Last week, the Federal Government through the National Economic Council approved N5bn for each state of the federation as palliative to cushion the harsh effect of fuel subsidy removal. The palliative also includes five trucks of rice for each state. States are to purchase sundry items, including 100,000 bags of rice, maize and beans, among others for distribution to the poor in their states to cushion the rising cost of living. On the surface of this development, this looks good. But there are fundamental challenges associated with this approach of giving money and resources in a vacuum to states by the Federal Government.
A couple of weeks ago, state governors at a NEC meeting had unanimously discredited the federal social register which was deployed in the past to reach the poor. They cited some challenges associated with the compilation of the register and ended up with a decision to jettison the use of the register while asking every governor to go back and compile its own state register. It was the view of this column that what the governors did amounted to throwing the baby away with the bath water. Yes, the register had its challenges and needed to be cleaned up. It is easier to clean up an existing register once the metrics and modalities of who should be on the register are worked out than to start the compilation of a fresh register. Today, no state can boast of having completed the assignment of producing a new register, displaying the same for validation or using any empirical methodology to ensure that it only contains the poorest of the poor.
To the question, on what basis will the governors proceed to distribute the trucks of rice, maize and other grains which they may buy? Already, there are announcements of some governors distributing the same through local council chairmen, legislators and other elected officials. The argument might be that they are the elected representatives of the people and as such, should know their constituents and are in a position to identify the poor. This position falls flat in the face of empirical evidence, logic and the flawed character trajectory of these so-called representatives of the people. If there is no empirical monitoring and evaluation framework, a means of identifying the needy and poor beyond the whims and caprices of political leaders, you can be sure that these grains will end up in the plates of the rich and mighty and a few grains will go to their political associates, supporters and cronies. The qualification for accessing the grains or monetary benefits will simply be their support or affiliation to the ruling party at the state level. In some states, there is a disturbing silence as their governors have not said a word on the palliative.
The expectation was that federal grants or loans should have been used as an incentive for state-level reform. Fiscal and governance reform milestones should have been set by the Federal Government and the money would come in tranches and be accessible to qualifying states. The first criteria should have been the compilation of an acceptable state social register. This had been done in previous administrations and had facilitated the fiscal and governance reforms at the state level. Considering the poor governance structure at the state level where governors are emperors and the decision on what to do with outstanding sums beyond the procurement of grains may not even pass through the legislative powers for appropriation, we are left with a gift to a majority of governors. In states facing elections later in the year, the Federal Government has provided resources to incumbents, to be shared to political cronies as investments to win elections and return the ruling party to power.
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The sharing of money to buy rice, maize, beans and other grains sounds extremely pedestrian. The quantity of grains to be bought and distributed cannot meet the demands of poor Nigerians for even a period of one week. So, if a family gets a few cups of grains which will finish in two or three days, what happens thereafter? They can go and die for having tasted Tinubu’s rice or the rice becomes an everlasting food in their stomach that whoever eats the food shall never become hungry again. Governance interventions, especially for the life and death matter of alleviating the excruciating poverty arising from government policies (removal of fuel subsidy and floating the naira), should involve some deeper thought process and not a fire brigade reaction that confirms that the policy maker was not in a position to project the likely challenges that would have arisen from the policy initiative in the first place.
The foregoing development complicates an already combustible dimension of the government-labour relationship. Since President Bola Tinubu set up a committee with organised labour to negotiate how to cushion the harsh economic and living environment, the committee has hardly met to discuss, review proposals and arrive at a decision. Several attempts by organised labour to engage have been met with cold calculated mischief on the part of the representatives of the Federal Government. There is also no evidence of any meaningful engagement of the private sector. Labour and the private sector have been talking to Nigerians through the media and the government stands aloof refusing to extend its hand for a handshake to occur. Therefore, no one should blame organised labour when these grievances accumulate and a debilitating strike becomes their last resort. There is yet no discussion on wage increase, only newspaper comments that are not part of any negotiation process.
Throwing N180bn at N5bn per state to the 36 states simply reduces a bulk sum that would have been used to solve a major problem into tiny bits that make it easier for the money to be mismanaged, stolen or disappear into thin air. This sum could have been constructively used to solve a national challenge that affects everyone. For instance, if an aspect of the collapsing power sector is targeted and a baseline report is generated on access to electricity, N180bn can be invested to improve power supply to offices and homes by an extra two or three hours daily. Even if this is not possible at once across the federation, a geopolitical zone or industrial clusters can be targeted for improvement with a timetable that ensures that the improvement will go around, across the federation. Essentially, this money should have been used to promote production rather than consumption which is not even targeted at the poor. If we had to go for consumption, it must be one that sustainably builds the environment and human capacity for increased productivity. An example is health insurance coverage under the Basic Health Care Provision Fund for at least, extra 50,000 poor persons per state.
In these circumstances, it is imperative for organised labour, media and civil society organisations to form an alliance at the state level to demand a voice and accountability on the use of these resources. A good part of the money will be paid back from the allocations due to the state in the future. It is not the governors’ money; it belongs to the people. State Houses of Assembly worth their salt should insist on the resources being appropriated in accordance with what the constitution stipulates before expenditure. ,
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