Twenty-six-year-old Benjamin had prepared himself and spent five days fasting and praying to secure a student visa at the United States' embassy.
His widowed mother had spent her savings to pay all the fees leading to the stage and her hopes were hinged on Benjamin scaling through the crucial interview.
Like other students seeking admission to schools in the US, Benjamin's mother had, according to him, paid about $100 (N36,000) for application fee to the foreign school, $300 (N108,000) for evaluation fee, and $91 (N32,000) for the courier service to bring the admission documents to Nigeria. The United States had also been paid $200 with an additional $20 service charge (N80,300).
The family was happy when the documents arrived and Benjamin's mother paid N57,600 for the visa application to the embassy. In all, about N350,000 had been expended, including other miscellaneous fees.
Benjamin went for the interview and after some minutes, he was handed a blue paper.
"Dear applicant, thank you for your interest in travelling to the United States. This is to inform you that you have been found ineligible for a non-immigrant visa under Section 214 (b) of the US Immigration and Nationality Act. A denial under Section 214 (b) means that you were not able to demonstrate that your intended activities in the United States would be consistent with the classification of the non-immigrant visa for which you applied.
"Today's decision cannot be appealed. However, you may reapply at any time. If you decide to reapply, you must submit a new application form and photo, pay the visa application fee again and make a new appointment to be interviewed by a consular officer….," the letter read in part.
The Ondo State indigene, who wondered what he did wrong, lamented that the rejection was a big blow to his family.
"The consular officer had no reason not to give me the visa. He asked different questions, which I answered sincerely. He just gave me back my passport and said I should try again later. I am supposed to resume school on January 7, 2019. My widowed mother paid the fees for my six-month flight course. We spent about N350,000," he said.
Twenty-eight-year-old Bimpe from Ogun State said she was certain she passed the visa interview after answering four questions.
"I was asked what I was going to do in the US and I said I was going for pilot training. The officer asked if I worked in Nigeria and I said no. He asked who my sponsor was and I said my father.
"He asked me if I could fly and I told him that at the end of the training, I would know how to fly. He asked for my father' statement of account and after going through it for a few minutes, he returned it and said I should try again later," Bimpe said.
Another student, Sasha, who claimed to have got admission to St. Joseph University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said she had been denied a visa twice.
The 26-year-old claimed that the denial had affected her resumption in the school where she had already paid some money.
She said, "The first time I went to the embassy in Lagos was in July. The interviewer asked me a series of questions, including the name of my school and the course I was going to study. While explaining, he suddenly cut me short and said, 'Sorry, you are not qualified for the visa.' That was all; no specific reason was given. When I asked for the reason for the denial, he just said, 'Sorry, I am not allowed to tell you; but you can try next time.' Most of us who applied for visas that day were not given.
"The second time, I went to Abuja. That was on August 27. When I got there, I was asked when my school would resume and I told them August 27 and that I should have come earlier if the embassy was not shut for two weeks. Immediately I said that, the interviewer said, 'Sorry, you are not qualified for visa again.' The fault was not mine."
Another prospective aviation student of Epic Flight Academy, Florida, Charles, alleged that the consular officer had problems with his mother being the sponsor of his education.
Charles said that was the only point of disagreement which marred his chances when he went for the first interview on September 21.
"I applied again and got a date for Monday, October 22. I was asked questions such as the name of my school and why I was going there to study. I was asked what kind of airplane I would like to fly and I told the interviewer and he smiled. I thought that was a positive reaction and I was hopeful. He asked for proof of the payment of my service fee, which I gave him. Then he said, 'Sorry, I can't give you a visa.'
"We paid N350,000 as visa fee, service fee, application fee, evaluation fee, among others, and you are not giving us a visa after going through a lot of stress? I have paid my registration fee. I was supposed to resume on November 5," he added.
A parent, who identified himself only as Adewunmi, alleged that his 18-year-old daughter, who got admission to study nursing at Grand Valley State University, Michigan, was disqualified because she was not married.
Adewunmi said the N345,000 he spent on the process was wasted.
"She told me that when she said she was not married, the interviewer said she was not qualified to have the visa. I don't know what is wrong with the embassy and if they don't want us to apply to schools in the US, they should tell us instead of exploiting us.
"It appears like they are just taking our money. How many people are they giving visas? And how many are they collecting visa fees from in a day? It is like fraud. If they don't want us to send our children to their schools, they should tell us," the contractor said.
Another parent, Wole Ogunba, said he believed there was a plot to stop Nigerian students from travelling to the US.
Ogunba, who claimed to have lived in the US from 1996 to 2013 before returning to Nigeria, said his daughter was denied a visa because she asked the interviewer to speak up.
He said, "My daughter went to the embassy for an interview and she was the first person on the line. All she had the opportunity to say was, 'Sorry, I can't hear you.' She said it twice and that was the end of the interview. And it's not the first time that I will hear that people said, 'Pardon' or 'I can't hear you,' and they are denied visas.
"My daughter is not an illiterate. She speaks and understands English. And you cannot tell me that the reason you did not go further with the interview was because you thought she would not be able to understand what she would be taught in class. She gained admission to study nursing and we paid some of the money and still, she did not get an opportunity to go there.
"If this kind of thing happens in America, you get a refund. So, I don't know why it is in Nigeria that things do not work. People pay service fee; visa fee; transport fare; hotel fees, if you don't live in Lagos or Abuja; flight ticket to travel; and the DHL to mail in this and that. And within a few minutes, their hopes are dashed.
"But I guess it is because this is Nigeria and nobody is ready to stand up to them. We want answers; if they don't want anybody to go there to study anymore, they should tell us. And what makes it worse is that they don't tell you the reason for the denial. They have a small piece of paper that they give you and what they print there is very vague."
Visit to US embassy
During a three-day visit to the US embassy on Walter Carrington Crescent, Victoria Island, Lagos, our correspondent observed that the area was a beehive of business activities.
Although our correspondent got to the embassy around 8am, it was learnt most of the visa applicants got to the embassy as early as 4am.
The PUNCH learnt that many of the interviewees, some of whom came from outside Lagos, lodged in hotels to avoid being late.
From 8am till 11am when our correspondent left, less than five of those who went in for interviews came out with smiles on their faces.
The fate of every applicant could be predicted from the colour of the crisp A4 printout they collected from the embassy: blue for rejection, white for acceptance.
"The woman asked me what course I was going to study and I said it. She asked who my sponsor was. Then she said I photocopied my F1 document, but I did not. It was what was sent to me through DHL. She, however, insisted that I photocopied it," a student who was rejected said.
A man, who wanted to study Computer Science in Virginia International School, Virginia, said it was a bad day for most applicants at the embassy.
He said, "About 100 people had gone before me and they did not give anyone, except a woman who was in her 80s."
A man, who accompanied a family for the interview, told our correspondent that the embassy sometimes did not ask questions from the applicants.
"If you get here by 4am, you will see a lot of parked cars. People who have appointment by 6am come early. The embassy has more than 10 sessions in a day and they make billions of naira. If 100 people go in, less than 10 persons will be given visas. They are just using us to make money," he said.
Predictably, the family he accompanied to the embassy came out, looking dejected.
"They did not give us," both husband and wife chorused.
While our correspondent waited at the gate, a man boasted that he was sure his father would get a visa.
He said, "The US is not giving Nigerians visas. Do you know how many of my friends that have been rejected? But my father is 77 years old and I am sure they will give him. If you are less than 18, they may consider you. But at age 20, 26, 30, 32, you are just wasting your time."
Some minutes later, his father came out.
He checked the file of the old man and smiled at the white paper.
"I told you they would give him. If you are a young man and you have a virgin passport, you are just joking. They will not grant you a visa," he told me.
The Chief Executive Officer, Supertech Educonsult, Mr Oluyemi Ayeni, who said his registered company trained those writing foreign English tests, said he had told the US embassy at several forums to declare if they were no longer interested in allowing students to study in the country.
He lamented that many of the students he tried to assist got dejected when they were denied visas after spending a lot on processing fees.
Ayeni said, "There are a lot of universities in the US today; if you speak English, you don't need to write any English test. Still, the embassy will force you to sit for English tests which are not required by the university; each of them costs about N80,000.
"An average student spends up to N350,000 to the interview stage and the money is not refundable. In the past, if you don't get a visa, you will not pay the service fee of $220. The American embassy changed the policy about two years ago, saying you must pay for the service fee before you come for interview and the money is not refundable.
"Aside from that, some students have paid deposits to the schools they applied to. Some of the schools collect non-refundable administrative fees. Imagine a student paying $625, service fee, visa fee, evaluation fee, DHL fee, totalling about N400,000 and then he is denied a visa.
"This is exploitation of the highest order. We are tired and the embassy should look into it. Some of those conducting the interviews ask irrelevant questions. What they are doing is exploitation by trickery."
Ayeni asked the US embassy to emulate the Chinese, Japanese and Malysian embassies, which he claimed, demanded money only after granting visas to applicants.
He alleged that the US embassy made a minimum of N57m per day from visa applicants.
"They have about 10 sessions per day, which starts at 6.30am. For each session, they take a minimum of 100 applicants. The embassy collects N57,600 for visa fee per applicant. If that is multiplied by 100 per session, that is N5,760,000. If you multiply that by 10, that is at least N57.6m per day. With at least 22 working days in a month, that is N1.2bn," he added.
The founder of Solomon World International Education, Shina Adeniji, whose company secures admission for students into foreign schools, said the US embassy should liaise with schools to stop admission if it had problems issuing visas to Nigerian students.
Adeniji, who had been in the business for about 10 years, said the process of securing admission for students were usually tedious.
He said, "Every other embassy, UK, Canada, Spain, will state why you are being refused a visa, but not the US embassy. They will ask you a couple of questions and just say sorry, you are not qualified.
"Usually, they will ask why you chose the school. At the end of the day, they may refuse you because you did not research and choose other schools. Sometimes, they make the decision based on statistics. If you know you cannot accept students, then discuss with the schools not to grant admission."
A national crisis?
A human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), said the Nigerian government should be blamed for not taking action against the alleged exploitation of Nigerians by foreign embassies.
He said, "There are some embassies in Lagos that make at least N50m in a day. And go see where our people are asked to queue in those embassies. You will be ashamed. No responsible government will allow its people to stand in the rain and sun for hours while attending a visa interview. We are treated like animals; there are no seats in some of the embassies. The interview starts as early as 6.30am and you have to sleep in the place to make the time with all the risks involved or you get a hotel."
Many reasons have been given for Nigerian students wanting to go to foreign countries to study, with the desire for greener pastures being the foremost.
But the limited admission space in Nigerian universities has also been said to be among the reasons a good number of students seek admission in other countries.
The National Bureau of Statistics said data from the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board showed that 11,703,709 applications were received between 2010 and 2016.
That makes an average of 1.6 million applications per year.
However, a report on "JAMB Admitted Candidates by State and Gender within Faculty," released by the NBS said only 2,674,485 students were admitted across the 36 states and the FCT between 2010 and 2015.
That makes an average of 445,747 admissions per year.
In 2015 alone, only 30 per cent of students who applied were said to have been given admission, which represented the highest from 2010 to 2016.
The Registrar of JAMB, Prof. Is-haq Oloyede, in March 2018 told journalists that of the 1,840,225 candidates who applied for admission into tertiary institutions for the 2017/2018 academic session, 842,505 candidates made the required cut-off marks.
He added that of the 842,505, only 550,357 were offered admission.
The number of those given admission represents about 30 per cent of those who applied that year, leaving the remaining 70 per cent figure of 1,289,868 without admission.
Many of the students who fail to secure admission every year form a large chunk of the ones besieging the embassies for visas for foreign studies.
The US Consulate Public Affairs Officer, Mr Russell Brooks, confirmed that the number of Nigerian students seeking admission to US schools was high.
During the 2018 US Education College and Career Fair in Lagos, he reportedly said the Nigerian students' population in the US was the highest from Sub-Saharan Africa
Brooks reportedly told the gathering that of the more than one million international students currently in the US, 35,364 of them were from Sub-Saharan Africa, while Nigeria has over 11,000 students.
An immigration lawyer, Jiti Ogunye, said there was a crisis in the country's education sector.
Ogunye, while noting that the Federal Government could take up the US embassy if a case of exploitation was established, said the embassy could not, however, be sued.
The legal practitioner said the emergence of Donald Trump as the President of the US and some of his anti-immigrants policies might also work against youths seeking to study in America.
Ogunye said there was no possibility of a refund of money spent at the embassy since the applicants signed to it.
"If it is established that we are now dealing with a systemic problem and that there is a kind of policy that no matter the merit of the individual case, you will not be granted the visa, in other words, application for visa has now become a money spinner or a revenue earner for the American embassy or any other foreign embassy, the Nigerian government has the duty to complain and take it up at the diplomatic level. Let's look at your records; 6,000 applications and you granted visa to two. Then we can take it up at that level," he added.
Former diplomats react
A fellow of the Council of Foreign Relations and former US Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, in a telephone chat with our correspondent, said consular officers decided on visas on a case-by-case basis.
Campbell, who left Nigeria in 2007 and no longer works for the US government, said a lot of factors were usually considered during screening.
He said, "There is a long history of, not just Nigerians, but people from all over the world, who go to the US to study and then refuse to return home. The applicant has to prove to the consular officer that he will return when his visa is due.
"One of the common ways of doing that is to show that he has direct and immediate ties to Nigeria that will pull him or her back to Nigeria.
"For a student visa, there are other sets of requirements, including the institution that the student wants to study at. Is it legitimate? Is the student able to demonstrate that he has sufficient funds to cover the cost of his study? Has he been formally admitted to the institution?"
A retired US diplomat and consular officer at US Department of States, Kathryn Berck, while responding to enquiries on the issues on Quora, a question and answer website, said Nigerians were usually given visas.
She said, "In 2017, only 44.95 per cent of Nigerian applicants for US non-immigrant visas were refused. That is less than half. Why were they refused? They could not convince US consular officers that they intended to visit the US only briefly, and then go home again.
"Part of that inability to convince was due to false/forged/counterfeited documents, and lies of what I call kindergarten quality. It's too bad that many honest Nigerians are stymied by the dishonesty of others," she wrote in the post, dated April 14, 2018.
The Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Prof. Bukar Bukarambe, said the agency did not handle such issues.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, did not pick his calls and had yet to respond to two text messages sent to his telephone line last Sunday and Monday.
The US embassy did not respond to our correspondent after over two weeks of sending enquiries.
There was also no official acknowledgement of the email sent to the embassy, although an embassy worker said the questions were received.