How 13,000 Nigerian Students Were Stranded In The United States Of America In 1983 After Running Into Over $200 Million In Debts Because Of Shagari Government

August 1983 is a month that so many Nigerians old enough to experience this crisis will never forget. Aliyu Usman Shagari was the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria but in faraway United States of America, up to 13,000 Nigerian students were stranded after piling up a debt of $87 million (1983 values, $87,000,000 in 1983 equals $210,836,834.02 in 2016, adjusted for inflation). But what actually happened? In the early 1970s, Nigeria was enjoying an oil boom and it was making so much money that it decided to expand its scholarship programmes by sending more students to universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. As at that time, Nigeria was so awash with money that the military ruler, General Yakubu Gowon boasted that the problem of Nigeria was not money but how to spend it.

Well, the spending jamboree continued and the brain-dead leaders refused to save for the rainy days ahead. They believed (you know the way Nigerians have this silly religious mindset that prayer will fix everything, right) that the party was going to last forever but by the 1980s, they reality came knocking with brutality. Oil prices fell and Nigeria did not have the hard currency (particularly the US dollars) to pay for even its imported goods and services, not to talk of financing the helpless students it had sent abroad. Apart from the dwindling global oil prices, I must also mention that many of the politicians of the Second Republic swallowed virtually all that is left of the Nigerian treasury.

It did not take long before Nigerian students sent to study began filling the pinch. It all started like a joke but by the middle of August of that year, Nigerian students were already crying out for help. The next sessions will explain what happened to the students during this trying era.

As the Shagari-led government failed woefully to send money to these students, they became stranded on American campuses without any financial support for their tuition or living expenses. Nothing was coming from the homeland. The American officials blamed the Nigerian government and its devastating response for the economic crunch while the Nigerian government officials fired back saying the delays were due to bureaucratic errors (same scam since day one). Whatever the cause, the students were left without funds and they were barred from registering for classes at hundreds of colleges. And to make their matters worse, the United States immigration rules clarified that they could not work because they had student visas and they were subject to deportation.

President Shagari headed one of Nigeria’s most corrupt governments. Image credits: Creative Commons.

According to Julie Rose of Iowa State University who was the coordinator for Nigerian students for the National Association of Foreign Students, about 10,000 to 13,000 Nigerian students – which made up about half of the Nigerian students in the country – had not received their scholarship funding from the Nigerian federal government. She went further to explain that these students will be unable to pay their tuition, rent and utilities or buy books and even food as the fall semester was approaching and that the students owed $22 million in tuition and $65 million in living expenses (making a grand total of $87 million as at 1983 value) to hundreds of colleges and universities. That was a really hefty mountain of debt even for a country not to talk of a pack of students. Rose stated that each school where Nigerian students are in default is tackling the problem on its own. According to her, most universities were not allowing the students to register for classes that fall if they owed for the previous year although some required that all the students pay at least part of this semester’s fee in advance.

The tale of woes continued at the University of Wisconsin-Scout, where 50 out of the 135 Nigerian students needed the sum of $750,000 to pay their tuition, rent and utility bills. Officials said their cases were so bad some students had turned to charity cases. Electricity in one of the student’s apartment was cut after his bill reached $700. John Enger, the school’s public information director said:

Churches and individuals in the community have been donating money, food and shelter, but this help is short-term.

At the University of Tennessee, Dixon Johnson, who was the president of the National Association of Foreign Students Advisers said:

The financial condition of Nigerian students in the United States is an embarrassment to all of us associated with international education.

Johnson further said one Nigerian student, a blind woman, had not received a penny of her promised living expenses since arriving Knoxville in March, 1982. He said the university officials had to use her $4,500 tuition deposit to pay for her room and board. He continued and lambasted the Shagari government:

It appears that their government, through a policy of neglect or indifference or corruption or all of the above, is placing these students in an impossible position.

John Chamberlain, the deputy officer for Nigeria on the State Department’s African Affairs Desk in Washington said:

The students are caught in that crunch. We have expressed our concern to the Nigerian government. We have also discussed with them possible solutions. But we recognize that they are the only ones with the authority to take those actions.

He also said the most obvious solution was for the Nigerian government to make sure the scholarship funding was the highest priority for forex funding. Let me pause here and ‘rant my vent’ small. In 1983, the Nigerian government did not take education of Nigerians abroad or even at home seriously, and today, nothing has changed, the government will prefer to give scarce forex to people going on religious tourism to the Middle East than to fund scholarship students who can actually drive the economy.

During the heat of the crisis, the Nigerian government did not keep quiet, Moses Ihonde, the Nigerian consul general said that news of shortage of foreign currency was the cause of the delays was a fat lie. He said:

At times, letters get misdirected, and in other cases students have not met the requirement. The problem generally is bureaucratic. This is a problem we recognize and are not happy about. Every institution will get its money. We are appealing for consideration for the students.

Ihonde also said officials at the Central Bank of Nigeria had promised to speed up the process of processing scholarship funds and that American schools should not deny admission to students whose funds were delayed. He said that instead of denying them admissions, the schools should simply seize the diplomas of the students until they pay. But that was not the business of the American university officials. Peter Levitoff of the University of Nebraska said Nigerian students who are not allowed to register for classes that fall were in technical violation of their foreign student visas. He said:

And they are subject to being asked to leave the country by the Immigration Service. But if they had the money for a plane ticket, they’d use it to pay for their tuition.

For the Nigerian students, it was simply hell on earth. Aker Yongu who was aged 32 that time, was a graduate student in education at Indiana University sid he had not received the money to pay for that fall’s tuition and he had not also received the $1,400 he was supposed to get for living expenses since June 1983.  He said he was depending on church groups in the Bloomington area to feed him and his pregnant wife. He lamented:

And I am not supposed to work. My visa does not allow it. So what am I supposed to do? I do not know.

Hassan Salami was another of the affected students. He was studying at the St. Cloud State University (SCSU) in Minnesota. He was also stranded and faced with deportation. His own case was even a bit different, his parents could raise the money for his education but they could not even send it out of Nigeria because Shagari’s government had placed austerity measures in place to tackle the devastating downward turn of the economy, the same thing Buhari is doing today with the recession, restricting the outflow of forex while he and his cronies have unlimited access to the same forex. Salami bemoaned his fate and said:

Parents may have the money, but the government is saying: Hey, you cannot take that money out of the country. In the past, we relied on the ‘newcomers’, students who had been at SCSU borrowed money from new Nigerian students who had brought money out of the country. In the last two quarters, the number of new students had reduced drastically. Now that the number of new entrants is reducing, what do we do? Those of us old students really have problems.

Hassan Salami

Salami had saved money from jobs with the Nigerian government and Texaco Inc. for five years to study public administration and international management in the United States. He ran out in the previous school year and said he could not get his account with the Central Bank of Nigeria. Hassan was not the only Nigerian student at SCSU to be badly hit, in some cases, Nigerian students had not collected a dime for one year, according to Lynn Gottshall, the coordinator for the international students, she said of their affected 56 Nigerian students:

Our students have had an extraordinarily tough time.

Few months later, the Shagari government that was just re-elected for a second term was toppled and a military dictator named Muhammadu Buhari took to power. Over 33 years later, he is the president and funny enough, history is precisely repeating itself.




  1. Saving
  2. Cash Woes Threaten Nigerian Students, Cloud Daily Times, St. Cloud, Minnesota 56301, August 22, 1983.
  3. 10,000 Nigerian Students Stranded Without Funds, Des Moines Register, August 11, 1983, page 4T.


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