Months a ago, immediately after Governor Adams Oshiomhole’s wedding, one of our female religious leaders visited Abuja from Kano. Over lunch, as we discussed about the political situation in the country, she relayed conversations she heard in Kano among the youths as she waited in the motor park for a bus. According to her, the youths were engaged in a heated argument that President Buhari had already failed on two counts: One, because he shook a woman’s hand, (that is Oshiomhole’s wife), and therefore showed off himself as not a true Muslim; secondly, since he assumed office, that the President had not fulfilled his promise of the N5000 to the unemployed. According to her, they dared Buhari to visit Kano.
It struck me that there was a need to educate these once ardent supporters of PMB that as President in a multi-religious setting, there were courtesies one had to extend, despite one’s religious background. Ignoring such expressed sentiments may only sow the seed for future violence, and when such violence erupts, one may recognize the trigger without really knowing the fundamental cause. In the Catholic Church, one of the spiritual works of mercy is to educate the ignorant. Since these simple citizens genuinely believe that a president who is a Muslim should not shake a woman’s hand, some department of government should work with religious instructors for a bit of civic education. Such education may also include the fact that a government fulfills its promises through budgetary allocations.
When I heard PMB’s remarks about not giving money to people not working, despite the fact that there was such a proposal in the budget, it struck me that Buhari might consciously be heading for trouble with his primary constituency.
It is one thing to question the economic sense in assigning the sum of 500 billion naira as payout to one million unemployed persons in the midst of contending priorities such as road and rail infrastructure, power infrastructure etc. Viewing this against the backdrop of perceived failure of a promise to a volatile population, it might be necessary to plan ways in which this deprived population who had stuck with Buhari all these years and had hung their hopes on some government token, could be met halfway.
To all intents and purposes, the systems are not in place for a payout even if the money was available. How would the government overcome the penchant of the average Nigerian to take advantage? The average Nigerian sees employment as a job in a well established private sector company or in a rich government parastatal or an ordinary government ministry which would give him/her room for other small businesses. Otherwise, the person counts himself or herself as ‘unemployed’, even if he or she is teaching in a nursery school. How would government ascertain between those who are truly unemployed and those who just want the extra income because it is government largess? How are we sure that government officials saddled with the responsibility of creating the data-base of eligible persons, would not register their children who are still in nursery, primary and secondary schools, so that they can earn some pocket-money?
For the sake of keeping to his promise, and for the sake of maintaining peace in our volatile country, could this program be a form of conditional cash transfer? Could the federal government work with the states so that the actual implementation is done by the states? Could it be clearly said that the payout is for those willing to do some hours of work at least twice a week? Depending on where they are registered, could they be assigned, for example, to serve within their own communities?
Many of our communities are an eyesore because no one takes responsibility for keeping them clean. Could traditional institutions be brought in to monitor these unemployed youths who would be doing this community service? This way, the concern of the President in not giving money to people who are not doing any work would be addressed.
But, let government realise that it will not be a simple task. Caritas Nigeria has had some experience in cash transfer programs and it wasn’t that easy. Up in the North, before Boko Haram intensified its campaign. Caritas Nigeria worked with community leaders to establish criteria for eligibility, and guided by community leaders, selected the beneficiaries. Over the table payments were made in Banla/Shinaka in Goronyo LGA in Sokoto State, in Gidan Kurma in Karo LGA in Katsina State, in Gilimama in Talata Mafara LGA in Zamfara, and in Yakasawa in Rigim LGA and Danzomo in Gumel LGA, both in Jigawa State, for several months. There was generally no security challenge. But in Benue and Delta, there were always security concerns and we had to work with banks to open accounts for individuals where the cash was transferred.
This ought to be a programme that the government has thought through before implementing, otherwise, more bad blood would be created by those who may feel left out.
It is, perhaps, based on all these challenges that President Buhari has declared that he would not go on to pay people who do not work. However, Nigeria needs to face up to the issue of the unemployed. It is quite understandable that investing in infrastructure would be a great way to deal with unemployment, for then, construction companies would employ people and small businesses could spring around construction sites etc. But, isn’t Nigeria ripe enough for some social safety net programs? Since the promise has already been made to the poor, shouldn’t the APC government find a way of explaining to the would be beneficiaries that it is better late than never, that government would use one year to put things in place, rather than an outright cancellation?
Meanwhile, with the anti-corruption stance of PMB, it may be possible to utilize up to 70% of the funds in the federal budget for intended ends while we still allow up to 30% to corruption, unlike in the Jonathan tenure where corruption may have taken up to 70% of budget allocation and 55% during Obasanjo’s; so more money should be available to be ploughed into other areas for the poor. For instance, beyond the five thousand naira payout, the federal government should find a way of establishing federal medical centres in each state where the National Health Act could be fully implemented, and where the poor and unemployed could gain free basic medical services. Perhaps, part of the N500 billion could be reverted to this since the budget is still not passed by the National Assembly? President Buhari should ensure that while he is in office, he implements programs that touch the poor who were his primary base during the elections.