NIGER students in Benin have taken their embassy officials and diplomats hostage as a means of pressurising the government to disburse scholarships and bursaries.
Aggrieved students enrolled at the Universite Nationale du Benin, surrounded the Niger embassy in Benin's capital, Cotonou, disrupting official duties. About 200 students invaded the embassy, overpowered the security guards and barricaded the main gates, trapping some diplomats inside the building.
When the Niger ambassador approached the premises in his car, he saw what was happening and ordered his driver to beat a fast retreat.
From inside the embassy the students telephoned the Niger education ministry in Niamey to inform officials of the situation. A member of the ministry assured the protesters that the outstanding bursaries and scholarships would be paid.
Beninoise authorities, sympathetic to the Niger students' plight, refrained from dispersing them and instead dispatched police to observe events at the embassy from a safe distance.
After three days of occupation, the students agreed to return to campus, warning that they would repeat the action if their bursaries were not paid within five weeks.
Meanwhile, similar events unfolded in Zaria, a university town in northern Nigeria.
Niger students studying at the Ahmadu Bello University and Kaduna Polytechnic took hostage three Niger Republic senior officials at Zaria in response to their government's failure to settle a backlog of registration fees and student allowances.
Speaking on the BBC's Hausa Service, student leader Malam Usman Sa'ad, said he wanted the Niger government to pay the students all their registration fees and their allowances, which they were supposed to collect at ABU and Kaduna Polytechnic.
He complained that for more than two years, the government had withheld money and as a result many students were forced to roam the streets of Zaria, Kaduna, and Kano looking for work to finance their studies.
This is why, he explained, they were holding the three officials hostage. He said that despite demands by the authorities of ABU and Kaduna Polytechnic for the payment of the fees and other charges, the Niger government had refused to acquiesce.
The government's failure to settle the backlog of fees, according to Sa'ad, has led to threats by ABU and Kaduna Polytechnic to bar all Niger students from attending classes.
Sa'ad dismissed the claim of the Niger minister of higher education that there was only a five-month backlog and said it was 30 months. "Our minister's claim over our outstanding allowances is not true," he said.
The student leader has requested that the Niger government take responsibility for the education of its students by settling all of the backlog.
"It is the responsibility of the government to fulfil its educational obligations by paying us our food and accommodation allowances," Sa'ad said.
"It was based on these arrangements that we were asked to come to Nigeria and study," he continued.
The hostages would not be released until the students' demands had been met.
When asked what the hostages were being given to eat, Sa'ad said: "Whatever we eat here is what we give them. If we eat sand, we feed them sand, for breakfast, lunch and supper.
"Since the Niger government does not appreciate our suffering in Nigeria, when they (the hostages) go back home, they will have a good story to tell the government about our plight here in Nigeria."
12Jnews africaTHE TIMES 7Jjune 5 1998 panos