Young Nigerians, reportedly in the hundreds, protested in Abuja this week after the government refused their applications for scholarships to study rail engineering in China, offered by a Chinese contractor.
They were told no such programme existed, but a newspaper investigation revealed that it did and that government officials had solicited nominations from their associates instead of opening the scheme to the public.
On Wednesday (20 June) crowds of young people, many of whom had travelled long distances and at great expense, temporarily blocked the entrance to the Federal Ministry of Transportation.
Based on social media reports, they had arrived hoping to apply for scholarships to study in China, which they thought were being offered by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), a state-owned contractor building a standard-gauge railway from Lagos to Kano, reports newspaper Premium Times.
But ministry officials turned them away, saying no such opportunities existed. That night the ministry issued a press statement saying it had never advertised such a programme, and would not receive applications "from the general public".
Government insiders, however, told a different story to the Times.
One "top official" told the newspaper that CCECC had approached the transportation ministry with a plan to sponsor a number of young Nigerians to study railway engineering in China.
That plan appears to have been leaked, and became prominent on social media for days.
But rather than advertise the opportunities, the ministry contacted government officials – ministers, permanent secretaries, presidency officials and select federal lawmakers – to nominate candidates for the slots, sources told the Times.
The newspaper obtained a copy of such a letter sent to trade minister Okechukwu Enelamah (pictured).
Sent from the transport ministry’s permanent secretary, and dated 11 June, it sets out the criteria for nominees to a five-year bachelor of science degree to be undertaken in China.
Interviews for the slots were scheduled for between June 21-23 at CCECC’s Abuja headquarters.
The Times interviewed a number of the protesters.
"When will our government be sincere and help the masses?" asked Buhari Abubakar, an applicant from Kano who said his parents paid dearly for the 430-km trip to Abuja.
Another applicant, Ismail Oyejola, said he was told about the scholarships by a neighbour who works with the Prison Services.
He called the experience "a shattered dream for young Nigerians".
Parents joined the protests, as well. One angry mother, Nike Abdulrahman, said a letter about the scholarships had been in circulation since 12 June.
"How can they say our [children] are not going to submit because it is fake?", she said to the Times, adding it was irresponsible of the transport ministry of transport not to issue a disclaimer about the rumours.
"This is a fraud on the public. You now raise the hope of youth across the 36 states and then dash it," she said.
When invited by the Times, neither the transport ministry nor CCECC would comment.
Image: Okechukwu Enelamah, Nigeria’s trade minister, was among those invited to nominate candidates for the BSc scholarships (World Bank)