, no be say US government know say sanction dey for Nigeria because of same sex palava o,” Mr. Entwistle had said, which simply meant that the US government was not aware of any sanctions on Nigeria because of the Same-Sex law.
The success of Wazobia FM after its debut a decade ago encouraged the launch of other fully Pidgin radio stations in Nigeria; even Wazobia FM followed up its success with the launch of Wazobia TV in 2014.
Some young people interviewed by PREMIUM TIMES described the introduction of more Pidgin broadcast services as a welcome development.
Simeon Zagonde, a Lagos resident, said, “Personally to me, I don’t subscribe to it but not everyone understands English, to me it’s welcome for those who cannot speak English or any native language.”
Another resident, Helen Mojisola, said, “It depends on their service and the sweetness of the word pronunciation, it’s a great one but if they don’t handle it well, it may not work.”
Already, the BBC Minute (English), launched in 2015, and the BBC World Service are partnering with local radio stations in countries around the world where partners take BBC Minute and air them on their own stations, including other versions like the ‘BBC Minute On..’ which focuses on a single subject in more detail.
The BBC said the new Pidgin Service is targeted at mostly the younger – and female – audiences with social media playing a key role.
Ms. Labaran said with Africa being the youngest continent in the world, it would be an opportunity to serve its young population.
“We will be known for the content that the BBC is traditionally known for which is the core news, because this generation is a ‘switched on’ generation – they may be based in Lagos, Yaounde, or Accra but they want to know what’s happening in Paris, in Hong Kong, in Barcelona, everywhere,” she said.
“So we are going to bring that core global news that is balanced, fair and impartial to that audience but also other contents – they also want to know what Jay-Z and Beyonce are doing; they want to know what D’banj goes to do in London; what Tiwa Savage is doing in Paris.
“So it’s connecting those worlds, bringing Africa to the world and bringing the world to Africa.”