The plight of Nigerians on government scholarship abroad
“As undergraduates in the University of Ibadan between 1969 and 1972, we were paying almost £200 pounds, including accommodation and feeding. “However, at the end of my first year, I was recommended for Cocoa Marketing Board Scholarship Award. At that time, the old Western Region was giving the board a sort of bursary award.
“The federal government would also give bursary; the regional government would give bursary and some industries would give scholarships. So, we had several opportunities. It was only those that did not have scholarships or grants that paid.
“At the time I was finishing my undergraduate programme and was going for my postgraduate diploma, I got a fellowship from UNICEF. By the time I was ready for my PhD programme, during Gen. Yakubu Gowon’s era as head of state, there was massive scholarships for Masters and PhD programmes.”
That was how the Vice Chancellor of Bells University of Technology, Ota in Ogun State, Prof Isaac Adebayo Adeyemi recalled the glut of scholarship awards during his undergraduate and postgraduate days.
He is only one of the legions of Nigerians that enjoyed sponsorship and scholarship schemes put in place by several governments, companies, boards and parastatals, as well as regional and federal governments between the 1960s and 1980s.
By last year, the story had gloomed. For instance, after considering a number of factors, the River State government, through the Commissioner for Agriculture, Mrs. Onimim Jack, recently told parents of beneficiaries of the state government’s foreign scholarship scheme that the current economic situation had made it impossible for the sustenance of the scheme, adding that government was making arrangements to see how the students would return and continue their studies in state-owned universities.
This was after Governor Nyesom Wike, in June last year, vowed to review the scheme to sanitise and purge it of alleged deep-seated corrupt practices.
On that occasion, he had claimed that a report by his transition committee stated that the past administration sidelined the state scholarship board and appropriated its powers to award scholarships to the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA), which resorted to the use of consultants to source for overseas scholarship for beneficiaries.
Today, Miss Chika Didiah, one of the beneficiaries of the scheme is regretting being part of the scheme.She disclosed that since they (beneficiaries) returned to the country over three months ago, she has been at a loss as to how and where to start from, having been abandoned by the government.
She regretted that her former schoolmates at the Rivers State University of Technology (RUST), from where she left for the scholarship, have all graduated, while she tries to find her feet.
Recently, Kano State joined the league of states stopping sponsorship of foreign scholarships, citing dire financial situation, which has made the sustenance of the scholarship unrealistic.
In the last couple of years, the fate of Nigerian students studying in Russia under the Federal Ministry of Education’s Bilateral Education Programme (BEA) has not been radically different from that of their counterparts sponsored by different state governments.
Towards the end of 2014, students under the auspices of the Association of Nigerian Scholarship Students in Russia (ANSSIR) protested the non-payment of their stipends for eight months.
This was shortly after students sent to Russia by the Bayelsa State government had also protested the non-payment of their 14 months stipends and tuition by the state government.
President of ANSSIR, Ike David Ikenna, who led the peaceful demonstration at the Nigerian Embassy there, said they decided to stage a protest to disrupt the normal operations of the embassy so as to get words out that they had not been paid their allowances for eight months.
This, he said, became inevitable after all avenues to peacefully demand their allowances from the Federal Scholarship Board in Abuja failed.
The BEA scheme is a joint programme run by the Nigerian government (through the Federal Ministry of Education) in collaboration with governments of other countries, such as Russia, China, Cuba, Morocco, Algeria, Ukraine, etc.
Under the scheme, outstanding students from all parts of the federation are nominated by the Nigerian government to the foreign governments.
The receiving-country places the scholars in universities and pays their tuition, while the Nigerian government pays the students’ visas, flight and a monthly allowance of US $500.
Last December, BEA scholarship students in China wrote an open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari narrating their plight.
The students said they were constrained to write the letter, having explored all available formal means of resolving the quagmire to no avail.
“As we write to you, all the 27 BEA students in China are yet to be paid a ‘kobo’ since January 2015. This includes eight students who graduated in July 2015, majority of whom had to borrow money to buy their return tickets at the risk of almost being deported due to close expiration dates of their visas.
“The situation has seriously impeded academic, social and emotional welfare of students, whose major means of sustenance comes from this allowance from the Federal Government.
“Students cannot fend for themselves, as the policy in China, like many other similar countries, prohibits any form of paid work by foreign students, especially those on scholarship,” the students wrote.
“This non-payment/delayed payment has been a perennial issue for years, with scholars having to wait for four to six months at the minimum before their stipends are paid by the Federal Scholarship Board.
“Reasons for such delays are often issues bordering on budgeting processes, bank transfers etc. This year, the problem escalated even further that part-payment of five months stipends was made to scholars in some countries only as at October/November 2015 (a delay of 10 to 11 months), while others, such as China, are yet to receive a dime up till now, let alone talk about the balance.
“The executives of the Association of Nigerian Students in China (ANSIC) have been working tirelessly with the help of the Nigerian Embassy in Beijing to find out the root cause of this present predicament so as to bring succour to the sufferings of the students, but all efforts are being frustrated with vain results,” they cried.
While taking cognizance of the dire economic situation in the country, partly resulting from the crash in oil prices globally, they said: “A whole year’s delay in payment can sincerely not be attributed to lack of funds, but to human inaction and indifference, especially in our case in China, where even the part-payment is yet to be made.
“It is mind-boggling that there is no reliable explanation from the Board under the Ministry of Education as to what exactly the problem is regarding the inability to pay scholars in China, like most others, even after countless cries for help.”
They, therefore, prayed for momentary reliefs, including: “That the unpaid allowances (from January to December 2015) of BEA scholars in China and other countries in similar situations should, as a matter of urgency, be paid in full to ease our hardships and enable us pay our debts; that the budgetary provisions of scholarship students henceforth be removed from capital budget to avoid such delays in the future due to budget processes, which are always cumbersome and bureaucratic; that the entire BEA scholarship scheme be reviewed to be more effective and transparent, and when possible, an upward review of allowances should be made in line with current economic realities.”
They also want “a mutual, healthy and more open communication channel to be established between the Board, Ministry and all scholarship students,” just as they called for the establishment of “a monitoring team that truly accesses the quality of institutions of study and living condition of students to avoid unfair standard in treatment and education that scholars receive.”
Finally, they want the federal government to ensure that “scholars who have graduated be considered for roles in Nigeria to checkmate brain drain, which is seriously impeding national development after investing in students for so long.”
Last month, it also emerged that over 300 Nigerian youths sponsored by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) to study at Constanta Maritime University in Romania were facing threat of expulsion from the institution over their sponsor’s alleged failure/refusal to pay their school fees and sundry allowances.
The Guardian learnt that the students, who are studying engineering, navigation and naval transport, each pay as much as €5,720 (about N1.3m). A breakdown of the figure indicate that each of the students pays €4,500 tuition; €300 as feeding allowance; €400 for accommodation; €220 as stipends; and €300 as winter allowance.
While feeding, accommodation and stipends are paid monthly, the school fees and winter allowance are paid once a year to the students in years one to three.In Abuja, The Guardian was told that the director in-charge of the directorate in the federal scholarship board was on leave.
The Deputy Director, Bilateral Education Agreement, Mrs. Chioma Nwadei, who was standing for the director, however, declined comment, saying she was not permitted to speak on the matter.
But the Permanent Secretary in the ministry, Dr. Folasade Yemi-Esan, said the ministry was working assiduously to ensure the prompt payments of stipends of the affected scholars.
She added that the ministry has already written to the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, on how to work out modalities to fully access money meant for the BEA at the beginning of every year to avoid undue delays.
She said: “There are quite a number of issues that we are grappling with, but I can assure you that we are working to ensure that for scholarships, we will try to access the money early.
“We have written to the Minister of Finance to ensure that we access the money early. Some of these children are very young. So, we are working assiduously to ensure that we pay them their stipends as at when due.
“However, because of these problems, I have set up a small committee, which has the Director in charge of Finance and Accounts (DFA), to look at how at the beginning of the year, we can pull all these monies meant for scholarships together and pay the scholars.”
The permanent secretary disclosed that inconsistency and delay in the payment of the stipends of the students was as a result of the ministry’s inability to fully access monies meant for it.
“The problems we are having is that the payments of these scholarships is under the capital expenditure and in the last year, for example, it was only 50 per cent that was released to the ministry and that is why we have not been able to conclude and complete the payments.
“I can imagine what these children are going through. The ones in Cuba, for instance, we had an added problem of remitting the money, as Nigeria cannot remit money directly to Cuba.
“It was so cumbersome we had to send it through the embassy of another country before it finally got to them.”Speaking on allegations of corruption on the part officials of the scholarship board, Yemi-Esan clarified: “Since I resumed as permanent secretary of the ministry, I have not seen any petition on corruption in the scholarship board.
“What I have seen is that money does not get to them as at when due.”When the Rotimi Amaechi-led administration introduced an overseas scholarship programme for students in the state, many hailed the decision, which they believed would facilitate a cross-fertilisation of ideas, knowledge and best practices, as the beneficiaries would return home with fresh insights that would also contribute immensely to the development of their state.
Even though the scheme was also plagued by logistics lapses, which sometime threatened to mar the entire exercise, it managed to trudge on amid complaints.
However, its suspension by the current administration has left many of the beneficiaries in foreign universities and their parents/guardians flustered.In fact, while the government was tinkering with how to bring back home the beneficiaries to complete their studies locally,
some parents and guardians, whose children and wards were midstream, said the suspension was not done in good faith, just as they queried how their children/wards would re-adjust to the country’s curriculum or start all over again.They were also bothered that some of the courses studied by the beneficiaries abroad were not offered in the state-owned university.
For a relative of one of the beneficiaries, Mr. Tony Udoh, since government is a continuous process, the Wike administration should strive to ensure that those currently enjoying the scholarship are seen to the end of their programmes, as bringing them back to state-owned universities would drastically affect their studies and emotion.
He stated: “If you bring them back, the beneficiaries would suffer psychological, emotional and social trauma. “Even if the programme should be discontinued due to paucity of funds, government should allow those already in school to finish their education.”
While a civil servant with the state Ministry of Education, who pleaded anonymity, said evacuating the beneficiaries from their schools abroad abruptly was an insult to the state and the nation at large, another resident, Michael Ndukwe, said the scheme was fraud-laden; hence the need to abolish it.
A mother of a beneficiary and third-year medical student, Mrs. Mercy Ekpele, described the decision as too hard for them and their children to bear.
She bemoaned: “The children do not have any helper overseas and no assistance. Children should not be made to suffer for what they do not know, whether this present administration have problems with the out-gone administration or not, we should not allow it to affect innocent children.
“The fraud that the present government is alleging is in the system and not connected with the children. “We appeal to the governor to be a father to them all and see them through to their final year. The governor is a father, so we expect him to look at the situation as a father and not as a politician.
“We hope he would consider rescinding this decision, because the negative impact will outweigh the current plan.”Another parent, who craved anonymity, said: “For almost one year now, the state government has stopped paying the students their allowance and we have been taking responsibility for that. We don’t mind continuing, but the government should just pay the school fees.
“It is a very bad decision to withdraw all the students and place them in schools in Port Harcourt. The governor should have a rethink.” Mrs. Franca Ukah is in sync with this suggestion, stressing that instead of recalling the students, the state government should enter into partnership with their parents and guardians and work things out.
This, she added, could see the state government paying only the tuition, while the parents take care of feeding and accommodation of their children.
One of the affected students, Miss Chika Didiah, told The Guardian that she regretted the entire scenario that is playing out and her decision to even accept the scholarship.
She disclosed that since they (beneficiaries) returned to the country two months ago, she has been at a loss as to how and where to start from, having been abandoned by the government. She regretted that her schoolmates in RUST, from where she left for the scholarship abroad, have all graduated.