Nigeria with a population of over 120 million is the most populated country in Africa. With more than 450 ethnic groups speaking over 390 different languages, Nigeria thus has language diversity which makes bilingualism/multilingualism inevitable. It has enormous human and material resources with Nigeria being the seventh in terms of countries with crude oil reserves. When Nigeria obtained its independence from Great Britain in 1960, the black race both in Africa and in the Diaspora, looked up to it for leadership in the area of Science, Technology, Agriculture and Education to mention a few. However, forty eight years after independence, Nigeria has failed to provide the expected leadership.
Going by the UNDP, Human Development Index (HDI) survey, Nigeria occupies 151st position out of 174 poor nations surveyed in 2000. According to the World Bank's recent statistics, Nigeria is among the 10 nations in the world that has the lowest literacy rate with over sixty five per cent of its adult population being illiterate. Since the most literate nations in the world are amongst the most developed, our inescapable conclusion is that the more literate a nation is, the more it will be able to attain sustainable development. Thus in other words, Nigeria can not attain sustainable development given the high rate of illiteracy in the country.
In the rest of this paper, I shall do four things. First, I shall argue that since traditional Nigerian education did not transcend from oracy to literacy, it lacked the capacity to empower its people with the knowledge, attitudes and skills that could have enabled them to promote sustainable development in the land. Second, I shall argue that the entrenchment of monolingual education as a result of the overbearing influence of English in Nigeria is responsible for the absence of the biliteracy/multiliteracy needed for the empowerment of Nigerians to develop their land. Third, I shall draw attention to some internationally funded attempts to revamp literacy in the land. I shall give reasons why they failed. Finally, I shall suggest measures that can enhance biliteracy/multiliteracy in a multilingual Nigeria so that Nigerians can have the empowerment for actualizing sustainable development in the land.
Bilingualism in Nigerian Traditional Education
In a number of ways, bilingualism was a critical factor in Nigeria before the advancement of colonial rule. For instance, inter and intra commercial activities were predicated by bilingualism. Each ethnic group had to learn the language of others in order to participate effectively and prosperously in their commercial activities. Inter and intra religious affinities, governance and initiation into man/womanhood were undertaken across ethnic boundaries. For instance, in the former Eastern Nigeria the Ekpe and Okonkon cults were vital instruments that predicated governance, religion and initiation into guilds and manhood in the area. Inter and intra ethnic communication was vital if one were to play a crucial role in such cults. One very vital area in which bilingualism played a very crucial role in the life and culture of the people is education. The ability to communicate beyond ethnic boundaries enabled them to develop laudable arts and crafts, science and technologies that also enabled them not only to survive in their environments but also to interrelate and interact with the wider world. For instance, the famous Nok Terra Cotta technology, which started in 500BC, traversed a vast area. From Benue state in North Central Nigeria to Sokoto and Bornu in North Western and Northern Eastern Nigeria, the Nok Terra Cotta technology held sway. Archeologists tell us that the technology was amongst the best Terra Cotta technologies there were in the world at that time (Fagg, 1977). Although Nok was at the epicenter of the technology, it was through bilingualism that people from the diverse ethnic groups, where the technology was, shared the experiences and expertise that made the Terra Cotta technology to peak and excel. …