Nigeria’s official language is English. Why do its citizens have to prove it?
The UK requires Nigerians to take an English test to study or immigrate there. Critics say it must be cancelled or at least reformed.
Growing up in Nigeria, Anita Eboigbe* always imagined she’d study abroad and she eventually decided to pursue a degree in the UK. She was nervous about some aspects of this new life but language was never one of them. All her life she had studied, worked and debated in English, Nigeria’s official language. She was taken aback then to learn that to study in the UK, she first had to pass an English language test. She was further stunned to learn that the exam costs N90,000 ($216) to take and is valid for just two years.
“When I saw the prep materials for this exam, it just didn’t make sense to me that something that was my daily life, I had to prove it,” she says.
The #ReformIELTSPolicy Pushback
Eboigbe is part of a growing opposition in Nigeria to the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), which is mandatory for many people seeking to “work, study or migrate to a country where English is the native language”. Some campaigners are calling for the price of the test to be reduced, pointing out that it costs three times Nigeria’s monthly minimum wage, and for its validity to be made indefinite. Others say IELTS should be abolished for Nigerians altogether given that the country’s primary language is English. The UK already exempts 18 countries worldwide on this basis.
Some speculate that there is a financial motive for IELTS’ reluctance to exempt more countries. In 2021, over 2 million people took the test, including around 420,000 from Africa. If the cost of the test is around $216 for all candidates, IELTS would have made about $90 million from individuals in Africa and about $432 million globally that year.
This advocacy has been mostly spearheaded by the civil society organisation Policy Shapers. Its founder, Ebenezar Wikina, had a similar experience to Eboigbe when he applied to an online university based in Washington DC. He appealed to the university to waive the examination. When he shared their email correspondence on Twitter, it went viral and the university acceded to his request.
The UK Home Office’s response and justification
In October 2021, in response to questions by the BBC on Nigeria’s possible exemption from IELTS, the UK Home Office, justified its position, saying: “We must have evidence that at least 51 per cent of the population speaks English as a first language for a country to be included in the [exempted] Majority English Speaking Country list.”
When African Arguments raised the issue again in Parliament to Kevin Foster, UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) on 19 April 2022, the same explanation was offered. When asked for data about the number of Nigerians who have taken IELTS in the last five years and the average pass rate, Foster said such data “is not information held by the Home Office”.
Since 2020, the UK Home Office has also invested more in actively promoting IELTS, appointing three Nigerian ambassadors to promote the examination. The three individuals – Dipo Awojide, Senior Lecturer in Strategy at Nottingham Business School; Babatunde Omotoye, a workforce enablement manager in Canada; and Fola Aina, an international security and development expert – are all well known “career influencers” notable for sharing professional insights. They have regularly posted tweets about the IELTS and informed their followers about exam dates.
It is notable that before being made ambassador, Awojide was a critic of IELTS. In a now deleted tweet in May 2020, he wrote: “I still don’t understand why people have to pay N75k for International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and the result expires in 2 years. That’s a lot of money. They make billions of Naira in profit from Nigeria. Reduce the fare by half or even 30%.”
Wikina tried to contact the ambassadors but had no response and was blocked by one. African Arguments’ attempts to contact them for comment also went unanswered.
“Especially because the calibre of people selected [are] very fine gentlemen who are well-read and exposed… I kept wondering why they would accept such ‘titles’ even when they understood the context,” says Wikina.
A recent analysis of IELTS finances found that it spends more promoting the exam ($118.6 million) than on providing scholarships to people in the Commonwealth ($116.9 million).
Philip Akinwale, a Nigerian student who is interested in further studies abroad but cannot afford the fees, told African Arguments: “Just as the British got to us through our leaders during colonialism, they are getting to us through our people.”
A global reform campaign
Opposition to IELTS is not limited to Nigeria. Wikina says Policy Shapers is organising with other youth groups in Malawi and Kenya, and says its advocacy has inspired young people from India and Pakistan.Ghana’s parliament has started a discussion over seeking an exemption from the test, and a petition calling for English proficiency exams to be ended for Africans from Commonwealth countries has received nearly 100,000 signatures.
“We are excited about the possibilities this movement in Nigeria has opened up for Africa and the rest of the world, and we are committed to doing all within our power to drive the conversation that puts an end to English language discrimination in Nigeria and the world at large,” says Wikina.
He is hopeful that IELTS requirements will eventually be abolished for Nigeria and other English-speaking countries, but concedes that victory may come in stages.
“In a situation where our ideal ask is not fulfilled, the only thing that would make sense is for the price to be reduced by at least 50% and for the validity to last for life, just like the French DELF/DALF test,” he says.
Without reforms such as this, Nigerians like Eboigbe* remain in a frustrating bind. “I might have to write [IELTS] if I want to get another degree,” she says begrudgingly, “but it will be out of pain.”
Anita Eboigbe* is currently a colleague of the reporter, at HumangleMedia.
*An earlier version of the piece had misspelled the names Babatunde Omotoye and Fola Aina. The error is regretted.