Wisdom Eji says he and his fellow Nigerians, here on scholarships for underprivileged students, have been left to fend for themselves after the government-funded program that brought them to Canada has failed to pay.

"We have been abandoned," said Eji, a University of Regina (U of R) engineering student. "We live right now like we don't have sponsors."

'Like things get bad — I just wish I didn't even come here. I just wish I was at home.' - Wisdom Eji, RSSDA-sponsored University of Regina engineering student

Across Canada, 246 Nigerian students, in 14 universities were promised their tuition and living expenses would be covered during their four-year degree program.

However, they haven't received their living allowance for the past 11 months and their tuition is millions of dollars in arrears. 

"You just wish you didn't even have the scholarship in the first place," Eji said. "Like things get bad — I just wish I didn't even come here. I just wish I was at home."

Government agency owes millions 

Wisdom Eji university of Regina

Eji says he's behind on his rent and other bills, is often hungry, stressed and sleepless. As a result, he says, his marks have dropped 15-20 percentage points. (CBC)

Eji is one of 40-50 students enrolled at the U of R under a scholarship paid for by the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA); an organization owned and funded by the Rivers State government in Nigeria.

The organization sponsors hundreds of poor but academically gifted students to study at universities in 14 countries, including Canada.

The students were promised tuition and a living allowance of $1,100 a month to cover their rent, food and other expenses. 

"Before we left Nigeria they are like, 'Don't even work,'" Eji recalled. "''We'll give you everything you need.'"

The RSSDA owes Canadian students about $3 million in living allowance, forcing many like Eji to find jobs. He is working part-time while continuing his full-time studies.

He said he's behind on his rent and other bills, is often hungry, stressed and sleepless. He said as a result his marks have dropped 15-20 percentage points. 

Canadian universities owed millions

In addition to what it owes in living allowances, the RSSDA admits it also owes $2.5 million in tuition to 14 Canadian universities. More than half of that, $1.3 million, is owed to the U of R for the 2014/15 academic year, during which 124 RSSDA sponsored students studied at the institution.

Vanessa Ikeogu, an RSSDA student who's studying criminology at the U of R, said she's angered by the behaviour of her government and sponsoring agency.

"Ignorant, reluctant, irresponsible government officials," Ikeogu said. "I just feel like I have been lied to."

However, the acting executive director of the RSSDA, Godwin Poi, said the government-owned agency will keep its promises. 

RSSDA promises to pay

Godwin Poi RSSDA

Godwin Poi, acting executive director of Nigeria's Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency, blames plunging oil prices for the agency's failure to meet tuition and living allowance payments for students. (Courtesy of Rivers State Sustainability Development Agency )

"It is absolutely correct to do so. It's a government, and we can't afford government obligations and responsibilities to fail," Poi told CBC's iTeam.

Nigeria has fallen on hard financial times because of the collapse of the price of oil, he said, pleading for patience. 

"It is tragic and sad that we're in the situation we are in. To the best of my knowledge all the governments have done their best to fund the situation for them," Poi said. "We have gone through a very very serious phase of funding for the country and the state." 

The U of R has admitted more Nigerian students through this program than any other university in Canada. At its peak, during the 2012/13 academic year, there were 155 RSSDA sponsored students at the U of R.

On average, international students pay about $10,000 in tuition per semester for a full load of classes; much higher than what Canadian students pay. 

The director of executive reporting services at the U of R, Lamont Stradeski, says the university's relationship with the RSSDA dates back to 2008. And he fully expects the university will be paid. 

"I guess the recourse the university has is we can stop students from registering further.," he said. "However, we wouldn't do that unless we had serious concerns that we would not receive payment, which at this point we don't."

Unpaid tuition creating stress 

The RSSDA owes more than $250,000 to the University of Manitoba (U of M) and that institution appears to be taking a harder line.

Gift Amadi is sponsored by the agency to pursue a political science degree at the U of M, but his tuition bill is past due, and the university is asking him to pay.

Gift Amadi

Gift Ahmadi, a political science student at the University of Manitoba, says the Nigerian scholarship agency that sent him to Canada is failing to keep its promises. (Facebook)

"The school is saying you have just about 30 days left to pay what's left for this term," Amadi said. "If not I won't be able to register for the winter term." 

He said the lack of scholarship funding has been "very devastating." 

"Right now I'm taking classes and I'm thinking of feeding. I haven't eaten since morning and I'm in class," Amadi told CBC's iTeam, when reached in the evening at the U of M.

The associate VP of Outreach and Engagement at the U of M, Leah Janzen, said she's sympathetic. 

"I know some of them have accessed our student food bank," Janzen explained. "It's a very difficult situation."

Payment plans

She said the university is working with the students to develop payment plans and find other funding. 

Some RSSDA students have paid their own tuition, borrowing money from friends, family or churches. But for others, time is clearly running out. 

For about a dozen students, tuition hasn't been paid for the summer or fall term, putting their stay at the university in jeopardy. 

Leah Janzen

Leah Janzen, associate VP of outreach and engagement at the University of Manitoba, says the RSSDA students are in a 'very difficult situation.' (Linkedin)

​"Our policy is you can't go into a third term having not been able to pay for the previous two terms in their entirety," Janzen said. "So we don't want to get to that position with these students."

If an international student on a visa is no longer registered at an educational institution, they aren't able to stay in Canada, according to immigration rules. 

"So if I don't have that money the only option is going back to Nigeria." - Wisdom Eji, RSSDA-sponsored University of Regina engineering student

Recently, 19 RSSDA-sponsored students had to flee the U.K. in order to avoid deportation from that country because their tuition had not been paid by the agency.

Many students in Canada worry they may end up in the same situation.

"Terrified — because you don't know if you're the next," Eji said. "I can't get that money, so if I don't have that money the only option is going back to Nigeria."

Students take action 

Amadi says ongoing political instability in Nigeria has made it easy for politicians there to ignore this problem, so he and the other students have decided to take action. 

They've formed a committee to mobilize friends, family and the media to pressure the Nigerian government. 

He said students are worried they may face retaliation by speaking out about this issue, but added his political science studies have taught him that sometimes it's necessary to take calculated risks. 

"It may not be convenient, it may not be comfortable for you, but someone has got to stand to say 'OK, this is the right  thing and we can do it if we stand for what is right and we speak up about it.'"

He said it's ironic that his government sent him to Canada on a scholarship to study political science, the knowledge he's now using to pressure that same government to keep its word.

With files from the CBC's Roxanna Woloshyn