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Unpaid NDDC postgraduate scholarships: A tale of 3 Niger Deltans

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This is not a story about alleged corruption at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). 

This is not a story about water hyacinth removal contracts worth 150 times their actual value.

This is not a story about the woman who slapped a former governor, or the man who referenced her alleged 4 ex-husbands instead of answering a question.

It is not about the man who conveniently fainted during a parliamentary hearing, or the man who screamed “Off your mic!” during a televised hearing.

This is a story about 3 young Nigerians from the Niger Delta whose lives have become very interesting for all of the wrong reasons.

At the centre of this group of characters is a WhatsApp group dedicated to the sole activity of sharing information and updates about when the NDDC will pay the tuition and maintenance fees of its 2019 scholarship recipients more than a year after payment was due.

The Demoralised Lawyer

Kayode Olugbemi is a walking, breathing, talking bag of morale. An active lawyer who is not afraid to back himself up against any kind of victimisation, he is not the sort of person you would normally put in the same sentence with the word “discouraged.”

Yet that is exactly what he says he is after months of fruitless back-and-forth with several NDDC officials all promising a payment that never arrives while he faces the threat of being kicked out of school.

His story, he says, is typical of dozens of NDDC scholarship recipients going through the same ordeal around the world.

Having scaled through a 3-stage CBT examination and panel interview process culminating in a scholarship offer dated 29 July 2019, the NDDC was supposed to make 3 payments: N34,000 transport allowance, N500,000 takeoff grant, and the $30,000 scholarship sum covering everything including tuition, accommodation, and maintenance. This was where the problem began.

The N500,000 takeoff grant due in August was not paid. For fear of victimisation he says, most scholars failed to speak up. Not him though.

“I thought you can only die once. I’m a trained lawyer. If you don’t pay me, you’re keeping my money for me.”

Following a Twitter campaign in February and March 2020, the startup grant of N500,000 was paid in April. The trouble with this was that it was only paid to those who had already traveled and resumed their courses of study, having funded their own travel expenses themselves. Up to 15 scholars were not able to raise the funds and were still stuck in Nigeria. This N500,000 startup grant was not paid to them and no explanation was offered.

“Since getting the scholarship, the last communication with NDDC was a pre-departure briefing. NDDC has never bothered to send as little as a text message to confirm whether they landed safely, check their welfare, COVID19 status etc.” 

Then came the second part of the problem. The NDDC did not pay the $30,000 scholarship tuition. The schools sent dozens of emails to the NDDC asking about the money, and the feedback to Kayode from the University of Aberdeen where he studies, was that the NDDC does not even acknowledge these emails much less reply.

“We did confirmation repeatedly and thought the money was coming through. We expected after the takeoff grant that the tuition would be paid shortly. At some point, Akpabio’s PA reached out to one of us and said the minister wanted to take it up. We heard nothing from him again so we concluded that the statement was to calm us down. Some students have been deactivated from their school portal as far back as February.” Kayode says

Kayode says he reached out to the NDDC MD, Kemebradikumo Pondei who responded with a story that variously blamed the COVID-19 lockdown, an unexpected death and CBN red tape for the delay.

“He said they had started processing the payment but because of the lockdown, the Port Harcourt CBN could not take the documents to Abuja. As they were trying to find an alternative, the executive director of finance died of COVID19 which meant they needed to close down their office. When I contacted him a few weeks later, he said they had submitted the document, but unlike what he thought, CBN said it would not be immediate. After saying it would take “longer than a week” he went incommunicado.”

Trying to push every available button in March, Kayode sent an email to the Nigeria Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) whose CEO Abike Dabiri-Erewa recently put out an official statement that appeared to sympathise with the scholars over their unpaid tuition fees.

However, the commission’s reply, which came from the assistant director of legal services bluntly told Kayode that it was none of their business. 

Kayode says that he then sent a reply to that email and there was no response to that. The message was very clear. The next time NIDCOM would address the issue would be in a media statement released on Wednesday

Explaining how he feels about his entire ordeal right now, Kayode says:

“I have lost all motivation because if my tuition is not paid by 28 July, I might be out of school.”

The Forgotten Scholar

7,000KM south of Kayode’s flat in Aberdeen, Mercy Eyo Peter cuts an altogether less outgoing figure as she describes her situation.

Mercy is also one of the 2019 NDDC scholars, but more than a year after getting the scholarship, she is still in Nigeria. As Kayode explains, when the NDDC refused to pay the N500,000 startup allowance as it was supposed to, the scholars who could not afford to fund their own visa and travel expenses were essentially left to rot.

In other words, with the exception of the N500,000 payment made in February to the scholars who were already abroad having funded their own travel costs, the NDDC has effectively only parted with a few letterheaded IOUs labeled “scholarship letter.”

Clearly, airlines and visa processing services take a dim view of NDDC IOUs, as did Mercy’s chosen institution, Coventry University, which withdrew her admission when she was unable to show up or make payment.

Being an orphan who has had to scrape around just to get by for several years, Mercy gratefully accepted the scholarship opportunity after passing the exam last year, thinking that this could be her ticket to a better and more productive life.

She had sold many of her personal possessions and even borrowed money just to get through the exam and interview process – debts that she still owes as the NDDC continues its rigmarole.

She pauses and disappears from view occasionally while telling her story over a lengthy WhatsApp video call. I can tell the pauses are to sob quietly and dab her swollen eyes, but the fierce expression in her eyes when she looks at the camera tells me that she is not the type to want or expect sympathy, so I fidget nervously and pretend not to notice the interruptions.

Despite having her dreams taken away from her for a year and facing the NDDC’s intransigence with only the threadbare WhatsApp group as her support system, Mercy still remains polite in her frequent correspondence with the NDDC where she asks for what she ought to have received a year ago. 

Incredibly, despite her own disappointments, she still finds space in her heart to feel empathy for her colleagues who actually made it abroad only to be abandoned by their government.

Ending our conversation with a statement that betrays a rare flash of visible anger, Mercy says:

“No responsible government lets its disciplined hardworking citizens rot in a foreign land .”

The Hustler Daring Covid-19

Samuel Ogar Danor is an MSc student on a cybersecurity program at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.

His story follows the same basic pattern as the two afore-mentioned, but with an important distinction in his case – he is not just in trouble with his school over unpaid tuition, but he is also physically stranded in a foreign country, taking on an extremely dangerous job to survive, because he has no other option.

Kayode explains that following the imposition of lockdown measures in the UK a few months ago, most of the jobs that the NDDC scholars used to pay their bills and maintain themselves evaporated, leaving them with only one unattractive option to earn a legal income. Samuel is the perfect case in point to illustrate how this worked out.

Initially employed in a cleaning position at the fashion retailer Next, he lost the job when Next went into lockdown mode and soon he found himself struggling to eat and make the rent. When it became clear that respite or help was not forthcoming from either his landlord nor the Leicester City Council, he took the only legal job that is easily and readily available to international students and immigrants in the UK right now – Elderly People’s Care Home work.

For reference, approximately 1 in 5 UK care home residents have died of COVID-19 since the outbreak started, and unofficial estimates put the figure much higher.

UK care homes are both the breeding ground and impact epicentres of the viral outbreak in that country. Even for a low-risk individual like Samuel who is under 40 and in good health with no underlying conditions, the risk is still phenomenal.

Several residents whom he had contact with have been diagnosed with COVID-19, some of whom have died. Several coworkers have also been diagnosed with the virus and quarantined. Every single day that he shows up at his job, doing work that he ordinarily should have no business doing, he is potentially exposing himself to the novel coronavirus in huge doses.

All of this to keep a roof over his head, clothes on his back, and food in his belly while hoping and praying that the NDDC eventually gets round to honouring its own commitment so this nightmare can end.

Perhaps what makes Samuel’s case the most distressing of all is that just a year ago, things looked to be going so well for him. 

Just a year ago, the future looked very promising for Samuel. Speaking with pride despite the obvious pain in his voice, he recalls getting the NDDC scholarship without knowing anyone – something he points out he is still grateful for – and the online fundraising campaign to raise money for his travel expenses when the NDDC failed to pay his start up allowance.

Now, his dream has disintegrated into a hellscape of threatening messages from his university, weekly COVID-19 tests at work and permanent uncertainty.

Summing up his experience while his eyes glisten with a hint of tears, Samuel says:

“This was not what I signed up for at all.”

The NDDC meanwhile, through it’s Director, Corporate Affairs, Charles Odili, said in Port Harcourt that the delay in meeting its obligations to the beneficiaries of its 2019 postgraduate foreign scholarship programme was because of the lockdown created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the current inquest by the National Assembly.

“We are doing everything possible to make sure that the beneficiaries of the scholarship progamme are paid. ” He said

While the NDDC continues to protect itself and its top officials – even the picture on its Twitter header is a Freudian slip that tells a story about what it actually values and how it sees itself.

As dozens of Nigeria’s brightest and best slip into penury and depression far away from home, abandoned by the country that sent them there to gain transferable skills, the only thing anyone knows for sure is that while the new management of the NDDC is currently being probed by the House of Representatives over alleged mismanagement of N40 billion, the Kayode(s), Mercy(s) and Samuel(s) will not be priority at the NDDC for a while.

Regardless of how little or large the sums involved are, if the NDDC could put out a public statement accounting for over 200 financial disbursements, but cannot explain where the money for its 2019 scholarship went to, nothing more needs to be said.

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