Printer Friendly

Adult illiteracy: the root of African underdevelopment.


African countries, without an exception, are generally categorized among "third world countries" which are characterized by underdevelopment of their human and natural resources and the poor quality of life of the majority of their citizenry. There is the general belief that education is an instrument for social, economic and political development. Evidence in support of this assertion can be found in the relationship between the level of educational development and the high standard of living in developed nations of the world, such as the United States of America, Britain, Canada and Japan, among others. They are industrialized, modern economics and democracies mainly because they have well-educated, enlightened, and skilled adult populations. Conversely, African countries remain underdeveloped due mainly to a large percentage of illiterates and unskilled worker force within the adult population.

UNESCO World report (UNESCO 1991 and 1995) showed that the continents of Africa and Asia harboured the largest percentage of adult illiterates in the world. It is also in the two continents and South American that we found almost all the poor, underdeveloped nations. The main thrust of this paper is to show how Africa can step out of the stigma of underdevelopment to join the elites class of developed countries when it seriously tackles the problem of adult illiteracy. Surely many African governments have invested heavily to expand access to formal education and increased enrollments rates at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education. However, although there exist laudable policies and programmes for adult and non-formal education with a major emphasis on the eradication, or at least reduction of adult illiteracy, there appears to be a growing gap between theory and practice, policy and implementation.

Africa is a big continent with over 52 countries, so there is some risk in generalizations since there are glaring differences between countries, for example, between those in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as between Anglophone and Francophone, African Nations. The Dimensions of the dichotomy occur at the cultural, religious, educational, economic and political levels, and hence the countries are at different levels of underdevelopment. It is for these reasons that this paper will use the Nigerian situation as a case study. In some respects, Nigeria is a good sample because it is the largest African country with a population estimated at over 120 million. There is also great diversity among the people in terms of religion, ethnic groups with over 250 languages, and differences in stages of educational development. Indeed some states of the federation are officially classified as "educationally disadvantaged states" due to their having low enrollment ratios and high adult illiteracy rates.

Nigerian policy in Adult and Non-formal education

Every major educational policy or programme on education produced by the government of Nigeria has devoted some attention to the education of adults, nonformal education, and eradication of illiteracy. The constitution of the federal Republic of Nigeria (FRN, 1999) included in section 18 on Education Objectives, the provision of free adult literacy programmes. In section 6 of the National Policy on Education (FRN, 2004 edition), Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education was the subject matters. The Federal Ministry of Education in its Education Sector Status Report (FME 2004) examined in chapter 8 the progress made by the country in the implementation of policies and programmes on adult and non-formal education. To demonstrate how serious it was in the desire not only to reduce the rate of adult illiteracy in the country, but also to ensure that those adults who did not go beyond primary school education remain literate and improve themselves educationally, government enacted a law by Decree 17 of 1990 on the establishment of National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-formal education.

The national policy on mass literacy, adult and non formal education "encourages all forms of functional education given to youths and adults outside the formal school system such as functional literacy, remedial and vocational education (FRN, 2004:25). For the facilitation of efforts to eradicate adult illiteracy, the policy is that "Mass literacy programmes shall be provided free to the beneficiaries". Federal, state and local governments are charged with the responsibility of organizing and funding adult literacy programmes. Nation wide literacy campaigns are organized from time to time with the slogan of "each one teach one", or "fund the teaching of one". Perhaps the nation realized rather belatedly the importance of having an educated and enlightened citizenry for accelerations of the pace of national development.

It is not enough to invest in the education of children as the leaders of the future. We need also to focus on the education of illiterate adults who constitute the bulk of leaders of today, and who make critical decisions and choices on the development of the future. After all, whether parents even allow their children to go to school may depend on their literacy level and their appreciation of the value of education. Moreover, it has become apparent to people that the good jobs and political positions of power and wealth are basically reserved for the educated in the society. Poverty is associated with illiteracy, and there is much evidence in Nigeria to show that the children of the educated parents tend to get better opportunities in education and upward social mobility. There is therefore much logic in the arguments that educated adults empower their families to develop socially and economically, while modernized, enlightened families form the bedrock of community and national development.

Adult Literacy Situation in Nigeria

The tables below reveal the level of general literacy in Nigeria, as well as the level of adult literacy compared to the situation in sub Saharan Africa and some selected countries, which are in the same Economic Community of the African States zone.

The National Population Commission Analytical Report of 1998 and the multiple indicator cluster Survey of 1999 are the main sources of statistical data on the literacy profile of Nigerian adults. According to a Federal Ministry of Education Report (FME 2004:55). 'The National Population Commission found a literacy level of 57% among Nigerians, and showed that 85% of the illiterate population was under 35 years of age." There was a higher adult literacy rate in urban areas than in the rural areas. Within the urban population a high percentage of the males than of the females were literate. In the rural areas, the figures were 52% males and only 42% for females. The level of Adult literacy was higher in the south of the country than in the North. Here we must take note of the fact that in the North, there are many people who can read and write Arabic for the purposes of Islamic Religion though they can not read and write in either English which is the National lingua franca, or their indigenous language.

Illiteracy among adults is the central focus of this paper. The National Population Commission Statistics of 1998 showed that adult literacy rate was 55% for the southwest zone and 60% for the southeast. In the Northern zones, adult literacy rate were about 22% for females and 42% for males. Two obvious conclusions can be drawn from these figures. The first is the great disparity between literacy rates of adult males and females. Such disparities also exist in the formal school system in favour of the males. The second conclusion is that the educational gap between the North and the South is a serious one, which must be addressed. No wonder then the National Primary Education Commission. Decrees of 1988 and 1993 classified almost all the Northern States of the Federation as "educationally disadvantaged states." It is of course the failure to have access to primary or basic education that has produced the large percentage of adult illiterates across the country. To take care of the educational needs of nomads, decree 41 of 1989 was enacted. Decree 30 of 1989 addressed the issues of women education and discrimination against women.

Nigeria's low adult literacy rate is surprising when we consider the fact that the missionaries brought western education into the country as far back as 1842 when the first school was established in Badagry. Moreover since independence from colonialism in 1960, impressive developments have taken place in the formal education sector. Forty-five years later, we still have about 51% of our adults as illiterates. The federal government has lamented the low level of adult literacy. It observed, "Nationally, Nigeria's literacy rate of 49% is far below the average of 57% for sub Saharan Africa" (FME 2004). The rates are far higher in countries like Cameroon (72%) and Ghana (68%). These neighbouring West African countries, one francophone and the other Anglophone, also have higher literacy rates for females than in Nigeria. Consequently, the issue of adult illiteracy in Africa generally, and Nigeria in particular is a challenge to the government, adult educators, public and private sectors. Prospect of national development will remain in jeopardy for as long as about half of the adult population remain illiterate.

A brief comment on the disparity between literacy rates in English-speaking and French-speaking African countries is appropriate here. UNESCO (1991) revealed that the average literacy rate in the Anglophone countries was lower than in the Francophone countries. Nwagwu (1999) in her analysis of female participation in education in Africa noted that female enrollments in formal education were higher in francophone countries and the adult female literacy rate was also higher. She attributed this to the French colonial policy of assimilation, which motivated the citizens to learn how to read and write the French language and imbibe the French culture. In Nigeria, as in many Anglophone West African countries, the people developed the functional use of "pidgin English" which is a hybrid or mixture of English words and phrases with indigenous African languages.

The challenge therefore is how to reduce the rate of adult illiteracy in Nigeria, and prevent children and youths currently in the formal school systems from relapsing into illiteracy in future. Earlier in this paper, I remarked that there are many adult Moslems who can read and write the Quoran in Arabic. While such ability is useful for religious purposes, it does not necessarily equip such people to participate fully and meaningfully in national development activities. There are plans by governments in the North to integrate the Quranic schools into the mainstream of the national education system. This should be encouraged, as it will help to reduce the level of adult illiteracy in that part of the country.

For the people of Nigeria, English remain the official language of education, government, and business. Inability to master the English language limits a citizen's capacity to contribute to national development. Nevertheless, the National Policy on Education (FRN, 2004) makes it mandatory for students in primary and secondary schools to learn their local language and one of the three major Nigerian languages, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. The latter prescription is one of controversy because of the multi-linguistic nature of the complex population.

The National policy on Education, and the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-formal education have prescribed the use of either English or the local language, or both, in adult education classes. Interestingly, most adult learners prefer to be taught how to read and write in English. They are of course aware of the handicaps they face in society and in business affairs because of their illiteracy status. In politics, though they have the right to vote, they can not be elected into even local government councils without a legally prescribed minimum educational qualification. What is being done to address the problem of adult illiteracy will be discussed later in this chapter.

Manifestations of Underdevelopment

The central theme of this paper has been the argument that African underdevelopment is basically a product of a society in which a sizeable number of its adult population is illiterates. The unsatisfactory level of literacy has implication for poverty alleviation, job creation, and reduction of unemployment, participation in economic and political activities and empowerment of women who constitute about 50% of the population of some countries. The Nigerian experience has been used as a case study. It is a country with immense natural resources in terms of petroleum and gas reserves, large fertile land for agriculture, a favorable climate, and the biggest concentration of black people in the world, yet it remains underdeveloped. It is likely to maintain this unenviable status until it is able to develop its human capital not only through the formal education system, but also by strategizing on how to eliminate adult illiteracy.

The linkage of African underdevelopment to the critical mass of adult illiterates is informed by the fact that identified indices of underdevelopment are intimately associated with the quality of adult population in a nation. Nduka (2006) a renowned philosopher and social critic in Nigeria has produced a long list of the reasons for continuing African underdevelopment and we shall examine a few of them. First, he blamed colonialism and neo-colonialism. However, he also blamed African leaders who, after independence in their countries, lived for themselves instead of their people who elected them into power. Some in fact became life-presidents with oppressive and dictatorial leadership styles. Secondly, there were military coups here and there, ostensibly to rescue the people from bad and corrupt governments. But the emergence of the military only worsened the plight of the people because the military leaders were not accountable to anyone.

The underdevelopment of Africa, with Nigeria as a typical example, is also traceable to the character of the population. There was high population growth rate of above 3% in Nigeria in the 1970's and this has reduced to 2.8% in recent years due to better education, public enlightenment and a National Policy on Population for Development (FRN 1988). An outcome of underdevelopment is low life expectancy, high infant and maternal mortality rates (Yisa, 1988). In Nigeria, as in many African countries, more than half the population live below poverty line, that is, less than US dollar a day. Nduka (2006:53) citing Adam Curie, posited that "the hallmark of an underdeveloped society is its dead weight of poverty, ignorance and diseases". The UNDP Human Development Index uses three indicators of development. These are the per capita income, the health of the people as represented by life expectancy, and educational attainment as reflected by rate of adult literacy and gross enrolments in the education system.

Poor performance in each of the indices above means that Nigeria has a long road to travel before it can join the league of developed nations of the world. The stares of adult literacy has also been blamed for Nigeria's failure to develop into an industrialized, strong, integrated, virile and democratic nation. The existence in the body politic of such negative tendencies and forces as tribalism, nepotism, bribery and corruption on the part of the electorate and the elected or appointed leaders is a reflection of the level of unenlightenment and illiteracy among the populace. Nduka (2006) also blamed underdevelopment on "Africans" traditional systems of thought. There is a relationship between culture and patterns of thought, although not lacking in logic, African traditional thought, values and attitudes are very much influenced by religious beliefs and mysticism as the people try to comprehend extra-ordinary experiences and phenomena in their environment.

An educated and enlightened adult population will come to appreciate the impact of science and technology in the developmental processes without necessarily abandoning their religious beliefs, for Africans as a group are great believers in the powers of God Almighty, no matter their religious affiliations. There is no doubt that the elimination of adult illiteracy will rub off positively on the children of the adults. If parents are empowered enough to vote for only leaders of integrity who have the welfare and progress of the country as their main reason for entry into politics and government, then the education systems will be properly organized and supported by governments, and mass literacy, adult and non formal education will also receive appropriate attention and funding. These are prerequisites for climbing out of underdevelopment, all other factors being under control.

The Way Forward

Aware of the large number of illiterates in the population, and in recognition of the importance of an educated, well informed and enlightened citizenry in any plans for socio-economic development, federal and state governments have put in place policies and programmes for mass literacy, adult and non formal education. Notable among these are provisions in the country's constitution and the national policy on education for free adult literacy education. The commission of mass literacy, adult and non-formal education was established in 1999 with branches in every states, to ensure the effective implementation of policies and programmes. Much has been achieved, but there is still a lot of problems and challenges to be taken for more comprehensive coverage and results.

Available research evidence shows that in many cities and some rural areas of Nigeria, adults are eager to overcome the handicap of illiteracy by attending evening adult literacy classes. However, very few of them attend long enough to become permanently literate. According to the Federal Ministry of Education (FME, 2004) dropout rates are high. For instance, out of the 1,142,966 adult learners who enrolled in 1996, only 814,143 stayed on to complete their respective programmes. This means a completion rate of 71.2% or dropout rate of 28.8%. Total enrollment in literacy classes between 1997 and 2000 show some increase from year to year though not an impressive progress. For example, total enrollment in 1997 was 1,155,532 with 557,366 of them being females, that is 48.2%. By the year 2000, total enrolment rose to 1,406,954 with 705,156 or 50.1% being females while 705,156 or 49.9% were males (FME 2004:56) Okoroh (2004) found from her study of the adult literacy programme in Delta State that more women than men completed their courses and earned certificates. Many reasons have been adduced for the slow pace of progress in adult literacy programmes. Asuka (2005) was of the opinion that sporadic, ineffective literacy campaigns were to be blamed and he advocated mass communication as a process of adult education in Nigeria. Ojogwu (2001) said many adults complained of the distances they have to travel in the evening to the adult literacy centers, and most importantly, the irrelevance of some of the lessons to their personal needs. Some women blamed poor attendance on family chores, and in some cases the refusal of their husbands to allow them go out and return late in the night, especially in these times of insecurity and violent crimes. There are also complaints of shortage of reading materials and adult education teachers. Many of the organizers are primary school teachers who are often poorly remunerated and hence are not adequately motivated to participate regularly and with commitment. Moreover, some of them have not been trained to teach adult learners and so cannot inspire the adults.

Perhaps the most potent instrument for the eradication of adult illiteracy in Nigeria is the Universal Basic Education, which incorporates not only a nine-year basic, free and compulsory primary and junior secondary school education, but also free adult literacy education. The National Assembly passed the UBE Act in 2004. Consequently, we may have to wait for some years before we can assess implementation success. Charles and Iheme (UNESCO 2002) have urged the private sector to participate more proactively in the programme of "Education for All." The UNDP (2002) on its part said that real development in the third world countries cannot be achieved unless there is partnership between developed and developing nations, and between the public and private sectors of the economy. Education for all and elimination of adult illiteracy will most likely translate into better food, better health, more employment prospects, and ultimately better quality of life for the people which is the essence of national development.

In conclusion, as African nations, with Nigeria as atypical example, put in place policies and programmes to accelerate socio-economic development and attainment of millennium Development Goals by 2015, we should remember that it is difficult to develop when a large percentage of the population is illiterate. Ignorance and illiteracy limit the peoples' capacity and to contribute towards national development. In all efforts to eradicate adult illiteracy, special attention must be paid to women and the rural areas because about half of the populations are females and the majority of the citizens live in the rural areas. Finally, there is great need for partnership and collaboration between governments, non governmental organizations, and the private sector in any formulation and implementation of policies and programmes towards attainment of the goals of education for all and national development.


Asuka, T.T. (2005) "Mass Education as a process of Adult Education in Nigeria". Journal of Teacher Education and Teaching 8 (2), 51-61.

Charles, H.J & Iheme, E. (2002) Nigerian Private Sector and Education For All. Abuja: UNESCO Publications.

Federal Ministry Of Education (2004) Education Sectors Status Report. Abuja: FME & UNESCO.

Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Abuja: Federal Government Press.

Federal Republic of Nigeria (2004) National Policy on Education (4th Edition) Lagos: N.E.R.D.C. Press.

Federal Republic of Nigeria (1990) Decree 17 on National Commission for Mass Litercay, Adult and Non Formal Education. Abuja.

Federal Republic of Nigeria (1988) National Policy on Population for Development, Unity, Progress and Self Reliance. Lagos: Federal Government Press (Note: The Policy was reviewed in 2006).

Nduka Otonti (2006) The Roots of African Underdevelopment and Other Essays. Ibadan: Spectrum Books Ltd.

Nwagwu, C.C. (1999) Population Issues and Educational Planning in Nigeria, in Population Education in Nigeria: Themes and Perspectives by S.O. Oriafo and C.C. Nwagwu (Eds.) Benin: Institute of Education UNIBEN pg. 219-226.

National Population Commission (2002): Abuja>

Ojogwu, C.N. (2001) Mass Education and Mobilization for Financing Education, African Journal of Education Vol. 6 No. 1 Faculty of Education, University of Benin.

Okoroh, B. (2004) An Analysis of Female Enrolment and Drop out Rate In Literacy programmes in Edo State 1991-2000.

UNESCO (1991) World Education Report. Paris: UNESCO

Yisa, B. (1988) Introduction to Population Education. Lagos: NERDC.

UNDP (2002) Partnership for Development. Lagos: UNDP Information and Communication Coordinating Group.


Adult and Non-Formal Education University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria
Table 1: Literacy Rates Among Nigerian Groups (percentages)

                             Males   Females   MF

a.   Nigerian national rate   86       65      75
b.   Urban Literacy rate      98       79      88
c.   Rural Literacy rate      75       52      63
d.   Northern States rate     72       60      66
e.   Southern States rate     88       80      84
f.   Gross Enrolment ratio    94       69      82
     (Primary Education

Source: National Population Commission, Abuja, 2002.

Table 2: Adult Literacy Rates in Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa
Geopolitical zone.

                        RATES                      PERCENTAGE

a.          Nigerian Adult Literacy Rate               52
b.        Nigerian Male Adult Literacy Rate            63
c.       Nigerian Female Adult Literacy Rate           41
d.    South-Western States Adult Literacy Rate         55
e.    South-Eastern States Adult Literacy Rate         60
f.    Northern States Adult Literacy Rate Male         42
g.   Northern States Adult Literacy Rate Female        22
h.     Sub-Saharan Africa Adult Literacy Rate          57
i.          Cameroon Adult Literacy Rate               72
j.            Ghana Adult Literacy Rate                68

Source: Federal Ministry of Education: Education Sector Status Report,
COPYRIGHT 2010 Project Innovation (Alabama)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Jogwu, C.N. O
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Previous Article:Biology student teachers' conceptual frameworks regarding biodiversity.
Next Article:Cooperative learning technique through Internet based education: a model proposal.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters