The Board of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) brings to a closure the controversy over the commission’s foreign scholarship scheme by settling fully the backlog of fees, drawing a line on the ugly past of wrongdoing and putting in place a mechanism for a new beginning of doing things right
By Inemesit Ina
From the outset, when the present board of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), inaugurated on November 4, 2016, hit the ground running with its change agenda of 4 Rs (restructure the balance sheet, reform the governance protocols, restore NDDC’s core mandate, and reaffirm the commission’s collective commitment to do what is right), it was certain that it was never going to find things easy. Some well-wishers even pitied the board for what they considered an uphill task if not mission impossible. The commission did not have an enviable reputation, having long been dismissed by not a few in the country as a cesspool of corruption, mismanagement, malpractices and abandoned projects.
One of the areas where change by the new board was resisted vehemently was the foreign scholarship scheme. The NDDC has been awarding scholarships to postgraduate students of Niger Delta origin to study specialized courses in different universities across the world. Over the years, the process of award and remittance of funds have been less than transparent, resulting in all manner of malpractices. It led to a situation where some master’s degree students were enjoying scholarship for up to seven years for a one-year programme as the NDDC Managing Director, Mr. Nsima Ekere, said on NTA International in a live interview programme, Good Morning Nigeria, in November, last year. He said the management was working to completely sanitize the scholarship scheme on case-by-case basis by ensuring that only genuine students had their fees paid directly to schools against the old practice where some students on one-year Master’s degree programmes ended up receiving fees paid into their private accounts for a period of up to seven years. “A typical example is someone who registers for a Master’s programme which is twelve months. But you find out that in year 2017, we are still getting bills for a student who was given scholarship since 2010,” he said.
There were other malpractices as Ekere explained in another interview with newsmen in his office which was widely published in different national newspapers four months earlier: “When we came in, we discovered that there were a lot of discrepancies in the way the scholarship programme was being administered. These scholarships were for studies abroad but we found out that monies were paid to people who were still in Nigeria and we didn’t see why that should happen. In other cases, when people get admission in certain course, in certain university, they get approved for the NDDC scholarship and then, along the line, because it is a fixed amount that is paid to every scholar, they will go to another university for a different programme from what they got the scholarship for, just because maybe, the university is cheaper. They will go to another university and in our record here, you will see that the scholar is possibly in the University of Aberdeen and meanwhile, we are getting an invoice from a university in Canada or sometime a university in Ukraine from the same student.
“Then, the course of study, NDDC has areas that it wants to concentrate on, that it wants to develop manpower and specialized personnel for, we discovered that some of them have gone for other courses different from what they were approved for. So, these are some of the issues that we discovered.”
Doing Things Right
The present board set out to reform the scheme. It started a process of separating the wheat from the chaff. Ekere again: ”Then, we set up a committee in-house, to look into all these issues and resolve all these discrepancies and they are trying to resolve them.
Within two weeks of setting up that committee, the first phase of disbursement was made for those people that have no issues whatsoever. So, we have made the first releases and they continue working. Just recently, we made another set of release, which over 80 of the scholars benefited from them. What is remaining is just a very negligible number which we are still working on and we intend to resolve. I understand and sympathise very much with what the scholars are going through, for the genuine cases. That is why anytime we see a genuine case, not waiting to treat them in batches, we treat them immediately.
“Okay, we understand what they are going through but we also seek their understanding because a lot of people have abused the scholarship scheme of NDDC. A lot of people have defrauded the government using this NDDC scholarship scheme. Because it is based on foreign currency, a lot of people want access to foreign currency so they pretend to be NDDC scholars when sometimes they are not. So, this is the problem we have had and this is why it has taken time and why some scholars didn’t get their money on time.”
The Managing Director was full of assurance for the genuine students: “The assurance I want to give to all genuine NDDC scholars is that they will most definitely receive their due disbursement. It might take time but we regret the delay and the hardships they have been occasioned because of the delay. We are doing everything possible to ensure that we resolve these issues and get the funds to them as soon as possible.”
The award of further foreign scholarships was even suspended while efforts were being made to cleanse the Augean stables. But with entrenched interests seeing their sleaze empire crumble, there was a fight back. The board’s explanation that the reform was actually intended for the good of the present and would-be beneficiaries fell on deaf ears. The reform was made to look punitive by those interests, hoodwinking some innocent beneficiaries in the process. Some of the students repeatedly protested in London, United Kingdom.
Drawing The Line
Apparently worried by the genuine concerns of some students who were equally affected temporarily by the reform, the board met in December in Abuja and decided to clear the backlog of fees from 2012 to 2017 and all issues surrounding its postgraduate foreign scholarship programme. That same month, that decision was implemented with the disbursement of over two million US dollars to beneficiaries.
What the board did was simply to draw a line on the ugly past and set in motion a new beginning where things will be done right as stated in the last R. The Board Chairman, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, said as much in a statement announcing the happy ending on Wednesday, last week. His words: “It is a huge relief that the issues surrounding our foreign scholarship backlogs have finally been sorted out. Going forward, we can now begin to focus on new entries and deploy more coordinated, seamless and sustainable ways of granting and disbursing our scholarships to avoid a repeat of past shortcomings.”
Ekere, the Managing Director, hinted in Uyo on Monday, last week, that the process for the selection of the next set of beneficiaries would be completed in the next three months. “We shall ensure that by May, all the processes required to be done to get our children ready to start the next academic year are concluded in good time,” he said.
Hope For Undergraduate Scholarship
From inception eight years ago, the NDDC foreign scholarship has been the exclusive preserve of postgraduate students. But all that may change. There is now hope that undergraduates may be included in the scheme.
According to Ekere, “We are still discussing and considering the need to intervene in the undergraduate studies, because there are some students that are intellectually alert and smart but they may not have the opportunity to benefit from the undergraduate education.”
Ekere’s Long History Of Personal Foreign Scholarship Scheme
A strong believer in education, Ekere has ran a personal scholarship scheme for indigent students in Nigerian and foreign universities for almost two decades even as a private businessman. In a country where some elected public officers occasionally gather a few students together before the media and dole out pittance in the name of scholarship when it should ordinarily be called educational assistance, Ekere’s own scholarship scheme has been total with hundreds, if not thousands, of beneficiaries to date. Quite unlike a typical Nigerian politician, he chooses to do it quietly, always in line with Christ’s instruction that your left hand must not know what your right hand does (Matthew 6:3).
This writer ran into one of such beneficiaries, an old friend, at a fuel station in Uyo in December. “Greet my oga for me,” he said. “You may not know this, he once sponsored my education in America.” This fellow, who is a lawyer and youth activist from Etoi Clan in Uyo Local Government Area (LGA), added that such exposure and head start in life spurred him on the academic path so much so that he was now pursuing his seventh degree, a doctorate, at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
The fellow’s statement awakened the journalist in this writer. One was curious to know more. To cut things short, this fellow simply dashed to his car and brought out a file (apparently, he is among some persons who carry their documents about) containing copies of his bachelorate certificate in Political Science/Pre-Law from Ricks College, Idaho, USA (dated 2002) and statements indicating Ekere’s full sponsorship.
What’s more, the fellow said Ekere, then not so much in active politics, sponsored him without ever knowing him. He narrated how Ekere happened to be in the office of his uncle, then an engineer with Shell Petroleum Development Company, in Port Harcourt sometime in 2000 and overheard him lamenting to no avail to his uncle his inability to raise funds to enroll in the American university. There and then, Ekere offered to help. The rest is history.
The fellow disclosed that he reminded Ekere of that gesture at a chance meeting with other youth leaders in Abuja in 2016, 14 years after his graduation. According to him, it took a lot of explanation for Ekere to remember, probably because he was just one in a crowd of such beneficiaries.
“I’m still looking for ways to tell this man thank you,” the fellow said as a parting shot. “I owe him eternal gratitude which I will tell my children and grandchildren.”
There was yet another instance in which this writer was directly involved. In the middle of last year, a female teenager with admission to study Media and Communication Studies – Women Studies at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA, contacted this writer through the help of an aide of a key national leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from Akwa Ibom State. An orphan, according to her, she sounded desperate but determined. At her age, she had already accomplished much, being an African Union Ambassador, award-winning writer, entrepreneur and girl’s right activist. She had been active in Nigerian literary circles, a fact confirmed by one NDDC Deputy Director, himself a renowned poet and journalist, who recognized her during her visit to the NDDC Headquarters in Port Harcourt.
The teenager wanted this writer to help her secure NDDC scholarship. But as pathetic as her case was, this writer could not help. She was told that the NDDC only sponsors postgraduate, not undergraduate, students abroad through a rigorous process.
A very strong-willed and single-minded person despite her age, she wouldn’t give up. “But I learnt that the MD has been sponsoring people long before now on his own,” she replied. “Please help me. I don’t want to miss this admission.”
This writer was taken aback seeing her faith. Not wanting to be a killjoy, this writer approached Ekere one Sunday afternoon to present her case. All her details were given with nothing held back, not even where she was coming from politically. The only missing detail was her LGA of origin which Ekere, characteristically, did not bother to ask and which this writer has not found out till date. For a man who does not play politics with education or development, it was immaterial to Ekere where she came from politically or ethnically. “Tell her to see me in the office tomorrow,” he directed.
The teenager was promptly informed. Pronto, she left her base in Lagos for Port Harcourt, arriving at the NDDC Headquarters as early as 8 am. Eventually, she was ushered into the Managing Director’s office amidst a few other persons already inside. She had hardly finished explaining herself when Ekere cut in, “I will sponsor you.” She was ecstatic. Outside the Managing Director’s office, she knelt down in tears to thank God.
That was in June. Like play, like play (as Sir Wilker Jackson, the popular Uyo musician and youth leader, would sing), she started school in the USA two months later. Her joy knew no bounds. “I am living my dream,” she wrote in a message to this writer. “God will always bless Obong Nsima Ekere and you for helping me to live my dream.”
Ekere had only seen her once and very briefly before granting her scholarship. It is doubtful if he can pick her out in a crowd. Reason? Many more like her have benefited from his scholarship scheme over the years both in Nigeria and abroad, especially in Southern American states as Georgia, Texas and Florida.
The Managing Director and other board members have simply brought their love for education to bear in turning round the NDDC foreign scholarship scheme from the bad old days. As he put it, on Monday, last week, while flagging off the donation of 72,000 desks and 72,000 chairs to schools across the nine Niger Delta states, “NDDC takes the education of our children very serious.”