Letter to our ‘illiterate graduates’

By Busuyi Mekusi


Illiteracy is ordinarily and literally a function of the inability to read or write. It could also mean nonconformity to prescribed standards of speech or writing. Substantially, very inherent to the above is the lacking of required basic nuances to achieve a particular purpose or attain a specific height. This extensive reading is analogous to the intentional meaning of another very popular but negatively configuring concept, poverty, which is simply, among others, any deficiency of elements or resources that are needed or desired. It is to this extent that one could relate the NBS report about the 133 million Nigerians that are mutidimensionally poor to the about 70% of Nigerian children that UNICEF in a report in August 2022 said was suffering from ‘learning poverty’. The children affected by learning poverty are believed to be unable to read and write.  

The inability to read and write is not only limited to children around ten years old, but implied in the lamentation made by Wahab Egbewole, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin, who decried the fact that graduates of educational institutions, apparently having in mind tertiary educations, could not write ‘ordinary application letters for employment’. The correlation in the two instances is the inability to reflect the basic values that the educational processes would have impacted one with. No doubt, between the learning poverty of children and the deficiency of adults, one could not but write a letter to the ‘illiterate graduates’, which is also a homily to us all, as citizens and a nation. This is not without saying that poverty is in different shades (poverty of the mind, ideas, integrity, etc.) just as illiteracy transcends the fixation on or compartmentalisation achieved using reading and writing, to designate inadequacies in socialisation, civilisation, accreditation, etc., the moment the agency takes departure from established prescribed standards.

Even though colonialism has been variously blamed for its cultural disruptive tendencies, it has, nonetheless, helped in advancing knowledge and science, even though it was arguable that common sense and native intelligence were veritable alternatives that could have allowed the colonised people travel the tortuous path of new orientation and pragmatic evolutionary development, if not interrupted. Notwithstanding that western education was initially purposeful to Nigerians, some of whom stepped into the shoes of colonial elements at independence, avoidable deteriorations set in as indigenous managers drive educational initiatives, and introduced ‘local content’ in knowledge dispensing, manifesting through poor attitudes, casual commitment, warped orientation, nepotistic considerations, with the failing reinforced by poor governmental funding, inconsistent policies, poor monitoring, curriculum lopsidedness, collapsed family economy, etc.

In specific terms, poor academic background of students has often times accounted for their unimpressive performances. The gradual collapse of public primary and secondary schools, and later tertiary institutions, did not only stimulate the emergence of privately-owned ones, but elicited in parents the irresistible urge to join the frail and quest for an Eldorado in private spaces. Over the years, while some of these privately-owned educational schools, colleges and institutions have resoundingly contributed to the growth of education in Nigeria; some others have comprehensively battered the hard-earned achievements that equalled those left behind by colonial authorities. We should not, however, lose sight of the shade introduced to the sequence by Arabic intervention.

Doing a fast-forward, Nigeria educational system has been threatened by different factors, leading to the platitude of ‘fallen standard of education’. It is undoubted that there has not been a systematic attempt to gauge the fall in the standard of education, but the aphorism availed some educational managers the opportunity to sustain their sing-songs and justify some of the wasteful expenditures undertaken to revamp education. One of the many troubles that befell education in Nigeria is societal emphasis on certification over education. Access to education was not just a status-making in a period in the country, but the face of achievements that was desired by families, villages and religious sets. This craze for certificates led to the diminishing of the relevance and patronage of skill-based technical colleges. The preponderance of application for universities placement, to the disadvantage of polytechnics, led to the loss of their ‘techs’ to the ‘poly’ that was as magical as to polymorph.

For Technical Colleges, equipment meant for skill acquisitions were either looted or abandoned to rust away in buildings that got overgrown by bushes, which later re-enacted Soyinka’s forest of thousand demons. Across the different strata of the educational system, incompetent teachers have been a remarkable dot in the heavily-stained educational plane. In a negatively concomitant way, the learning attitude of students has been very poor, with the increasing turpitude worsened by unemployment, cheap and criminal access to material things, etc. debilitating the estrangement. Incompetent teachers taught ‘nonsense’ for so long, until some students became nonsensical in their behaviours and approaches. At government and managerial levels, mediocrity was, and is still, being rewarded over merit and competence. People that are deficient in the basic technical and moral tools required for operating a system would simply end up as square pegs in round holes, as the saying goes.

Nigeria contemporary experiences are replete with instances of ‘illiterate graduates’ whose existence is not just unproductive to the nation, but injurious to humanity. The needless controversy,  tension,  and almost a stalemate precipitated by the suspended Adamawa Resident Electoral Commissioner, REC, Hudu Yunusa-Ari, who usurped the powers of the Chief Returning Officer, and unilaterally announced Aisha Dahiru Binani as the elected governor in the gubernatorial election, typified ‘illiterate’ people like him that wilfully subvert established processes for personal or group interests, without consideration for the combustion that it could create in human relationships and vexation in Nigeria existence. Just like the systematic incalculable damage that incompetent teachers are doing to our present and future, people like Ari with poisonous propensities are a thorn on our flesh.

The multilayered nature of the calamitous presence of ‘illiterate graduates’ with poverty of the mind across the various Nigeria social strata was illustrated by the case of Rafiu, a POS operator in Kwara State, who went on spending spree after receiving in batches several millions of money in naira that was mistakenly transferred into his account. The emergence of an overnight ‘millionaire’ in Rafiu was said to have shocked residents in his area, but they would have celebrated his transgression of poverty line if not arrested by the police. This is because so many people with questionable resources are pervasively freely dominating different spaces within the larger Nigeria monetised sphere, and yet we still find it difficult to know who criminals are. I have canvassed it variously in the past that Nigerians are like Armah’s chichidodo who hates human excreta but feed heavily on maggots. That Rafiu used this ill-gotten ‘wealth’ to support religious rites similarly exposed the religious hypocrisy of Nigerians that is greater than that of biblical Pharisees.

A similar thing that happened in my community recently saw a self-professed ‘General Overseer’ telling me he would not have returned the eight thousand naira for community development a co-landlord erroneously sent into his account, if not for my intervention. Little did the ‘illiterate graduate’ know that he was a potential criminal like Rafiu! Citizens harangued by poverty and that are suffering one form of illiteracy or the other are recriminating on Nigerian streets, and are proudly and lawlessly brutalising, maiming and executing perceived offenders in apparent notation of jungle justice. Even though they were products of a negatively-skewed politico-economy and dysfunctional socio-cultural notions, their angers are often misdirected at one another, re-echoing the platitude of dogs-eating-dogs.

As Nigeria struggles with ‘learning poverty’ and moderates her many ‘illiterate graduates’, it is expedient that functional education should be emplaced to speak to the many challenges the nation is confronted with. Learning for impression or certification has done us so much evil, and any certificate devoid of the testimony of an improved life, at all levels, to the individual holding it and the nation that nurtures him, is as good as an expired document. We must seek a quick revamping of technical education for the acquisition of necessary skills, and push more for practical application of knowledge acquired to aggregate our efforts towards a productive nation. We must build good institutions that would be manned by people of integrity, who are not in short supply in the country, but for warped processes that throw up inappropriate leaders on all fronts.

Further to the above, there is the imperative need for gate-keeping, achieved through technology and emplacement of fool-proof processes that would ensure accountability and transparency. Added to these is the urgency for re-orientation and re-socialisation that are possibly achieved through a return to some of the positive socio-cultural tropes for communal living in pre-western African societies. We must not lose sight of the philosophical saying that “education is beautification of the inner world and the outer world”. Learning poverty will not only create ‘illiterate graduates’, but it signposts a future that was lavished yesterday. Ramadan Mubarak!

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