ON the occasion of the International Literacy Day last week, the Federal Government brought home the troubling reality of the 50 million illiterate adults in the country. The Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Prof. Abba Haladu, did not mince words. He attributed the slow pace of national development to our high illiteracy rate.
While acknowledging that some progress has been made in the last 50 years, he submitted that illiteracy remains one of the major obstacles to Nigeria’s development. When the figures for the children who are outside the Nigerian school system are added to our illiteracy figures, the country may have nearly 62 million citizens who cannot read, write or count. These are people who are hampered from giving the nation their best in terms of knowledge and skills, through no fault of theirs.
Illiteracy, however, is a disease that has a cure. Its cure is education. The problem is not new. It has been identified for decades and periodically discussed as a national problem. What has been missing is the political will to tackle the problem. The National Policy on Education (2004) set a great score on adult literacy. And, the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that Nigerians who did not have the opportunity to go through formal education when they were young get a second chance.
The commission is tasked with the organisation, monitoring and assessment of adult literacy, and is expected to be decentralized in the six geo-political zones, in all the 36 states and 774 local government areas in the country. The minimum number of facilities for adult literacy in every local government area is said to be 10. These do not include classes which are expected to be established by relevant non-governmental organisations. The classes are expected to teach and set examinations for learners on the basic competences of reading, writing and numeracy.
Nigerians are hungry for education and the National Commission for Mass Literacy should rise up to this challenge. The number of Nigerians enrolled in adult literacy classes is only about 500,000 out of 50 million illiterates. Of the 3.5 million nomadic school-age children, only 450,000 have access to education.
A non-literate citizen cannot effectively participate in the affairs of his or her community, is more likely to live in poverty, and unlikely to understand the implications of political decisions and preventive healthcare. A literate mother is likely to bring up literate children, understand child-spacing, gender equality and economic productivity. The electronic age of automated teller machines (ATMs), cell phones, broadband and the Internet has left the illiterate behind. Nigeria cannot, therefore, afford to leave as many as 65 million of its citizens behind.
The federal, state and local governments must rededicate themselves to bringing down the illiteracy rate to zero. It will cost some money to do this. But, the rewards are beyond calculations. As most developed countries have discovered, investments in education are the most rewarding investments that any government can make. It is sometimes called human development.
Education adds inestimable value to citizens in numerous ways. It enhances their individual lives. It also makes them easier to guide towards the achievement of developmental objectives.
To rapidly reduce illiteracy in the country, the Federal Government must lead the charge and get other tiers of governments to play their part. It must appeal to non-governmental organisations, charitable individuals and international organisations like the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to help.
It is in the interest of everyone that everybody should be educated. Illiteracy must be eradicated from Nigeria because religious fanaticism, superstition and bigotry thrive most in the imagination of the uneducated. A well educated population will go a long way in helping Nigeria overcome these problems.