Godsgift Moses, Promise Owei, Thankgod Harold, Success Jumbo, Savior Samuel, and 30 more Nigerian students came to America hoping it would be the promised land.
It’s only fitting that “Opportunity is here” is the motto of Alabama State University, listed as one of America’s 100 Historic Black Colleges and Universities, and where they got full scholarships from a Nigerian government fund for four years of education. Instead of getting opportunity, they say the school took their country’s millions and used the money to discriminate against them.
In a lawsuit filed last week in federal court, 41 Nigerian nationals—many of whom are now Alabama State University alumni—allege the school overcharged them for books and meals, enrolled them in classes they never took, and more, all because they were black foreigners.
“They called us cash cows,” said Jimmy Iwezu, an ASU alum who claims the university intentionally mismanaged millions from a scholarship fund set up by the Nigerian government that was paid in advance for every exchange student. “I’m a black man and I’m proud to be black, but I felt discriminated against.”
The 37-year-old social work grad cites the school’s self-proclaimed autonomy to do whatever it wished with the seven-figure sum Nigeria prepaid back in 2013 for some 41 students to go to the school.
Attorney Julian McPhillips, who brought the lawsuit to court for the second time—the first attempt, back in April, accused the school of breaching its contract with Nigeria and was dismissed—suggests ASU violated Title VI civil rights.
The students allege they were shorted their deserved monies by ASU “because of their Nigerian national origin,” according to the lawsuit.
McPhillips contends ASU hammered the students with exorbitant “billing” and they weren’t “being treated like other students” when the school allegedly inflated the costs of staples like books and room and board, and repurposed the funds to pay for the school’s “bond issues” and to help front costs for “a new stadium,” and, ironically, a center for civil rights awareness.
“The school acted in a really disingenuous and self-serving way,” McPhillips told The Daily Beast.
While most college students are permitted to bargain shop for textbooks wherever they wish or dine at different establishments beyond the school cafeterias, the Nigerian nationals at ASU, according to the federal complaint, were boxed in.
The lawsuit claims “they were not allowed by ASU to spend this money, but instead the money was credited towards certain expenses the students incurred, or towards other expenses ASU incurred that were unrelated to the students.”
“The school compelled us to buy books from the book store and eat only at the cafeteria,” Iwezu said. “I tried to make them understand, ‘Hey, we don’t want to live in the dorms anymore, and we don’t want to eat our entire meals at the dorms.”
He said greed trumped reason.
“They want our money,” he said, adding that the surcharge to live on campus was raised specifically for him and his Nigerian counterparts. “They make us pay $3,000 [a semester] to live in the dorms, and that is more than a mortgage on homes in this area.
“Enough is enough.”
Back in 2013, Dr. David Iyegha, a geography professor at ASU for almost three decades, made a pilgrimage to Lagos, serving as the school’s ambassador to recruit fellow Nigerians with a mandate to attract its best and brightest to relocate to Montgomery, Alabama, for their higher education.
“I went to Nigeria with one other faculty member and recruited these students to be sponsored by the Nigerian federal government,” Iyegha told The Daily Beast.
Today he is withered in regret.
“I feel very, very bad because I was the one who was instrumental in bringing these students to the campus,” he said.
Iyegha, whose son is currently on a Ph.D. track at ASU, feels like he let down so many promising prospects.
“[Nigeria] paid for everything, including their books, and all of the money is supposed to be given to the students so they can buy this or that.
“But the college refused to release any of that money at all for the past three years.”
While the money was prepaid and guaranteed by the Nigerian government, that didn’t grant the school carte blanche on how it was supposed to be spent, he said.
“I asked them, ‘Why are you treating these kids like this? Why are you depriving them?’ and after talking to them at length, they told me they spent all the money and there is no money left.”
An ASU spokesman told The Daily Beast that “since it’s pending litigation against our university, Alabama State University has no comment.”
Meanwhile, the retired 67-year-old academic says he is stunned the school he faithfully served and recruited for shorted these Nigerian nationals.
Iyegha said Nigeria allocated approximately $30,000-$35,000 annually for each student to attend fall, spring, and summer semesters. Those funds would also go toward books, room and board, and incidentals.
Nigeria “paid in full the entire cost” for the 2014-15 year, but ASU hoarded the money instead of depositing “any excess sponsorship monies into the students’ accounts,” the lawsuit claims.
The students were suspicious of the allegedly questionable accounting practices and decided to raise cain with their consulate.
In a May 2015 letter addressed to ASU’s president Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd, a special adviser to the former president Goodluck Jonathan named Kingsley Kuku blasted the college for its “discriminatory practices” and for breaching its fiduciary duties.
The dignitary empaneled a delegation to head to Montgomery to deal with the financial fracas and demanded that “all credit balances for tuition be carried over for each student and be used as initial deposit for the next semester fees” and that ASU refund “each student” for “all other line items.”
After months of inaction, the students’ attorney McPhillips shot back in November, demanding ASU quit the “stonewall” or “continuing silence” and instead “treat them justly from an economic perspective” and refund portions of “tuition, books, room and board, especially for the summer semesters of 2015 and 2016, and all personal expenses not used.”
He pointed to Nigerian student Success Jumbo, who had married and was living off-campus and deserved a refund because his government “paid for nearly two years of dormitory expenses on his behalf, even though he has not needed said expense.”
In a terse response two months later, Kenneth Thomas, ASU’s general counsel, wrote back stating that the oral agreement between Nigeria and ASU supersedes McPhillips’s clients’ claims. “There is no financial agreement between the University and the individual Nigerian students,” Thomas wrote.
That meant the Nigerians’ gripes were frivolous and that if there were any refunds to be had, they would “inure to the Nigerian Government and not to the individual students.”
Thus, the school’s counsel wrote, “Alabama State University denies your claim.”
While the legal process was underway, the Nigerian students refused to be treated like naive foreigners.
They started to school themselves and enterprisingly even traded notes with other students at neighboring schools like Troy State and Alabama University.
“We looked at what happens with other students when they are given refunds and compared it to our student accounts,” Kehinde Batife told The Daily Beast. “We would see a refund, but before we could do anything about it, the refund was taken out.”
The now 28-year-old criminal justice graduate says he was charged for summer school he never attended, after he had already graduated.
“They had me as if I was going to school this summer,” the puzzled graduate said. “I asked them, ‘I graduated in May, so where is the scholarship money my government gives to you?’”
And when he called the administration out, he says school administrators quickly denounced him.
“They tell me, ‘You’re a resident of the scholarship.’ So they think they can do whatever they want with the money [Nigeria] gives them… I’m not going to let them treat us like animals.”
Batife, who is hoping to afford law school to one day, remains irate about ASU’s alleged underhanded tactics.
“I’ve been here three years and I’m a super intelligent person,” he said. “I’m not nosy, but I ask questions, and this school thought we don’t know anything and they could do whatever they want to us.
“I cannot forget about this and I’m ready to fight the school, even if it means 10 years from now I’m still fighting to get justice.”
The fight isn’t about riches either.
A victory for Iwezu would be for ASU to pay restitution that can then bankroll future Nigerian students’ higher education in the U.S.
“I want justice to prevail, and the remaining money should go to [Nigeria’s] Treasury and make a better life for other Nigerians.”
Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to reflect that ASU a Historical Black College and University (HBCU).