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How former Governor Emmanuel’s Administration Diverted Bursary Scholarship funds in Akwa Ibom State

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How former Governor Emmanuel’s Administration Diverted Bursary Scholarship funds in Akwa Ibom State

By Ekemini Simon

In 2015, when Saviour Matthew scored 292 in the University Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) conducted by the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) and was offered admission to study Communication Arts at the University of Uyo, Uyo, he looked forward to completing his undergraduate studies in 2019.

However, Saviour faced obstacles to realising his dream. His only surviving parent had been unemployed for many years after losing his job. Funding Matthew’s and his siblings’ tertiary education was beyond his father’s. Fortunately for Saviour, his uncle offered to pay his tuition fee.

However, he still needed money for faculty, departmental dues, and other sundry academic expenses. So, he was relieved to learn that the Akwa Ibom State government was awarding bursaries and scholarships to students from the state in tertiary institutions.

In its 2015 budget, the state government voted N550 million for bursary awards and N50 million for “Open Scholarships.” Saviour’s eyes were on the scholarship award.

Alas! his hopes never became a reality. Throughout the 2015 fiscal year, the government released no dime from the amounts voted for for the bursary and scholarship programs.

” Receiving tuition fees from my uncle was a prayer point, and I understand it wasn’t easy for him. But without support to pay faculty, departmental dues, money to execute assignments for each course, and take care of my sundry needs, it was very tough for me. I didn’t have a phone to help me do my assignments or join the WhatsApp group class. Sometimes, I missed classes because the change of lecture venue was announced only on WhatsApp.

“I pulled through in year one because I took days off and holidays to sell sachet water in the market to be able to get money to address some of my academic obligations.”

Saviour said his financial struggle caused him emotional trauma, which gradually led to poor academic performance.

” Right from year two, I was going through deep depression. In my year three, I started considering dropping out. It climaxed in my final year, and I couldn’t take it further,” he recalled in an interview with this reporter.

Unable to bear the added financial burden that comes with final year seminar and project, coupled with carry over of some courses, Saviour dropped out of school in his final year.

N320.2m Bursary and Scholarship funds released but not to students

Saviour Matthew is just one of Akwa Ibom children who dropped out of tertiary institutions during the administration of former Governor Udom Emmanuel due to lack of financial support from the state. Yet, between 2016 and 2021, the administration budgeted N2.43 billion for these purposes (N2.02 billion for “Bursary Awards,” N301 million for “Open Scholarships” and N110 million for “Undergraduate/and Postgraduate Overseas Scholarship Programmes.”

The Commissioner for Education, Idongesit Etiebet, acknowledged but did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act request sent in early May for information on the amount the government spent for these purposes between 2016 and 2021.

However, the Accountant-General’s Report and Audited Financial Statements of 2016, 2018, and 2019, which this reporter accessed, showed that the Ministry of Education released a total of N320.2 million for the three programmes.

However, investigations revealed that the disbursements did not reach the designated students.

Our correspondent sampled ten persons who were undergraduates between 2016 and 2019 from each of the five public tertiary institutions in the state (University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State University, Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic, Akwa Ibom State College of Education and Akwa Ibom State College of Science and Technology). None benefited from either bursary or scholarship.

We spoke with Edianaobong Benson, the President of the Student Union Government (SUG) of Akwa Ibom State University who served in the 2018/2019 session; Godwin Inyang, the SUG President of the College of Education Afaha Nsit during the 2019/2020 session; and Comrade John Effiong, the SUG President of Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic during the 2016/2017 session. They all said neither bursary nor scholarship was paid to students during their tenure or throughout their time as students.

Before Governor Udom Emmanuel’s administration, the Ministry of Education paid a bursary to the National Association of Akwa Ibom State Students (NAAKISS) for disbursement to members across its chapters.

He said that the Association’s advocacy for bursary payment never succeeded, even though the budgetary provision was increased from N5,000 to N10,000 per student.

Johnson noted that despite Governor Emmanuel’s assurance in early 2019 during a students’ solidarity march that the bursary would be paid as soon as the state’s economy improved, he did not make any payment until he left office.

During Governor Emmanuel’s administration, Bursary and scholarship payment was a topical demand from the student community. In January 2019, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) threatened to shut down the state government’s activities that involved the non-payment of bursaries and scholarships. Yet, funds continued to be retired without reaching students.

We did not pay a Bursary or scholarship.

Aquilla Otobong was the Special Assistant to Governor Udom Emmanuel on student matters between 2015 and 2019. He confirmed that the administration did not pay bursaries and scholarships. However, when the newspaper told her that money was released for the programme, she refused further comment.

Mrs Otobong’s successor as Special Assistant to Mr Emmanuel on Students’ Matters (2019-2023), Clifford Akwaowo, also confirmed that the bursary was not paid in his time. He said what stalled the payment was the inflation of the number of students by NAAKISS anytime a bursary payment was to be made.

Mr. Akwaowo said bursary payment began only in Governor Umo Eno’s administration after the government moved from payment through the Association to online. On scholarship, he claimed there was some leadership training sponsored by the governor. Hence, funds spent on such exercises could have been retired as a scholarship.

When contacted, Williams Mkpa, Chairman of the Akwa Ibom State Scholarship Board during the Emmanuel administration, confirmed that the administration did not make bursary or scholarship payments to students.

I contacted the Commissioner for Education, Idongesit Etiebet, who said the bursary had not been paid to students in the last ten years before the current administration of Governor Umo Eno.

She said the reason was the insincerity of the students’ leadership, which inflated students’ numbers anytime a bursary was scheduled for payment.

On scholarship payment, Mrs Etiebet said the administration sponsored some people on educational programmes, which her ministry did not handle directly. The funds were later retired through the Ministry of Education and captured as scholarship programmes. The commissioner claimed such people were sponsored by pilot training.

She said that funds were retired for bursary payments and also asked for evidence to support her claims on scholarship. She directed the newspaper to the Director of the Akwa Ibom State Scholarship Board, Eme Okidi. The director, whom the reporter met on May 15, promised to get back to the reporter but never did.

When I contacted the director again on May 22, she assured me she would get across to me as soon as she laid hands on the information. Further calls to the Commissioner for Education on June 3 and 4 for a situation report were not responded to. Neither did she respond to a text and WhatsApp message sent to her phone line on June 7, noting that the information was yet to be shared. Besides, the commissioner could not present evidence on how the money was spent in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to her office in early May, which asked for data on the beneficiaries of bursary and scholarship programs of the Akwa Ibom State Government between 2016 and 2022.

The request, which the office acknowledged, specifically requested the criteria for selecting the beneficiaries, the years’ payment was made, the amount paid to each student, the total amount paid per year, the identity of the students, including registration number and institution, and the number of beneficiaries per institution.

The ministry’s refusal to respond to the FOI request and failure to provide information on scholarships after assurances raise suspicion about the utilisation of the funds for the programme.

The finance commissioner blames Error/ Wrong posting.

The state Commissioner for Finance, Linus Nkan, said the figures in the audited financial statements for bursary and scholarship were incorrectly posted by staff of the Accountant General’s Office who had yet to catch up with reformed financial postings.

Mr Nkan said: “The same staff that was in the Treasury at the Accountant General’s Office when there were no reforms are still there. Sometimes, they may not know the implications of certain things. They may still input the data as they used to.

“They may miss posting on the actual line. They use computers to do this, and human errors may have occurred. Most of these things happen because of wrong classifications, a common problem still existing. No one actually stole the money meant for the programme “.

The Finance Commissioner, however, assured that the government’s financial machinery will be more diligent in cross-checking data posted in financial documents. He also said the Ministry will enhance staff training and retraining to forestall errors in postings.

Claims by Commissioner an indictment – IPSAS

Mr Nkan’s claims have been found to be questionable. This medium relied on the audited financial statements of three fiscal years, 2016, 2018, and 2019, thus raising questions about whether all three fiscal documents that have gone through various stages of auditing are laden with errors on wrong postings. Moreover, the audited statements had passed through the audited processes from the Office of the Accountant General, the Ministry of Finance, the Office of the State Auditor General, and the State House of Assembly, which passed the audited reports.

What is more, the office of the Accountant-General, which prepares these reports under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance, together spent N1.54 billion on foreign and local staff training and the provision/ maintenance of International Public-Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) software/template. This template, used by the State since 2014, is what is used in the postings.

Emmanuel’s Administration’s Scholarship at Nightfall

Although N25.2 million was retired in 2018 for scholarship programmes to students of tertiary institutions in Akwa Ibom State without traceable implementation, four months into the end of Governor Emmanuel’s administration in 2023, the government finally implemented an open scholarship for underprivileged undergraduate students. The undergraduates, 500 in number, were paid N200,000 each after passing through screening, and they received an entry of 1665. The number who benefited implies that the administration spent N100m for the programme.

Redundant Scholarship Board

Although the Emmanuel administration did not implement bursary and scholarship programs between 2015 and 2022, the State Scholarship Board spent millions of naira on its running costs.

Checks into the Audited Financial Statements for 2015 through 2019 show that it spent N27.4 million.

New Administration Priorities Bursary Payment but Programme Lacks Transparency, Institutional Backing

Six months in office, Governor Umo Eno, in November 2023, announced the resumption of bursary payments to students from the state in public tertiary institutions.

The bursary, which the government said is for the 2023/2024 academic session, took applications through an online portal for the first time. However, the exercise was not handled by the State Scholarship Board. It is run by the Directorate of ICT and Digital Services, Office of the Governor.

According to data from the bursary portal, 71 047 students applied for the bursary, but only 12,920 (18.2 percent) students were paid. The Special Assistant to Governor Umo Eno on ICT and Digital Services, Frank Ekpenyong, said 3,984 applications were multiple applications while 3,1611 did not submit adequate documents.

However, the President of NAAKISS, Ubong Ekwere, when contacted, said what may have caused the low percentage of beneficiaries was the government’s failure to sensitise students on the bursary requirement before opening the portal, especially as students were transiting from manual bursary payment to digital. When asked about the number of students who have benefited per tertiary institution, he said he did not have the record.

It is unclear if the 12,920 students reported by the government as being paid the bursary were actually paid. The list of the beneficiaries has yet to be made public since the portal was closed on April 30, 2024.

When contacted for the list of beneficiaries, Mr Ekpenyong declined to share it.

“Under data protection, I can’t give you the names of the benefiting students. Why should I give you that? On whose authority? I can’t. I would have published the list myself online. Don’t you think I have that capacity? We can’t do that under data protection. Send you a list of names of students for what? Any student with a case should come out, and we will explain it.”

Mr Ekpenyong’s response is misleading and diversionary. We did not ask for the students’ personal data; we specifically asked for the list of the beneficiaries of the bursary, their names, and institutions. Section 39(1) of the Nigeria Data Protection Act (2023) exempts only personal data from public consumption. Moreover, the government of Akwa Ibom State in 2023 published a list of the 500 students it shortlisted for its N200,000 scholarship.

The Commissioner for Education, Mrs Etiebet, said the ICT Directorate was handling the programme to check fraud. When asked for the list of beneficiaries, she referred the newspaper to the ICT Directorate, suggesting that the programme lacks institutional backing from the Ministry of Education.

Scholarship Award not yet Open

Although the government released N100 million under the Education Trust Fund to Persons with Disabilities in the State in late 2023 and, in June 2024, awarded a scholarship to Priscilla Daniel to study at Aviation College in Zaria after a viral appeal for help, the government has yet to open a scholarship opportunity for all tertiary students of Akwa Ibom origin.

It could be recalled that when the government awarded scholarships to 500 students in early 2023, it said scholarships for students would continue.

CSO Demands Transparency in Bursary Implementation

Policy Alert, a Civil Society Organisation working on fiscal and ecological justice in the Niger Delta, has called for an investigation of the spending on bursaries and scholarship by Udom Emmanuel’s administration.

In an interview with the reporter, its Programmer Officer, Fiscal Reforms and Accountability, Faith Paulinus, urged the state House of Assembly to probe how the funds were expended, adding that there must be accountability in implementing taxpayer’s funds.

While commending the current administration for keeping to his campaign promise regarding the payment of bursaries, Mr Paulinus said the process should be conducted transparently and accountable through the government agency designated for implementing bursary and scholarship programmes.

“Beyond the innovative digital process in the ongoing bursary programme, we must examine the transparency and accountability component. When applied, transparency is a powerful force that can help fight corruption, improve governance, and promote accountability. The people need to know how much has been expended on the bursary programme especially in the different tranches involved. The public must know the number of students that have benefited so far, the number per institution, and the number expected in the coming days.

” This implies that the authorities involved must publish the amount so far received, disbursed and with a verifiable list of names of beneficiaries to aid accountability. This will instill a culture of confidence and accountability in the process.”

The Programme Officer equally noted that taking away the responsibility of bursary payment from the instituted agency mandated with this responsibility, the State Scholarship Board, is a red flag.

” I don’t know the extent to which the State Scholarship Board is involved in bursary payment and the educational grant and scholarship we have seen ongoing. But what we know is that we have seen Departments other than this instituted agency sign the press releases on the bursary. This is a red flag. There is nothing wrong in other Departments giving the State Scholarship Board the technical support needed to carry out its established responsibility.”

The story was supported with funding from the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID)

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