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The cases of mysterious deaths of Nigerian students in Northern Cyprus universities

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The mysterious and inexplicable murder of a Nigerian student in Northern Cyprus has opened a can of worms over the vulnerability of Nigerians to criminal elements abroad. While the nation grapples with Boko Haram, bandits and other criminal groups, there appears to be a bigger monster waiting outside the shores, particularly in the Turkish Republic.

Ibrahim Khaleel Bello, 25, a third-year Civil Engineering Degree student of Girne American University in Girne (Kyrenia) is the latest in a long list of Nigerians killed in mysterious circumstances in Northern Cyprus. Khaleel, whose father is a Federal High Court Chief Judge in the Federal Capital Territory was said to have committed suicide from a seven-storey building.

Mother’s Plea

Khaleel’s mum, Amina Ahmad Bello, also a judge in Kaduna State, took her plea to the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) on Monday to demand justice for the 25-year-old and others. She said her son was allegedly murdered and covered up by the authorities in Northern Cyprus as well as the university authorities, claiming it was a suicide mission having fallen from a seven-storey building.

Bello said, “I don’t believe it was an accident or a suicide as I went to Cyprus barely 24 hours it happened and got to the mortuary where there was no scratch or wound on his body. I suspected foul play that my son was killed as the school was non-challant in breaking the news to me on my arrival there.”

Bello said she spoke with her son hours before he died and he expressed fears on his safety in the university environment, adding that her son sent her a WhatsApp message before his eventual death. “‘Mama, please I want to come back home. Wallahi if I stay here, I will just die here without anybody batting an eyelash. I just need to come back home. Mama, please try to understand that this isn’t a place for me,’” Mrs Bello quoted her son.

FG blacklists Northern Cyprus

In response, NIDCOM’s chairman, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said the country has blacklisted Northern Cyprus given the preponderance of students who have died mysteriously without any prosecution or compensation whatsoever.

Dabiri-Erewa, in a statement issued Monday by Mr. Gabriel Odu of the Media and Public Relations Unit of the commission, therefore called on parents to be wary of sending their wards there as the country was not recognized by the United Nations except the Republic of Turkey, adding that Nigeria has no diplomatic ties with the country.

The chairman stated, “The death of Ibrahim Khaleel Bello should be a tipping point to end the continuous killings of Nigerian students in that country.

“The time has come for us to blacklist all these universities in Northern Cyprus and advise our students from seeking any form of admission there as it portends danger to their life and future.”

Dabiri-Erewa however assured that NIDCOM would work with the Ministry of Justice, Nigerian Mission in Turkey and other relevant agencies to ensure justice is done. She added that the office of the Attorney General of the Federation had already reported the matter to Interpol for further investigation.

Over a hundred Nigerians killed

According to NIDCOM, hundreds of Nigerians have died in mysterious circumstances from 2016 to 2020 without Northern Cyprus prosecuting any of the assailants. Kennedy Taomwabwa Dede, 28, student of Eastern Mediterranean University was killed on February 1, 2018; and Walshak Augustine Ngok, a student of Marine Engineering at Near East University, was murdered on April 19, 2019, the agency said.

Others were Gabriel Soriwei, a first-year student of Electrical Electronics of Cyprus International University, Nicosia; Osabanjo Adeola Owoyale, 33, went missing and found dead on July 1, 2019; Augustine Wallies killed on April 19, 2019; Stanley Eteimo, 28; Hassan Babatunde, 28; Temitayo Adigun; Kubiat Abasi Abraham Okon, 24; Oziegbe Gospower Airekugose and Olasubomi Ope, among others not reported.

Why Northern Cyprus?

Recognised only by Turkey, Northern Cyprus is considered by the international community to be part of the Republic of Cyprus. A nation under the United Nations embargo, it had been a part of what was once the Republic of Cyprus. That union, however, ended in an internecine war that resulted in the division of the island in 1974 to form the Republic of Cyprus belonging to the Greek Cypriots and Northern Cyprus.

Education is big business, filling the economic void by drawing students from across the Middle East and Africa. The tiny nation has more than a dozen schools offering a bachelor’s degree or above, including the American University of Cyprus and Girne American University. For students who struggle to get visas in the west, an education in northern Cyprus can seem like a step closer to Europe. According to reports, the Turkish republic generated about $1 billion in revenue in 2019 from 102,000 students studying at 21 universities.

It spends more than 7% of its GDP on education, the third-highest share in the European Union after Denmark and Sweden. Although Cyprus is a member of the European Union, most schools and colleges are based on the American system of education, which allows students to choose their academic load and vary their courses. It has a positive impact both on students’ leisure time and tuition fee, as the fewer subjects you study, the less you pay. The cost is considerate too. On average, tuition fees range between 3,400 and 8,000 EUR/year, or at around 314 EUR/module.

Overstretched system

Many students report being lured to the country by its booming higher education industry but face hostility from locals – a small population which numbers just over 300,000 – and financial hardship. There are questions about the “uncontrolled” nature of student growth. According to Esra Aygin, writing in the Nicosia-based Cyprus Mail, the number of foreign students increased sevenfold from around 5,000 in 2010 to over 35,000 last year. Some 20,000 of those foreign students are from African countries, mostly Nigeria.

The University World News quoted a current rector of a university in Northern Cyprus admitting that there had been “problems with foreign students at times, especially with African students”. The rector ranked Nigerian students into three main categories. The first includes genuine students from relatively well-to-do families who may take part-time work and create no problems. The second comes with good intentions but does not have sufficient funds to study, and they have no financial support from their parents. The third, however, use their student identity to enter the country to find work illegally or move to south Cyprus. “Some of these people also get involved in illegal activities,” the rector said.

Way forward

 NIDCOM while trying to proffer ways to end this suicide trip to Northern Cyprus and other countries abroad all in the guise of tertiary education said through its spokesperson  Abdulrahman Balogun, that nothing can be done. He said NIDCOM can only advise parents and young Nigerians to avoid the allure in those countries but the final decision lies with them. Mr Balogun reaffirmed that the commission’s legal team would work closely with bereaved parents to investigate the matter. He added that the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation is also on the case.

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