The minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, who is accused of manipulating foreign scholarships offered by a government contractor, has defended the selection process that benefited only people nominated by him and other senior officials.
In his first public comments on the matter since PREMIUM TIMES exposed the scandal in July, Mr Amaechi dismissed widespread criticisms that trailed the process, saying what mattered was that Nigerians were given the opportunity to be trained in China, not how they were selected.
The scholarships were offered by a Chinese construction firm, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation. The government has been criticised for accepting favours from a contractor.
The scholarship involved the sponsorship of over 40 Nigerian undergraduate students in Chinese universities to study railway engineering. The company said it was part of its social corporate responsibilities.
Rather than make the scholarship available to all eligible Nigerian youth, the scholarship slots were shared among wards of select government ministers and other top public officials.
The top officials, who benefitted were identified in a document used by the construction firm, CCECC, to permit selected candidates to participate in the scholarship interview.
At a press conference in Abuja on Tuesday, Mr Amaechi said Nigerians should not question the selection of candidates, but should be happy to have people trained to take over from CCECC.
The minister initially declined to comment on the controversy, but after answering other questions journalists asked him, he said “the answer to this thing is simple, CCECC has granted us scholarship, how they got their candidates, ask them. I’ve seen the first batch in China. Instead of asking how we chose the candidates, they should ask us about the policy”.
“The policy is that when they come they build roads. Rivers state government house is still being maintained by Julius Berger, is that good? It’s something that any Nigerian should be able to maintain.
“To maintain that place, Julius Berger comes every day and they are paid every month. The month you don’t pay them, you won’t see them.
“If you allow the railway people go without them providing scholarship, when they finish and they go, when the train breaks down you will see that the workers would be sweating but we are very sure that at the end of the day before the Chinese leaves they must have trained our men to take over this thing and that is what is critical not how we chose the candidates,” he said.
“I think the CCECC complied with the law, they did not break any law.”
On June 21, scores of young Nigerians, who travelled long distances from all over the country, stormed the CCECC headquarters to participate in the scholarship interview after being told the previous day at the Ministry of Transport that no such opportunities exist.
The Chinese firm was conducting interviews for about 42 shortlisted applicants in the scholarship scheme that would see successful candidates train as railway engineers in China.
On getting there, the applicants found that without a signed letter by a minister or permanent secretary, they were not be allowed to participate in the interview.
Only candidates who had been nominated by top officials were allowed for the interview.
In July, PREMIUM TIMES learnt that Independent Corruption Practices Commission (ICPC) commenced investigations into the allegations.
The CCECC also told the investigators that the names of students finally selected had been submitted to the Chinese Embassy for processing, sources in the ICPC told PREMIUM TIMES.
They also told the investigators they had concluded the selection process from the list which they claimed they got from the transport ministry.
Last week, PREMIUM TIMES reported how President Muhammadu Buhari visited the first batch of the railway scholarship recipients in China in the course of the 7th Summit of the Forum on China — Africa Cooperation (FOCAC 2018).
Although this newspaper could not establish that the youth currently on scholarship in China were the same ‘connected youth’ who got their scholarships through the controversial process, the ICPC was told by CCECC officials that only the candidates nominated by ministers and other top officials of the Buhari administration were allowed to take part in the selection interview and made the final list.
The controversial railway scholarship is, however, not the only one being provided by the CCECC.
Shortly after the scandal, the CCECC and Chinese government offered more scholarships on railway transportation to university students in the country.
One of such was the award of scholarships to 30 students from the Ahmadu Bello University.