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We do menial jobs, sleep at train stations –Abandoned NDDC scholars

Jesusegun Alagbe Zashaya Awele leapt for joy when she got a scholarship from the Niger Delta Development Commission in August 2019...

Jesusegun Alagbe

Zashaya Awele leapt for joy when she got a scholarship from the Niger Delta Development Commission in August 2019 for a master’s degree at a London university in the United Kingdom. But one year after, her joy has turned into anxiety, worry, and depression. The reasons for her condition are quite enormous.

Like other scholars, when she got the scholarship, the commission promised to pay them a N500,000 take-off grant to process their visas and procure flight tickets to their destination countries. Apart from the take-off grant, the commission was also supposed to pay them $30,000 (N11.6m), which covered their tuition fees and living expenses.

A year after, Awele has yet to receive the grant to pay her tuition fees. In fact, the NDDC did not pay the N500,000 take-off grant until April 2020 – eight months after the scholarship was awarded.

Awele, a Delta State indigene who worked at a private clinic in Abuja until she got the scholarship, had to sell off some of her properties and borrow money to raise funds for her travel to the UK. She eventually got to school in October 2019.

“I waited for two months expecting to get the take-off grant. When it was not forthcoming and I couldn’t wait, I had to raise funds to travel to the UK. We were paid the take-off grant just about four months ago. However, we have yet to get the tuition fees,” she told our correspondent.

The non-payment of her tuition fees a year after securing the scholarship was what was eating up Awele as the consequences were wide-ranging, including de-registration by the school and deportation by the UK Home Office.

She said, “There are some of us who have been de-registered and what it means is that all the academic work that we’ve been doing for a year is null and void. The implication is that the school could say we are no longer their students and report us to the Home Office and throw us out of the country because we reneged on our agreement with them.

“Right now, I can’t read or concentrate on my studies; I’m constantly thinking, ‘When am I going to pay my tuition fees? How am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to eat?’ At this point, I’m scared, devastated, worried, and depressed. I can’t even work on my project. I’m constantly thinking, I’m really in a bad state.”

Coupled with the non-payment of her tuition fees, Awele also has no job to cater to her basic needs, which makes her feel more frustrated and depressed.

She said, “I don’t have a job. I had one before COVID-19 but it was barely enough to cater to my needs. I was lucky I was staying with a relative, so my accommodation was taken care of. But now I stay alone, and now there are rent, intra-city travel, and feeding expenses. I don’t have a means of livelihood.

“I know fellow scholars who sleep in train stations, roaming around the streets during the day and sleeping on the benches at night. And these are NDDC scholars.”

But Awele is not alone in her situation. The same fate is being witnessed by the 2019 set of NDDC scholars studying in various universities abroad.

One of them is Olukayode Olugbemi, an Ondo State indigene who graduated from the Department of Law at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, in 2015 before proceeding to study Master’s of Law in International Commercial Law at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK.

Olugbemi, who said he was working at a Lagos law firm when he got the NDDC scholarship in August 2019, stated that he resigned, sold his car and other properties to raise funds to travel to the UK because the commission didn’t pay the N500,000 take-off grant promptly.

He said, “I was working at a law firm before I obtained the scholarship, so it was easier for me to raise the fund. I know those who obtained loans while others sold off their properties to get money to process their visas and procure flight tickets.

“The take-off grant was paid in April after we made a lot of noise on social media. But the second payment of $30,000 which is for tuition fees and living expenses has not been paid. As the NDDC has delayed the payment of our tuition fees, the schools have transferred the responsibility of making the payment to us, which is difficult. The schools said they had sent repeated emails to the NDDC but the commission neither acknowledged nor responded to them.”

Olugbemi stated that some scholars were doing menial jobs to make a living but the jobs were lost when the COVID-19 pandemic began in the UK, adding that the only job that seemed available now was care home jobs.

“But the problem with a care home job is that it is risky because many of the COVID-19 cases recorded in the UK are in care homes. For someone like me, I’m living on savings made from my job in Nigeria,” he said. However, as his savings are getting depleted, so is Olugbemi’s anxiety rising.

He said, “I had a good job before leaving Nigeria. I had a growing fantastic career and suddenly, I got a scholarship. I was excited and decided to take up the offer. When I was travelling, I sold my car and everything in my house. All I could gather from that is what I have been living on. I resumed school in January 2020 and decided to get a job to complement whatever I had.

“I got a job as a waiter at one of the hospitality groups. We did training and they were about to deploy me when the coronavirus lockdown started in the UK. In short, I was out of the job at the time I got it. I have one or two friends who have been generous to me but it is not easy having been someone who is financially independent to now be asking friends for support.”

Asked if he regretted leaving his job for the scholarship, Olugbemi said he had mixed feelings.

He said, “If the Nigerian system had worked better, maybe I wouldn’t be in this mess. There was a scholarship I could have applied for that would cover all expenses. But when I applied for a transcript from my university, it took four months for it to be processed. By the time I was given the transcript, the scholarship was gone. I had no choice but to rely on the NDDC scholarship. Maybe if I had stayed in Nigeria to get other fully-funded scholarships, it would have been better.

“But all the same, the course I’m studying is worth it but it’s the pressure that comes with it that is not worth it. Recently, I emerged as one of the winners at a global competition, and I probably wouldn’t have got it if I was not in school. Yes, I love the opportunity of being in school but I don’t enjoy the stress that comes with the NDDC scholarship.”

Olugbemi’s feelings could perhaps be understandable. Right now, he said he had an accommodation debt of £2,000 (N1m), in addition to the tuition fees of £19,000 (N9.6m). Obviously, he has no means to pay the debt until the NDDC pays him the $30,000 scholarship grant.

He added, “It’s more difficult for PhD students who have three years to study. A lot of them are into courses that are germane to the development of the Niger Delta and will have an impact on the region. For instance, I have a friend who is doing a PhD in Waste Water Resources, which has a lot to do with the Niger Delta situation.

“But guess what, my friend’s PhD was suspended last Wednesday because the school said they had given the NDDC enough time to make the payment but there had been no response. Her deadline was initially July 1 but it was shifted to July 22. My own deadline was July 28. It’s frustrating that our academic lives are being toyed with.”

Another scholar, Samuel Danor, who is undergoing a master’s degree in Cybersecurity at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, has been working at a care home to make ends meet in spite of the risks involved.

He said, “I am scared because I am working at a care home in Leicester and according to medical experts here, care homes are the riskiest places to contract the coronavirus. In fact, we do the COVID-19 test every Wednesday because of the high exposure.

“I used to work at a factory but when it was shut down due to COVID-19 and things were tough for me, I had to take up the care home job with all its attendant risks. My school has sent me three different warning emails to pay the tuition fees or face the consequences.”

Danor, who worked at a tank farm in Calabar, Cross River State, said he planned to marry after saving some money from the job. But when the scholarship offer came in August 2019, he resigned in September 2019 and travelled to the UK in October 2019.

“I sold everything in my house to be in the UK. I raised funds from the WhatsApp group of my local government area. People gave me money ranging from N1,000 to N10,000. My father also got a loan so I could travel but see what’s happening to me today,” he lamented.

Danor added, “Let me share this with you to know how pathetic our condition is. Some NDDC scholars are begging to survive in the UK, some are eating expired foods, some are depressed. If not for the care home job that I got, maybe my fate would have been similar to theirs.

“If the NDDC had even written letters to our schools to assure them that they would pay our tuition fees, our situation would be less pathetic. Some of us might be deported soon because the school has already logged us out of their portals.”

Another scholar, Chijioke Ukwuegbu, who is studying Master of Business Administration at Yale School of Management in the United States, said when he saw that the tuition fees payment was being delayed, he had to take a private loan to pay it and get a menial job to survive.

“There are scholarships that don’t give stress like this. I came to the US in August and managed to get a job. I was made to understand that schools here don’t have time chasing students around to pay their tuition fees, so I took a private loan to pay the school fees. Then, I got a menial job to survive,” he said.

Ukwuegbu stated that it was risky working at a place where there was high COVID-19 cases, adding that he said he had to choose between dying of hunger or dying of COVID-19.

“Someone can either die of hunger or COVID-19. Hunger can kill but with COVID-19, someone has a chance of living. That is why I am working,” he said, adding, “I’m upset and depressed because of the long wait for the NDDC to pay the tuition fees.”

Like other scholars, Suzor Louis, a Rivers State indigene studying for a master’s degree in International Business and Finance at the University of Derby, England, said he was happy when he got a call in September 2019 that the NDDC had awarded him a scholarship. But his joy turned anxiety.

First, he borrowed money to make the trip happen in January 2020 as the NDDC did not pay the take-off grant. On getting to the UK, he couldn’t get a job due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid the crisis, his father died on June 11 three days after sharing his unpalatable condition in the UK with the aged man.

He said, “Sometimes, I think I contributed to my father’s death in a way because three days before he died, I was discussing with him my plight here. He asked how I was coping and I had to just tell him everything. He was hypertensive; he got worried easily. He asked me about the implication of the school shutting me out of their portal and I told him the school would report me to the Home Office and I would be deported. I just hope it wasn’t my issue that made him have high blood pressure and die. I hope my troubles didn’t contribute to his death.

“When we hear of the mind-boggling billions of naira being mismanaged at the NDDC, it is heartbreaking. They keep telling us bureaucratic bottlenecks at the CBN were responsible for the delay in payment, but I don’t understand why this is so. They asked us to open bank accounts and we did so, but nothing has come out of it. We keep hearing of different excuses. They want us scholars to do well in school but how can we do this in the midst of all these?

“I keep on sending an email to the school every now and then to apologise for the delay in the tuition fees payment of £19,000 (N9.6m) but obviously they are tired of my excuses. I don’t know how to raise such funds now. I had to take accommodation outside the campus which costs me £400 (N201,000) per month; it’s more expensive on the campus.”

Louis said he had applied for a job at a care home but there was no vacancy right now in his location.

He said, “Sometimes, I ask myself if this scholarship is a curse. My mother cautioned me to stop asking this question the other day. But I can’t help myself. Maybe I should have just stayed on my job back at home and kept on moving gradually.

“It’s not been easy for my wife, who is a corps member. I had to beg her to manage whatever stipend she is being given. We are even in a country with high COVID-19 cases but the NDDC does not care about us. We told ourselves the other day that if one of us died here as a result of COVID-19, the NDDC wouldn’t care.

“We didn’t beg to get this scholarship; we were offered. If I knew this scholarship was like this, I would have probably rejected it because coming to suffer here is not what I wish anyone. If there was no COVID-19 pandemic, I wouldn’t have been so bothered; at least there are other scholars here in previous sets who worked to pay their tuition fees.”

Other stranded NDDC scholars in Nigeria

Meanwhile, our correspondent’s findings showed that some 2019 NDDC scholars were still stranded in Nigeria and had yet to travel to their schools abroad because they couldn’t raise funds to do so. Even when the NDDC eventually paid the N500,000 take-off grant of scholars in April, our correspondent learnt that those stranded in Nigeria were not paid. Hence, some of them had to defer their admission until the next academic year to raise funds.

One of them is Mercy Eyo, an Akwa Ibom State indigene, who said as someone from a poor background, she could not source for the money to process her visa and flight ticket, hence she had to stay back in Nigeria.

She said, “I was supposed to go for a master’s degree in Global Healthcare Management at Coventry University, UK but I couldn’t raise the funds to travel because the take-off grant has not been paid to date.

“I am currently unemployed, although I am a volunteer at a community hospital where I reside. I live from hand to mouth. I sold most of my belongings and took loans from friends to initially process the visa and buy flight ticket but it wasn’t enough. At the moment, I am heavily indebted. I am also experiencing a life-threatening situation right now.

“I eat whatever comes my way to stay alive. I shed tears once in a while when I am depressed. I feel worse as each day passes by without any good news from the NDDC.”

Another stranded Nigerian awaiting the N500,000 take-off grant, simply identified as Ebi, said she had to defer her admission for a year, thinking she would be able to raise funds to travel. However, she has not been able to do so.

She said, “I was awarded the scholarship in August 2019 to study in the UK but all is not well now. Some scholars were able to raise funds to travel but I couldn’t. When the NDDC paid scholars in April, I expected that those of us stranded in Nigeria would also be paid but we have not been paid. Why should the commission pay those abroad and leave us out? This is another thing I don’t understand.

“Sometimes though when our colleagues who travelled reveal to us what they are passing through, I weep. They are not having it easy over there? I ask myself if this is what I will also face when I get there.”

NDDC in the grip of graft allegations

Headquartered in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, the NDDC was established in 2000 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo with the mission of facilitating the rapid, even and sustainable development of the Niger Delta into a region that is economically prosperous, socially stable, ecologically regenerative and politically peaceful.

Among others, one of the core mandates of the commission is to train and educate the youth of the oil-rich Niger Delta to curb hostilities and militancy, while developing key infrastructure to promote diversification and productivity.

To achieve this aim, the commission established the Foreign Post Graduate Scholarship for students from the Niger Delta states who have a first degree at a minimum of a second-class lower division or better and who have already completed their National Youth Service Corps programme. Those wishing to undertake a PhD must also have a good result at the master’s level from a recognised university in Nigeria.

Over 200 scholars had been awarded the scholarship in 2019 to pursue postgraduate studies abroad, fully funded by the NDDC. Each beneficiary was supposed to get N500,000 as take-off grant and $30,000 for tuition fees.

However, beneficiaries of the commission’s 2019 scholarship programme are currently facing a hard time abroad due to the non-payment of their tuition fees by the NDDC a year after they were granted the scholarship. Even their take-off grant was paid eight months after they were given the scholarship.

All these are happening amid corruption allegations levelled against the NDDC.

Recently, a former acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Dr Joi Nunieh, levelled allegations against the Interim Management Committee of the commission that the Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, Senator Godswill Akpabio, hijacked the forensic audit of the agency ordered by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd).

The President in October 2019 set up a three-man committee “to create the enabling environment for the forensic audit that covers 18 years of NDDC’s operations between 2001 and 2019.”

As a result, the National Assembly had been separately conducting probes into an allegation that the IMC squandered over N81.5bn between January and July 2020.

Among those summoned were Akpabio and the acting Managing Director of the NDDC, Prof Kemebradikumo Pondei, who slumped during a recent hearing.

Meanwhile, the Senate ad hoc committee set up to unravel the alleged financial recklessness by the IMC of the NDDC recently recommended its dissolution.

The panel also recommended that the NDDC should be returned to the Presidency for direct supervision, adding that monitoring and advisory bodies recognised by the Act which established the NDDC should be inaugurated immediately.

Scholars deserve better life –Niger Deltans

Meanwhile, some activists have called on the NDDC to pay the tuition fees and living expenses of scholars stranded abroad.

A lawyer and human rights activist based in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Mr Charles Pondei, said, “The NDDC should pay the scholars now. It is saddening that human capital development is treated with levity by the NDDC; if not, they would have paid the scholars. Imagine a situation where the scholars are suffering depression because of the non-payment of their tuition fees. This is not right.”

An educationist in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, Dr Rachael Damingo, said the NDDC ought to show passion for the human capital development of the region but lamented that this was not so.

“We crave a better life and environment in this region but it is heartbreaking that it is our own people who have allegedly stolen our collective wealth. Both in the cities and the rural areas, you can hardly see any meaningful development in Niger Delta? Where has our money gone?” she asked.

Also, a lawyer based in Asaba, Delta State, Mr David Government, said, “It is human rights abuse to send scholars abroad and abandon them. I think the NDDC needs an overhauling.”

When contacted on Wednesday, the Director of Corporate Affairs of the NDDC, Charles Odili, asked our correspondent to send a text message for him to respond to any enquiries.

But he had yet to respond to the enquiries as of the time of filing this report.

Meanwhile, the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission has appealed to NDDC to pay its stranded scholars abroad.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Chairman/CEO, NiDCOM, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said the NDDC should “as a matter of urgency intervene by promptly paying the allowances, tuition (fees) and other incentives of students on their scholarship scheme, to guarantee their stay and continue their education in the United Kingdom.”

Dabiri-Erewa also noted that some of the NDDC scholars had turned to beggars in foreign countries.

“At the moment, there have been persistent calls by the students for urgent intervention. While the deadline for payment of the fees of some of the students has expired or about to expire, non-payment of their allowances have turned many of them to virtually become beggars,” she said.


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