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Saturday, 23 May 2020 06:51

How COVID-19 exposed weakness of FG’s social welfare programmes

The hunger that followed the recent lockdown of Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states indicates many Nigerians are still poor despite the current administration’s promise to lift millions out of poverty, ThePunch reports.

Barely one month of a lockdown of Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states, millions of Nigerians had become stricken with hunger. Many could not bear an extension of the movement restrictions.

Like many other countries of the world, the President, Maj Gen Muhammadu Buhari(retd), had imposed the lockdown to check the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

 

However, protests by the majority living on daily incomes were proofs that they could not bear the shutdown! Protests over hunger were reported in several locations while crime wave soared.

The situation was not helped by either the lack of the promised palliatives or the confusion that attended the poor coordination of the distribution of what eventually came as cups of rice, beans, noodles, bread and confectionery across many states.

Indeed, many state governors were either hesitant or completely opposed to the idea of a lockdown, clearly telling the Federal Government that their inhabitants were more likely to die of hunger than from COVID -19, if they were shut out of their daily earnings.

The governors of Kano, Bauchi and a number of others, openly kicked against a lockdown, in addition to admitting that the states did not have the resources to keep the people out of the streets for any reason.

Observers have said that it didn’t come as a surprise that the Nigeria Governors’ Forum mounted pressure on the Federal Government to modify its original plan for a nationwide lockdown, by replacing it with restriction on inter-state movements.

The NGF proposed that a relaxed lockdown-allowing for intra-state activities, night curfews, use of face masks and enforcement of social distancing-was preferable while respective state governors could identify measures workable within their domains.

Thus, when the lockdown was relaxed on May 4, the Federal Government adopted the recommendations of the governors, indirectly admitting as well that governments across the three tiers didn’t have the capacity to meet the daily needs of Nigerians, especially food, while locking them down permanently.

Nigeria, as of May 21, had 6,677 cases of COVID-19 in 34 states and the Federal Capital Territory, including 200 fatalities and 1,840 discharged patients

 

Observers and experts have said that the frightening rises in the number of confirmed cases suggest that a resort to full lockdown may be unavoidable in the long run.

However, questions have been asked about what has become of the government’s social welfare programmes and its defined mission to get Nigerians out of poverty.

Nigeria attained the unenviable status of the ‘poverty capital of the world’ since 2017-2018. Close to 95 million people out of the country’s estimated 200 million population or 47.3 per cent, are said to be poor, thereby overtaking India’s 70 million poor; hence the nation’s new world record. 

And the National Bureau of Statistics has broken it down, saying that Northern Nigeria remains the poorest region, as Sokoto State leads with 81.2 per cent.

The South, led by Lagos, has an improved record of 48.6 per, but this is not encouraging if, taken in the context of the overall devastating poverty level in the country.

Most Nigerians survive on less than $1.91 a day, according to some figures.

When it berthed in 2015, the current administration led by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), made a commitment to fight poverty, particularly targeting the most vulnerable citizens.

Specifically, it promised to tackle poverty by providing millions of jobs every year, such that by the end of 2018, a total of 12 million new jobs would have been created.

Other specifics were “to create a social welfare programme of at least N5, 000 that will cater for the 25 million poorest and most vulnerable citizens upon the demonstration of children’s enrolment in school and evidence of immunisation to help promote family stability.

“Provide allowances to the discharged but unemployed youth corps members for 12 months while in the skills and entrepreneurial development programmes; inject sufficient funds to the agricultural sector to create more agro-allied jobs by way of loans at nominal interest rates for capital investment on medium and commercial-scale cash crops.

“Guarantee a minimum price for all cash crops and facilitate storage of agricultural products to overcome seasonal shortages of selected food crops.”

The policies were packaged under the robust N500bn yearly National Social Intervention Programme with components such as Conditional Cash Transfers, and TraderMoni, among others.

Yet, the NBS, in its December 19, 2018 report, recorded an increase in unemployment rate from 18.8 per cent in the third quarter of 2017 to 23.1 per cent in the same quarter of 2018.

However, the NBS credited the regime with a marginal overall economic improvement for the country, having just exited a recession.

As of April 2020, the National Assembly revealed it had appropriated N2tn for the implementation of the NSIP between 2016 and 2019.

Where did this N2tn go and how many Nigerians in verifiable data did it take out poverty, pre-COVID-19 outbreak?

The Federal Government confirmed N1.7tn as total appropriation between January 2016 and October 2019 (when the NSIPs were handed over to the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development), while N619.1bn or 36.4 per cent of the total appropriation by the National Assembly was released.

Is this shortfall in the funding of the NSIP by the government a suggestion that it failed to execute the programmes fully as promised?

The Special Adviser to the President on Social Investments, Mrs Maryam Uwais, gave details, defending the government on what it had done up to 2019.

She stated, “The monies released for the N-SIPs can be further broken down into 14.03 per cent (2016); 35 per cent in 2017; 43.5 per cent in 2018 and 57.8 per cent (as at Sept 2019) of the N500bn in 2016 and N400bn appropriated for the subsequent years. It should be noted that from 2017 to 2020, the sum of N100bn was appropriated specifically for the National Housing Fund hosted by the Federal Ministry of Finance.

“These releases covered operational activities and payments to 13,363,680 beneficiaries across all the four NSIPs, all of whom can be verified either through their BVN numbers or their unique numbers generated by the National Social Register, those identities having been generated for the poorest of the poor who do not own bank accounts for sundry reasons.

“As at September 2019, the funds had been expended as follows: Job Creation programme (549,500 N-Power graduates and non-graduates and seven technology hubs); National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (in 33 states, 9,963,762 pupils to 107,862 cooks in 54,952 primary schools); the National Cash Transfer Programme (including the development of the National Social Register by the National Social Safety Net Coordination Office) 1,491,296 poor and vulnerable households comprising 6,056,872 individuals in 33 states and 620,947 cash transfer beneficiaries; and the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (managed by the Bank of Industry); a total of 2,279,380 TraderMoni, MarketMoni and FarmerMoni beneficiaries.”

However, observers told Saturday PUNCH that the protests and cries of hunger while the lockdown lasted within just a month were worrying signs that the fight to get the poor out of the poverty trap appeared not to have started.

The Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre said it was alarmed by how hunger and poverty could bite harder during the short period of lockdown in the FCT, Lagos and Ogun states.

It noted that poverty was already high in the country, pre-COVID-19, and was made worse by the government’s lack of capacity to meet the needs of the people.

“Even before the crisis (COVID-19), more than half of Nigerians were living in abject poverty and without access to basic health services.

“This crisis has the potential to worsen the situation exponentially, unless complete and unreserved transparency in the health and economic response to this crisis is ensured,” the Executive Director, CISLAC, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, stated.

He noted that the recent move by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to assist Nigeria with funds was welcomed as an urgent measure to stop hunger and poverty from deepening.

The centre added, “These funds will be essential in financing the COVID-19 response initiatives recently announced by the government of Nigeria such as food distribution, cash transfers, loan repayment waivers and the expansion of the social register from 2.6 million households to 3.6 million households.”

Rafsanjani called for the tightening of measures against corruption, saying, “With an increased influx of money, however, come increased risks of corruption. As tens of millions of Nigerians under the poverty threshold are locked down and unable to feed themselves and their wards, we cannot afford waste due to fraud and corruption.”

An economist, Dr Peter Adamu, observed that COVID -19 merely exposed “the fact that the government’s social welfare programmes have achieved little or did not reach the targeted population.”

He said while it was “obvious” that the regime could not adequately fund its economic agenda, the “pattern of giving out the little that was released leaves much to be desired.”

Adamu added, “We must also acknowledge the fact that this government met its own peculiar challenges, primarily which is access to meagre resources.

“Nigeria came out of a recession amid wobbly crude oil prices in 2016-2017. It can be partly explained that the failure to adequately fund the NSIP was a direct consequence of the unstable oil prices amid competing government responsibilities in the last five years.

“Now, with COVID -19, the situation has been made worse, with oil price going for under $30 per barrel. Without funds, the projected number to be taken out of poverty will remain a mirage, a mere paper work.”

On its part, the Executive Director, Partners for Electoral Reforms, Ezenwa Nwagwu, expressed doubts over the impact of the regime’s intervention programmes.

He observed, “It is actually difficult to honestly measure the impact of any intervention. There is a social register that needs expansion; those already in the register are getting something.

“If they accept they are, the unending solicitation from family and friends will cease or reduce. The truth is that our government lies and our people are not any different.”

Nwagwu called on the government to vigorously pursue industrialisation as the real solution to poverty in the country and not the handing out of palliatives.

He explained, “Poverty eradication interventions are palliatives that scratch the surface. To take majority of our citizens out of poverty, we must industrialise. We must stop talking about farming and talk about agriculture and its value chain.

“Our breweries still import barley and wheat, whereas some sections of the country can supply all the raw materials they need. We must bring back Ajaokuta Steel as well as the Oshogbo, Jos and Katsina rolling mills.

“We must bring back our textile industry and encourage technological innovation; the so called Yahoo Boys can be transformed into our own silicon valley.”

Other observers also stated that the pains and hunger many Nigerians experienced during the lockdown had shown that the current regime was far from taking millions of citizens who are living below the poverty line out of poverty.

They said a fresh lockdown by the Federal Government would only expose the poverty level of many Nigerians.

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