A POPULAR Chinese homily became handy for an inspired President Muhammadu Buhari in the Holy Land. After what looked like due consultations with the Almighty during his lesser hajj in Makkah and Madina early this week as he concluded his visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, President Buhari summoned enough courage to dump, as The Punch put it, the N5,000 job seeker’s allowance. Ahead of the 2015 presidential election, the President’s party, the All Progressives Congress, APC, had promised to pay unemployed youths an allowance of N5, 000 each, every month.
“This largess, N5, 000 for the unemployed, I have got a slightly different priority. I would rather do the infrastructure, the school and correct them and empower agriculture, mining so that every able bodied person can go and get work instead of giving N5, 000 to those who do not work,” declared the President. The Chinese proverb which has become very popular in this part of the world is so apt here. “If you give a man fish,” so goes the saying, “you feed him for one day. But if you teach the man how to fish, you feed him for life.” President Buhari, having taken the Chinese proverb to heart, prefers to teach the jobless, the able-bodied unemployed Nigerian youths how to fish, how to farm, how to mine solid minerals and how to take their destiny in their own hands instead of depending on some dubious hand outs and welfare largess that may not even reach them.
But in taking this right and commendable decision, the President must have ruffled not a few feathers and he should, as a consequence, be prepared in the weeks ahead to take the flaks from his critics whose numbers must be rising daily. For them, this is clearly a policy somersault. Feeding school children during school hours and paying N5, 000 to the poor and the jobless numbering 25 million was a major plank of the APC manifesto.
The erudite professor of law and respected cleric, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has laboured on numerous occasions to demonstrate that this populist scheme was doable and therefore realisable. For those of us who appeared terrified by the sheer logistics of the exercise, the vice-president’s spokesman, Laolu Akande, said not to worry, they had everything wrapped up. At the drop of a pin Akande was prepared, any time of the day or night, to reel out the mechanism for the implementation of the welfare package. He said the President’s policy was in six phases: Teach Nigeria, youth empowerment programme, conditional cash transfer, under which extremely indigent Nigerians would be given N5, 000 monthly, school feeding programme like the one Governor Nasir El Rufai of Kaduna State has already launched, free education for science and technology, engineering and mathematics students in tertiary institutions as well as credit scheme for the poor to start their own businesses.
Before the pronouncement from Saudi, work on identifying the beneficiaries had gone far and, indeed, Akande says the 2016 has made ample provision for the scheme. Other officials of government, including minister of youths, have given assurance on behalf of the government that there was no going back on the programme. At the initial stage of the Treasury Single Account, TSA, controversy, Lai Mohammed, minister of Information, as a way of telling us the numerous advantages of the TSA, said proceeds from the TSA would be used to fund the indigent citizens’ welfare programme. All those assurances were geared towards keeping hope alive.
I know for sure that the President‘s pronouncement which apparently signifies a reversal of policy, is bound to throw APC programme into confusion leaving many chieftains of the party scratching their heads for explanation. Those whose task it is to explain government’s programme, I am sure, would be hard put explaining this twist in the tale. Already I can see Akande, the Vice-President’s spokesman, the same Akande who has been so eloquent in explaining away the mechanism for implementing the package, now struggling to explain what President Buhari meant and what he did not mean, when he said there would be some change in the priority of government as far the largess of N5, 000 monthly allowance was concerned. Akande, almost swearing on oath, now says loudly even for the deaf to hear, that there was never a promise by the President to pay N5, 000 to unemployed graduates or job seekers. Since he did not make the promise, logically, the Saudi pronouncement cannot be a policy somersault and the President, it follows, should not be accused of not keeping faith with Nigerians, majority of whom form the dregs of the society.
Akande: “The President never promised to pay unemployed graduates N5, 000, the President never made that promise and the government never made that claim that it would pay N5, 000 to unemployed graduates. The programme for unemployed graduates is the direct creation of half a million teaching jobs so that they will be trained to teach and they will be deployed to teach, while they are looking for their career paths or jobs. That still stands!” Hmmmm. So the good news is that nothing has actually changed?
Truth be told, the party’s programme and the party’s promise to tackle the issue of poverty is unassailable. But the resources for implementing the programme must be available and only the needy must enjoy the scheme. Other parties, other governments before this have had all kinds of programmes to alleviate poverty or wipe it from existence. But at the end of the day, what happened? Poverty was like a snake scorched. They did not alleviate it. They did not kill it. They not only increased the pangs and the monstrosity of poverty, they also ended up enriching those who were already privileged and well to do. The schemes became avenues for corruption. The middle men, invariably party men and women or crooked government officials who were entrusted with the task of disbursing the largess, diverted it to their pockets or used it to enrich their cronies and other party faithful.
Other countries that have successfully implemented welfare programmes for the poor had the resources and the men and women of proven integrity and competence to run the programme. The abuse of the scheme did not come from those entrusted with the scheme but the beneficiaries who, assured of their daily bread, did not bother to go out and look for a more respectable means of survival. Take the American welfare system, for example. It was established in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The Federal Government responded to the overwhelming number of families and individuals who had no means of surviving the pangs of poverty by creating a welfare programme like the APC conceived, to give succour to those who were desperately in need. It was like charity for those who had little or no income at all. But unlike what we practise here, they did not dole out cash to the cashless or the needy.
If you read John Johnson’s very inspiring autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds, you would understand what it meant to be on the dole in those days. He reports that in those years (between 1934 and 1936) welfare came not in monthly checks but in monthly visits by government trucks. On the first day of the month, the big government trucks would roar into their neighbourhood dropping essential commodities like salt, pork, beans, peas and other such items that were of use but out of reach of the poor.
Some of the recipients of the government hand out, like the Johnson family, were not particularly proud of their station in life and covered the fact that those trucks were meant for them. Welfare for those who were determined became a means of getting out of poverty for good, not depending on alms taking and sticking to low life and the humiliation that it entailed.
The honourable way out of this welfare conundrum, therefore, is to create jobs and provide a more conducive environment for people to earn decent living. It is demeaning to be on the dole or social welfare or whatever elegant name we seek to give to this institutional begging or charity. As M.K.O Abiola of blessed memory was fond of saying: “The hand that gives is always on top of the hand that receives.”