It was simply impossible not to empathise with the Minister of Education, Mr Adamu Adamu’s sense of indignation during the celebration of the International Literacy Day. In a moment of agonising self-indictment, he admitted that the number of illiterates in the country had literally hit the roof under his watch, being “between 65 million and 75 million.” The minister revealed this when he paid a courtesy call on Governor Atiku Bagudu of Kebbi State at the state capital, Birnin Kebbi, during the two-day International Literacy Day Conference organised by the National Commission for Mass Education. Represented by the Director of Basic and Secondary Education in the Ministry of Education, Mr. Jonathan Mbaka, the minister said that with the estimated population of Nigeria at 170 million, the number of illiterates was too high. He said: “Education is the bedrock of any country’s development and any country that does not educate its populace is bound to fail. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we have a large population of illiterates; the figure, considering our population, is unbecoming.”
This dismal figure represents just a tad below 45 per cent of the country’s estimated population and that is alarming, to put it mildly. What makes the situation worse is the staggering figure of out-of-school children in the country, as the states from the southern part of the country have also joined in producing the league of illiterates. Even at that, the rate of school dropouts is also very high. Confronted by existential problems, children who were once enrolled in schools have been leaving schools to fend for themselves even when public schools have been failing to impart qualitative education to those who attend them. In other words, it may be misleading to assume that children enrolled in schools are getting educated enough to become assets to the country. Many of them are hardly benefitting from the poor and crude infrastructure and personnel in these schools and the government appears to be oblivious of the damning reality.
The situation is really a quandary. Rescue is a far cry away because if school leavers at different levels are regularly left despondent, desultory and without any gainful employment, it will be difficult, not to say impossible, to persuade others that attending schools is actually a good option. It would seem that the fundamental question of the philosophy of education, that is, “education for what?”, should be addressed by governments at all levels, as the notion that education is merely to access white-collar jobs is not really helpful after all. Equally unhelpful has been the practice of rampant, automatic promotion in public primary and secondary schools which makes pupils to write public examinations which they are not prepared for.
Governments at all levels should be single-minded about mass literacy, as opposed to having certificates for the purposes of employment. It is vitally important even for those doing menial jobs to be literate. We think that massive public education and campaigns are necessary in this direction. Of course, there are agencies of government saddled with the task of achieving mass literacy and encouraging adult learning, and it has now become imperative to assess their activities and impact on the people. The fact that some people do not have certificates should not mean that they are unable to read the prescriptions on their drugs or cross the road at the prompting of traffic lights.
The National Commission for Mass Education must register its relevance in terms of performance. Making people literate should be clearly separated from formal education. The commission should be able to draw the line and come up with programmes that will be accessible to both the old and young populations. A situation in which about 45 per cent of the country’s population are virtually illiterate should bother the authorities. We think that the way to go is to encourage people to go to school, adults for adult literacy programmes and the youth populations for regular education. The government should also equip the nation’s schools and motivate the teachers to make learning a delightful experience.