Failure by the Federal Government to pay allowances of 322 Nigerian students on scholarship in Russia forces them into begging and illegal jobs, TEMITAYO FAMUTIMI reports
When Moyosore Ojuri lost her father at age 11, her world practically came crashing. Her father had promised to give her the best of education. Although he was not a millionaire, the man had struggled to enrol her in one of the top private secondary schools in Lagos.
But with the death, her mother, a retired civil servant, could not pay her tuition when due. Luckily, the authorities of her school recognised the young lady’s academic exploits and gave her family the concession to pay her tuition in installments. Even with that, her mother had difficulty doing so as she occasionally ran into debts.
However, on completion of her secondary education in 2010, Ojuri passed the West African Senior School Certificate Examination, obtaining six distinctions and two credits. But accessing university education did not come that easy, due to lack of funds. Fortunately for her, in 2012 she came across the Bilateral Education Agreement Scholarship Awards advertised by the Federal Scholarship Board through the Federal Ministry of Education and grabbed the opportunity.
Ojuri passed the series of tests and interviews and was given admission to study Metallurgical Engineering at the Volgograd State Technical University, Russia. On touching down at the Domodedovo International Airport, Moscow, Russia on September 22, 2012, Ojuri concluded that her pains and frustration had come to an end.
Nigeria has BEA for undergraduate and post-graduate studies with Russia, Cuba, Morocco, Algeria, Romania, Ukraine, Turkey, Egypt, Japan, Serbia, Macedonia, China, and Mexico. Under the arrangement, the Federal Government pays for the upkeep of the students, while the countries where the scholarship award is tenable provides the tuition.
Two years after, Ojuri has a different story to share. Speaking with our correspondent on the telephone from Volgograd, she says that the Federal Government has since abandoned the BEA scholars to starve to death.
According to her, for eight months running now, the over 322 promising Nigerian students on the BEA initiative in the former Soviet Union have not been paid a dime by the government. Each of the beneficiaries’ monthly stipends for feeding is $500, while their annual allowance for medicals and clothing is $450 each.
But from January till date, none of these allowances have been paid by the Nigerian government, despite repeated appeals and other forms of representations to the Nigerian Embassy in Moscow and the Federal Ministry of Education in Abuja.
Following the non-remittance of funds, Ojuri and her Nigerian colleagues, of late, have no choice but to borrow money as a survival strategy from their fellow African students enjoying similar BEA.
The 20-year-old asks rhetorically, “We are not private students. We came to Russia on the bill of the Federal Government. Why haven’t the authorities paid our stipends and other allowances for eight months now? For how long shall we continue to borrow money?”
The youngster, who says she has a huge debt on her neck at present, notes that their colleagues from other countries are no longer comfortable lending them money.
She adds, “On many occasions, I have had cause to go to class on an empty stomach. Getting money for transportation from my hostel to school has become very problematic. More worrisome is the fact that I will soon be homeless as my hostel fees will expire at the end of August. We are grateful to the Federal Government for the scholarship opportunity, but there is no sense in leaving us here to starve to death in a foreign land.”
Findings by our correspondent reveal that the inability to get work permit by foreign students in Russia is further compounding their problems. So, how do they survive the starvation and hard times in the Eurasian country?
Another Nigerian, Akinola Akindamola, pursuing his Master’s degree at the Volgograd State Technical University, explains that they engage in all kinds of oddities to survive. According to him, the pressure is even more on his female colleagues.
Akindamola, a first class Mechanical Engineering graduate, says, “It is unfortunate that girls with exceptional academic brilliance are now forced to indulge in all manner of indecent lifestyles. These girls now go to clubs and dance semi unclad for a fee that could be as low as $20. For the boys, employers use us for odd jobs, such as clearing of snow and as labourers on construction sites. Even as we do that, there is this perpetual fear that the police will arrest us.”
A final year Medicine and Surgery student of the Russian National Research Medical University, Moscow, David Ikenna, also admits that the failure of the Federal Government to remit their allowances exposes them to risks in the country.
Ikenna states, “We have been finding a way to survive by circumventing the laws, but it is at great risk to our personal safety and academic pursuits in Russia. Our situation is frustrating. My brother, we are suffering. How I wish I could bring you here to see how miserable our conditions are. The Nigerian government has failed us miserably.
“Even with the illegal jobs we do, we still find it hard to make ends meet. It is shameful that we have got no alternatives but to beg for food and money from Ghanaians, Namibians, Ugandans and Sierra Leoneans who are on the same bilateral educational scholarships like us.”
Besides welfare, some of the students who are to return to Nigeria for their mandatory internship programmes are also stuck in Russia, due to lack of funds.
Julfa Timkuk, a student of International Law at the Southern Western University, Rostov, Russia, wonders if they were indeed on a scholarship. The 25-year-old, who hails from the Langtang North Local Government Area of Plateau State, says he now lives on cheap white bread.
“My colleagues and I are tired of clearing snow, working at warehouses or helping to lift heavy equipment at night. Our suffering is no longer bearable. Please do us a favour and beg them to free us from this slavery in a foreign land,” he appeals.
But appraising the situation, a Professor of Microbiology, University of Ilorin, Poju Akinyanju, chides the Federal Government for sending the students overseas on scholarship without making proper funding arrangement for them. The experience, he says, is not only traumatising to the scholars but also a dent on Nigeria’s image.
He states, “It is unfortunate that they do not care about these youngsters. Are you telling me that the authorities cannot pay for the students’ stipends? There must have been some budgetary provisions for them. How can these traumatised students be loyal and patriotic to their fatherland when they eventually return home?”
Also, a lecturer at the University of Lagos, Prof. Alani Ramoni, describes the condition of the students as unfortunate. According to him, even under the military regime he enjoyed his scholarship offer without any hindrance.
When contacted, the Director, Press and Public Relations, Federal Ministry of Education, Mr. Olu Lipede, confirmed that there were challenges remitting the money to the students. He nonetheless blamed their travails on the “budgeting process” and problems associated with “banking transfers.”
Prodded to be specific on when the students will be paid, Lipede states, “That I cannot say because I am not the Central Bank of Nigeria. There are processes between the Federal Ministry of Education and the CBN as well as between the CBN and Nigeria’s foreign missions.”
Lipede adds, “We do care about their welfare. Last year (2013), we went to visit them in Russia and we inspected where they sleep and we made known to the Russian Government those things we were not satisfied with. These students have been told that their money will be remitted to them. If there is any delay it should not be blamed on the ministry.”
But a source familiar with the administration of the scholarship scheme says the matter is beyond the Federal Ministry of Education.
According to the source, the students have yet to get their allowance because there has not been a release for their payments.
The source adds, “It is beyond us in the Ministry of Education. Their money is in capital allocation. How do we go ahead and circumvent the rules? Their stipends should be extricated from the regular budget. Unless this is done, they would continue to experience this problem every year.”