Nigerian students project head tells it all

By Victor Efe
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Donna St Hill

Ever since 90 Nigerian students set foot in Barbados in December to pursue a nine-month study programme at the Barbados Community College (BCC) in tourism and hospitality, their presence has been shrouded in controversy. Among the main contentious issues were complaints of poor accommodation and bad food at Casa Grande Hotel at Oldburyin St Philip, and concerns over the manner in which the local project manager was spending the US$750,000 transferred to her for the Delta State Empowerment Programme here. 

Yesterday, senior journalist Emmanuel Joseph sat with the woman in charge of the entire project, South African-based Barbadian Donna St Hill to get her perspective on these unfolding developments. Following is that interview. 

Tell us. What is the Delta State Empowerment Programme all about?

This is a legacy project of His Excellency the Governor of Delta State Emmanuel Uduaghan. He will be leaving office after two successful terms, in which he has increased social development, productivity in the oil industry and some amazing infrastructural projects, including one of the best –– probably the best airport in Nigeria. He has three important themes for his work.

Safety and security –– you would have known about Men Movement For The Emancipation Of The Delta; they were the Boka Haram of their day; and he would have been part of bringing that under control in the last eight years; infrastructural development; and, of course, human and social development.

And that is the part that I know most about; and we were looking for a legacy project to cap off his two terms, his tenure, and something that would be continuing after him. So knowing the main slogan of his governorship has beenA Delta Beyond Oil –– the Niger Delta is the oil-rich region of nine states –– he started this idea in his own state. But it is now a slogan for the whole country––Nigeria Beyond Oil.

So we [Donna St Hill International] started a project that really centred on raising the human capacity for the oil industry, so that more Deltans could take part in the oil industry, which is the most lucrative industry and the most important and prominent industry in the state. We had to do that by increasing capacity, which would increase productivity and also what is called local content.

Right now, unlike, say Trinidad, the majority of people working in the oil sector from the bottom to the top, especially in senior roles are expats. So it is enabling us to have decent jobs; not just the lowest levels or unskilled labour, but skilled labour that is capable of going into management roles. It is the only way in many African countries for ordinary people to have some stake in what is making the country . . . .

The countries are rich, but often the people are poor, because many people don't know it, but the oil industry is a notoriously small employer. So if you are in it, and have the right skills for it, you can be paid very well. But it is not like tourism, which is a mass employer.

So we on the other side have started looking at the oil industry and capacity in terms of creating local content, and had been focused on Trinidad and Tobago. In the course of preparing in my first few months on the job, I recognized that certainly my country had a lot to offer Africa for this project, because we are thinking beyond oil. What if we made a link between improving the productivity in oil and leveraging that greater productivity and the funds that would come from that to create the new sunrise industries, including tourism and services sector.

Barbados has done that very successfully. It has moved from being a commodities-based economy, like many African oil-producing states are, to a fully diversified economy based on services . . . a mass employer of labour. So we added, laterally, Barbados and tourism and hospitality training, and we were able to bring quite a few more Deltans to Barbados for that experience.

What's your role exactly in this programme?

My company Donna St Hill International manages this contract. So we are the important interplay between the state, the students, the governments and the stakeholders we are working with in the countries in the Caribbean.

I live in Africa, so I hire local project administrators, of which Miss Brathwaite [Sharon] was the one who was working on the Barbados project, who came into it sort of by accident; someone whom I knew, who has some good basic skills, reached a crossroads in her career. And I thought that with some close supervision, more mentoring, she could achieve more than what she even knew she was capable of.

. . . She is very hardworking and, indeed, fulfilled a lot of my expectations. With her ingenuity, she took initiative and most importantly . . . bonded well with the students.

What exactly caused the programme to turn sour?

I don't think the programme has turned sour. Remember, we are doing this in more than one country. The difference is there came a turning point. It is about a power struggle between who runs and who is in charge of the programme; but, most importantly, [it's about] the programme's funds.

So I delegate authority, but I am responsible to the governor and to Delta State. So I have to know what is going on and I have to be the one who approves spending, because if spending or not spending creates a problem, I have to face the client.

So that was not always popular, and being the boss means sometimes not being popular. But those were some tensions. But I think the turning point really was when I learnt Miss Brathwaite had tried to see how . . . . I am not sure. I have heard she had travelled to Nigeria to see my clients, to see how she could, not take over the responsibilities and the headaches, but control more of the financing and have it paid directly to her. That failed.

But, of course, it was a place difficult to come back from, because that person is no longer working in my interest. We thought through how we could continue to work with her on the thing she was doing very well and strongly, but maybe we have to take over more control of the finances; and that is the opinion of my client the Governor of Delta State.

So having tried to do that gently and softly, and we quite didn't get the results and cooperation we needed, we had to place her on suspension really to just take the time to do the accounting and the reckoning that my client has demanded, occasioned by this alleged visit, which he has denied.

So whatever happened, the upshot is he wanted me to go and be able to account to him personally line by line. That I wasn't able to do softly; so it called for a suspension which we think would give her the time to do that, and that still hasn't happened.

How much money was allocated for the Barbados and the Trinidad project, and how much was given to Miss Brathwaite?

It's about half of the project's funds. She was given something only like a first instalment. It would have been much more, except we were stopped by Ebola. So normally we would not have this much money sitting in a country because it would be earmarked for certain purposes. We would get it there on time, and when it was ready, we would expect it there in a week or two. But Ebola happened.

So at no point did we think it would be sitting in Barbados for six months or five months or even three months. That is exactly what happened –– from summer to the last two days of December. So at no time could we think about bringing it back because every other month we were coming and it needed to be there –– you know, salaries to pay and some small things, but certainly not $750,000 . . . . We are all shocked because I know what I have approved; and even with some seepage here and there, it can't be right.

But all I am saying is if there are things I didn't approve, but in your judgement it was critical for you to spend it without asking me first, just let us go through and just let us understand what these sums are for. That has not happened.

So what happened with that money?

Well we are trying to find out. That is what the inquiry is for. I am meant to go back [to Africa] now to tell the governor what are the steps I have taken, and therefore what needs to be done in terms of supplement to money, or if we don't need a supplement, etcetera. So we are still a little bit in the dark; but every day we are trying to make some progress to moving towards some certainty.

And what about that $4.5 million. What is that for?

That's for funding the project.

Barbados and Trinidad or only Barbados?

Half of it is for Barbados.

Now, has any light been shed so far on your investigations [into the spending of money]?

Not really, because I have been very focused on really redoing the project from scratch. Turning up at the doctors and finding they never heard of us and were shocked –– with two people not feeling well; the food coming for three days, it's pasta, when we precisely wanted on the first night to welcome [the students] with a Nigerian meal, and to have food that is done, you know, Barbadian food, extra spicy . . . and three days later I am still seeing pasta.

And people are at my neck, at my throat, that I have brought bad food when I have said from the first day, “Miss Brathwaite, what is happening here?” So I had to make an executive decision to go and hire the best Nigerian chef in the country; and they come and deliver the food twice a day.

So those were the kinds of decisions I am sure made people feel . . . I heard micromanaging was the word used; but I have ultimate responsibility. So whether it is my fault I hired the wrong cooks or not, I had to put it right; and whether that is micromanaging, well then I'm sorry. But I have to act in the interest of my clients and in the interest of the project. Other things have to be of secondary consideration.

What about the notice that was put in the Press. What was that for?

Well just to let people know that this lady [Brathwaite] is no longer authorized to conduct business on our behalf; certainly not financial arrangements. And if there were existing ones, we should know, because she was not authorized to do so from the beginning.

What did she do wrong that she was suspended?

Aside from going to my clients unathorized by me, I'm not sure if the project funds were used for that purpose, because it is quite an expensive trip to go [to Nigeria]. Aside from that, the incitement of the students which was reported to us by serious and credible stakeholders,  the students themselves; and we had mentioned this to her and then having to write to her to say, “You know you must stop doing that because it is dangerous for the students; it would be harmful to you in the long run. We all know it could also turn out bad for the country.”

The suspension didn't seem to stop that; it seemed to still be going on. I have letters coming to my hotel with my room number on it which could only have come from certain places. Yes, yes, slightly disturbing, but there is a lot of passion and I can see clearly people still want to come back and work on the project, which I am surprised about, seeing they're not fired, just suspended. But, yes, I think it was a combination of those things.

There has been a lot of controversy over accommodation. How did the students end up at Casa Grande Hotel?

As I said, I live in South Africa and I have my agents on the ground who would go and look. I had Miss Brathwaite, long before Ebola, look all around. We don't have a lot of student accommodation, we don't have a lot of large homes that we can put 90 people into. We thought about buying, leasing one that is not in use. And we did have an option in St Lawrence Gap, which because of the many delays . . . and they would have had their lucrative time [in August]. They didn't want to jeopardize that.

We paid them their deposit. So we are not where we are because of money. We paid twice for the same period and a third time, because we had to have people in Trinidad when we could not get the landing rights to bring them directly here on December 1. So Miss Brathwaite had found this place [Casa Grande].

She telephoned me to say, 'It is great. We may have some indecision . . . . You know December is always a difficult month, maybe even January; but we have a place until they are ready for us in February or so; and it's so great, it has all these things; it has a pool, it has a free gym and bowling alley. You know, all the things the kids would love. You know it's great; a lot of space for them. We may not even have to go to this other South Coast hotel'. So I said okay.

I didn't actually know Mrs Ram [Mirchandani] had a hotel. I have gone so long. I don't even pass that road when I visit.  This is the first time I have heard about it. So I came on the recommendation of Miss Brathwaite. I came here for about three days before I could get to see her.

So in those intervening days I did go to see it for myself. The rooms they showed me were fine. I took some members of the leadership of the Nigerian community. They talked to the students, they went and visit the rooms, before we then addressed the students . . . . By then we were hearing some complaints we thought were genuinely about dissatisfaction with the hotel; but to learn that that was also orchestrated!

And so it was the Nigerian leaders who told me, “Your main problem is your staff who are inciting the students against you”. Some of the staff at the hotel, having overheard certain things and seen certain things, I guess I had to finally accept separating her functions . . . . Sadly, that was looking less and less likely to be tenable . . . .

Do you regret having the students go to Casa Grande?

That is a hard question. If Mrs Ram had not [taken them], and it was about availability at a very difficult time, their [students'] visas to remain in Trinidad were going to be up in like 24 hours. This was the only place that was open and that could give us certainty. As I came, I knew we are here for nine months. With any contract, there is a break clause. But I came and gave them certainty. There was a place for them to stay.

If we had not done that and we booked for one month, we would have nowhere to go next month, or the next month or the next month. And the South Coast hotel told us May was the earliest date. So where would we be today? And how would we negotiate for the best WiFi and all these things in one month?

The store Mrs Ram set up to top up their phones, toiletries and so on, we wouldn't have. So it's hard to say. We didn't

have six options . . . and it wasn't about cost. It was somebody who opened her doors, dealt with the uncertainty . . . .

And so, though I know there may be maintenance and other issues where the students are inhabiting the rooms and so on,

I know that the staff went flat out to make sure they had a roof over their heads. And that was my first consideration.

The people at Infinity Hotel –– Miss Coppin –– said you did not get back to them after you made the deposit.

No, we were always in contact. I even called her [Renee Coppin] during the time Miss Brathwaite was alleged to be in Nigeria, unknown to me. I couldn't get her to return my calls for about two weeks; and I called her and said, “Look, it is soon time for these people to come, what is happening on your side. The last thing Sharon [Brathwaite] told me was about this place Mrs Ram had.” I did not even remember the name. I know it was owned by Mrs Ram.

And Renee said, “I think you would have to go there, because we can't see anyway you are getting here until . . . .”

On the phone she said about mid-January. But at that time, we had already paid her several months before what was required. So any time we come, that is what is required to be paid. You just can't log on another [$50,000] because, what is the reason for that? Or a hundred or whatever.

If somebody tells you you are renting an apartment and it's first and last, or three months up front, you say, “Well, I'm not coming on December 1, I'm coming on January 1.”  They don't say you must pay another . . . . What for? . . . Hundreds of thousands of US dollars are sitting there; we have not spent one night in the place. Why would we be paying you again? We had paid them what was required; so any time we are ready to move in, that is still the arrangement of the contract we had with them.

Mrs Ram, she was meant to get a deposit, followed by what the contract required. So she got that in those staggered payments. But I have to say that before the deposit hit her account the students were in the place. No other hotel would have done that. And I have to say she put herself out for us and for the students, and saved [their having] to go back to Nigeria.

Are they going to be there for the rest of the programme?

Well, we don't know. As I said, I come down, I see there is a situation. We have to have certainty. We then invited the South Coast hotel's Renee Coppin to come and address the students, because they were very eager to hear [what was going on]. We were coming to this other place [Infinity Hotel] . . . Are we here [Casa Grande] because the money has run out? So, of course, there is naturally concern . . . .

Are you likely to hire new managers for the project?

We are very likely to do that.

How soon?

As soon as possible.