French lecturers' conference supports Francophony

The Nigerian state has invested heavily in French language studies in higher education since the country's independence 64 years ago. The various strands of Francophone studies that have subsequently developed were investigated at the recent 16th Annual Conference of the University French Teachers' Association of Nigeria, or UFTAN.

The conference was held at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, in Osun state, with the theme "French in the Wider World". Some 125 members of the association were there, with the event one of the best attended yet, said UFTAN's immediate past president R Adebisi.

The French language, in the context of West Africa, is of diplomatic and strategic importance to Nigeria, which is surrounded by French speaking countries.

They are members of the international organisation called Francophony - the commonwealth of the world's French speaking states. A participant argued that future UFTAN conferences should invite diplomatic representatives of Francophone countries.

French is the official language of some members of ECOWAS - the Economic Community of West African States - as well as an official language of Belgium, Canada and Switzerland.

France is no longer the sole custodian of the language, which has been appropriated by many countries all over the globe.

This pertinent observation reminded one of the conference of the International Federation of Teachers of French, or IFIT, which took place in Durban, South Africa, last year.

There the French minister of international cooperation informed the audience that by 2050, the Francophone countries of Africa - and not France - would guarantee the survival of the French language and by extension French culture.

Celebrating Francophone studies' professors

An interesting highlight of the conference was the celebration of Nigerian professors who have contributed to Francophone studies, as well as retired Francophone professors who are still rendering academic services including supervising postgraduate students*.

The presence of leading active and retired professors captured the history of the development and growth of French studies in Nigeria.

They are representatives of the first, second, third and fourth generations of Nigerian intellectuals deeply involved in Francophone studies since independence 64 years ago.

These professors, and those who could not be at the conference, are products of investments by the Nigerian state in creating a class of intellectuals whose main objective is to produce French graduates to cater for the diplomatic, military and economic interests of Nigeria and ECOWAS.

The investment of France in Francophone studies in Nigeria has also been important but peripheral to the core investment of Nigeria itself in this field of study. The French embassy, a traditional partner of UFTAN, promised continuous support for French studies in Nigeria's universities.

Four retired professors were honoured as UFTAN pacesetters - V Aire, R Elaho, F Emordi and E Echenim. A special publication was released in their honour titled French Language in Nigeria, edited by N Obianaju, E Omonzejie, G Simire and M Tijani.

French in the wider world

Professor EN Kwofie, one of the pioneers of French linguistics in Nigerian universities - a Ghanaian who eventually opted wholeheartedly for Nigerian citizenship - delivered a magisterial keynote address titled "French in the Wider World".

Strolling down memory lane, he demonstrated that the French elite over time developed the language as a strategic diplomatic and cultural tool in the community of nations. He argued that French would remain a language of communication in Africa.

The lecture reminded one of an important declaration of Francois Hollande, the French president, at the 2013 Francophone summit in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. "French language is now an African Language," he declared.

The four-day conference was mainly devoted to academic papers by UFTAN members in line with the conference theme. There were also two round table sessions specifically for distinguished scholars.

In the first Professor V Aire, in his paper "African Studies in French: A personalised testimony", demonstrated how Nigerian scholars had made immense contributions to African studies developed in Canada's Francophone universities in Quebec province.

He cited the participation of Nigerians in the creation of academic journals and articles in journals and books: Dictionnaires Des Oeuvres Afro-Africaines de langue Francaise, Ecriture Francaise, Presence Francophone, Revue Canadienne des Etudes Africaines and Etudes Litteraires among others.

He revealed that there were about 5,000 Nigerian students in Canadian Anglophone and Francophone universities.

An intellectual movement

The second round table was highly technical. In his paper, "Literature and Law", Professor 0 Oladitan, a literary critic and lawyer, illustrated the umbilical link between some literary writing and law.

He posited that the content of some novels could be subjected to legal analysis, and demonstrated his thesis by showing how legal terms can be used to analyse Sembene Ousman's novel Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu, a classic in the repertoire of Francophone novels in Africa.

Oladitan's presentation reminds one of the era of encyclopaedists, an intellectual movement in 18th century France. These iconoclasts demonstrated that there was constant correlation and interdependence between all parts of the body of knowledge.

There were also parallel sessions to accommodate various academic interests, ranging from comparative literature, French linguistics, translation and interpretation to culture and civilisations.

Some of the papers presented by PhD students had theoretical pitfalls and faulty formats and did not conform to international standards. Members agreed that the association should hold zonal seminars and workshops to assist these younger colleagues, supervised by active and retired professors.

The conference ended on two positive notes.

First, participants approved a proposal that the 17th UFTAN conference be held at the Nigeria French Village in Badagry in Lagos state. Second, a new executive was elected into office for two years, with the writer of this article elected president.

* Nigerian professors honoured for contributions to Francophone studies were: O Oladitan, C Mokwenye, V Okeke, M Iwuchukwu, E Obitaba, D Obieje, F Angrey, T Adejir, D Chima, V Obinna, I Mojola, B Ayeleru, R Adebisi and this writer. Retired professors honoured were: U Edebiri, I Mojola, V Aire, R Elaho, F Emordi, N Koffie, K Echenim and K Sonaiya.