*We are shifting focus from producing graduates for white collar jobs to technical education

*Accredited all the courses in our tertiary institutions

*Gives Loan to Indigenes to Further Their Education

Hon. Gentle Epilefa Emelah, a doctorate degree holder from the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State was hitherto a two time member of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly. He is presently the Commissioner for Education. In this exclusive interview with John Iwori and Monday Kudevi of Maritime Bits, he bares his mind on the challenges facing education in the state and the successes recorded since Senator Douye Diri took the reins of administration as the governor of the oil and gas rich state over three years ago. Excerpts.

As someone with education background, what was your first impression of the ministry on your assumption of office?

I would not see it as first impression because already I was in the system before I was appointed as the Commissioner of Education. While I was in the Bayelsa State House of Assembly, I was the House Committee Chairman on Education. Therefore, the issues of education in the state were not alien to me. Remember, as a lawmaker, one of my roles and responsibilities is oversight. Alongside my colleagues in the House, we played oversight roles in the Ministry of Education and the parasatals under it.  That was why it was a bit easy for me to hit the ground running. In other words, I came into a system where I was a bit familiar with the terrain. All I needed to do was to start from what I knew already.

What were the challenges you were confronted with on assumption of office in the Ministry of Education?

Basically, one of the major challenges is that of funds. This is due to the fact that funds will not always be enough. This reason is that education is very broad.  When you talk about education, you are talking about different tiers or levels of education from kindergarten to primary schools, to secondary schools, to tertiary schools and then the MDAs that are under the ministry and of course you know that if you get to the tertiary level, each school is an institution on its own. Therefore, managing education is not always as simple as it is because it is a very vast area. However, on my assumption of office what I did was not to assume that I know the terrain. I still went ahead to ensure that I visit every single school in the state. We went round the eight local government areas of the state and visited every single school to really ascertain it. I needed a first-hand information about the states of our schools and of course, I used to tell people when they confront me with issues of “some of your schools are dilapidated, the houses are not in good shape”. The thing is, education has been there for quite a very long time right from the colonial eras. Some communities got approval for the establishment of secondary schools right from the colonial eras in the twenties and right at that time, some communities were privileged to have school buildings, so there were school buildings in the twenties and in the thirties. Almost every decade, new schools are established, new buildings are erected. Then you want the present administration to touch all these schools within one administrative circle? It is basically an uphill task.

As a government, you have to plan strategically how you can strategically address these issues. This is because if you want to take it headlong, then it has to get to the point where the whole budget or resources that come to the state every month has to be given to education before you can achieve that. As you are doing that, other areas will be begging for attention. These include the health sector, social amenities, infrastructures, security, and electricity. There is no way the entire government will only look at your sector, so it becomes a bit difficult. That was why I was saying that the issue of funding has been a problem.

If I have all the funds, I will like to renovate and build more schools across board in a single year. But because the resources are not there, we have to be very strategic and focus on what we need to do to ensure that every community, every school feels the impact of Government.

My visit to the schools was very impactful and we were able to know which school needs immediate attention and what we need to do in particular. We were on the visit with a full squad including the media. We have the records. We have the data. Once you want to look at a particular school, all you need to do is to call for the file containing the information about that school and you will see everything. The data include the enrolment, number of teachers, facilities, the states of the facilities and so on.

With that, it gave me a clear vision of what I want to do basically at the level of primary, secondary, and tertiary. When we came on board, we had issues with some schools where the courses that they were running lacked accreditations. A good case in point was the Jasper Adaka Boro College of Education where we had issues of accreditations. Its graduates had challenge of furthering their education because the certificates issued to them were not recognized due to the aabsence of accreditation. Our College of Health Technology also had the same issue. His Excellency as an education loving governor and as an educationist directed that all higher institutions in the state should be accredited. It was marching order that was given to my ministry and we swung into action and at the end of 2021, we were so happy that our efforts really yielded so much fruits. For the first time, our premier tertiary institution, the Niger Delta University (NDU), Wilberforce Island, Southern Ijaw Local Government Area had over 70 courses and all the courses had full accreditation. Similarly, we were able to accredit all the courses at the Jasper Adaka Boro College of Education and successfully affiliated it to Niger Delta University. In the School Health of Technology, we got their courses accredited. Our medical universities as well as the University of Africa, Sagbama was in the news for good reasons. You are a journalist so I believe you must have read about it. Everybody was happy and so it has been from one good story to another in Bayelsa State in terms of education.

In what specific ways did you address some of the challenges you met on ground?

As I said earlier, I just tried to highlight some of the issues that I met on ground. At the tertiary level, we decided to see what we can do because I noticed that we had so many issues that were confronting the educational system. So as a government, we organized an educational summit where we were able to pulled most of the best brains across the country, put them under one roof m Bayelsa State. The essence of the one week summit was to come up with a fifteen years educational plan. The summit was successful. We were able to come up with some good findings. The summit looked at education as a whole namely, kindergarten, nursery, primary, secondary and tertiary. The summit gave us an opportunity to sit down and dissect each of these levels of education, identify the problems and proffering possible solutions. I think it was the outcome of that summit that brought about the issue of establishing technical colleges. We are diversifying our educational system. Before now, our educational system was geared towards the production of graduates for white collar jobs. Today, we have come up with a policy where we have to shift from this white collar education to more practical education. Under this policy, every Local Government Area in the state must have at least one technical college. Hitherto, we have just one technical college in the whole state. But today as a matter of deliberate government policy, we have introduced technical education and given a very serious attention it to the extent that we have earmarked one technical college for every council. As we speak, we have finished building the one in Kolokuma/Opokuma, Sagbama and Ekeremor Local Government Areas. Besides, we have added another one in Yenagoa Local Government Area, making it two in the state capital. These schools are heavily populated. We have also commenced building in Ogbia, Nembe and Brass Local Government Areas. The only one left is Southern Ijaw Local Government Area.  As we speak, we are finalizing everything about the one situated at Swali, Yenagoa Local Government Area. Already, we are equipping the ones at Sampor, Kolokuma/Opokuma Local Government Area and Ofoni, Sagbama Local Government Area. In the next two weeks, these schools will be ready for commissioning by His Excellency. By the next academic session, these schools will start to admit students. This is a very laudable achievement of this very government. A visit to these schools will show the kind of passion the governor has for technical education.

There is also a searchlight on the primary school level. Before now, teachers try to evade their roles and responsibilities as they were not regular in school. Arising from the summit, we have introduced some reforms at the primary school level. To this end, we are bringing in technology into the teaching and learning situation at the primary school level. Today, we have successfully trained teachers in the use of this technology in four Local Government Areas, namely Ogbia, Kolokuma/Opokuma, Ekeremor and Sagbama In these four local Government Areas, we have trained all the primary school teachers in the schools and as we speak today they use tablets to teach in classes. This is a very laudable innovation with improved lesson notes and high technology devices. Today, I can assure you that the issue of absenteeism among teachers has drastically reduced. We have been able to achieve about 85 percent punctuality on the part of the teachers.

How were you able to achieve this in the administration of schools in the state?

This is how the system works. As the teachers use their tablets to teach, the Head Masters are given android handsets. As a teacher goes to school, the first point of call is the Head Master’s office where he or she is required clock in. As the teacher clock in, at the backend, we are seeing him. I do not need to be physically there. So it is mandatory for every Head Master to be in school early. Today, our teachers go to school as early as 7:30 am. The device helps us to even monitor what the teacher is teaching. So if a teacher is expected to start his class 8 o’clock, if I pick that particular school, I can know all the teachers that are in school at that particular moment because they have all clocked in. The ones that did not clock in are assumed to be absent from school. I can access a class and see what the teacher is doing. For instance, if he is teaching English, I will also be able to ascertain the topic he supposed to teach. As I watch from the back end, I can see if he’s still teaching and when the class is supposed to end. By so doing, I will know whether he is teaching the wrong topic or stop the teaching half way. I can also call him or the Head Master to find out why he did not complete his teaching period for that day.

With this innovation, teachers have been put on their toes. Initially, they find it difficult but most of them have adjusted and every two days, supervisors from our technical partners are visiting these schools in case there is any need for troubleshooting any of the devices. They can always put them through on how to do it on their own. These innovations are very welcome developments. Through that system, you can equally check the attendance of the children because all the children’s names in a class are entered into the device. From our backend, I can go to a class and find out the total number of pupils that supposed to be in that particular class. If I want to probe further, I will click that child’s name and his or her details will pop up. These details include father’s name, mother’s name or guardian’s name, as well as telephone numbers. There are also little details about his or her date of birth, residential address and so on. With these details, I can call the parents or the guardian to find out why the child is not in school. Imagine a parent or guardian receiving a call from the commissioner or the governor on why a child is not in school.

These are the kinds of innovations we have brought into our school system and I can tell you there is an increase in our enrollment as more children are coming back to public schools than in the past. Schools are more productive and we are hopeful that in the next few months, we will bring in the other four Local Government Areas into the programme.

We also have what is called Bayelsa PRIME in the state. PRIME is an acronym for Promoting Reforms to Improve and Modernize Education. So when we are talking about Bayelsa PRIME, we are talking about the reforms in the primary school level where we use technology to address the teaching-learning situation in the state. It is the same thing we are equally working in the secondary school level. We are partnering with Microsoft to attain these goals. Microsoft has been able to provide some level of training to our teachers and to our administrators. As of now, Microsoft is bringing in HP to partner with us so that we can provide our teachers with laptops. We are doing this based on what happened in 2021 when there was COVID 19. Schools were not only shut down, everyone was compelled to maintain social distance, among other stringent restrictions. At that time, there were no way pupils and students can gather together in the classrooms to learn.

As a government, the Senator Douye Diri’s administration put its thinking cap to ask questions and provide answers proactively. For instance, we ask ourselves, what do we do should that kind of situation that arose during the pandemic arise again? That is why we are thinking ahead and we are trying to see how we can bring technology at the level of secondary schools so that should anything happens, our children can still learn. So those are some of the reforms we have brought into the education system in the state.

Again, our children have been doing well in terms of sports at the school level. There are many examples to buttress this point. However, because time constraints, I will only give some. In 2021, two of our secondary schools, Bishop Dimieri Grammar School (BDGS), Yenagoa took first position at the National Basketball Championship tagged Milo Basketball Tournament for secondary schools. This was in the boys’ category. In the girls’ category, students of Saint Jude Girls Secondary School, Amarata, Yenagoa came first. Indeed, it was entirely a Bayelsa State affair in the whole tournament as the state emerged victorious in the male and female categories. This is because we came first in the male and female categories. We won it at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos. It is on record that Saint Jude Girls Secondary School, Amarata has been winning the basketball championship back-to-back. It is on record that it has won the tournament for about seven consecutive years and this year, the school is coming back again to Surulere, Lagos by next month to defend the title. Both schools have qualified again for the finals as the defending champions. Do not forget that last year, these two schools represented Nigeria in the World Secondary School Basketball Tournament in Serbia, Similarly, one of our players from BDGS was voted as one of the most valuable players in the tournament. So we are interested in building these youths by giving them hope and directing their attention to where their talents would be groomed for a better future.

Furthermore, we are running boarding facilities in our state. Not every state in the country has boarding facilities for public schools. That is why we are proud to say that in Bayelsa State, every Local Governments Area has one boarding school. We call it model schools where everything is provided. There are hostels facilities. The state government is also feeding them by providing three square meals every day. It also provides beddings and other essentials for their upkeep. In fact, government provides virtually everything for the students. All the students need to do is to come to school, eat and learn. We also ensure that you do not need to tip anybody to gain admission into these schools. By this time next month, we will be conducting entrance examinations into these schools. We will write to the Head Master of every public primary school to give us their best five pupils in primary six. As part of measures put in place to ensure the success of the exercise, Head Masters are mandated to bring these best five pupils to the venue of the entrance examinations. These pupils are subjected to an aptitude test. Immediately the test is over, the scripts are mark and the results announced on the spot. With this kind of arrangement, there is no room to be in suspense or begging anybody to know your fate in the examination. While those who succeeded are admitted into the model secondary schools, those who failed will go to some other schools. This is why in these model schools you can see that children from all the villages are there, because it is free. What we require from you is only when your child is going to school they give him or her prospectus. Maybe the parent may need to buy buckets, plates, stockings, cutleries for their personal use. Those are the things you buy and come to the hostel and stay and learn.

We are happy that recently the Chief Medical Director (CMD) of our teaching hospital was recognized by Times International magazine as among the “100 Most Influential Men in the World”. This same man was also voted among the 10 highest scientists in the world last year. The CMD of our teaching hospital tells you the level of quality of persons that we presently have in our educational system.

A month ago, we conducted a science quiz competition for the girl child. We invited public and private schools as well as Federal Government Colleges. At the end of the day, it was the students of the public schools that came first while those of private schools came second. Those of the Federal Government Colleges took a distant third position. As the Commissioner for Education, I am not expected to be biased. However, I was happy that students from my school came first. So it has been one good story after the other, one good story after the other. When we came on board, we discovered that within the capital city, there are few secondary schools. Therefore, we decided to introduce more secondary schools to admit more students. If you go to Yenagoa Local Government Area especially Ovum, you will see new secondary schools that we built. There is one in Ogbogoro. There is one in Biogbolo. There is one in Igbogene as you are just entering Bayelsa State. We are doing all this with the intention of making education accessible and affordable to the people. As I speak to you, Bayelsa State is among the first ten in terms of ranking in Nigeria. This was not the case in the past. Remember, we were hitherto classified as an education disadvantaged state. But we have consciously worked hard to remove that tag from our state and we are doing very well. The graduates from our schools are doing very well, competing with the rest of the world. Therefore, we are very proud and happy that we are doing well educationally. Look at what Mr. President did a few days ago by giving approval for students of tertiary institutions to get loan to fund their education.  In Bayelsa State, we had a student loan board running that has been running for years. That is why we have a feeling that the idea was copied it from Bayelsa State and yet the Federal Government is making noise about it as if it is a novel idea. It is on record that Bayelsa State has the Higher Education Student Loan Board functional for the past five years. The scheme allows indigenes who find it difficult to pay their school fees to approach the Board for funds to further their studies. The applicant is required to bring two guarantors from the civil service from level 10 and above. The essence of the loan is to ensure that no indigene of the state drop out of school on account of funds. The applicant is expected to pay back the loan after graduation and he or she begins working. The scheme has a very flexible and friendly policy unlike what Federal Government is doing where the two guarantors salaries put together should be about N500, 000.  It is only when you cannot pay that we approach the two guarantors to pay on their behalf.

Is there any case of default by the students or the guarantors so far?

I am not aware of any so far but I have to find out if there is any from the Executive Secretary later.

The Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) in its report in 2023 listed Bayelsa State as one of the states in the country that will be affected by flood. In view of what happened in 2022, what measures have you put in place to mitigate any re-occurrence?

Flooding is a natural disaster and it is something we cannot stop but control. If you build a house that flood usually submerge during flood period, there is nothing you can do. You just prepare and leave the house ahead of time. It is the same way with our schools. Remember, I had earlier told you the measures we have taken at the primary and secondary schools levels so that whenever this natural disaster occurs, we can still reach out to our children. Furthermore, we have adjusted our school calendar because of this flood issues. At the peak of the flood, our children are with their parents at home. We have adjusted our school calendar to contain the flood. We think of the safety of the children first and were possible we move them to a higher ground. As a result no one lose any academic activity during the flood period.

During the administration of Chief Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha, the state government used to send indigenes to highbrow primary and secondary schools as well as universities in Nigeria and overseas on scholarship. If I may ask, is this scheme still on and if yes, how many students are presently enjoying it in Nigeria and overseas?

Every administration has its own policy thrust and priorities. Often times, students usually come to the ministry on the issue of bursary payment to them. They will be shouting on top of their voices, “we want bursary, we want bursary, we want bursary”. I used to ask them, “which bursary?” It is not compulsory that you must collect bursary. I know that bursary started at a certain time in the university but it has been phased out. Before we went to university, we used to hear that those that were in the university in those days, they used to them a coupon for feeding. All a student need to do is to go the cafeteria, tear out the coupon and present it and he or she will be served food. You do not pay anything. In fact, some schools were paying student’s salaries. In the same vein, in those days if you are a student of School of Nursing or College of Health Technology, upon admission you are already a level 4 officer. So they pay you salary to go to school but today all those things are gone. The people that implemented these policies at that time know the reasons why they did so.

Sometimes they give bursary because there is a lack of a particular level of professionals within the society and you want to cover that gap by encouraging them to pursue their education in that line or area of lack or need. The encouragement may come in form of taking care of their tuition fees, accommodation, providing full scholarship and so on. In a nutshell, it depends on what the administration or government of the day what to achieve. For instance, the Higher Education Loan Board that gives indigenes of the state money to pay their fees is a form of scholarship. We are reaching out to more persons. The beauty of the scheme is that you do not need to know anybody in the board to access the loan. You may not call it bursary but in reality it is a form of scholarship. I had earlier told you about our model secondary where students enjoy free boarding facilities including feeding at no cost to the parents. Is that not a form of bursary or scholarship? With this understanding, we can confidently say the prosperity government of Senator Douye Diri is awarding scholarship to students in secondary and tertiary schools. But we are doing those things silently and it has been from one level of glory to another level of glory.

Are you saying that unlike past administrations in the state, you are not making noise about your strides so that no one claps for you?

We are not looking for people to clap hands for us. We want our actions to speak for us as a government. It is only then you can better appreciate what we are doing.

Against the backdrop of your governor seeking for a second term of office in November, what will you consider as key achievements of his administration in the education sector?

For me I will say it is the reforms that we have achieved at the primary education sector. Basically if you want to build a structure maybe a high rising building, it will depend on the sub-structure. In other words, how solid the sub-structure is will go a long way to determine how far you can go. The higher you want the building to go, the deeper the foundation will be. Therefore, when the foundation is strong, it can carry the weight of the building no matter the height.

Having realized that, we feel that even though we have achieved much in the education sector, we want to achieve more in the months ahead. We want to have more better and promising results. That is why we brought the reforms at the primary school level and today, if you take a visit to our schools, you will see children speaking with excitement and confidence. You will see teachers going to school, enjoying their job because of the innovations we have introduced into the system.

Again, we are redirecting the minds of the people to have small skills by establishing these technical schools whereby a child will graduate from SS 3, if he wants to further his education, he can do so effortlessly. He can also decide to be an employer of labour with his technical skills. We want to see a situation where our youths will own plumbing companies and mechanic workshops. We want to see our youths go into electrical services, providing catering services, fashion design, repair vehicles, motorcycles, as well as provide hotels services. This is very vital due to the fact that virtually all the artisans presently carrying out these services in our state are foreigners especially from our neighbouring countries. While these foreign artisans take our money and go and develop themselves and their home countries, our own youths roam the streets seeking for non-existing white collar jobs.

As an administration, we are focusing on an education system that will put food on people table. By so doing, we have been able to use education to address crime and criminality in the state. Today, the level of crime in Yenagoa has reduced drastically. We are doing so with the understanding that what will make a difference in one’s life is the level of education that he or she has.

For instance, a knife in my hand could mean something different, depending on what I know about it. Many years ago when we were in primary and secondary schools, we were taught how to use knife for handwork. We were taught that when you use knife, you can produce brooms, baskets and so on. What they are telling you is that with this knife, you have skills to help yourself and your community. You can sell the baskets and brooms and earn a living. But today, a young boy of 14 or 15 years will carry the same knife and stab his friend without remorse. The knife is now meant to fight and inflict injuries on other persons. They have forgotten that that same knife can give you food and earn you a living. It is all a function of the kind of training and education they get.

Therefore, the present administration of Senator Douye Diri is redirecting the minds of the youths, telling them that they can still be useful to themselves and their communities and the state as a whole. Just yesterday, I posted one video on my WhatsApp status. I like those inspirational videos. It is a video of a man without legs and he said he wants to be a wrestler. He wants to run. He wants to outrun his competitors and he started training. You will see him running with his hands without legs. I think he was born that way. Now if somebody like that could reason that way knowing fully well that he has deficiency because if you must run, you use legs. He went ahead with the training with his hands. At the end of the day, he achieved his dream because he won the race. That is the kind of inspiration we are teaching our pupils and students in our schools.

This same man has won several medals. He even wrestled with somebody who has two legs and before you know it, he landed him on the ground. It shows that anything you want to be, you can always be no matter the odds against you. Therefore, bringing and introducing technical application education is a big achievement as a government.

Moreover, if you lose your language, you lose everything about you. This is also applicable to your culture. Do not forget that language is an identity of a tribe. With this understanding, the Senator Douye Diri’s administration is pursuing vigorously the teaching of our language in our primary schools. This is meant to protect our culture so that we do not lose our language or dialect in the future. For me, this is a major achievement since we are pursuing it to the secondary and tertiary levels so that Ijaw will be taught as a subject or course as the case with Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo languages. Already, we have those who have graduated in Ijaw language from our university. I think this is a very loud achievement. As an individual, I want to leave a good legacy behind me when I leave office.

Since the Senator Douye Diri’s administration came on board over three years ago, how many educational institutions has he established at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels?

As I said earlier, on assumption of office we discovered that at the secondary level within Yenagoa metropolis we do not have enough public schools. That was why we introduced new public schools. In Yenagoa, we have one in Ogbogoro, Ovom, Yenuzie Epie, Biogbolo and Akenfa. Again, we are introducing technical colleges, at least one in each of the 8 Local Government Areas. At the tertiary education level, we have not established any. However, we are consolidating on the ones we inherited from previous governments.

In other words, the present administration has built some primary and secondary schools since it came on board?


Can you tell me how many they are altogether?

I may not be able to give you the exact figures but every year, we are building new schools and renovating old ones. Just now we awarded contracts again to the Basic Education Board (SUBEB). Of course, you know that SUBEB is working with UBEB. Unlike many other states across the country, Bayelsa State has paid her counterpart funding up to next year. We are waiting for these projects to come on stream. As the projects come, we execute them.

Are you saying that Bayelsa State is not among the categories of states that cannot access funds because they have not paid their counterpart funds?

Yes! We have not only paid for this year but also paid ahead.

Less I forget, because I forget so many things due to the fact that I have so many things on my hands every day. Through the Petroleum Education Trust Fund, we are introducing coding, robotics and tech-novation. At the secondary school level, they are exposed to this wonderful technology that will help them to become a better person that will enable them stand in and fit in the twenty-first century.

What is your parting shot?

The best is yet to come. Though we have not gotten there, we want to make sure that we place Bayelsa State as number one in terms of education in Nigeria. That is my dream.


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