The burden of illiteracy in Nigeria

The muted response of government at all levels in Nigeria to the latest statistics that revealed the worsening state of literacy in the country confirms why we have one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. But it is no longer news that Nigeria has a depressing literacy level. It is also a known fact that our country will not achieve the Millennium Development (Goal Two) of eradicating mass illiteracy among her adult and children population by 2015. The month of September is globally dedicated by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation to stimulate debate on the problems of mass illiteracy worldwide. This year’s Literacy Day was marked on September 8. While countries have seized the opportunity to renew commitment to widening access to educational opportunities for school-age children and deprived adults not covered by formal public school system, the Nigerian government and its agencies such as Universal Basic Education Commission chose to ignore the significance of the date. This is an attempt to cover up their failures. But this year event was historic for a number of reasons. It marks the end of the United Nations Literacy Decade, proclaimed in 2002 to galvanise government action worldwide against illiteracy. According to the UNESCO, over the decade, and despite considerable effort and some major achievements, 775 million people are still considered non-literate, of whom 85 per cent live in 41 countries- Nigeria inclusive. These figures fall far short of the Education for All goal established in 2000 for a 50 per cent improvement in literacy levels worldwide by 2015. Nigeria was a signatory to the Dakar Framework. But 12 years on and three years to the target year of 2015, the country is one of the few countries that will not achieve the target. How sad!

This is in spite of the huge resources earmarked for universal education in more than a decade after the Dakar Conference. The lethargy shown by the government in efforts to eradicate mass illiteracy will confound a keen observer when viewed against recent statistics that places the country at the bottom of the ladder in the overall Global Literacy Index. According to the Country Comparison Index of Literacy Level by country in 2012, Nigeria ranked a dismal 161 place out of 184 countries with 66 per cent literacy rate. This makes us one of the world’s most illiterate countries! The quality of basic education in Nigeria is extremely poor. This has led to low demand and unacceptably low academic performance. According to a recent USAID report, there are 30 million primary school-age children in the country, of whom an estimated 10 million are not enrolled in school”. While education indicators are poor nationwide, the greatest need for assistance is in the predominantly Muslim North where millions of Almajiris roam the streets uneducated, hungry and angry. These vulnerable children are most often useful tools in the hands of extremists. The Country comparison Index further revealed that some 40 million adults are illiterate and the overall literacy rate is close to 57 per cent. Today, only 500,000 are reportedly enrolled in adult literacy classes nationwide, which is equivalent to one out of 80 illiterates. If the inaction of government in pursuing policies that will ensure a brighter future for Nigerian children borders on criminal neglect, their collective silence while the world marks a decade of global commitment with new policy decisions, critical debates and charting of new roadmap is a pointer to why the country will not achieve the MDG on education. That the global Literacy Day could pass without any form of commitment is also a sad reminder of the failure of the agencies saddled with the responsibility of universal primary education. One had expected the Federal Government to use the opportunity the Literacy month offers to renew the commitment it made in Dakar 2000. One also expected the state governments through the States Universal Basic Education Commission to increase their resolve to get more children off the streets by strengthening the provisions of the Child Rights Act that makes it a criminal offence for parents who refuse to send their child to school. As millions of schoolchildren across Nigeria embark upon a new academic year, the statistic that over 10 million school-age children are out of school and lack basic reading and writing skills is hard to fathom. This comes with a serious social dimension, as it could constitute an obstacle to their future employment, may result in social exclusion and a threat to democracy and national security. It is also noteworthy that the theme of the International Literacy Day 2012 is “Literacy and Peace”. This theme demonstrates the multiple uses and value literacy brings to people especially in a country like ours ravaged by insecurity, ignorance, widespread poverty and ethnic mistrust. Literacy is not merely the skill to read and write. It is a transformational process that empowers individuals, broadens their critical thinking and provides them with the ability to act. A person without basic literacy lacks real opportunities to effectively engage with democratic institutions, to make choices, exercise his/her citizenship rights and act for a perceived common good.

The consolidation of our fledgling democracy requires the participation of all Nigerians; only then can our nation be brought closer to peace. However if literacy is to become an enabler of democracy it cannot be confined to basic skills, and thus to functional literacy. Studies on attitudes towards democracy in Africa have examined how low cognitive awareness may impact on the level of demand of democracy within societies. The role of literacy in political participation and in the formulation of political opinion has long been recognized in most of the advanced democracies. In a country in the throes of terrorism and insecurity, literacy may also facilitate conflict resolution and peace building. When literacy is in association with learning, it is likely to promote intercultural understanding, tolerance and respect. Lack of such an approach to literacy and to education, may however have a reverse effect. Education, whether in the school environment or in a non-formal context has political impact as it can perpetuate inequalities and exclusion, or promote social cohesion. The former has largely been the case in Nigeria. It has thus become imperative for government to demonstrate the seriousness needed in addressing the low literacy level. What is to be done? Government must work to widen access to primary education. The state government and local governments should establish adult literacy centres. There are many adults in the country that are willing to attend such classes. That those centres disappeared in the first place was the reason why adult literacy has dipped for so many years. The private sector also has a role to play, rather than spending huge resources in promoting profligate entertainment programmes. Money spent on education will yield positive results. Literacy is a human right which is recognised in the Universal declaration of Rights. The minimum obligation of a society or its government is to ensure that no deliberate obstruction placed on the path of any individual in acquiring literacy

•Olupohunda, educator, wrote in from Whitesands School, Lekki, Lagos

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