Emmanuel Addeh, who visited the Ijaw National Academy, a post-primary institution set up by the Bayelsa State Government, reports that the new institution is the right place to begin changing the Ijaw narrative

With a chequered history, the Ijaw people found mainly in Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Rivers, Ondo and to a lesser extent in Akwa Ibom State, have come to deeply embrace their identity and indeed how they should relate with the rest of the world, while not jettisoning their own very essence. At first contact and noticeably so, the Ijaw are as train that is very finicky about their language, culture and traditions. Their contact with the white man, still resonates in the kind of names borne by this stock till today. Names like Meeting, Money Sweet, Kitchen, I don’t care, Lagos, Carpenter would probably amuse a first-time visitor to Ijaw land, especially those coming to Bayelsa, but no, they are just a reflection of the rich history vis-à-vis the interaction of Ijaw people with the outside world.

They are a proud people; forever staying true to their heritage, whether in terms of their foods, dances, marriage traditions, general mannerisms or even the way words are pronounced. The typical Ijaw man, would sound the word jeep as Zip or church as sauce and not give any qualm or in any way feel inferior to the listener. He will greet you Nu`a or Adoo, not minding whether you understand a word of the language.

It is in consolidation of these rare traits, enriching the Ijaw culture and growing a new set of Ijaw leaders that the establishment of the Ijaw National Academy, symbolically located in Kiama, the hometown of the revered late Ijaw hero, Major Adaka Boro, has become important.

Sited off the popular and easily accessible East/West road which runs across most states of the South-south, the Ijaw National Academy, though currently equates with secondary schools in terms of ranking, stays markedly different in terms of physical structures, faculty and focus, with its buildings comparable to those of universities. The INA is fully decked with modern hostels, dining halls, classroom blocks, staff quarters, library, laboratories and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as well as health facilities. Unlike in most secondary schools in the state, the Ijaw language, culture and way of life will be vigorously taught to the next generation of leaders, whom the promoters of the project say would outperform them, given the kind of foundation being laid by the new institution.

Already the Ijaw academy, a mixed institution, has kicked off academic activities with about 1000 students from Bayelsa, while it has also provided 100 slots for Ijaw people outside Bayelsa State. Governor Seriake Dickson, who describes Bayelsa as the Jerusalem of the Ijaw people, says the project, the first of its kind, would help in rewriting the Ijaw story and prepare the youths of the state for responsible leadership. “The Ijaw National Academy has already started and we have 1,000 students there.

Almost a hundred of the students are from other Ijaw-speaking states. So when I give scholarships, most people do not know I give scholarships also to other Ijaws in other states. This is because Bayelsa has a responsibility not only to mobilise ourselves within this state for development but also to lead the way for the rest of the Ijaw nation. Some of the deserving boys and girls from other neighbouring states are there and they will feed for free. We are going to have about seven to 10,000 compulsory boarding students fed by the state, clothed by the state, taken care of by the state,” Dickson posits proudly.

Aside the physical structures, the headship of the Ijaw academy also differs from the conventional secondary schools. The Principal is a British educationist, a thorough-bred disciplinarian who is expected to maintain the highest standard of learning and character in the institution.

Dickson continues: “There are medical facilities in the schools, laboratories, libraries built to standard. For the Ijaw National Academy, the first principal I have appointed is a British citizen, a distinguished Cambridge University graduate. There is a major revolution going on that has to be supported and funded. The only thing we want parents and guardians to do is when your child gets admission into any of these boarding schools, you only buy those little items that they write down like bucket, cutlass, dormitory wears and so on. The government will now take care of the intellectual moulding of that child and we are training all round citizens. When I took over this state, we had the unfortunate situation where in 2012 we did not have a single boarding school. Soon, the Bayelsa government says, the Nigerian Army would deploy some of its officers, led by a commandant to ensure the physical discipline of the students. A chaplain to ensure moral rectitude and spiritual wholeness, has also been deployed in the school to ensure that benefitting students are well-rounded.”

The governor says he believes that making the centre the epicenter of educational excellence, would change the narrative, whereby many Ijaw youths were perceived to be militants and violent people. “We have kidnappers and militants, criminals and cultists because the young people have not been given the opportunities to discover their potential and to contribute meaningfully to the society,” the governor adds.

Pioneer principal of the school, Mr. Charles Hughes Johnson, agrees with the governor and opines that his headship of the school would assist in opening it up to partnering with institutions outside the country. “I am here in this part of the world to help nurture the Ijaw National Academy into a torch-bearing institution that in years to come the Ijaw nation will be very proud. We will produce leaders, academics in much the same way some of the schools that were set up during the colonial period. We want to create a new school and produce students that will rank among the best in the world,” Johnson explains.

On the quality of equipment and the structure on the ground, the Principal adds, “This is one of the best equipped public schools that I have seen here in Nigeria located in a serene environment that could rival some of the best private schools. Children thrive in serene and tranquil environment and we are lucky to have this here at the Ijaw National Academy, a spacious setting where we would have two football pitches. Children, particularly boys need exercise; I am very passionate about the physical part of boarding school. We will be having a very structured approach,” he states. The Principal noted that with his experience over the years, it would only be a matter of time before the Ijaw academy becomes some form of tourist attraction to many countries.

Johnson continued: “The governor himself wants us to build a chapel here and we will have a chaplain. He is posting a commandant from the Army, we will teach the children drill; I was in the British Army myself and left 30 years ago as a captain. I know it is good to instill discipline in the children, especially in the boarding school. A visit to the school shows the gigantic structures that were erected and the first set of staff. Four blocks of one-bedroom flats, a sickbay, clinics, a couple of medical doctors, four nurses, 32 classrooms, toilets, multiple sound-proof generator sets. This is very rare elsewhere. Even in some universities, this sickbay is better than what you find there,” says Dr. Enize-Tonvie Eze, one of the medical staff on duty.

Raphael Big-Joe is the Senior Perfect in SS2 at the academy. He expresses excitement over what he met when he first arrived the school. “At first I was surprised with what I saw in terms of the infrastructure and facilities. Later I discovered it was even much more than I had initially seen after I saw what we have inside. The equipment and everything. The sporting facilities. The common rooms, dining halls, classrooms. I was wowed. With these things on the ground, I look forward to being one of the intellectual gurus of the future. The teachers are sound in their areas. This is a big contrast to where we are coming from. Nobody is complaining here and everything is free,” Big-Joe said.

Kiyah Ebitimi, Head Girl, SS2, who is a beneficiary of the scholarship from the Ijaw-speaking part of Edo State, also speaks in the same vein. “I am from Edo State. I am very happy. Not everybody is opportune to have this opportunity. I am grateful to the government. Our facilities are some of the best I have seen,” she says.

The Commissioner for Information and Orientation in the state, Mr. Jonathan Obuebite, posits that the school is not like every regular secondary school. “What is special about the school is that one: the school will be a centre of Ijaw national integration. 100 of the 1000 students that are currently there, were taken from other Ijaw-speaking states,” Obuebite explains.

He adds, “It is not unlike every other school. We have a vicar sent by the Christian community for the moral upbringing of the students, we have the military personnel. We don’t have these in other regular schools. It is a centre for leadership training. The Ijaw language will be taught so that it doesn’t go into extinction to ensure that we preserve our cultural heritage. Unlike other schools, the beneficiaries are taken from the eight local councils of the state, not minding that it is located in Kaima.”

On why an expatriate was picked to head the school, the commissioner noted that the school will also be affiliated to schools outside the shores of Nigeria, “reason it was necessary to get a man with the right contacts. It is also to set standards like what obtains outside of Nigeria, just like some schools in Lagos are doing and ensure things are done the right way. We are bringing abroad here instead of sending our children there. The man’s wealth of experience too matters. He has been in the education subsector all his life,” he said.