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How Former Governor Emmanuel’s Administration Diverted Bursary, Scholarship Funds In Akwa Ibom State

PDP celebrates Udom Emmanuel at 55 - Guardian Nigeria News

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 an obstacle 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. Fortunately for Saviour, his uncle offered to pay his tuition fee.

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But he still needed money for faculty and departmental dues and other sundry academic expenses. So, he was relieved by the information that the Akwa Ibom State government was awarding bursary and scholarship 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.

Saviour Mathew

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

Receiving tuition fees from my uncle was a prayer point and I quite understand that 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 also have a phone that would help me do my assignments or join the class WhatsApp group. There were times I missed classes because the change of lecture venue was announced only on the WhatsApp group.

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 Award”, N301 million for “Open Scholarship” and N110 million for “Under-graduate/and Postgraduate Overseas Scholarship Programme”.

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 accessed by this reporter showed that a total of N320.2 million was released through the Ministry of Education for the three programmes.

But investigations revealed that the disbursements did not get to the designated students.

TheMail Newspaper sampled 10 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.

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

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

The Worldwide President of NAAKISS (2016 to 2019), Comrade Usen Johnson, said bursary was not paid during his time in office.

Comrade Usen Johnson.

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

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

Bursary and scholarship payment were a topical demand from the student community during the administration of Governor Emmanuel. In January 2019, the National Association of Nigeria Students (NANS) threatened to shut down the activities of the state government over non-payment of bursary and scholarship. Yet, funds continued to be retired without getting to students.

We did not pay Bursary, Scholarship 

Aquilla Otobong was the Special Assistant to Governor Udom Emmanuel on Students’ Matters between 2015 and 2019. He confirmed that bursary and scholarship were not paid by the administration. 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 bursary was not paid in his time. He however said what stalled the payment was the inflation of numbers of students by NAAKISS anytime bursary payment was to be made.

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

The Chairman Akwa Ibom State Scholarship Board during the Emmanuel administration, Williams Mkpa, when contacted, confirmed that no bursary or scholarship payment was made to students by the administration.

Contacted, the Commissioner for Education, Idongesit Etiebet said bursary had not been paid to students in the last 10 years before the current administration of Governor Umo Eno.

She said the reason was because of insincerity on the part of the students’ leadership who inflated students’ numbers anytime 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, but the funds were later retired through the Ministry of Education captured as scholarship programmes. The commissioner claimed there were such people sponsored on pilot training.

When TheMail Newspaper told her 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, 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 TheMail contacted the director again on May 22, she assured that she would get across to TheMail 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 of the beneficiaries of bursary and scholarship programmes of the Akwa Ibom State Government between 2016 and 2022.

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

The refusal of the ministry to respond to the FOI request and failure to give the information on scholarship after assurances raise suspicion on the utilisation of the funds for the programme.

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 posted in error by staff of the Accountant General’s Office who were yet to catch up with reformed financial postings.

Mr Nkan said: “It is the same staff that was in the Treasury at the Accountant General’s Office, when there were no reforms, are still the ones 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. You know they use computers in doing this and human errors may have occurred. Most of these things happen because of wrong classifications and that is a common problem that is still existing. No one actually stole the money meant for the programme “.

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

Claims by Commissioner an indictment – IPSAS

The claims by Mr Nkan have been found to be questionable. This newspaper had relied on the audited financial statements of three fiscal years; 2016, 2018 and 2019 thus raises questions whether all the 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, 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 had together spent N1.54 billion on foreign and local training of staff 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.

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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 which 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 programmes between 2015 and 2022, the State Scholarship Board spent millions of naira as its running cost.

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

 

 

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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 payment to students from the state in public tertiary institutions.

The bursary, which the government said is for the 2023/2024 academic session, for the first time took applications through an online portal. But 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 requirement for the bursary before opening the portal, especially as students were transiting from manual bursary payment to digital. When asked of the number of students that have benefited per tertiary institution, he said he did not have the record.

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

When TheMail Newspaper asked Mr Ekpenyong for the list of beneficiaries, he declined to share it.

“Under data protection, I can’t give you 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? Under data protection, we can’t do that. Send you a list of names of students for what? Any student that has a case should come out and we will explain.”

The response of Mr Ekpenyong is misleading and diversionary. TheMail Newspaper did not ask for personal data of the students, rather specifically asked for the list of the beneficiaries of the bursary; their names and institution. 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, had said the ICT Directorate was handling the programme so as to check fraud. When asked for the list of beneficiaries, she referred the newspaper to the ICT Directorate, suggesting that the institutional backing from the Ministry of Education is lacking in the programme.

Scholarship Award not yet Open 

Although the government in late 2023 released N100 million under the Education Trust Fund to Persons with Disabilities in the State and in June 2024 awarded scholarship to one Priscilla Daniel to study at Aviation College in Zaria after a viral appeal for help, the government is yet to open 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 investigation of the spending on bursary and scholarship by the 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 any implementation of taxpayer’s funds.

While commending the current administration for keeping to his campaign promise in the payment of bursary, Mr Paulinus said the process should be conducted in a transparent and accountable manner and through the agency of government designated for implementation of bursary and scholarship programmes.

“Beyond the innovative digital process in the ongoing bursary programme, we must look at the transparency and accountability component. Transparency is a powerful force that when applied can help fight corruption, improve governance and promote accountability. The people need to know how much has been expended so far 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 off the responsibility of bursary payment from the instituted agency mandated with the responsibility; 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 other Departments other than this instituted agency sign the press releases on 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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