Bayelsa State: investing in education
In the third in our series on Bayelsa State, The Africa Report visits two institutions leading the way in state-funded education.
Kaiama is the spiritual headquarters of the Ijaw people. It is the birthplace of Major Isaac Adaka Boro, who declared the Niger Delta People’s Republic in 1966, a bold statement of independence for the region a year before the country was dragged into a devastating civil war in which he lost his life.
That is why the Ijaw Youth Council chose Kaiama to make their landmark declaration in December 1998 demanding local control of the land and mineral resources, after decades of plunder and environmental damage by successive federal governments and transnational companies. Kaiama is also the home of the Ijaw National Academy, one of the best public secondary schools in the state with 1,100 students. It launched operations in 2017.
Free and compulsory schooling
The academy is at the vanguard of another struggle, to equip the next generation of Bayelsans to modernise and develop the state. It is also the flagship for Bayelsa’s policy of free and compulsory secondary education, one of the only states in the federation to commit resources to that cause. Bayelsa gets little support from the federal government in this endeavour.
It has to finance the entire cost of secondary education in the state and 80% of the cost of primary education. This stretches the N23bn ($64m) that the state is budgeting for education this year. That is just over 10% of its statutory allocation from central government. In the middle of Kaiama, the Ijaw National Academy is expanding fast, with new teaching blocks and dormitories under construction.
The aim is to have 3,000 students and maintain its policy of a strict 50:50 gender balance. There are four laboratories for chemistry, physics, biology and nutrition as well as a couple of libraries. According to Bayelsa State education commissioner Jonathan Obuebite, 96% of graduating students passed the last West African Examinations Council with five subject credits, including maths and English.
Convening a lively school assembly meeting of hundreds of students during a visit by a reporter from The Africa Report, Obuebite asked the students what they wanted to do after graduation. Back came a cacophony of enthusiastic answers: doctor, lawyer, engineer, tech pioneer, chemist, journalist.
The aim is to have 3,000 students and maintain a 50:50 gender balance
Obuebite enthusiastically defends the boarding school system in the state: “We’re bringing all the children together in these schools regardless of background […] They’re getting an education without distractions.” Poorer families, says Obuebite, would often take their children out of school to work on farms or fishing boats. The mission is to offer more than academic education, he says: “We’re trying to build social cohesion and break the culture of criminality that you can find in the creeks.”
For years, local politicians and crime bosses have preyed on youths living on the margins in the Niger Delta’s labyrinthine networks of creeks, offering them pocket money to join gangs of thugs. Each election season brought a wave of violence sponsored by rival parties. That should now be consigned to the past, says Obuebite.
Many older students at the academy are looking at the next stage of the journey: the University of Africa, which opened its doors to students two years ago in Bayelsa. Under vice-chancellor Valentine Aletor and his team of academics, it has four faculties: agriculture, arts and education, basic and applied sciences, and social and management sciences.
There is also a school of foundation studies to prepare school students specialising in arts or sciences with intensive computer training, before they begin full-time degree courses. The main campus opened last year at Toru-Orua, governor Henry Seriake Dickson’s hometown, and its goals of “innovation and sustainability” reflect his thinking on the curriculum and funding.
Although Nigeria has 160 universities, their intake is just over a third of the 1.5 million students who apply every year. Apart from the lack of places, the biggest concerns are the standards of tuition and the relevance of courses, according to professors Olatunji Oyelana and Hassan Oikhenan. Working with the community and business is the ethos of the university, explains Samuel Agele, dean of the faculty of agriculture and a professor of crop physiology.
The faculty is setting up a cassava processing plant to produce 50tn of industrial starch per year. This involves working closely with local farmers on inputs and cropping, as well as adapting manufacturing technology to local conditions.
Such agro-industrial projects, run under the auspices of the university, bring in investment from business and vital funding for the academic programmes. It also means that students have a much better sense of the world of work and develop ties to future employers, says Yerindideke Konyefa, the bursar.
Business sponsorship is key to the funding model of the University of Africa, but other strategies should be considered, Turner Isoun, an eminent environmental scientist and former Nigerian minister of science and technology, told the university’s first matriculation ceremony last year.
For example, the federal government should allocate $1bn from oil revenue to finance scientific research and innovation directly through Nigeria’s universities. Beyond money, Isoun urged the university to aim high. It already has the target of getting into the top 10 of the country’s 160 ranked universities within five years.
Bayelsa’s newest university could take inspiration from another pioneering institution in West Africa: the University of Timbuktu, which a millennium ago had a student population of 25,000 in a city of 100,000. Students came from all corners of Africa in search of learning in the ancient city and produced advanced works on mathematics, medicine and law.