By Joseph Ebi Kanjo
Section 39 Subsection (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) of the Federal Republic of Nigeria says, “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
These sections of the Constitution are supposed to be applicable to all Nigerians but this seems not to be the case for Etolor Peter Papems and Patrick Ipidei, of the office of the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP).
Papems, a Masters degree student of Baze University, Abuja and Patrick Ipidei of Novena University, Ogume, Delta State, both had their scholarships withdrawn recently by the PAP office headed by its Interim Administrator, Major General Barry Ndiomu (retd.).
Papems’ withdrawal letter was dated January 12, 2023, while Ipidei’s was dated January 17, 2023. Both letters were titled ‘Notification of Withdrawal of Presidential Amnesty Programme Scholarship due to Unruly Behaviour,’ and sent to both students respectively. Papems withdrawal letter was signed by Mrs Oyintarela Umeri, Head, Formal Education Unit, PAP, while Ipidei’s withdrawal letter was signed by Flight Lieutenant Terry Ekugbene Ajobuna (Rtd.), on behalf of the Interim Administrator, PAP.
In the withdrawal letters with similar content, they were accused of using words in a WhatsApp platform aimed “at provoking outrage and inciting protest amongst the PAP-sponsored Student community against the PAP Office and the Federal Government of Nigeria, with regards to the Office’s decision to temporarily suspend awarding of fresh scholarships.”
The withdrawal letters read further: “As approved by the Interim Administrator, due to your unruly and acceptable behaviour, this is to inform you that your PAP scholarship is duly withdrawn with immediate effect. You are therefore no longer a PAP-sponsored student and no longer entitled to any benefits or privileges that this involves. As your tuition fees have already been paid in full by the PAP Office, you will no longer be paid in training Allowance or Book Allowance until you graduate.”
Trouble was said to have started when an online publication with the headline ‘Amnesty: Ndiomu suspends ex-militants, agitators’ University scholarship programme,’ was shared to the WhatsApp platform on the 6th of January, 2023 at about 8:06pm. The said publication was said to have caused outrage and attracted comments including that of Papems and Ipidei in the WhatsApp platform of no fewer than 463 participants.
It is, however, worth noting that the affected students were not offered a query nor was any panel set up to hear the case and investigate the alleged offences.
Records also proved that since the inception of the Presidential Amnesty Programme and the initiation of the scholarship scheme, this is the first time a student’s scholarship is withdrawn.
While speaking with our Reporter, one of the affected students, Papems said he never made comments to insult anyone or instigate a set of people, but that he only expressed his mind as a citizen of Nigeria and as his civil rights. He added that after making the comment, he was called and threatened after which his scholarship was withdrawn.
He said, “I must say this, I never made a comment to insult anyone, but I made a comment as a way of expressing my civil right.”
He continued: “Someone actually suggested in the group that we should mobilise to ensure that students protest against this injustice (winding down of scholarship). So, I, being a student leader, supported the motion and I said based on my civil right, I was going to join the move. And that I was going to mobilise as many as possible to join the protest. So, immediately I dropped this comment in the group chat, I was called on WhatsApp by Mr. Winfred Musa, the head of integration. He threatened me and said I should go ahead to do whatever I intend to do if I am the son of my father. He said I was going to regret it. After this, I was called on the phone that my scholarship has been withdrawn; I said they should put it in formal writing, and it was written and sent to my box, I have the letter.”
Some of the comments by Papems which the Presidential Amnesty office tagged as inciting and consequently withdrew his scholarship read: “Niger Deltans should be illiterate because the 7 billion naira scholarship program is not sustainable. God forbid bad things, Ijaw people are a curse upon themselves.” Another comment by the student in the group chat reads: “Lol, out of the 60 something billion naira allocation, 7 billion naira for Niger Delta youths surf for education is not sustainable. Shaking my head for the Ijaw man.”
Papems added, “The Interim Administrator had erred. The Presidency, Niger Delta and the whole of Nigeria will know of this evil perpetrated on the Niger Delta youths. This will not stop the action that we will take. Someone who loves Niger Delta will not stop youths’ development in education. The Presidency is not aware of this scam. He knows what he is doing. They want to be stealing the 7 billion naira.”
He further reacted to a call: “I will join you, alongside all my key men and strong bones.”
Meanwhile, our Reporter gathered that the other victim, Ipidei, was said to have made few comments and voice-notes in the WhatsApp platform while his other comments were made on his Facebook timeline. His comment on the WhatsApp platform: “The cooperation of every student in the programme is paramount at this point.” His other comments from Facebook on January 6 which the PAP office regarded as inciting reads: “It is High time Ex-agitator leaders, other eminent leaders rise against the Amnesty Interim Administrator over suspension of educational scholarship.” He further commented on January 7 on his Facebook timeline: “The Presidential amnesty program has failed, as the process of rehabilitating and reintegrating ex-agitators has not been done from 2019 till date.”
But a check into the WhatsApp platform with the title ‘Nigeria PAP Info’ by our Reporter, it was discovered that Papems and Ipidei were not the only students who reacted to the online publication on the planned winding down of the scholarship. Then a right thinking reader may want to know why these two students were singled out for punishment. More so, a further check by our Reporter revealed that the victims were not the first to even react to the online publication. Findings further revealed that the students in question were not the first to call for a protest against the planned winding down of the scholarship scheme.
A look at a comment by the contact: 090**12*83** in the platform reads: “Time to mobilise the entire student’s community to protest seriously against this draconian policies of the Interim Administrator. The essence of the Amnesty office is to reintegrate ex-agitators. Education is the core of reintegration, and if educational scholarship is suspended, then it is a subtle move to wind down this programme. His actions are different from his words, hence we can’t take Gen. Ndiomu seriously again. I call on National Executives to meet virtually or physically to take far reaching decisions which include mobilising for total protest.
A student participant with the contact 070**6*97** also commented: “Who is this man in the first place? Our programme got suspended and we are taking it soft. First of all, if we don’t act fast and immediately, this will be solidified. We have to suspend anything about verification and fight this out asap! Else it’s over.”
Another comment from a participant with 081**14*”0*: “My question is, who is the present IA (Interim Administrator) trying to impress from the Federal Government with all the harm he is doing to his people.”
A comment by: 070**10*0**: “Maybe he’s under a spell… let the gods of Izon land punish any IA that doesn’t want the success of the Niger Delta Region. He will never find peace of mind until he joins the ancestors because there’s no peace for the wicked. If I may ask, how many people he rendered help when active in service b4 he got retirement …? Selfish Niger Delta leaders.”
08***9018** “We need to take drastic action before it is too late.”
Another comment by 081**03**8* reads: “I knew from day one that the intention of the IA is evil towards the good people of Niger Delta .His words and actions are always contradicting themselves. Hence he should be giving what he deserves from the people of Niger Delta.”
081**14*9** also commented: “They want to steal the money so that the next person coming will suffer it… why are we people like this. He wants to exit people considering the few months he has to stay in office. Will such a policy work? To start with first, since his assumption into office, can we mention just one thing that has worked out for the good of the programme.”
Contacted, Special Adviser to the Interim Administrator on Media, Mr. Freston Akpor confirmed the PAP office action. Akpor who was apparently reading from the withdrawal letter when contacted via telephone said: “Yes, the scholarship was withdrawn for making a comment “aimed at provoking outrage and inciting protest amongst the PAP-sponsored Student community against the PAP Office and the Federal Government of Nigeria, sponsor of the scholarship.” The action goes against rules and regulations students’ handbooks given to all PAP students, which they all signed.”
But in a swift reaction, Papems said there was no such handbook. He said the only book given to each student is notification of admission which does not contain such regulations as claimed by Mr. Akpor.
Findings from other PAP students, it was gathered there was/is no such handbook. The students contacted by our Reporter said the only book given to students by the PAP office is notification of admission. Such notification of admission letter was also sighted by our Reporter.
Meanwhile, a source confided in our Reporter that the students were later requested to apologize to the PAP office and the Interim Administrator. While Papems was said to have refused to apologize, insisting that he committed no crime or offended anybody, Ipidei, our Reporter gathered, succumbed to the request and apologized. His scholarship has been consequently restored and he is to continue with his education. Contacted on telephone, Ipidei confirmed his scholarship has been restored. He, however, denied he was compelled to apologize. He added: “Yes, my scholarship has been reinstated. That is a lie, no one compelled or forced me to apologize to the PAP office. I willfully apologise and my scholarship was reinstated.”
According to Premium Times, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government increased the allocation to PAP office from N20bn to N60bn in 2017. According to a release from the spokesperson to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Laolu Akande, the increment was in sustenance of the new understanding between the Federal Government and the oil-producing communities.
Part of the release reads: “President Buhari has now raised the funds, and as appropriated, to N55 billion with a recent release of additional N30billion. “There is also a planned release of another N5 billion later,’’ the release said.