At first glance, President Muhammadu Buhari's now-viral video that showed him downplaying the significance of an N5,000 monthly stipend for the poor and the unemployed looks like a last ditch effort to circumvent one of his party's most onerous campaign promises. But the confusion caused by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo's insistence that the federal government will still implement some parts of the conditional cash transfer scheme has meant that the President may be forced to address the matter again soon.
In fairness, the President has been a reluctant proponent of the proposal, which he now terms a "largesse," and there's no record of him personally endorsing it in public before or after his victory. However, as the presidential choice of the All Progressives Congress, it's not out of place if Nigerians assume Buhari embodies all that his political platform represents, including promises made by and on behalf of the party.
Still, while Candidate Buhari may not have openly used the N5,000-for-the-poor-and-unemployed line during the campaign, he didn't openly dissociate himself from it, either. His running mate and now Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, however, made extensive references to the social welfare programs during many of his stump speeches. Campaign flyer that specifically advertised APC's social welfare programs can be found on the Internet and in hardcopies.
“We will give N5,000 to the poorest 25 million over a phased period if their children are enrolled in school and participate in immunization," the VP said on March 26, 2015, as part of his closing argument of the 2015 general elections.
Under the program, which the VP themed as 'Social Investments Program,' the APC, if elected, promised to lift about 25 million Nigerians out of poverty. Osinbajo identified about 119 million Nigerians living under insufferable circumstances and said painstaking implementation of all phases of the social intervention programs will also have a multiplier effect on the overall economy, consequently engendering upward mobility.
Now settled in office, the APC government is enmeshed in a Kafkaesque nightmare unfolding in a complex language.
In the early weeks of the administration, there were initial signs that the social welfare programs will be prioritized as promised during the campaign. On June 13, 2015, Osinbajo gave an address at Crescent University, Abeokuta, during which he said, amongst other things, that the administration has started working to ensure a timely implementation of the welfare policies.
"We're currently evaluating the best ways to collapse existing cash transfer and social welfare schemes to ensure consistency and alignment," the VP said. “Once this is completed, we will implement the first phase of this program, using recognized identification platforms and transparent payment solutions.”
By December, the Vice President's office had already designed several phases of the social intervention programs, and a media blitz soon followed. Home grown school feeding, conditional cash transfer, training of graduates and micro-credits for small businesses are key components of the scheme and about ₦500B was earmarked for their implementation.
Questions were raised about policymakers' ability to accurately determine who is worthy of government handouts in a country that has no reliable data of its residents in place, how such policies would be implemented in the face of a debilitating budget shortfall and also about if the program's anti-fraud mechanism would be foolproof. The VP's office rebuffed every concern raised with a well-crafted response.
By the end of December, the government had created a lot of awareness about the program and Nigerians had started making concerted efforts to find out if they would be captured in any of the phases. Their enthusiasm subsequently went lulled on December 30, the day Buhari held his first media chat as President.
Asked to give an update about the ₦5,000 stipend for poor and unemployed Nigerians, President Buhari gave a backhanded response to the consternation of everyone: “When my VP is quoted, how can I come here and disown it?” Then he went on to fly the cat about a likely alternative: “We may have to send the young unemployed youth seeking ₦5,000 fee to farm to earn the money.” But that didn't stop Osinbajo from carrying on his campaign. He explained that his welfare program is aimed at the poor and vulnerable and not able-bodied youth. For the unemployed, a graduate trainee program would suffice, he argued.
In February, the VP called a meeting with representatives of ministries, departments, and agencies, MDAs, where he presented a roadmap detailing how the administration intends to synchronize all public establishments in order to bring about a seamless implementation of the social investments program.
Even though the intervention fund was subject to National Assembly approval, there was no sign that it would run into trouble with lawmakers during budget deliberation, until Thursday when Senator Danjuma Goje tore seriously into it, advising his colleagues to remove all items pertaining to social investments program from the budget.
Coincidentally, Mr. Goje's recommendation came barely a few days after Buhari's remonstration. Good.
Addressing a congregation of Nigerians and Saudis as part of his official visit to Saudi Arabia on February 27, the President said: "This largesse --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 don’t work.”
Note that for the second time, the President didn't bother categorizing who gets what. He dismissed the whole idea of doling out cash to anyone for anything, altogether.
All the same, on Monday afternoon, I approached Mr. Laolu Akande, the Senior Special Assistant to the Vice President on Media, for clarification. "The President is not talking about cash for the poor and vulnerable," he said. "This is what I told you before, and it still stands."
Also on Monday, Governors Tanko al-Makura and Rochas Okorocha weighed-in on the confusion in separate interviews with State House correspondents. While al-Makura opined that the President has the prerogative to fulfill or renege on his campaign promises; Okorocha on his part said the APC will fulfill the N5,000 pledge, even though "most of the beneficiaries will spend their handouts on alcohol and women."
A senior official in the administration told me on Friday that the President is not entirely against social welfare programs, but there are some aspects of it that he feared are highly susceptible to fraud.
"Look, the President has the interest of poor people are heart, he definitely wants things done for them," he said. "One major reason he's not really supporting the free cash giveaway is because he's very afraid politicians will hijack the program and recoup their campaign expenses from there." Indeed, the President cannot be said to be completely averse to social welfare protection because he appointed Mrs. Maryam Uwais specifically for that purpose. But if Buhari truly shares this sentiment, then his confidence in his VP is being called into question, and this would have far-reaching consequences.
For President Buhari, the N5,000 monthly support for either poor or jobless Nigerians presents an easy, unambiguous choice, as his party's manifesto shows:
Page 20 item 1 of the APC manifesto signed by the party's Chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, and which the party subsequently adopted as its rallying cry in the 2015 general elections, stated, in no uncertain terms, that the party will, "Create a phased Social Insurance Scheme to assist certain groups in the population with social welfare payments through a phased programme, starting with:
- Young People under 30 and the unemployed
- Senior Citizens over 70, the disabled and armed service veterans.
- All remaining categories."
As I've previously noted, the languages of the document that played a critical role in guaranteeing Buhari Nigeria's presidency are clear as day. Going by his perennial lamentation about the dwindling oil revenue, Nigerians understand that their leader has become acquainted with the real economic situation of the country, which he otherwise may not have been during the campaign. Therefore, the President should have a robust conversation about the N5,000 stipend with Nigerians if only to disabuse his critics who say he holds his citizens in contempt. Dithering over the matter would only continue to create unnecessary confusion in the polity.
Napoleon Bonaparte said, "If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna." The administration can't continue to do a pirouette over a matter that has the potential to either soften or embolden Nigerians' wariness about it.
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