by Ikenna David Ike
On behalf of all federal scholars, I will like to bring to the public’s attention the current challenges facing students studying under the Nigerian Bilateral Education Agreement scholarship scheme with various countries, including Ukraine, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Cuba and especially Russia.
The BEA scholarship scheme is a good initiative that has existed for more than 30 years in various forms. It is sad that the same problem that beset this scheme 30 years ago still rears its ugly head today. The Nigerian government has shown complete disregard for the welfare of its scholarship students.
This year, Nigerian government scholars have not been paid for 8 months. It is important to note that all scholars solely rely on the government stipends. Majority of the students are from humble backgrounds. They were awarded this scholarship based on their excellent academic achievements. Due to laws governing the rights of foreign students in the above listed countries, these students are not permitted to work and in cases where they can, culture and language barriers make it almost impossible for them to find employment.
As a result of the above factors, delays associated with the payment of stipends often lead to a humanitarian crises.
The existing arrangement is that the students will be paid every quarter. This means that students would be paid their stipends for the next quarter at the end of the last quarter. For example, the stipends for April-June will be paid at the end of March. Unfortunately, for the past 7 years, this has never happened. Not even once.
At best, payments were made for the previous quarter at the beginning of a new one. For example, the stipends for Jan-March paid at the end of March or mid-April. Over the last seven years, the situation has deteriorated to a point where students were owed for 3 months, 4 months and last year, a little over 6 months and currently, 6 months in arrears.
Every kind of explanation has been given: from delayed budget approval by the Senate to Central Bank verifications, delays associated with the Ministry of Education’s budget implementation to release of funds to the Nigerian Embassies in the respective countries. Even when the budget (allocations?) was released early and the allowances for the year were expected to have been made available, it was always a battle to ensure payments were made on time. The students were often made to wait for months before they were paid.
Today, students on the program, with no rich family to help them, with no rich friends around to help them, wait and starve as they hope that someday, their stipends will be paid. Many students defended their Bachelors and Masters’ theses in June but for the whole year, they have not received a dime for their upkeep or feeding, or accommodation or research. Some cannot even go to school, as they do not have money for transport. In this period of examinations, motivation is low and spirits down as the students feel like they have been abandoned and neglected to starve to death. Graduating students are at risk of overstaying their visa, as they do not have the necessary funds to buy tickets to go home after 7 years of study. In countries like Russia and Ukraine, this comes with a heavy penalty (imprisonment and deportation).
Despite these issues, we have continued to uphold the pride of the nation by refusing to engage in criminal activities to sustain ourselves. It is unfortunate that scholars, who have continued to excel in their academics in spite of their nation’s disregard for their welfare, have had to resort to begging in order to fend for themselves.
In addition, these patriotic citizens of Nigeria have been unwilling to engage in any form of demonstration at the Nigerian embassy in Moscow to press home their demands. The leadership of the students’ association (The Association of Nigerian Scholarship Students in Russia) has explored several diplomatic measures to bring an end to this injustice but all efforts have proved futile.
You would recall that the students on the amnesty program had a violent demonstration at the Nigerian Embassy in Moscow a few months ago. Their stipends were only delayed for a couple of days! Since that incident, their money has been paid regularly with no delays. However, after 8 months, the scholarship students are expected to be on their best behaviour and represent the nation in the best light. That is a baffling expectation. Must we wait for a student to starve to death or do something disgraceful, before the right thing is done? The BEA students are truly suffering in their different countries.
Even as threats of war and political instability loom in Ukraine and Russia, there has been no measure to ensure that these citizens of Nigeria are adequately protected and taken care of. Not only are these poor students starving and sick, the government is taking no effective measure to ensure their safety in event of a breakout of war or escalation of the current crisis.
In light of these, we demand:
i) That our stipends (January-September) be paid within a fortnight.
ii) That the annual accommodation allowance of $800 promised by the Federal Scholarship Board be included in our package from this year onward.
iii) A compensation payment of $1000.
iv) An upward review of our existing allowances in concordance with current economic realities.
v) That a structure be established to ensure prompt and timely payment of scholars’ allowances.
vi) Adequate evacuation and airlifting measures be put in place in case the current political tension escalates.
If the conditions listed above are not met within a fortnight, the whole student body will commence peaceful sit in protests at the premises of the Nigerian embassy in Moscow. Embassy activities shall be disrupted and we will meet daily at the embassy premises until our demands are met.
It is our hope that we will not have to undertake such extreme measures but if the federal government, the Federal Scholarship Board and the Nigerian embassy in Moscow fail to put an end to this injustice, we are willing to do this and explore other extreme measures to fight for our rights.