By Biko Agozino
The political violence and geopolitical dichotomy that emerged with the results of the recent general elections in Nigeria compel me to recommend a program in scholar activism similar to the one led by Comrades Eskor Toyo and Bassey Ekpo Bassey in the late 1980s. The program was called the Directorate For Literacy and I was one of those involved in the organization of weekly literacy classes for workers and monthly public enlightenment lectures in Calabar municipality in addition to the National Literacy Conference with delegates from all over the country. We also published the free monthly cyclostyled newsletter, Mass Line, that was edited by Eskor Toyo with me as associate editor, following my appointment as the unpaid Director of Administration for the Directorate. Other leaders of the project included Comrades Akpan Ekpo, Edwin Madunagu, Bene Madunagu, Okonete Ekanem, Princewill Alozie, and leaders of trade union branches, all working on voluntary bases without payment. We even had a Youth Corps Member assigned to the project and we eventually acquired an office building with a clerk and a messenger on the payroll.
I remember when we started, how we used to sit under a tree and listen to Eskor as he clarified one political economy principle or another for the workers, journalists and the university teachers alike during passionate debates. One lesson that Eskor taught us was that contrary to the assumption by the ruling class and the masses alike that ethnicity and religion were the most important principles in Nigerian politics, the dominant principle remained class consciousness. This was because, according to him, whatever your religion or ethnicity, you would have privileged access to the governor or the top traditional ruler in any state if you are rich whereas the indigenes would never have that if they are poor. Hence, the masses should transcend ethnicity and sectarianism and join their fellow sufferers to break the chains of suffering in the land because our people had suffered enough (the motto of Mass Line).
Working with the Calabar Municipal Government of the late Bassey Ekpo Bassey, the Directorate for Literacy supported the setting up of micro industries, the construction of new school buildings, the abolition of refuse-collection levies and the abolition of school fees in elementary schools even against the opposition of the military governor of the state. Imagine what could have been achieved if every university in the country embarked on similar outreach projects to combat literacy across the country in alliance with popular organizations, with every local government authority and with the additional support of every state government and the federal government. Corporate citizens and wealthy individuals could also endow funds to support such literacy campaigns.
Similar projects should be set up in partnership with popular organizations across the country to help us to address the shameful statistics that the National Population Council announced recently – that in some states of the country, more than 70% of the adults remain illiterate while the better states could only boast of about 70% literacy rates and many of the children are dropping out from school. With support from the federal, state and local government authorities, in addition to organized labour and other popular organizations, I am certain that we could launch a similar program nation-wide with a target of 100% literacy rate within four years. Cuba did something similar after the revolution of 1959 by mobilizing the literate youth and funding them to go across the country and emancipate the entire population from illiteracy. I believe that Nigerians are capable of achieving this feat even without waiting for a Cuba-type revolution if the political will is there to tackle illiteracy decisively.
The above assumption is based on the hypotheses that anyone who completes four years of schooling should be able to read and write. Thus, if we embark on an aggressive literacy campaign from now, by the time the Jonathan-Sambo presidency completes its term in four years, we would have a 100% literacy rate in the country. This would be a major achievement by Nigerians and the effects would be felt across the country given that illiteracy is correlated with higher infant mortality, higher maternal mortality, higher poverty rates, and higher rates of violence in the polity, as Festus Iyayi inferred in his novel, Violence.
Some commentators have suggested that the problems of illiteracy and political violence are mainly Northern problems to be addressed there only. I beg to disagree. Illiteracy is a problem for us all and we all should be concerned about it in every corner of the nation. Moreover, political violence took place in every part of the country during the elections and not exclusively in the north. If the results of the elections had been dichotomized as it was but with Buhari emerging as the winner, it is predictable that parts of the south could have exploded in violence the way the north did. I agree that the ones who orchestrate political violence are frequently the members of the elite who are themselves relatively well educated. However, if we educate all our people, it will be more difficult for politicians to mobilize educated youth and ask them to go and kill and die for them when they know that the corrupt politicians are not worth dying for.
It is true that literacy is not all that it takes to end a culture of violence given that the most literate societies are far from being violence–free. In that connection, we will need to plan to go beyond mass literacy towards higher learning for at least 10% of our population as WEB Du Bois once demanded for the former enslaved African Americans. Hence more scholarships should be made available for poor students with courses on study skills to help them to master the arts and science of higher learning, thereby improving their life chances but also making them more likely to resort to dialogue as the preferred solution to disagreements. On graduation from higher education institutions, those who complete the National Youth Service Corps should be invited to enter for business plan competitions and the ones with the best business plans should be given grants, not loans, to set up their businesses with support from business extension services to help them to succeed and thereby create more jobs for their fellow youth.
The cowardly killing of Youth Service Corps members during the violence comes from the mindset that sees them as educated people and so the only way for the illiterate to rise up was by pulling down those who had risen rather than rising with the brethren and sisteren. The allocation of payment to their families is commendable but I agree with those who say that the payment should be increased at least four times to twenty million naira per family. In addition, the innocent poor who were killed during the violence should also have at least one million naira paid to their families as compensation. Finally, the victims of similar political violence in our history should also be paid damages that would be token reminders to all that we value the lives of all our people and to discourage violent agitators from unleashing this brutal orgy of violence periodically.
Violence may be endemic because the country is yet to address the pogroms that led to the civil war in any meaningful way, suggesting that such mass violence is tolerated with impunity. Since we cannot punish every perpetrator of mass violence as Rwanda discovered after the genocide, we need a policy of reparative justice by allocating huge funds for the rehabilitation of our fellow citizens any time and every time ignorance leads to massacres. Perhaps, if Yakubu Gowon had announced billions of pounds with which to rehabilitate the survivors of the pogrom as Chukwuemeka Ojukwu and Nnamdi Azikiwe had called for at the time, and as Wole Soyinka advocates, we may never have experienced a genocidal war in which the lives of Nigerians were cheapened enough to be wasted every now and then as part of the national psyche. It is not yet too late to address that monumental injustice the way submissions at the Justice Oputa Panel recommended.
Dr. Biko Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies Program, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061.