The zonal intervention fund — just as other allowances received by Nigerian lawmakers — is shrouded in secrecy, among other procedural and financial irregularities. Members of both houses of the National Assembly get millions of naira to carry out projects in their constituencies every year. 

However, scrutiny by Saharareporters revealed that about 40% of this allocation goes for ‘empowerment’ programmes as against capital projects such as construction of roads and other physical structures. This, on the surface, is not a bad idea; but contrary to the nobility in the word ‘empowerment’, many of such programmes are mere conduit to roll up national resources into pockets of the few privileged. Simply put, the reason many lawmakers opt for empowerment programs does not take much ingenuity to decipher: implementation of empowerment projects tends to be easier means of embezzling public funds. 

Empowerment projects are mostly captured either as youth or women programmes, trainings and development initiatives. Ideally, empowerment projects should improve the quality of lives of its target audience but often, they only enrich the lawmakers and few party members. More so, empowerment programmes are easier inflated compared to capital projects, or simply used to compensate cronies and loyalists. While capital projects can be easily traced and assessed, empowerment projects — even when carried out — have no objective yardstick to measure quality and quantity delivered. 

N100million for a few glasses and drugs 

For instance, Femi Gbajabiamila, lawmaker representing Surulere 1 Federal Constituency, claimed to have carried out “medical outreach for people in Surulere 1” — a programme earmarked for N100 million but all he showed for such project were pictures of few drugs, a number of glasses and crowd of constituents who merely got their blood pressure checked.

Asked if that was all the honorable did with N100 million, the Personal Assistant who attended to our correspondent and a tracking officer from Tracka, a project monitoring community, said: “Yes. We brought foreign experts during the outreach and the money also took care of logistics.”

Has Gajabiamila carried out the programme as listed in the budget? Yes of course, he would say; but does the programme justify the amount quoted?

According to Budgit, a budget-tracking and transparency organization, of the N100 billion annual allocations for constituency projects, N41.3 billion and N55 billion went for empowerment in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

'We don't know about their programmes' 

Saharareporters investigated the implementation of some of the 2017 empowerment projects nominated by lawmakers representing Lagos state. In many of the constituencies visited, majority of the populace, who should be the beneficiaries of the programmes, had no information about the programmes, hence they did not participate. 

“We don’t get to know about their programmes," a petty trader opposite the constituency office of Hon. Rotimi Agunsoye in Kosofe told Saharareporters. "They don’t tell us when they are sharing anything. Sometimes, we will see people with APC T-shirt but they are their members."

Also, empowerment materials end up with ward chairmen and heads of Local Government Area (LGA) or their associates because, many times, the lawmakers do not monitor the distribution process.

Asked how Mr. Balogun Yakub Abiodun, lawmaker representing Lagos Island II federal constituency, identifies constituents in need of the empowerment initiatives, a staff of his constituency office on Andrew Street, said “the ward chairman nominates people because they know those who come for meetings regularly”.

It was a similar situation at Surulere I, Kosofe, Lagos Island I and some of the other constituency offices visited by Saharareporters.

Crumbs of national cake for party members

“What empowerment are you talking about?” asked Kareem, one of the residents along Eleko-Folu Expressway, where Hon. Ayeola Abayomi Abdulkabir Ibeju Lekki constituency office is located. “The last time we heard of any empowerment programme was three years ago. They shared some things for their party members in Ibeju Primary school. 

“Ordinary people like us don’t benefit from their programmes. If you’re not a member of their party or don’t know anyone who can lobby for you, there is no how you will get anything from them. They share for the friends and family members of party people.”

A 2013 empowerment in 2017! 

Kazeem’s reaction represents the position of many in different constituencies who ought to benefit from the poverty alleviation programmes. Party members, loyalists and cronies of the lawmakers are the primary, if not sole, beneficiaries of empowerment programmes, which are even under-executed in many cases.

Hon. Abdulkabir, according to his Personal Assistant, claimed to have executed the empowerments programmes listed in the 2017 budget. A part of his constituency project was supply of 45 deep freezers, 45 sewing machines, and supply of soft drinks for women to start petty trade. 

Asked who the beneficiaries of these programmes were, our correspondent was directed to a road side vulcanizer who benefited from an empowerment programme organized in 2013, and two other tailors. The vulcanizer, identified simply as Ojo, is an All Progressives Congress (APC) member.

“Is my Oga around?” he asked, referring to Hon. Abdulkabir. "We were told you recently benefited from empowerment programme organized by honorable? What did the honorable do for you?" 

“Yes, I have benefited from Honourable Ayeola,” he said as he walked us to his air compressor pump with the lawmaker’s name boldly printed on it. “It’s been a long time since I was given the machine. I have had to repair a part of it but I have been using it since then."

When our correspondent reached out to the Ibeju-Lekki representative, he flared up and refused to attend to any enquiry. “I cannot explain anything to you” he retorted. “I am not answerable to you but to my constituents”. He also did not respond to text message sent to him after he hung up the phone call.

N1.8billion lone projects 

A whopping N 1,883,380,652 worth of projects is untraceable, as they were not tied to any lawmaker. These projects, which appear under different ministries and agencies, might never get implemented. Under the code number ZIP101, ZIP102 and ZIP103, N50, 000, 000,000 each was earmarked for “strategic empowerment for women and youth on agricultural produce for self-reliance and export”. 

The Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), under the Ministry of Education, also got allocation of N200 million and N100 million for the “renovation/rehabilitation of block of six classroom/furniture in six locations” and construction of “10nos one block of two classrooms in selected federal constituencies” in unspecified locations. In addition, N300 million was allocated for “vocational training for youth and women in the 6 area councils of the FCT senatorial district” but it did not state if the programme was nominated by Senator Philips Tanimu Aduda, who represents the district. 

Monitoring these lone projects then becomes a herculean task: who takes responsibility for the implementation? How does one ascertain that they were actually carried out?

A legislative aide who spoke with Saharareporters anonymously said this is one of the ways lawmakers "pad" the budgets through various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).

“Well, it is one of the ways to shield themselves from poke-nosers like journalists and some NGOs. If you don’t know who is doing what, who do you start disturbing?” he asked.

“It is a bad thing but they do it all the same. It is also the same way they ‘pad’ budget. How do you think the approved budgets of some MDAs become higher than the proposed budgets? It is because some people have kept their monies in those MDAs but if you ask, they will say the National Assembly has the power to review upward or downward, but we know how these things work."

According to Damen Ilevbaoje, team lead of Tracka, many of the representatives nominate projects under ministries where they have "their person”.

“They would claim that they only nominated the project, it is the ministry that receives funds and execute the project but in the real sense, lawmakers use their own contractors," he said. "In fact, sometimes, it is their own companies that get awarded these contracts and with the help of their persons in the ministry, they take full control of the funds released.”

Mr. Ilevbaoje also revealed to Saharareporters that all attempts to seek explanations from the concerned ministries yielded no result.

"Those unspecified projects, it is either the location was not specified or there was no mention of the lawmaker, therefore they remained untracked," he added. "We don’t know if they ever got implemented. We wrote to the ministries but we did not get any feedback from them." 

The spokespersons of the Senate and the House of Representative did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking clarification on whether it is lawful for ministries to directly get funds for constituency projects under the zonal intervention funds without going through the lawmakers.

N54 million For notebooks 

The only project nominated by Abayomi Dauda Kako-Are, lawmaker representing Mushin 1 Federal Constituency, was the “supply of notebooks to various schools in Mushin 1”. The N54million project did not specify on how many notebooks would be distributed per student or the number of benefitting schools.

According to the information given by Mr. Kako-Are’s aide, 8,175 units of 20 leaves, 7,750 unit of 40 leaves and 14,450 units of 60 leaves of notebooks were supplied by the contractor. At an equal rate, a notebook would have cost N1,778 each to produce 30, 375 units at N54 million.

However, the market prices of a dozen of 20 leaves, 40 leaves and 60 leave notebooks, are N500, N1000 and N1500 respectively. Deductively, it cost more to produce a unit of notebook than it would have cost to buy a dozen of same notebooks.

Although the lawmaker claimed 30,375 pieces of notebooks have been supplied by the contractor, the books are yet to be distributed. When Saharareporters reached the honourable, the only lawmaker from Accord Party, he said: “The books are still there in the office but the contractors are saying I should not distribute it because they have not been paid”.

The Mushin 1 representative is not the only lawmaker still holding on to the empowerment materials even as the 2017 budget rounds up in about a month, the representative of Lagos Island 1, Eniola Dolapo Badru, is yet to distribute the 50 units of tricycles he had nominated for empowerment in his constituency.

The lawmaker, who spoke to Saharareporters, said he had only been supplied 24 units out of the 50 he requested for. However, he did not expressly acknowledge if he had distributed the tricycles already supplied. 

“It not 50 tricycles, it’s 24 that I was supplied,” he told our correspondent over the phone.

Misappropriation or freewill?

In a number of instances, Saharareporters gathered that while some of the lawmakers never carried out the programmes they nominated, they make up for it by implementing other programmes with populist nature.  

It is not particularly clear if Honorable Bologun  Yakub Abiodun, representing Lagos Island II, carried out the empowerment programmes he nominated, but he has a scheme for the aged in his constituency.

The lawmaker randomly selects 50 elderly persons whom he pays N5,000 monthly allowance for a period of six months, after which another set is recruited and also paid for six months. 

Laudable, no doubt, but how does the he fund this project? 

Similarly, Honourable Kaka-Are’s notebook distribution project might appear too pedestrian but he has a way of ensuring he remains the sweetheart of young men in his constituency.

Just outside his home is a 42 inches flatscreen, cable-connected television that shows all the premiership games. For young people with an obsession for football games, Mr. Kako-Are is sure the man of the year. 

Apart from the free viewing centre, the lawmaker also organizes free tutorials for students preparing for the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board examination in addition to providing free transportation for his constituents who wish to travel to their hometowns during festive periods.

Also closely related is the nomination of projects in ministries that do not have the mandate to carry out such functions. 

The ‘scam’ did not start today… but will it stop? 

During the buildup towards the 2015 general election, top female politicians in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) stormed Adamasingba stadium in Ibadan, Oyo state for a political rally cum empowerment programme for residents, including students, in Oyo state.

There were displays of grinding machines, generators, refrigerators, Agro-Allied materials, tools for various vocations amongst other numerous items. 

Student union organizations of tertiary institutions in Oyo State got buses. The University of Ibadan got a luxury Marcopolo bus, which is now a heap of wreck in front of the Students’ Union building where it is now permanently parked. 

The event, which was attended by the Former First Lady of Nigeria, Mrs. Patient Jonathan; a former Minister for State, Jumoke Akinjide who is currently under trial for fraud, and few more prominent female politicians, ended amid the jamboree of political razzmatazz but more than half of the items remained in the stadium.

However, a source whose company bought back some of the displayed materials told Sahararepoters that the items were sold by party leaders. “The items were sold to us after the event," he said. "One of the guys from Akinjide’s camp brought the items to our shop."

Although this does not directly relate to the zonal intervention fund, it shows how politicians, under the guise of empowerment programmes, enrich themselves and the close associates.

With this trend, it is clear that majority of the ordinary Nigerian citizens who should benefit from the empowerment programmes, often times do not; and if this must change, there must be system for proper assessment and monitoring of these projects — not just the empowerment programs but all projects financed with the zonal intervention fund.

“Ideally, the initiative is good going by the assumption the lawmakers know their various constituencies and the needs of their people but there have to be accountability and transparency," said Seun Akinfolarin, Director of Civic Media Lab, a non-profit advocacy organisation. "If you buy a pin for one kobo, it should be verifiable. If you get N1 million for an empowerment project, we should see that what you did is worth one million. That is the only way this can work."

Alternatively, some have argued that zonal intervention fund should be stopped. “It is one of the ways politicians loot our resources,” Adekunle Bolarinde, a media consultant, said. “The job of a lawmaker should be strictly law-making. What is the correlation of having constituency allowance and making laws? It is just one of the loopholes in our constitution that opens up our economy to unnecessary looting. It should be scraped."

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