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Nigerian scholars beg for alms, face evictions abroad as FG defaults on stipends

Illustrative image from BBC report on deportation of Nigerian students in UK. Illustrative image from BBC report on deportation of Nigerian students in UK.
Illustrative image from BBC report on deportation of Nigerian students in UK.

Nigeria’s education ministry has had a bilateral education agreement (BEA) for over a decade with a list of countries in North America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. Students are sent abroad to undertake degree programmes. As the host country covers tuition, Nigeria finances sustenance costs for transport, books, clothing, and medical insurance.

The BEA project is overseen by the Federal Scholarship Board (FSB) at the ministry. Hundreds of beneficiaries have been flown off to Algeria, China, Egypt, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine, and other countries that signed on to the agreement.

But Nigeria’s constant failure to meet its financial obligations over the last decade has subjected these students to ridicule in foreign lands.

A typical BEA scholarship from Nigeria entitles a beneficiary to $500 worth of supplementation allowance to augment whatever feeding, local transportation, equipment, and books the destination university offers. The clothing allowance and health insurance are $250 and $200, respectively, per annum while the beneficiaries also get ₦60,000 as a take-off grant before departure on a government-funded ticket.

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The students, mostly from low-income families, have not received stipends for up to 11 months. This has forced some to illegally juggle jobs with the demanding schedules of university education, take loans from fellow African students, seek out family members whose monetary aids are made insignificant owing to high foreign exchange rates. Sometimes, they sell personal belongings to make ends meet.

A destination university is contractually obligated to house Nigeria’s BEA beneficiaries in student lodges. However, limited slots imply that these undergraduates and postgraduate candidates often have to rent apartments, diverting and depleting their monthly stipends for this. As Nigeria fails to make this critical monthly payment, many young students now face the threat of being evicted into the streets.

FSB database reveals that Nigeria nominated 673 students for BEA scholarships between 2015 and 2018 across at least nine countries.

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Implemented BEA Scholarships (2015 to 2018)
COUNTRY 2015 2016 2017 2018 TOTAL
Algeria 15 18 17 26 76
China 7 5 11 5 28
Cuba 0 0 1 0 1
Hungary 35 39 43 41 158
Egypt 9 12 8 8 37
Morroco 8 18 40 50 116
Russia 62 56 82 94 294
Serbia 0 0 1 0 1
Tunisia 0 0 2 0 2

For the 2022/2023 season, Nigeria sent 175 students to Russia for undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes in such fields as engineering, geology, agriculture, mathematics, environmental sciences, law, social sciences, architecture, and medicine.

Some 83 students were also sent to Morocco in the same year through the FSB, reportedly created in 1959 as an education ministry unit.

BEA 2022/2023
BEA scholarship beneficiaries of 2022/2023

Every year, Nigeria continues to send these young intellectuals on a trip of mystery despite its apparent inability to fund them promptly.

FACING EVICTIONS, SCHOLARS BEG FOR ALMS IN MOROCCO

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First, he sold off his phone. Then, he pawned off his shoes to buy groceries while waiting indefinitely on FSB disbursement.  At no point during his selection process back in Nigeria did Sadiq Ahmed think a government-supported university programme would bequeath such unmitigated hardship. He has had to ration meals by eating only once daily to survive the cash crunch owing to the unpaid BEA stipends, yet hunger is the least of his problems. Exams are to start in two weeks and he can not afford to purchase handouts needed for preparation.

Ahmed was picked in 2018 to study veterinary medicine at Hassan II Institute in Rabat, Morocco. He is one of the BEA beneficiaries left to their fate after his host university had no more accommodation to offer Nigeria’s plenitude of scholarship students. Ahmed has been squatting with a colleague from South Sudan in Casablanca while shuttling some 87.1km to the capital of Rabat every day for lectures.

“It’s a terrible situation I can’t wish on my enemies,” he told TheCable. “Some students have resorted to begging on the streets.”

The current 11-month stretch of unpaid stipends, Ahmed recalled, is a replay of 2019 when it took repeated protests in the diaspora and the ultimate intervention of the then Senate President Bukola Saraki to get Nigeria to pay off an eight-month backlog of stipends.

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Hassan II institute of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine
Hassan II Institute of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine

Ahmed incurs a minimum of $400 to $500 in monthly expenses, even without independently renting a place for himself.  Having undertaken an eight-year course, the undergraduate student dreads what hardship the three years left of his programme hold for him.

“Most of us are  now homeless,” he added. “The embassy here can’t do anything because they can’t meet the needs of over 450 students.”

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TheCable obtained a video addressed to Tahir Mamman, the education minister, where a Moroccan real estate agent who hadn’t received rent for several months from a group of female Nigerian BEA students living in her property stated she might be forced to throw them out.

“It’s been a while since they last paid rent. Anytime I meet them, they tell me this month, next month. Up until now, I have received nothing. Do something. If not, I can’t keep them in apartments that do not belong to me,” the property manager appealed in French.

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Other videos, dated May 4, also show more students in Morocco holding placards in protest after they were evicted from their lodge.

Aisha Yasir, a BEA student in Morocco who does not want to be identified by her real name for fear of FSB victimisation, is surviving on loans she must pay back with interest. The science student’s rent and utility amount to $300 monthly, apart from transportation and other expenses. In February 2024, her landlady had threatened to send some locals over to evict her over months of outstanding rent. In March, electricity to her apartment was disconnected due to unpaid bills, adding to the dilemma of overdue rent and possible eviction.

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“There’s no point in calling the embassy. They’ll only say they’ll speak to the landlady and the landlady doesn’t want speeches,” she said.

Yasir, who lives in Casablanca, no longer participates in internships due to transport costs heavily eating into what’s left in her purse. She manages to go to school twice weekly and is forced, like others who no longer do so, to explain the situation to her professor at school.

CHARITY CASE IN VENEZUELA

Venezuela’s economy is in crisis, so much that no prominent country would deploy intellectuals there without catering to their welfare.

Hyperinflation, severe shortages of basic amenities, and failed infrastructure largely attributed to mismanagement, corruption, and heavy sanctions by the US and EU have pushed the South American nation into dramatic economic decline over the last decade. The Bolívar, Venezuela’s currency, has nearly lost all value. This has led to widespread poverty, joblessness, and a dollarisation of its economy since 2019.

Food, medicine, and fuel are scarce and costly. Healthcare and electricity are stretched, with millions fleeing to neighbouring countries.

BEA Water Rationing in Venezuela
Water rationing in Caracas, Venezuela, Nigerian BEA students join the queue of a non-profit organisation

Exchange students sent away to such a place without funds will be no different from the average poor citizen on the streets of Caracas, the country’s capital.

Saidu Adamu is one of the 17 Nigerians in Venezuela under the BEA. He is rationing everything from food to water while writing exams. Adamu splits his time between attending classes and working five hours daily as an attendant in a retail clothing store for $100 monthly.

The last time he received payment from FSB was in August 2023 when he was paid $2,080 for a six-month backlog instead of $3,000. Philip Awoniyi, the then Nigerian ambassador to Venezuela, had blamed the unstable naira-to-dollar exchange rate for the shortfall.

Letter to BEA Scholars in Venezuela from Nigerian Embassy
Letter to BEA scholars in Venezuela from the Nigerian embassy

“Honestly, my family has no money to send to me,” Adamu said. “Even when FSB pays, I send some money to them to support my brothers.”

The sanctions on Venezuela restrict access to international financial systems, complicating bank transfers. Venezuelan government assets have been frozen and trade embargoes have been imposed to pressure Nicolas Maduro’s government, which has been in power since 2013, to restore democratic processes, address human rights abuses, and combat corruption. But inhabitants have been caught in this crossfire.

As a result, BEA payments to Adamu and 16 other colleagues from Nigeria go through an agent and a complex roundtripping process.

“FSB sends our money to Jamaica, from there to Venezuela before it gets to us. We pay an agent $100 each to deliver the cash,” Adamu said.

Adamu has been struggling to make ends meet while waiting indefinitely on FSB disbursement. With no university hostel to stay in, he found refuge with the Grand Marshal of Ayacucho Foundation, a state-run non-profit in Caracas that offers aid to undergraduate and postgraduate students in Venezuela. He squats in a room with four other foreign students whose activities often disrupt his study time.

Fundación Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho
Fundación Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho

“Five to six people can be assigned a room. The problem with this arrangement is that you don’t have the time and privacy to study. You want to study after work at night and other people are playing music or watching a movie,” the young student told TheCable over a voice call.

BEA Squatting in Venezuela
Adamu’s mattress on the floor

Adamu arrived in Caracas in September 2022. From January to August 2023, he had no FSB stipend to live on, until $1,000 came in. He said Philip Awoniyi often came to his aid and that of 16 other BEA colleagues, funding them from his purse to alleviate pressing needs.

“We would tell him that we didn’t have foodstuff; he often sent his driver to give us up to $200 each. He gifted money to my colleagues to rent an apartment because they were schooling in another state. After he left, things changed. We started looking for work,” Adamu said.

Abbas Zayan, who speaks for all Nigerian BEA students in Venezuela, said it costs $140 monthly to rent a room with a shared kitchen.

“We’re on a student visa which isn’t eligible for work. It is in our contract that we can’t work. Yet, we have not received a dime from FSB in the last 11 months. The stress of not knowing where our next meal will come from has taken a toll on our academic performance,” he said.

A BROKEN SYSTEM

TheCable contacted Astra Ndajiwo, the FSB director, but she claimed that the “extension of the capital expenditure” from Nigeria’s 2023 budget run is the reason for the unpaid stipends. Student heads under the BEA also confirmed the FSB gave them a similar explanation.

Ndajiwo said Nigeria has not sent the stipends because BEA scholarships fall under capital projects in the education ministry’s budget.

“Nigeria has been paying students under bilateral education. It is the responsibility of the government to pay monthly supplementation. It is up to the host country to give them accommodation, tuition, and some monthly stipends,” Ndajiwo told TheCable in a May 14 voice call.

“The 2024 capital expenditure has not started. The federal government extended capital expenditure for 2023 to a certain month. Until they close the 2023 capital expenditure, they will then open the 2024 capital expenditure. Then the scholarship programme will go on.”

Cost of BEA Servicing
Cost of BEA servicing

In January 2024, Nigeria extended its 2023 supplementary budget. Tajudeen Abbas, the speaker of the lower legislative chamber, said the extended budget is to run “concurrently” with the capital component of the 2024 appropriation act till March 31. There has been no communication about any further extension. Going by this, it is easy to say the supplementary budget should have closed two months ago.

In the voice call, Ndajiwo added, “Because the extension is too long, the ministers [of education] have gone to talk to the minister for finance to open a way where the scholarship’s funds can go to the central bank and be remitted to the countries at the normal date.”

Ndajiwo’s reply, some observers say, suggests the hindrance is due to a paucity of funds for the BEA, not the budget shift.

A concern that has remained largely unspoken is how Nigeria’s foreign exchange crisis has affected remittances to the BEA beneficiaries.

The exchange rate benchmark with which the 2023 budget allocated funds in naira for the BEA was ₦435 per USD, but an FX crisis and the central bank’s floating of the local currency has seen it drop to over ₦1,400/USD on both the official and parallel markets. Since the BEA beneficiaries are paid monthly, the stipends are subject to the volatility of the rates in Nigeria’s foreign exchange market. It means that any major depreciation of the naira’s value would translate to a shortfall in the pay to beneficiaries of the BEA in faraway countries.

FSB's May 2 Letter to BEA Students
FSB’s May 2 letter to BEA students in Morocco

After the directive to float the naira in 2023, it hit ₦755 on the official window. Dalhatu Tijani, a medical student in Morocco, said the funds sent to the central bank for remittance to BEA countries “weren’t enough to buy the dollar” required to go around for the students.

He said the apex bank gave FSB the dollar equivalent of the funds provided. This was then remitted to the Nigerian embassies in the BEA countries. It meant that the eventual payment intended for six months had a shortfall of up to two months, a loss to the students.

“Since then, they said the money they had to pay us for the rest of 2023 is lost to naira devaluation,” Tijani added. “Then, they have been pursuing approval from the presidency since payment to us has to be budgeted. That approval has been hanging from June 2023 to date.”

Education consultants suggest that BEA stipends be either denominated in dollars or remitted to the host country for management once the beneficiaries are deployed to prevent long spells of unpaid allowances and perennial protests during the slightest FX fluctuation.

TheCable could not have further discourse with Ndajiwo as the director became agitated, asking this reporter to either fly from Lagos to Abuja and request information physically or send an Abuja correspondent to the bilateral affairs department of the education ministry.

Also, Folasade Boriowo, the media head at the education ministry, rebuffed every attempt to get reactions from her on BEA affairs.

“It has always been endless promises. Between 2017 and 2018, BEA stipends were delayed for over 18 months. It was a big struggle. We contacted FSB but they started shirking responsibility,” said Juwon Fayomi, president of Nigeria’s student association in the diaspora.

WORKING WITHOUT PERMIT

The legality of foreigners on a student visa working varies, but it is illegal to work in most of Nigeria’s BEA destinations without a permit.

Informal regulations governing Nigeria’s BEA arrangement with host countries also state that beneficiaries are not to work, must focus on studying, must achieve academic excellence to retain their sponsorship, and must return home to grow their countries after their degree.

Ferdinard Oparah is studying software engineering at Penza State Technological University in Russia. His programme began in 2020 with a preparatory language course to learn Russian. Then came his first year in 2021. However, schooling is tough for the undergraduate due to unpaid FSB stipends. He has considered working, but most informal and part-time placements in his city hardly take foreign students.

“We do petty jobs to make ends meet. In small cities like mine, jobs are scarce. My studies have greatly been affected,” he told TheCable. “I’m only able to survive here with the little money I get from my parents which isn’t enough to get me to school most of the times.”

Ferdinard Oparah (far right) at Russian airport with colleagues post-arrival in 2019

Oparah prioritises food and rent, leaving little or nothing left for critical needs like renewing his travel passport which has neared expiry.

Samuel Ajayi, a US-based PhD candidate who consults for those seeking education abroad, stated during an online forum that some BEA students in Russia resort to travelling to distant areas of the European country to work, with some likely considering leaving the country.

“As of 2022 when I was interacting with those in Russia and Ukraine, some people in government called the students ungrateful. They say they should find work and support themselves. These are countries that don’t even speak English. The work you can do is limited,” Ajayi said.

“When they start working, you want them to start failing. We had some in Russia who failed some courses in medical school and could not continue. They had to re-enrol in another school and start paying their tuition to study another course. It is a national embarrassment.”

Jeffery Alabi, head of BEA students in Russia, said beneficiaries are subjected to workplace exploitation due to their studentship status.

“Here in Moscow, universities are tough. There is no time to work. If you find a job, you’re exploited. You work long underpaid hours. We already have to put in double the effort of a native to keep up with studying courses like medicine in the Russian language,” he added.

THE OUTLIER IN CHINA

Among all Nigeria’s active BEA scholarship beneficiaries who spoke to TheCable, students in China appear to be outliers. Ibrahim Bature, from northern Nigeria, is undertaking a doctorate in the Asian country and has not been paid FSB stipends for over nine months. But China’s scholarship council is his boon. CSC covers accommodation and tuition while paying him monthly stipends equivalent to ₦750,000.

“I live in a two-bedroom apartment at ₦600,000 monthly. Nigeria’s government agreed to give us $500 but is not fulfilling this,” he said.

Bature said he would worry about buying food for an equivalent of ₦17,000 and paying monthly rent at $300 without CSC.

“In China, you cannot get any job if you’re a student. This is the same in all BEA countries. It’s illegal. It takes a lot to do a doctorate in all these countries. I spend almost 13 to 14 hours in the lab daily. It can never be easy managing work and study,” Bature explained.

“China gives Nigeria almost 100 scholarships. But Nigeria always nominates a small fraction like 20, 10, 2, and 3. In 2022, only 2 were nominated out of 100 slots. In 2023, only 10 were nominated. In 2021, it was about 22 or 23. This number keeps going down.”

REPS TO PROBE BEA SCHEME

Efforts to reach Mamman, the minister of education, his aide, Yusuf Sununu, the minister of state for education, proved abortive.

Neither calls nor texts to Abubakar Fulata, the chairman of the house of reps committee on tertiary education, also received any response.

Mukhtar Kazaure, a federal lawmaker representing Kazaure, Roni, and Yankwashi LGAs of Jigawa, had tabled the BEA issue to the green chamber.

Kazaure told TheCable on May 21 that the matter had been referred to the tertiary education committee which will then meet with FSB.

“I spoke with Fulata. He told me the referral had not come to his table yet. The ministry and BEA students will be summoned,” he said.

“They will investigate. We will hear from the government and students to decide the next line of action. This should be done by this week. We can’t work on assumptions because we don’t have the information you’re giving me. Has FSB paid or not? It has to be investigated.”

AN ENDURING TREND

Beyond FSB and the BEA scheme, the issue of federal scholarships subjecting beneficiaries to ridicule has been internationally reported.

CNN reported in 202o that Nigerians awarded Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) scholarships were abandoned in the UK.

Reports also surfaced that Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) scholars were stranded abroad during the pandemic.

PTDF offers Nigeria’s most lucrative federal scholarship to develop human capacity and petroleum technology for the oil and gas industry.

In 2023, Nigerians studying abroad on grants from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) were stranded amid the FX crisis.

Nigeria adopted ₦800/USD as the benchmark FX rate for the 2024 budget. Naira is now dropping to double that figure.

BEA beneficiaries fear there might be no end to Nigeria’s perennial defaulting on their stipends if a definite solution is not implemented.

Analysis of the national budget shows that the cost of servicing the BEA scheme ballooned from ₦904.1 million in 2019 to ₦6.8 billion in 2024.

It shows that total yearly deployments have continued to drop despite Nigeria receiving a much higher number of BEA scholarship slots.

Cost of Awarding and Servicing BEA Scheme (2019 -2024)
YEAR Fresh Awards Budget (₦) Ongoing Servicing Budget (₦)
2019 272 16,870,665 827 904,101,786
2020 472 15,225,744 1027 1,900,943,151
2021 598 327,413,682 1396 1,247,986,699
2022 598 1,291,981,438 1396 3,254,418,163
2023 430 478,375,884 1434 4,057,444,823
2024 185 1,391,247,500 1532 6,775,435,000

Olumuyiwa Igbalajobi, an education consultant, stated that Nigeria must consider shelving the BEA scheme if it is no longer sustainable.

“The plight of Nigeria’s BEA students in the diaspora must be intentional. It has become disappointing for over a decade now,” he said.

Edafe Ominigbo, a PhD candidate, said legislation should be pursued to safeguard federal scholarships from perennial FX volatility.

“It might be helpful to start picketing embassies. Nigeria’s government only reacts when embarrassed on international forum,” he added.

“Those who do not have adequate numbers can write protest letters to embassies and high commissions within their jurisdictions.”

The stories of Nigeria’s BEA students scattered across foreign lands remain that of survival. While the government continues to issue well-worded promissory statements and constitute probe panels, the fate of students like Adamu, Oparah, and Ahmed hangs by a thread.


Editor’s Note: About two names were changed on request to protect the identities of those sources.

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