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Uncertainty brews in Nigeria as election approaches

As what promises to be Nigeria’s closest election in history approaches, students, agents and overseas education institutions are waiting anxiously to see how its outcome will impact student mobility from one of the largest source markets in Africa.

General Muhammadu Buhari, who is standing for election against sitting President Goodluck Jonathan. Photo: Chatham House.

“The worst case scenario would be obviously if the UKVI or embassy staff were pulled out, essentially no visas would be issued"

Both of the frontrunners’ presidential campaigns have focused on national security, and education policy has been pushed down the agenda.

President Goodluck Jonathan has opened up the country to more private and foreign investment since coming to power in 2010, but the stance of his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general and former military ruler, is a relative unknown.

“If the opposition comes in we don’t really know what to expect in terms of education policy and if there will still be an appetite to fund scholarships and so on”

“If the opposition comes in we don’t really know what to expect in terms of education policy and if there will still be an appetite to fund scholarships and so on,” commented Kelly McDonnell, deputy director of recruitment and international development at the University of Roehampton.

“People around the Niger Delta are getting a lot of scholarships now, because the presidency is favouring the southern region of the country, but if power changes hands, that might change,” commented Damilare Gbodimowo, a consultant at UKEAS, which represents British universities in Nigeria.

Scholarships are also an immediate concern, as many have been effectively put on hold as state bodies wait to see how the elections will impact their budgets.

“Everything’s kind of gone into shutdown at the moment so from a student’s point of view no one’s really making decisions at the moment; everyone’s hanging back to see what happens in the election,” Stuart Rennie, managing director of SJ Rennie Consulting told The PIE News.

And financial support has been further disrupted as politicians focus their efforts on campaigning, according to Gbodimowo.

“They are supposed to sign people on for scholarships, but they don’t have the time now so students with scholarships are being delayed,” he said.

This is particularly problematic due to a 20% slump in the value of the naira over the last six months caused by falling oil prices, which drive Nigeria’s economy.

Soaring foreign currency rates mean the price of a year’s tuition in the UK has rocketed from three million naira (US$15,000) to five million ($25,100), which may be out of reach for many parents, commented Nosa Evbuminatu at Virtue Consulting in Lagos.

But the devalued naira is also fuelling demand for study abroad as higher education funding is pulled.

“There’s no capacity building in Nigeria, there’s no money going into building new universities or polytechnics,” Rennie explained. “And there is no indication that money will be put into education after the election; if anything, it will fall away because of the price of oil and gas.”

“So the only option students have, especially if there’s social unrest, will be to travel overseas.”

There have been outbreaks of violence in the wake of previous elections and civil unrest is a real possibility this year, given an extremely tense political situation due to a weak economy and the ever-looming threat of Boko Haram.

If there is civil unrest, its impact is likely to be twofold, driving demand for study abroad while hampering recruitment efforts.

“The only option students have, especially if there’s social unrest, will be to travel overseas”

“If there is unrest in the country, schools will be shut and students and parents, who may not otherwise have, will look to study abroad options for safety and stability,” agreed Folabi Okembe, owner of World View Events, which organises education fairs across Africa.

“In this instance, those schools with an in-country presence will have an advantage.”

But if violence escalates, institutions may be unable to send representatives to Nigeria.

The elections have already affected a number of international education events. “Our education fairs in Nigeria which are usually held in March have had to be held in May and many exhibitors will be represented by their in-country representatives,” Okembe said.

“We have also seen a few of our regular exhibitors skipping this year due to uncertainties, and a few others are waiting to see what happens before making any plans for Nigeria.”

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