Persistent calls to boycott Northern Cyprus universities

Against a backdrop of the allegations of inexplicable deaths of Nigerian students in Northern Cyprus, the Nigerian government has warned its citizens against moving to this region of the south-eastern European island to study at any of its universities.

The Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), a federal government agency, issued an advisory to parents and students against seeking education in the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which covers about a third of the island of Cyprus and has been occupied by Turkey since 1974.

The Director General of NIDCOM, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said at the end of August that the reason for the advisory was the human rights abuses allegedly meted out to Nigerians in the country.

She alleged that several Nigerians were being maltreated and even killed in Northern Cyprus and that, unfortunately, the local authorities did nothing to bring those responsible for the deaths to justice.

“Think twice before going to Northern Cyprus. We can’t do much for Nigerians there. Our students are being killed daily,” Dabiri-Erewa told journalists at a press briefing.

But, in a statement dated 8 September 2022, Hidayet Bayraktar, the Turkish Ambassador to Nigeria, said Northern Cyprus authorities are taking the accusations “very seriously, and preparing to take the necessary precautions”.

The ambassador cautioned Dabiri-Erewa against sending “wrong perceptions” about Northern Cyprus.

Bayraktar reiterated that the occurrence of criminal incidents was not a daily routine and that all were thoroughly investigated.

“In fact, the Nigerian embassy staff in Ankara visits the TRNC [Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus] on a regular basis in order to observe the consular situation on the ground and there is a decent working dialogue between the Nigerian embassy in Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot authorities. I would be interested in learning if Ms Dabiri-Erewa has verified her information with the findings of these official visits,” Bayraktar said.

However, a day after the ambassador’s statement, a Nigerian student, Abdulsamad Abubakar, studying international relations at Cyprus Science University, was reported missing.

According to a NIDCOM’s statement, Abubakar’s mother, who last heard from her son on 2 August, reported the incident.

Persistent warnings

The government’s warnings to Nigerians to stop going to Northern Cyprus to study has been persistent. Two years earlier, NIDCOM claimed that about 100 Nigerians studying in Northern Cyprus were killed between 2016 and 2020.

The students were reportedly killed in mysterious circumstances while their assailants were never prosecuted for the deaths, NIDCOM said in a statement on its website.

At the time, Ibrahim Khaleel Bello, the 25-year-old son of a judge in Kaduna State, in north-western Nigeria, had just died in Northern Cyprus. The deceased was a third-year civil engineering student at Girne American University.

University authorities reportedly told Bello’s mother, Justice Amina Ahmad Bello, that the student committed suicide by falling from a seven-storey building, a claim she found unbelievable.

She said she spoke with her son every day and nothing would have made her son commit suicide. She also alleged that her son’s stomach was found to have been opened and sutured when the corpse was released to her and petitioned the Nigerian government to help her unravel the cause of her son’s death.

Dabiri-Erewa lamented that the lack of diplomatic ties between Nigeria and Northern Cyprus hampered Nigeria’s investigations into the “mysterious” deaths of Bello and others, prompting the advice to avoid the island country outright.

The Higher Education Council in Northern Cyprus, also called Yodak, did not respond to inquiries by University World News.

Pursuing education in a de facto state

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a de facto state that comprises the north-eastern portion of the island of Cyprus, is not recognised by any country in the world except Turkey.

Thus, the country, with a population of over 300,000, does not have diplomatic, political and economical relationships with any member of the United Nations.

Despite Northern Cyprus being isolated from the world by international trade sanctions and travel embargoes, thousands of young people from 68 countries study at its 21 universities, making education the leading sector of its economy, according to information provided by Yodak.

Yodak says most of its international students come from Turkey, followed by countries in the Middle East such as Jordan, Palestine and Iran, as well as African countries such as Nigeria and Cameroon. The main language of instruction is English.

Although the universities of Northern Cyprus exist in political limbo, some of them are accepted as members of international educational organisations such as the European University Association.

However, they are blocked from participating in programmes based on intergovernmental agreements. For instance, the Erasmus Programme, a European Union student exchange programme, does not include Northern Cyprus in its list of eligible countries.

Nevertheless, the degrees of Northern Cyprus universities are accepted by most universities around the world, thanks to their accreditation by the higher education board in Turkey, which certifies the Northern Cypriot documents.

The relatively low cost of education in Northern Cyprus makes it attractive to international students, with tuition as low as US$8,000, in addition to the availability of scholarships up to 50%.

However, tales of institutional discrimination, inadequate access to housing and even sexual harassment and violence against international students, particularly Africans, abound.

Nigerian author and Booker Prize finalist, Chigozie Obioma, who studied English literature at the Cyprus International University, in Nicosia, has written about these experiences of African students in the island country.

“Many of the students’ parents had sold their properties, in some cases their ancestral lands, to finance their children in the confidence that this was a long-term investment.

“And, because most Nigerians rely on a middleman, these students had not verified what the agents told them. They came bursting with hope and expectations to a desert of stark, paralysing disappointment,” Obioma wrote in a 2016 article in The Guardian, UK.

Emmanuel Achiri, a PhD candidate studying international relations at the Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, said the situation is not static and that students are organising and fighting to improve their situation and hold their universities and communities accountable.

“It is true that many students have been brought to the territory ... by education agents who over-promise and misrepresent the living conditions and opportunities available in Northern Cyprus,” he wrote in Foreign Policy.