Delta State - Several student leaders in Delta State have accused officials of the Delta State Scholarship Board, including the board's current head, Hope Eghagha, of threatening them and instigating physical attacks on them after they opposed ongoing fraud in the board's disbursement of bursaries.
One of the student leaders, Orhe Erhiga, showed bruises on his body from what he described as a severe assault. Mr. Erhiga, a senator in the Delta State Students' Union, said he faced an attempt on his life. He insisted that the attack on him arose from the resolute stand he took against the perpetration of fraud by the scholarship board.
Mr. Erhiga accused the current National President of the National Association of Delta State Students Union (NADESSTU), Godwin Ovuomaraini, of conniving with members of the scholarship board in their illicit activities. Mr. Erhiga said Mr. Ovuomaraini physically assaulted him on May 11, 2012. One eyewitness said Mr. Ovuomaraini used broken bottles in a vicious attack on Mr. Erhiga.
He accused Mr. Ovuomaraini of doing the board's bidding, including complicity in siphoning bursary funds released by the state to Delta State students at various institutions of higher learning across the country.
Several other critics of the scholarship board also fingered Mr. Ovuomaraini as the mastermind of the threats and assaults on them. "The board and its chairman, Professor Hope Eghagha, are using Godwin to attack us," said one of the targeted student leaders.
A former president of the student union, Ambrose Ezenweani, also revealed that he was lucky to escape an attack organized by the same Mr. Ovuomaraini. Mr. Ezenweani said his offense was that he set out to investigate and expose irregularities in a list released by the board around the period he was completing his tenure and was about to hand over.
In a petition to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ezenweani detailed how the board officials, since the emergence of Mr. Eghagha as its chairman, inserted fake names into the list of students for bursary. He asserted that the insertion of fake names was a scam to enable board officials to siphon funds even as many genuine students were denied bursaries. The petition accused officials of the board as the architects of a hoax to use fake names to embezzle public funds. He stated that members of the scholarship board, including Mr. Eghagha who is also the Commissioner for Higher Education, were deeply involved in the scam. He said they were determined to foreclose access to anybody who wants to investigate their nefarious activities. He said he escaped an attempt to attack him after he severely criticized ongoing fraud in the board.
It has also been learnt that another student senator, Odebe Zino, had been threatened by the same Godwin Ovuomaraini. A source disclosed that Mr. Ovuomaraini ordered Mr. Zino to immediately discontinue his investigation into fraud in the scholarship board.
"The students' union Senate body had asked Odebe to investigate the matter, but Ovuomaraini demanded that he should stop – or face serious consequences," a student source disclosed.
Odebe Zino is the president of students' union at Auchi Polytechnic. His appointment as chairman of an ad hoc committee set up by the students' Senate body to investigate allegations of fraud in the board followed the board’s release of a spurious final list of beneficiaries of the Delta State scholarship fund.
Mr. Erhiga revealed that the list was dominated by names of non-existing students. He said corrupt members of the board would have embezzled the non-existent students' scholarships were the fraud not detected.
Numerous students are quotes as having said that they decided to fight back and expose the board's corruption because the award of scholarships to fake, non-existent students was working to the detriment of real students. "When the bursary goes to unknown names, inserted by officials of the Delta State Scholarship Board to siphon the fund, then genuine students are denied the benefit."
Mr. Ezenweani said he had been victimized by members of the board for opposing their practice of using fake names to siphon the scholarship funds. He alleged that the board created and approved payment for twenty-three thousand (23,000) fake students' names at various institutions to pocket scholarship funds for themselves even as genuine students were shut off.
He accused the board of showing apathy after the students pointed out the extensive errors in the list. He added that he and other students then found out that the inclusion of fake names was not an innocent mistake but a deliberate scam. He stated that board officials ignored their calls and further blocked all efforts to trace the source of the fake names.
Student leaders said they discovered that the controversial list contained names associated with bank accounts that have strange bank sort codes. Following their investigation and protests, the students said the board had stopped publishing names of bursary beneficiaries as a way to ward off investigations. They also accused the board of dragging its feet, stating that the payment of bursary, which was usually concluded within three months, had yet to be concluded since June of last year.
In addition to indicting the Commissioner for Higher Education, Mr. Eghagha, Ezenweani's petition to the EFCC also identified the board's secretary, Peter Amromanoh, and a new unidentified IT firm as culprits who connived in the fraudulent schemes.
According to the sources, once the irregularities were exposed, the board claimed that it had returned the saved funds to the state government's coffers.
But Mr. Ambrose Ezenweani's petition alleged that the fake 23,000 bursary beneficiaries approved by officials of the scholarship board had been used within two bursary cycles to siphon about N2 billion in public funds. He said student investigators had not been able to locate the fake addresses associated with the fake names. In addition, he asserted that the names did not exist in the list of students at the various institutions they ostensibly attended.
Mr. Orhe Erhiga said the student union drew the attention of the board to the inconsistencies, but that officials of the scholarship board stood behind the hoax. He added that his persistent protests triggered attacks on him and other members of the union who supported the protest.
Some members of the students' Senate Union said Mr. Ovuomaraini, whose tenure had lapsed, was paid more than N1 million by the scholarship board to engage in activities that would keep another election from holding. They said the board was buying time to complete another phase of its ongoing scam. The students stated that members of the scholarship board were afraid that another national leader might emerge who may not go along with their shady activities.
Media assistant of Hope Eghagha, the scholarship board's chairman and Commissioner of Higher Education in Delta State, spoke on his behalf. The aide, who declined to disclose his name, denied the student union leaders' allegations. He accused the students of being oblivious of the re-organization of the board by Mr. Eghagha, the new chairman.
He confirmed that Mr. Eghagha brought in a new IT firm to process applications for the bursary.
The critics of the board said the name of the IT firm was hidden from them. Mr. Eghagha's media assistant said he was unable to recall the name of the IT firm as he responded to questions over telephone. But he alleged that the board’s critics were those affected by the re-organization carried out by Mr. Eghagha on his assumption of the position of chairman. He said the commissioner's re-organization affected those who were planting many names and applying more than once, alleging that the critics were among those. The media aide also stated that the board had saved N80 million the first year and N180 million in the last concluded year after the re-organization.
He also alleged that kidnappers who abducted Mr. Eghagha last year had demanded that the commissioner cancel the list he approved using the new IT firm.
Reacting to the media aide's claims, the student leaders insisted that the money announced as returned by the board was as a result of their efforts to expose the fraud. One student source asked, "If they claim they are returning some money, why not allow us to trace the source of the fake names and addresses the money was recovered from?" The student leader added that those who used fake names ought to be punished to serve as a deterrent to other like-minded criminals.
A source disclosed that the EFCC was still investigating Mr. Ezenweani's petition. The source added that the EFCC had in the past detained some members of the scholarship board. The board's secretary, Mr. Amromanoh, was detained for more than one week and then released on some unspecified conditions. In addition, Mr. Ovuomaraini was reportedly detained at the police headquarter in Abuja after he allegedly boasted that he had the backing of the Delta State governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, and could not be arrested.
When contacted, Mr. Ovuomaraini denied using broken bottles to severely wound Mr. Erhiga. He described what happened as 'a scuffle' between him and the student senator. He also denied attempting to attack Mr. Ezenweani.
In a petition to the police, Mr. Ovuomaraini was described as a notorious attacker and cultist. The petition alleged that, in 2010, Mr. Ovuomaraini had attacked Mr. Orerine Bakpa, a former National President of the student association. The victim almost lost his life, according to the petition. It added that other executive members of the association developed a deep fear of holding private meetings with Mr. Ovuomaraini, especially where he decided the venue.
Mr. Ovuomaraini, who identified himself as an ND2 student of Delta State Polytechnic, said he has now set up a process to elect a new President, admitting that his tenure had lapsed.