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Fixing Nigeria’s broken federal scholarships

By Stephen Kenechi Nigeria has a bilateral education agreement with some countries in Africa, Europe, North America, and Asia. It is essentially student exchange. Among…

By Stephen Kenechi

Nigeria has a bilateral education agreement with some countries in Africa, Europe, North America, and Asia. It is essentially student exchange. Among the countries involved are Russia, China, Hungary, Morocco, Venezuela, and Algeria.

The government in these countries give annual scholarship slots to Nigeria’s federal scholarship board, which then proceeds to nominate indigenous applicants by merit. The arrangement is meant to go both ways.
The host country undertakes to cover tuition and provide housing for the scholars alongside some monthly or bi-monthly allowance depending on what is obtainable. All Nigeria has to do is pay the awardees a yearly allowance of $200 for health insurance, $500 annually for medicals, and $500 in monthly stipend for nutrition, books, equipment, and transport.

Slots for student lodges in destination universities are unfortunately always limited. This means that most Nigerians end up renting at $200 to $300 a month and depleting their $500 stipend, which hardly comes in when due.

FSB is yet to definitively thrash this out with the BEA countries or provide alternative accommodation. The board continues to default, perennially doing months-long spells without disbursing these life-sustaining funds.

As of this writing, the latest spell has subsisted for 12 dizzying months.
This has forced the students, some of whom are either orphaned or have public servants living on ₦30,000 ($20.6 at ₦1,450/USD) monthly minimum wage for parents, to illegally work long hours in odd underpaid jobs, squat with foreign nationals, beg alms, face eviction due to unpaid rent, ration food, and be ridiculed abroad.

Where to pass the night, the source of their next meal, and rising living costs constantly cause them anxiety and mental stress while they study in tongue-twisting foreign languages. Foreign exchange volatility and Naira devaluation have also miniaturised their allowances since Nigeria’s budget is denominated in naira, and monetary aid from distant relatives.
Here’s a 3500-word report detailing the harrowing ordeal of these students.
Budget data shows that Nigeria had at least 1,532 active BEA beneficiaries in 2023 for which ₦6.8 billion was allocated in 2024 at an ₦800/USD FX benchmark. But at the time of this writing, the dollar is trading at ₦1450, causing a shortfall the students must now bear as it happened in the past.
Government sources cite a paucity of funds as the reason for the unpaid stipends. Embassies in destination countries are out of options. The ministers of education in Nigeria, Tahir Mamman and Yusuf Sununu, say they’re taking the matter up with the finance ministry. The house of representatives constituted a probe panel to investigate the issue.
But while all that is being done, evicted students in Morocco continue to ration their meals and might just pass yet another night on the streets.
Beyond FSB and the BEA scheme, the issue of federal scholarships subjecting beneficiaries to ridicule has been internationally reported. CNN reported in 2020 that Nigerians awarded the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) scholarship were abandoned in the UK. Reports also surfaced that Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) scholars were stranded abroad during the pandemic in the same year. For context, PTDF offers Nigeria’s most lucrative federal scholarship to develop human capacity and critical petroleum technology for the oil and gas industry. In 2023, Nigerians studying abroad on grants from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) were similarly stranded amid the forex crisis.
The senate, after this report, summoned the education minister and sought a brief on the status of all beneficiaries of federal scholarships. These developments and recurrent narratives highlight an urgent need for Nigeria to sanitise and further bring cohesion to its federal scholarships.
The BEA scheme, when the senate and the tertiary education committee at the reps are done with their fact-finding probes, must be closely reviewed.

The FSB comprises four major components. These include the BEA, the Nigerian Awards, and the Commonwealth Scholarship. It is tasked with the preparation of periodic master plans for the efficient utilisation of foreign and local scholarships/fellowship awards to Nigerian undergraduate and postgraduate students. For this, it has to sometimes consult with state governments, the foreign affairs ministry, and other relevant agencies.

FSB implements federal government policy and programmes on foreign and local scholarship awards to deserving scholars alongside the Nigerian government’s commitments to bilateral education or multi-lateral (commonwealth) agreements on scholarship/fellowship awards to Nigeria.

It oversees the Presidential Special Scholarship for Innovation and Development (PRESSID) and the NYSC EX-Corps Scholarship. The board collects, collates, analyses, publishes, and disseminates data and other information on student matters and scholarship awards about Nigeria.

The FSB is also meant to supervise and monitor the activities of federal government scholars in tertiary institutions locally and internationally while coordinating scholarship policies through the annual committee meetings of secretaries of the federal and state scholarship boards.

In reporting on the plight of Nigeria’s BEA students in foreign universities, a notable outlier was China whose scholarship council effectively funds all exchange students in its territory for both monthly stipends and housing. Despite already covering tuition for degrees of up to a five-year timespan, China pays Nigerians there in advance, so FSB’s defaulting didn’t matter.

CSC operates with significant autonomy from China’s education ministry, although the latter provides overall supervision and policy guidance. It manages its day-to-day operations independently; it has its administrative structure, governing board, and operational procedures. Most importantly, the CSC has dedicated funds for scholarships separately from China’s education ministry’s budget, ensuring effectiveness. The CSC also has the authority to implement its policies regarding scholarship administration, including selection processes, fund disbursement, and student support.
This setup allows the CSC enough flexibility to quickly respond to changes or challenges, compared to if it were a fully integrated part of the ministry. While remaining autonomous, CSC coordinates closely with the education ministry to ensure that its activities align with China’s national priorities.
On the other hand, Nigeria’s FSB is closely tied to its education ministry.
Talks with FSB’s director Astra Ndajiwo were to the effect that funding for the board’s BEA scheme is crammed into the education ministry’s budget and as a capital project too. It remains unclear why a recurrent expenditure that should be prioritised for timely disbursement would be lumped up with line items like construction, renovation, and equipment purchases that may be relegated to the back burner in the event of funding paucity.
Nigeria’s appropriations for 2019 to 2024 show that FSB functionalities are subsumed as part of the ministry HQ’s line items. The implication is that FSB has no distinct presence in the yearly budget. This significantly affects the flow of funding and means that the unit cannot independently perform critical administrative functions without recourse to Nigeria’s government.
Remarks from the BEA students, in the course of the reporting, admitted to Ndajiwo’s effort in catering to the affairs of the scholars. But the director’s replies when asked what party is to be held responsible for some unmet critical needs of the BEA scholars came across as though she attempted to extricate herself from BEA affairs despite being its lead. Inevitably, a unit director who has had to issue repeated placatory and promissory notes to stranded students for failings that are impersonal to them would at some point be fatigued, shirk responsibility, and portray disinterest altogether.

The first thing Nigeria must do to salvage the BEA scheme is reclassify funding for such student exchange programmes as recurrent expenditure. It is tough to ask, especially at a time of economic turmoil. However, a dedicated foreign exchange fund for scholarship payments pegged to the necessary foreign currencies must be created. This will stabilise the value of BEA stipends and hedge against foreign exchange fluctuations, ensuring students receive consistent support regardless of naira-dollar volatility.
Emergency intervention must be approved to alleviate the pains of active beneficiaries under the scheme who are being owed for several months.
Nigeria has adopted FX benchmarks that proved unrealistic in the larger scheme of market forces. Enhancing the accuracy of budget forecasts by considering anticipated forex rates and inflation will ensure that sufficient funds are set aside to cover expected costs and reduce the risk of shortfalls. Nigeria must also work out a flexible funding mechanism that allows for adjustments based on real-time currency fluctuations. With this, stipends are adjusted in line with exchange rate changes to maintain their value.

As seen with China’s CSC, the FSB needs administrative and operational autonomy. Once Nigeria can achieve this, all federal scholarships must be funnelled in and administered by it, irrespective of the sponsoring agency.

A focus exclusively on managing and disbursing scholarships with strict accountability and transparency practices will allow for FSB’s efficiency. Removing itself from the broader bureaucracy of the education ministry will translate to quicker decision-making and response time in any crisis.
At a time when Nigeria is looking to cut down on the cost of governance, a quasi-autonomous FSB, as already described, is the way to go. Establishing this quasi-independent federal scholarship board would require legislative changes to define its structure, powers, and funding mechanisms. This will require engagement with stakeholders, including the education ministry, scholars, and financial institutions to ensure a smooth transition.

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