Kiswahili, the lingua franca and an official language of the East African Community (EAC), has been blocked from use at the regional parliament.
Some legislators insist that debate should only be made in English as it is the working language of the EAC.
This was after DR Congo lawmaker, making her contribution to a motion on the recent terror attacks in Uganda, requested to speak in Kiswahili, an incident that nearly divided the assembly down the middle.
The East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) comprises of representatives from the seven EAC member states – DR Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and Kenya.
Dorothe Masirika Nganiza, the DRC MP, was making her remarks about the brutal killings in western Uganda when, along the way, she pleaded to switch to Kiswahili from English.
The soft-spoken MP did not know that her request would be met with stiff opposition from fellow lawmakers from nearly all the partner states.
She remained standing in the chamber as other MPs interjected on a point of order (a clarification sought as to whether proceedings follow the law).
South Sudan’s Gabriel Alaak Garang rose in a huff, saying that, to the best of his knowledge, English was the working language of the EAC.
“Those who cannot express themselves in English should look for other alternatives. Matters pertaining to Eala should be transacted in English,” he stressed.
Mr Garang cautioned that allowing Kiswahili to be used in Eala could invite new challenges. “Other partner states like South Sudan would propose Arabic,” he said.
Fracois Rutazana from Rwanda implored the DRC legislator to keep on debating the issue in English because what mattered was “the content of the motion”.
But Mary Mugyenyi from Uganda intervened, saying that since the struggling DR Congo lawmaker “has a point to make,” she should be allowed to speak in Kiswahili.
Alternatively, she called for speeding up the installation of interpretation equipment for Kiswahili and French, which were last year made official languages of the EAC.
Eala Speaker Joseph Ntakirutimana intervened, saying the House rules and procedures dictate that debates be conducted in English.
He said the regional assembly would stick to the order unless the rules were changed or the EAC Treaty was reviewed to accommodate the same.
David Ole Sankok from Kenya challenged this, noting that there was always a way to adjust the laws so as to achieve the desired results, recommending that the ‘stranded’ MP be allowed to proceed in Kiswahili.
He said Eala adjusted its rules and regulations during the Covid-19 era by allowing virtual meetings following travel restrictions in the region.
He implored the Speaker to use his discretion so that the DRC legislator could continue debating the terror attacks in Uganda in Kiswahili.
It was at that point that Ms Nganiza resumed her contribution in English, expressing her dismay over the attacks at a school that cost 43 lives in the Kasese area of Uganda. The Ugandan government has blamed the Friday night massacre on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel outfit operating from the jungles of eastern DRC.
The role of Kiswahili at the regional assembly has come at a time of deepening scrutiny of the status of the language in the region.
Some legislators at the ongoing sitting in Arusha raised the matter last week, saying that usage of the popular language was not given the priority it deserved.
Those passionate about it fear that Kiswahili is likely to be overtaken by French in official communication within the EAC and its organs and institutions with the increase of French-speaking nations in the bloc.
Under the current EAC Treaty, which has not been reviewed since its launch in 1999, the official language of the Community is English.
Kiswahili, which is the national language of two member states, Tanzania and Kenya, is developed as the lingua franca of the Community.
Further arguments in the EAC corridors had it that although Kiswahili and French have been cleared as official languages of the bloc, English remains a working language for day-to-day transactions.