Helen Wang
English Argument
December 8, 1995


Illiteracy in Nigeria: Does a Solution Exist?

In 1950, the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organization, or UNESCO, estimated that the illiteracy rate in Nigeria was about 84.4%. In the year 1994, this number has not improved significantly. Illiteracy in Nigeria still remains a high 68%. (Okedara, 101) Additionally, UNESCO reports that the number of illiterates over the age of fifteen is 25 million. Therefore, of Nigeria's 32 million labor force, the majority are illiterates. (Dave, 78) These shocking figures are a mere shadow of the tragic reality of illiteracy in Nigeria. If the current rate of illiteracy continues to rise to the year 2000, Nigeria will not conceptually be able to reach a technologically competitive standing in the global world. (Okedara, 96) Consequently, social, political and cultural obstacles are barriers which hinder any significant improvement in Nigerian society. Emphasizing functional literacy, or the knowledge and skills in reading and writing which enables one to engage effectively in normally assumed activities of one's culture or group, is the key to the Nigerian illiteracy issue. The government needs to encourage functional literacy through educational programs, particularly in adult-based education, or ABE, research, and studies in order for its nation to survive in our modern world.

As with many other third world nations, the prevalence of illiteracy in Nigeria is the effect of several isolated and interlinked factors. To understand these rather complex causations, we must first examine particular characteristics of the country and its people. Nigeria possesses several characteristics of third world nations, which lead to problems such as illiteracy for the mass population.

The geographical distribution, government, economy and value placed on education are all catalysts for the high illiteracy rate in Nigeria. Nigeria's geographical distribution of educational facilities are "lopsided" In rural areas, illiteracy is much greater than in urban areas. The three main reasons are: lack of education facilities in the country side; limited access to education for rural young people; and survival demands which make families keep their children out of school. (Nedosa, 9) In connection with this idea, are the problems of orthography and national mass literacy. There are 420 distinct languages in Nigeria, 413 of which are still in use and the remaining 7 have fallen into extinction. (Nedosa, 16) Because of the diversity of dialects, communication or functional literacy between different languages is impaired.

Secondly, the lack of government involvement also plays a large role in this problem. Lack of funds and the low priority accorded to adult literacy programs by federal and state governments is a huge factor. Policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels do not regard adult literacy education, be it functional literacy programs or mass literacy programs, as a high priority. Policies are formulated, but never executed. The government has yet to support policy actions that will place adult literacy education in high priority in fund allocation. (Okedara, 101) So, while the government methodically preaches of the need to focus on literacy education, significant efforts on their parts remains to be seen.

In examining the economic restraints militating a high illiteracy rate in Nigeria, it is obvious that these factors are the most influential. Firstly, there is a definite economic disadvantage posed on rural life. Because most rural adults are engaged in traditional agriculture, there is little time or even incentive to pursue functional literacy. In comparing the economic returns from investments of farmers and urban workers, farmers yield much less of an income. Thus, their chances at formal education with which to compete in the non-agricultural labor market is slim. (Nedosa, 25) A broader outlook suggests that the nation as a whole does not have sufficient resources to pursue adult literacy and post-literacy programs. For instance, there is a shortage of printing materials such as paper, duplicating machines and printing ink. (Dave, 115)

As is the case with other third world nations, the value being placed on literacy varies with the country itself and its people. The Nigerian government, though still non-committal, is concerned with improving literacy because of the need for technological advancement and industrialization of its country collectively. "Illiteracy came to be identified as a part of the tragic cycle of underproduction, malnutrition and endemic disease in the underdeveloped countries of the third world." (Nedosa, 2) This connection between literacy and poverty in countries such as Nigeria place emphasis on educating the nation, rather than the people. Thus, mass education, a less effective form of literacy education is implemented. (Nedosa, 2) A speech by the minister of state in the federal ministry of education, speaking on behalf of Nigerian President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, further illustrates this point: "As we are all aware, mass literacy is a prerequisite to any large scale technological development... For this reason, the Federal Government...is committed to the launching of a National Mass Literacy Campaign in 1982." (Nedosa, 43)

The problem that exists with mass literacy education is how to set the standard level of education for all of Nigeria. Should a farmer have the same level of education as a secretary? Additionally, who establishes this median for the entire nation? (Fuller, 142) These difficult questions hinder the government's mass literacy programs so much as to render them inefficient, and practically useless. This rather consistant and generic method of literacy education can be attributed to Nigerian society's militaristic outlook or approaches. Being a country with strong military foundations, the Nigerian government implements educational programs, like mass literacy education with the underlying goal of establishing order, efficiency and productivity. (Okedara, 100) Considering these objectives, mass literacy programs are the most sensible and suitable choice.

In contrast, while the government views literacy as a necessary component of its advancement in the global world, the rural inhabitants do not place great value upon it. The first and most obvious reason for the general apathy in literacy education is that it is not needed to "survive" in their given environment. Sylvia Scribner explained in her academic piece, "Literacy in Three Metaphors," literacy for adaptation, or the need for literacy to survive in an environment, is one of the three essential reasons for obtaining literacy. (Scribner, 75-76) For the rural Nigerian people, this motivation does not exist. Farmers have little use for literacy, except perhaps for recreational activities such as reading a newspaper, reading and writing letters, exercised legal rights, read the Bible, and supervise ones childrens' school work. (Nedosa, 97) Even then, the essential need for literacy in the job aspect is negligible. Additionally, many adults refuse to participate in Adult Based Education, or ABE for several reasons. In a survery taken of 210 people, 104, or 49.52% felt that they were too old to be able to learn what is taught in ABE classes; 42 or 20% were engaged with occupation during ABE classes, and 12, or 5.71% said that they were too shy to participate. (Nedosa, 83) Common attitudes such as feeling that one is too old to be taught are serious barriers for many illiterate adults. Such personal and psychological problems obviously cannot be remedied by the Nigerian government. The people themselves must take the first step. However, the sad reality remains that most illiterates will never break through their inhibitions to do so. ation during ABE classes, and 12, or 5.71% said that they were too shy to participate. (Fuller, 139)

Undoubtedly, factors contributing to illiteracy in Nigeria hamper efforts to improve current conditions. However, research has been invested by educators to find out how to make third world classrooms more stimulating settings, by integrating complex and more modern teaching styles, and revising the organization of classrooms. (Fuller, 143) Additionally, new programs are being implemented to help salvage adult literacy as well. Nigeria is setting its goals for the year 2000. Two programs, the launching of the International Literacy Year and the establishment of the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education are among them. (Okedara, 101) Though these programs are insufficient for achieving literacy for all in the year 2000, they are at least, indicators that the federal government is taking some sort of action.

I propose that Nigeria must commit a strong and exhaustive effort to promoting literacy for adults in rural areas by:

  1. giving farmers a reason to adopt literacy, either by making literacy a necessary element of their work.
  2. getting the government to allocate substantial funds to literacy education.
  3. creating a more decipherable national quota for literacy by clarifying orthography
  4. establishing what it really means to be literate, by initiating a national standard which must be met by all to be considered functionally literate.
Until the government and Nigerian educators are able to both recognize and address the issues facing illiteracy, no viable solution can be determined. As is the case with other third world nations, illiteracy is not only a problem of social concern, it is a very personal, individualistic issue as well. However, as with most social reforms of any kind, politics must be factored in as well. Tactics which are implemented, such as mass literacy education, certainly do not focus in on the individual, but rather the majority. (Coles, 12) Why? Because the government needs the support of the vast majority more than it does the support of individuals. (Okedara, 90)

The path to reform is a trying and exhaustive one. Without the guidance and resources in which one can rely upon, this struggle is twice as great. If the illiterate population were given financial and societal understanding and support from their own people, and if they were motivated enough within themselves to seek the help, then perhaps, Nigeria's illiteracy problem would be alleviated. Unfortunately , most people will argue that there is no hope for Nigeria and that perhaps it was all too little, too late.


Helen Wang is a student at Carnegie Mellon, in the school of Humanities and Social Sciences. Her email address is < hyw +@andrew.cmu.edu>.

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