Ebenezar Wikina’s #ReformIELTS campaign is the conversation we all should be having

Dennis Da-ala Mirilla
*Ebenezar Wikina had influenced a University to change its IELTS policy | *He argues that Nigeria is an English-speaking country and should be excluded from IELTS | *Policy Shapers is expanding its scope

Ebenezar Wikina, like many Nigerians, is educated in English. His career has taken him to some of the highest levels in academia; certification from Harvard, a degree from the London School of Journalism, a Mandela Washington fellow, with writings in The HuffPost and Al Jazeera.

How Ebenezar Wikina joined the #ReformIELTS movement

In 2020, he wanted to apply for a degree in business from a university in America. So, he sent all his credentials, but he was denied. The university said he needed one more certification; the IELTS.

The IELTS – International English Language Testing System exam is one of many English proficiency exams that many western schools demand from Africans, including Africans from countries with English as their official language, before being accepted into their school.

Wikina was surprised. “I just thought ‘this doesn’t make any sense…’ What form of English will they speak in your university that is not spoken in all of the places I’ve gone to study?” he said in an interview with Technext.

Fire shut up in his bones, and he took to Twitter to reveal the discrimination that had been metted to him by the American school. After much back and forth and pressure on social media, the school changed its IELTS policy. For Wikina, the work had only just begun. “They changed their policy. But that’s just one policy,” he said.

A short reference

In her book Minor Feelings, Cathy Part Horn, the Korean American poet, writes about “the racialised range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head.”

As Ukraine was pounded by Russia with bombing a few weeks ago, to great outrage from Africans all over the world, a video went viral of journalists working in places like CBS saying that war-torn Ukraine now looks like “somewhere in Africa.”

The problem with that statement is that somewhere in Africa is the way it is because of the war there, not because Africa is supposed to look like that. That statement from western journalists is the culmination of years of malign that Africans have faced in every corner of the world; the microaggressions, the fragrant passive-aggressive behaviour, the overt and covert racism, the denial of things earned and deserved, the refusal to see Africans as equals, as people that deserve things simply because they deserve them, the minor feelings.

Why is Nigeria writing IELTS discriminatory?

Wikina said that the UK Home Office responded months after and gave a “flimsy” response, saying that they made the decision from studying research and data.

The #ReformIELTS group “went to work for 2 weeks and put together a 15-page policy brief,” and bombarded the Home Office in February with data from the UN, the Bureau of Statistics, WAEC, Statista, the Annual English Proficiency Index that ranks Nigeria 2.6 in Africa, and many others, that show that Nigerians are proficient in the language.

“We are still waiting for their response.”

“Generally, this is a form of discrimination. Being former British colonies, being first language English speakers, the music, the cartoon, the movies and everything that we are exposed to is pretty much the English language,” he said.

The UK listed Nigeria as a priority market in the education sector in 2020, and 2021 as part of their International Education Strategy. But will not permit Nigerians to come in and school without the IELTS, in part for the financial gains that it brings into their economy. Nigerians spend over 5.5 billion naira every year paying for the IELTS exam.

Also because of the discrimination that Africa faces in the global community.

“If we agree that the world is a global village…and people are allowed to move freely to wherever they want to…and study wherever they want to study….the UK is happy to give countries in the Caribbean exemption…but won’t give Africans exemption. All of these countries including the African countries are part of the Commonwealth…Then what is common about the Commonwealth if a whole section of the Commonwealth can be discriminated against?”

Ebenezar Wikina

Is #ReformIELTS just wailing?

Wikina is very conscious about how the #ReformIELTS movement is received both by Nigerians and the world. He doesn’t want it to be viewed as yet another African complaining on the internet about the west.

“We are not just trying to complain,” he said. “This is not just a basic rant. This is a policy argument and the back and forth will go on until we come to a logical conclusion…This is more about international relations, about globalisation.”

“African countries are always looked at as the ones that are being helped with charity. You can’t do charity with one hand and take away 5.5 billion naira with another hand. I just think it doesn’t make sense,” he adds.

Ebenezar Wikina recognises the Nigerian purchasing power and he will use that to demand better treatment for Nigerians by the UK.

“Being a huge market for the UK, with all the money that leave Nigeria to the UK, I believe we’ve earned rights to demand and to negotiate. There’ve been so much that has happened in the world generally that people usually don’t see how it affects them, but racism, discrimination finds subtle expressions in these types of exams.”

What to expect from Policy Shapers

In the past six years, Nigeria’s ranking on the Global Youth Development Index has tanked to 161, dropping tremendously by 20 points. The index shows the participation of young people in policy-making, their contribution to national development, unemployment rate, education rate. Nigeria’s position currently shows a massive gap between young Nigerians and policymaking in the country.

So, Wikina started Policy Shapers, a civic tech organisation focused on increasing the participation of Nigerian youths in policy development, with five creeds; Literacy, Ideation, Dialogue, Advocacy and Community. He wants to build a community of young Nigerians who will collaborate, exchange ideas by creating spaces in Zoom and Twitter Spaces.

Under Policy Shapers, he launched the ReformIELTS, a campaign demanding that Nigerians have had enough. “This is a policy debate and not the regular complaining,” he said. His mandate is simple.

“We are English speaking, why should we be writing English proficiency exams?”

Ebenezar Wikina

Wikina and his team are working on The Naija Policy Hackathon slated for August, where they will host young Nigerians for 48 hours and give them the tools to write policies and briefs.

“We are planning to have young people from all over the country, and they’ll be in teams and write policy briefs. We will be able to crowdsource ideas in a format that makes sense to policymakers,” he said.

Ebenezar Wikina knows that this is a marathon and the night will be long. “Advocacy movement might not yield result in an immediate term, but we know that if we continue to focus on this, we are closer to success.”

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