AS the world marks this year’s edition of the International Literacy Day, Nigeria’s leaders and educators should take notice. The theme, ‘Promoting Literacy for a World in Transition: Building the Foundation for Sustainable and Peaceful Societies,’ engages the nexus between literacy, sustainable development, inclusive, peaceful, and just societies. It challenges stakeholders to evaluate progress made and strive for desirable literacy outcomes. In Nigeria, where 31 per cent of population is illiterate, and millions of children are out-of-school, it is another wake-up call on the national and sub-national governments to close the literacy gap.
Literacy, says UNESCO, helps to reduce poverty, and has positive effects on health, the economy and sustainable development.
President Bola Tinubu and the Minister of Education, Tahir Mamman, should mobilise the 36 state governments to rejuvenate mass literacy programmes. Across the board, education should be accorded top priority. There should be free, compulsory primary and secondary school education for all children, and free adult education.
Nigeria’s education outlook is poor. The national literacy rate of 69 per cent as claimed by the Federal Government hides wide regional disparities. A National Bureau of Statistics report showed that Yobe had the lowest literacy level of 7.23 per cent in 2017, Zamfara 19.16 per cent, Katsina 10.36 per cent and Sokoto 15.01 per cent. Southern states were far better with Imo the highest with 96.43 per cent, Lagos 96.3 per cent, Ekiti 95.79 per cent, and Rivers 95.76 per cent. Little has changed since then.
About one-third of primary school age children, drop out before reaching the Junior Secondary School, says UNICEF, and majority are female children from the Northern states. Poverty, insecurity, kidnapping, child marriage and religious extremism have further sabotaged sustainable education in the country.
In 2018, the Centre for Information Technology and Development said 72 per cent of children between the ages of six and 16 had never attended high school in Borno, 58 per cent in Yobe, and 52 per cent in Bauchi. UNICEF estimates 1.6 million out-of-school children in the North-Eastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. The North-West has 3.5 million, the highest in the country; the North-East, 2.0 million, the North-Central 1.3 million. For two years running now, students in Sokoto and Zamfara have missed the major external examination because the two governments owed examination fees.
The Southern states are remiss too. The South-West has 1.4 million out-of-school, South-South 1.2 million, and South-East 713,000. The South-West has lost its leadership in education.
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Nigeria’s predicament is due to misplaced priorities. The Northern elite are fixated on political power, exploiting religious sentiments while neglecting education. There, underdevelopment, terrorism and banditry, and sectarian violence are prevalent.
The current crop of South-West leaders have similarly jettisoned the region’s legacy of free education deployed in the old Western Region and its successor off-shoots. Literacy rates are falling and out-of-school children numbers rising.
The onus lies primarily with the states, while the central government has the responsibility to back them with funding, national programmes and intervention programmes. Significantly, the Federal Government has several such support programmes but lack of seriousness by the states, corruption, and incompetence limit their success.
Others are doing better. Africa has average adult literacy rate of 67 per cent according to Statista, with Seychelles, South Africa, and Sao Tome and Principe leading with 96 per cent, 95 per cent and 93 per cent respectively. The World Population Review 2023 lists seven countries – Finland, Norway, Luxemburg, Andorra, Greenland, Liechtenstein, and Uzbekistan – as having 100 per cent adult literacy rate.
The states should fund and vigorously pursue free and compulsory education up to senior secondary school level, and provide scholarships, bursaries, work-study programmes and adult literacy programmes. The 34 states that have domesticated the Child Rights Act that makes education compulsory and free up to JSS 3 should enforce the law.
The Universal Basic Education Commission revealed that many states failed to provide year 2020 matching grants to access intervention funds. Niger, Ogun, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi, Imo and Edo had failed to provide counterpart funding to access their 2018 UBEC funds. Such laxity should stop.
Beyond speeches, the states should muster the strong commitment to eradicating illiteracy within the shortest possible time.
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