Nigerian students caught in political, economic crossfire

Nigerian students in Benin are at the receiving end of an unstable economic situation and fractured political relations between the two neighbours. Three weeks after the Seme-Krake international border was abruptly and indefinitely closed by Nigeria – a move ostensibly aimed at curbing rampant smuggling – it was announced by Benin that all English language courses in private universities were suspended.

Benin university programmes offered in English have been popular choices for Nigerian students who are unable to attend university back home, partly as a result of the enormous demand for university places.

In an interview with University World News, Benin’s director of private universities in the Education Ministry, Professor Dodji Amouzouvi, who made the announcement about the suspension of private university courses, said his department had received an official complaint sent from the Nigerian Embassy to the Presidency of Benin about the quality of graduates being produced through courses taught in English.

He said Benin’s private universities have been accused of producing graduates who are unemployable in their home countries. He said some employers said the graduates were unable to express themselves in English, but declined to elaborate further for fear of being drawn into diplomatic controversy.

‘Diplomatic response’

According to Professor Mouftau Olalaye, Benin’s former ambassador to Nigeria and a former professor of public administration at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, the suspension of the programmes in English – an offering that was mutually beneficial to both countries – was intended as a kind of diplomatic response to Nigeria’s unilateral closure of the border with Benin which, he said, has had a negative impact on his country’s economy.

“Over 80% of Benin’s external commerce is with Nigeria,” he said.

At the time of the sudden border closure on 22 August, Colonel Hameed Ali, director general of the Nigerian customs service, told an international press conference the border closure was a necessary solution to the perennial problems of incessant smuggling of banned goods into Nigeria.

“The border would remain closed indefinitely until the two governments find a mutually agreed formula to put an end to smuggling activities which have a very negative impact on the Nigerian economy,” he said.

Origins of English tuition in Benin

Olalaye said that, as a university teacher in Nigeria and later Benin’s ambassador to Nigeria, he took part in what became a statutory establishment of an English language section in Benin’s private universities whereby academic courses and research programmes could be mounted. “After all, such a provision is available in some universities in France,” he said.

After an inter-ministerial committee had completed its spadework, a law was passed at Benin’s National Assembly on 6 October 2005, permitting the country’s private universities to create an anglophone section in their university programmes.

Olalaye said that, at the time, there was a significant increase in Nigerians who registered at these private universities in Benin.

According to Dr Nathaniel Kitti, lecturer in the faculty of law at the National University of Benin, there were also positive economic spinoffs from this development.

“The surrounding and immediate communities witnessed an unprecedented boom through the houses rented for accommodation by these foreign students. Restaurants and small shopping centres were developed. All these advantages dried up.”

However, it is not only the closure of the border and the changes in private universities that caused the stagnation.

Impact of recession

Kitti said even before the closure of the international border, there were signs in 2014 of recession in the Nigerian economy.

“The exchange rate of the Nigerian currency meant less purchasing power for the Nigerian students studying in Benin,” he said.

One of the first victims of these declining financial fortunes was Houdegbe North American University where over 90% of the students were from Nigeria.

“Within three years, this university lost virtually three-quarters of its enrolment. And just last year its American partner refused to renew its partnership. This university may fold this year,” Kitti said.

With the imminent closure of this university and the scrapping of the English sections in the country’s private universities, the Nigerian students are confronted with a dilemma with regard to the completion of their studies.

Togo sees the gap

The immediate and practical solution may be to vote with their feet and register in private universities in neighbouring Togo.

“I have colleagues in some private universities in Togo who told me that some of these universities have developed public relations and marketing units who have travelled to Benin soliciting Nigeria students and suggesting they come and register in their universities,” Kitti said.

According to Kitti, every year there are more than 1.7 million Nigerians seeking admission into Nigerian universities.

“Less than 600,000 applicants are given admission. The remaining candidates move over to West African countries for admission into other universities outside Nigeria.

"University education in Nigeria is both an industry and a culture. Nigeria and other African countries need to integrate vocational skills in their academic programmes to create additional opportunities for young boys and girls to excel in other areas of human endeavour and eventually reduce unemployment," he said.