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Meet the young Nigerians campaigning to end English-language discrimination

English is widely spoken in Nigeria, but many of its citizens must take an expensive test if they want to live or study abroad

Edikan Umoh
22 February 2022, 12.01am
Ebenezar Wikina is challenging the British government over its IELTS policy
Ebenezar Wikina

Campaigners in Nigeria are asking the British government to alter its policy of requiring English language tests for people who want to live or study in the UK.

Most overseas nationals applying for a UK visa must show proficiency in English by taking a standardised test, known as IELTS. Citizens of countries that the UK regards as “majority English-speaking” are exempt, but currently this doesn’t include Nigeria.

The campaign was launched by Ebenezar Wikina of Policy Shapers, a youth-led Nigerian think tank, in 2020. Since then, it has gained traction on social media under the hashtag #reformIELTS, and been covered by the BBC World Service. More than 70,000 people have signed a petition in support of the campaign.

Campaigners are unhappy because the tests are expensive and only valid for two years. Many also question why they are necessary at all in Nigeria, where English is widely spoken.

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Some Nigerians also regard the testing process as unfair. “The exam is actually testing how well you can perform under exam conditions,” says Desmond, who has taken the IELTS test.

“The more you practice, the more you’re able to get high marks,” says Ayantola, another IELTS veteran. “My friends who prepared longer got higher scores. It was more about time management and being smart about answering questions […] than knowledge of English.”

Wikina was prompted to launch the campaign when he applied to study for a degree at Nexford, an online university based in Washington DC. He was told that his existing qualifications in English were not valid and he would have to take an IELTS test.

After Wikina shared his correspondence with Nexford on Twitter, the university got in touch to say that it would soften its policy. Encouraged by this response, Wikina decided to shift the focus of his campaign to the UK, which oversees the IELTS system.

In October 2021, Policy Shapers wrote to the Home Office, the government department in charge of immigration control, to ask that Nigeria be added to the list of countries exempt from the test. The department said it needed evidence that more than half of Nigeria’s population speak English as a first language. “Currently, based on the information available to us, Nigeria does not meet the requirement,” the Home Office stated.

Ebenezer Wikina 2

Wikina is hopeful of change with his campaign gathering support

Ebenezar Wikina

Only official language

English is the only official language in Nigeria and is widely used in government, business and education. Just over half the population is estimated to speak at least some English, while its use is growing among young people. According to a 2020 survey, around 12% of Nigerians speak English as their primary language at home. That’s less than the Home Office’s requirement, but in a country of 200 million, still accounts for more than 20 million people.

Policy Shapers’ petition also points out that no Anglophone African countries are included on the UK’s list of exemptions, despite the fact that many of them are former British colonies and belong to the Commonwealth.

“We want to know how the majority-speaking countries list is periodically reviewed and updated,” Wikina says. “When was the last review? When did you last add a country? What criteria did you use to add the country? So there is a long list of questions.”

Campaigners are trying to gather more data on English speaking in Nigeria, in the hope that this will convince the UK government to revise its policy. “If this happens, Nigerians will no longer need to take the IELTS – and a win in the UK sets a precedent that makes it easier to convince the US, Canada, Australia etc to extend a similar exemption to us,” says Wikina.

If this approach fails, then campaigners want the IELTS qualification, which currently expires after two years, to remain valid for life – and for the test to cost 30–50% less. Currently, an IELTS test in Nigeria costs up to 90,000 naira (approximately £160), three times the minimum monthly wage.

Wikina has made representations to the British Council, which oversees IELTS tests in Nigeria, after joining its youth advisory board.

“One of the biggest narrative issues​ between the countries of Africa and the UK is the discrimination [against] the English language spoken on the continent,” says Wikina.

"The most important win for the campaign is that we have all woken up,” he says. “We need to speak up and ask questions about how we're treated as a people. If that's all we achieve, that's good. For Nigerians, there's the weird assumption that we don't know anything. I believe this will help correct that assumption.”

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