Mandago under pressure over student airlift scandal

A parent during demonstrations at Uasin Gishu County offices where those affected by the controversial student airlift programme had gone to demand a refund of their money on Monday, July 10, 2023. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

In October 2021, Benjamin Cheboson, then a student pursuing a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism at the Presbyterian University, heard of the Uasin Gishu Overseas Education Programme.

Cheboson decided to change his career and decided to study Nursing at Laurea University of Applied Science in Finland.

After excelling in the interviews, the 25-year-old got an acceptance letter from the Finnish university to join its Tikkurila campus.

With the offer letter in hand, Uasin Gishu county officials asked his parents to pay the required fee amounting to Sh1.2 million for their child to join the foreign universities.

“We were asked to pay the school fee within two weeks, failure to which one would be disqualified from the programme,” said the student.

Cheboson said that his parents were unable to raise the quoted amount but since they were in support of his dreams, they decided to sell their assets to cater for the fees.

“We first did a harambee and raised Sh240,000 which was not enough. My parents sold a tractor and a half an acre piece of land at a throwaway price because we needed the money urgently,” said Cheboson.

He said his parents then paid the fee through the county's overseas trust account as instructed by the county. With the fee paid, the students were informed they would travel to Finland in March 2022.

However, that became the beginning of the parents’ and students’ troubles. Cheboson said the whole thing morphed into a hide-and-seek game between them and county officials. "This has cost the parents their monies and students their dreams and time," he said.

The student who now works at a club in Eldoret says the programme officials kept postponing their travel date until about two years later.

Cheboson stated that after postponing the travel date to July, the students had been asked to do pathway studies for four months and that they had to attain 25 credits for them to travel.

“We attained the required credits, and we were given new dates in November last year that we would travel. The universities indicated that we would begin our studies on December 1, 2022. However, this was never to be,” he said.

For a young student who had dreams of changing the lives of his family member and his community, Cheboson says he feels he has been wasted by the county.

“I cannot stop thinking about how I would have graduated last year and moved on with my life because I would still be interested in being a journalist. I am an author and I was working on my first book. However, since his whole ordeal began, I have been unable to concentrate,” he said.

And now, former governor Jackson Mandago is under pressure to come clean on the programme, which has seen parents lose millions.

Benjamin Cheboson shows land he says his parents sold at Chemalal village in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County, to pay the fees he needed for the student airlift programme. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

On Tuesday, Governor Jonathan Bii distanced himself from the scandal while calling on Senator Mandago to come out clean on the matter that has left more than 150 students stranded despite paying school fees to join various Finnish and Canadian universities.

“Let it be known that I did not pioneer this programme. I found it moving. However, I have a mandate to answer to what I know because I am the current leader,” said Bii.

“The previous administration also needs to come out clean and tell us what they know. I have no answers to give. Leave me alone and let the senator who came up with this programme come and give answers. I will not carry someone else’s cross,” Bii added.

On Friday, July 14, 2023, Mandago broke his silence, refuting allegations against him while asking Bii to be responsible as the leader of the county.

The senator said that when he left office after last year’s election, he handed over all the duties and performance of the county and entrusted it to his successor Bii. He stated that when he left office, the overseas account had a total of Sh104.7 million.

“When I handed over on August 25 last year, I expected the governor to provide leadership and if there are any issues or challenges, he calls me to the table as the former governor and initiator of the programme. I am responsible for all my errors of commission and omission. I cannot run away from a programme I initiated,” said Mandago.

A police officer tries to calm down parents who had stormed Uasin Gishu county offices in Kapseret to demand a refund of their money following the controversial student airlift programme. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

He added: “But when the governor goes to the press and says everyone should carry his own cross, I agree with him and I will do so to the extent that I exited office on August 25, 2022, and handed it over to him.”

Brian Kimutai, another student who was set to join Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Canada under the same programme, said the disappointment had taken an emotional and mental toll on him.

Kimutai, who resigned from his job and applied to be part of the over 100 students who were to travel to Canada, said the county has ‘messed our lives’.

He recounted that at some point, he had to leave home for eight months to be away from the constant reminder of the ‘failed’ programme, despite doing several harambees to raise his fees.

“With hopes of studying abroad, I made the difficult decision to resign from my job. However, these dreams turned to despair when the promised enrollment at TRU failed to materialise. I have undergone depression, and had to have uncomfortable conversations with my parents, fully aware of the sacrifices they made to support me,” said Kimutai.

Uasin Gishu governor Jonathan Bii addresses the press over the student airlift programme at the county offices on July 11, 2023. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Kimutai said that although his family has been comforting him, he has felt their pain and feels responsible for making them hopeful about changing their lives.

“I feel my parents’ silence. They have lost all they had in the process of seeking a better life for me. I feel wasted, but I hope God will fight for us,” he added.

David Saina, one of the affected parents, said that the county had advertised for an opportunity for students to study and work abroad and, like many other parents, he advised his son to apply for the opportunity.

“We were given a short notice, and we were instructed to pay Sh950,000 fee for the various courses in various universities. I sold my car and paid the amount for my son, who was to join TRU. Since August 2022, nothing has been done. We have been promised that the students will go for medicals, biometrics, and the launching of the visa, but these have been empty promises,” said Saina.

Saina said that the parents have been suffering in silence and that they have resorted to seeking the intervention of the media since no one has been advocating for them.

Amon Sawe, another parent from Kiplombe, said that he sold his parcel of land, paid the fee through the account given by the county officials with the hope that his child would travel to join TRU.

“To date, we have not received any school acceptance letter and all I do now is counsel my son who has been stressed. At this point, we feel duped by the very county government that we believed was acting in good faith,” said Sawe.

The parents said that they are no longer interested in having their children travel through the county airlift programme, and instead want a refund of the millions of money that they paid to the county.

Uasin Gishu senator Jackson Mandago addressing a press briefing at his office in Eldoret on Friday, July 15, 2023. [Peter Ochieng, Standard] 

EACC Chief Executive Officer Twalib Mbarak has said that investigations into the alleged embezzlement of students’ funds are in progress.

The Commission’s head of corporate affairs and communication, Eric Ngumbi said that EACC sleuths have recovered key documents from three signatories of the trust bank accounts implicated in the scandal, saying that the documents will be crucial in the investigations.

“We urge parents to be patient since ordinary investigations take some time and a watertight case requires that we gather sufficient evidence. Once the commission finalizes the investigations, we will give recommendations and if we discover any loss of money, we will move towards recovery of the money,” Ngumbi said.

Meanwhile, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations has begun investigations into the scandal, and detectives are expected to visit the county for three days next week to launch a comprehensive probe.