Jonathan Obuebite, the Bayelsa State Commissioner for Education, in this interview with PAULINE ONYIBE, he speaks about the state of education in the riverine state and efforts of the Governor Dickson’s administration to use education to change the narrative of the state from its infamous past.
How was the state of education in Bayelsa State before Governor Seriake Dickson assumption of office?
What the Governor Dickson administration met on ground in the state with regard to the education sector was nothing to write home about. I have been privileged to be part of the government and also as a former Chairman of Education Committee in the House of Assembly.
So, I have deep knowledge of the situation and the various efforts made by successive governments. But, what was lacking basically was that there was no spirited effort to take a cursory look at the foundation of education.
The former governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, of blessed memory, looked at the area of providing university education for our teeming youths and people with the establishment of the Niger Delta University, but we all forgot that it was not just having a tertiary institution. We have to look at the foundation where we grow the people to the point of going into tertiary institutions. As the Chairman of House Committee on Education, we complained about the state of our schools, in which we had schools without classrooms.
Again, that there were no enough classrooms for the number of students in the schools. In many schools, students were congested in classrooms and there were schools that were sited within one school environment and many other schools that shared the same compound. Of course, it was that bad that some schools had no desks or chair for students to sit and write, and there were issues of teenage pregnancies and school drop-out children. So, education in Bayelsa was something that needed intervention.
So, what has the current government done differently?
Well, when Governor Dickson took over and having been a part of the government as a Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General of the state, he declared a state of emergency in the education sector on the very day of his inauguration as governor of the state in 2012.
With the declaration of the state of emergency, what has been the state of the sector presently?
The declaration of state of emergency opened the windows of opportunities for a spirited investment and commitment in the sector. I think that is where the governor got it right. He started with the building and renovation of primary schools in the state. More than 400 schools were renovated.
His administration didn’t stop at that. The government also built quarters for headmasters; the very first in the state. In every school, you have headmasters’ quarters. The intention was to have headmasters to be physically there. Before then, if teachers were posted to schools in rural communities, they simply didn’t want to go.
So, that was done and teachers’ quarters were also built. In the secondary school sub-sector, the governor renovated, if not all the secondary schools and built new ones across the state. He built quarters for principals and vice principals, as well as provided accommodation for some teachers. Besides, science laboratories were built in almost all the secondary schools and ICT laboratory. Sadly, if you go to some of the schools some of the facilities are not even being used.
But, we have decided to go back to them and see how we will use them and at least get every benefit from such investment in education in the state. Importantly, the governor employed 300 science and ICT teachers for the state schools in order to have the right teachers to use the equipment that have been provided.
From there, we moved forward to where we are presently and by funding NDU properly. And of course, you are aware that within this period, the College of Education in Okpoma, which for about three years had a student population of not more than 30 or 50 students, and a staff population of more than 100 has today been improved.
What we did was to relocate the college. The people of Bayelsa and even the state House of Assembly debated on the issue before moving it from that senatorial district to another. But, the explanation the governor gave was very clear: Let us take this school to a place that is motorable; to a place where it will attract high student population so that we can achieve the purpose of establishing the college. The situation was so bad then that we were paying the lecturers without doing anything. And, today the school as I speak is functioning very well. We have been graduating students from of the college.
Given the above, could you vividly tell us what has changed so far in the sector?
Well, many things have changed. Today, we have a state where yesterday we referred to as educationally backward to a state where in NECO and WAEC, the state have emerged third and fifth, and children of the state have emerged as the second best graduating students in 2017, a feat we never witnessed before. And indeed consecutively from 2013 to 2017, the state has been within fifth, sixth position in NECO and WAEC. Before now, the state used to take the 28th and 29th position in those examinations in the country.
Of course, in Bayelsa State today, we have the biggest, largest, and most populated public schools, and all our secondary schools are boarding system. Just recently, the National President of Nigeria Union of Teachers was in the state with his executive officers, when he visited the Ijaw National Academy in Kaiama, and referred to the school as a university due to the available facilities.
What is the education target of the state government?
We realise that if we must develop our land, the only key to that development is through qualitative education. But, we are not there yet, we are still working towards being there. And that is why we are doing all these things. So today, I can tell you that the dividends of that pronouncement and declaration of state emergency in education sector are all over the place and in which the pupils, students and parents are already benefitting immensely from.
So far how many schools has this administration built or renovated, and muchhasbeeninvestedin the sector?
You will agree with me that government is a continuum. Most of the schools you see in the state today are schools that were built when the state was part of the old Rivers State. That is, before Bayelsa State was created.
Today, as we speak, we have 25 modern constituency schools that were built by this administration from the scratch and we have them across all the 24 constituencies in the state. Moving forward, today you hear about the Ijaw National Academy. From the foundation, there was nothing like INA; we didn’t change a name. It was built by this government. Today, you hear about the Sports Academy in Asoama and many other schools.
Our population is not in Yenagoa but in the rural areas cutting across all the local government areas. When you go to the primary schools outside Yenagoa, you will not believe that you are seeing such modern primary schools in those communities in the state.
That is why when we say we have sent about N70 billion in education, it is not a fallacy. The facts are all on ground for people to see. It is not rocket science, you can see and feel them. And that is what we have done. What I am saying is not in terms of what we have spent on welfare of workers, we are talking about infrastructure. And the model schools we are talking about, we are building 13 model schools across this state. In every local government areas, you have one boarding model school.
In Kaiama alone, we have three of such schools and we have the Ijaw National Academy, Sports Academy and Kaiama Grammar School. By February, the school will commence boarding system because every facility has been built and provided.
What really are the challenges with primary school teachers, especially payment of salary and how soon does government intend to resolve them? These problems are human factors and the question is that can we solve all human issues?
The answer is no. So, many things are involved. The leadership that you have too matters. For instance, there is no reason for the ongoing industrial action. Yes, the teachers are being owed. But, the Federal Government too is owing its teachers.
There was recession in this country. And for 2016, it was apparently difficult for Federation Account Allocation Committee meeting to hold. Our Naira suffered great depreciation and we all knew it; pump price of fuel was increased. This country is still in recession and within that period, the state had a wage bill of N4 billion and the allocation coming to state in some months after all the deductions was N1.5 billion.
What this means is that it end up using maybe three months’ allocations to pay one month salary. So, within that period, things were really tough for all states. That is why I have said at different fora that we appreciate the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and other trade unions in the state, which saw reasons with the government and accepted 50 per cent half payment for the workers. Of course, rather than to allow the workers to stay for three months before getting a month salary, we negotiated and agreed that no matter what, let us stop everything and pay salary.
But from January to December 2017, we never owed the workers; we did not owe them for one day. However, we also started the procedure of paying the backlogs of salary arrears to our workers. But, for the local government workers, it was a different ball game.
The state government could no longer meet up with augmentation of salary of teachers in the LGAs. For four years, we were augmenting councils wage bills by 80 per cent for primary school teachers’ salary. But in 2016, we found it extremely difficult to pay even the state civil servants. For local government, they have a salary bill of N1.3 billion and the allocation was not coming; sometimes we got N300 million and in other months we got N400 million and we have a total wage bill of N1.3 billion.
If you add up N300 million for three months, it will give you N900 million. So, can N900 million solve the problem? That is why the LGAs suffered and the arrears of salary in some councils is about 10 months, while in some it is between eight and nine months.
In your assessment, would you say the private primary and secondary schools are measuring up to standard?
More than half of the private schools in the state are not measuring up to standard. As a government, we have gone round the private schools, investigated them and compiled the list of all unqualified private schools in the state. In no distant time, about 250 private primary and secondary schools in the state will be closed down for not measuring up to standards.
The affected private schools would be made public to enable the people of Bayelsa to take precautionary measures. Most of those schools would be denied accreditation or approval to conduct the West Africa Senior School Certificate Examinations and other national examinations in the state.