Looking beyond N5,000 stipend scheme – Punch

A scheme to cushion the effects of excruciating poverty on the poorest members of the society has begun with the Federal Government’s monthly payment of N5,000 stipend to each of those categorised as such in Borno, Bauchi and Kwara states. Nigerians from these states are the first set of beneficiaries in a pilot project that spans nine states in the first instance. It will eventually cover all the 36 states, targeting a total of one million people.

This is a welcome development. But it should be well structured and transparent to ensure that it is not hijacked or marred by corruption, which is endemic in our system. Other states where payments will follow soon are Cross River, Niger, Kogi, Oyo, Ogun and Ekiti.

Poverty in Nigeria is a growing existential challenge that breeds high-level insecurity and social disharmony.  A United Nations’ recent report on the issue was spot-on when it ranked Nigeria as “one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the world with over 80 million or 64 per cent of her population living below poverty line.”

This miserable sketch of the country perhaps inspired President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2015 electioneering promise to implement a broad range of social intervention programmes: N5,000 monthly allowance to the most vulnerable; feeding of pupils in public primary schools and giving stipend to unemployed graduates, if he won. But none of these schemes could take off immediately he assumed office in May 2015, sparking a volley of criticisms against his government and political party by the public, especially the opposition.

However, N500 billion was provided in the 2016 budget, under the government’s Social Investment Programme, to take care of these schemes; and a similar vote is embedded in the 2017 budget before the National Assembly for their continuation.

Payment of the N5,000 stipend, according to a statement by Laolu Akande, Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, started on December 30, through the release of funds to the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System Platform. He said, “Beneficiaries of the Conditional Cash Transfer of the Federal Government would be mined from the Social Register initially developed by eight states through a direct engagement with the World Bank.”

The creation of the Social Register in states that are yet to have it is central to the broadening of the disbursement. It is a proactive step that Anambra, Adamawa, Benue, Enugu, Jigawa, Katsina, Plateau and Taraba states have taken by complying with the guidelines that will aid community-based technique leading to the generation of a register.

Many public commentators have assailed government’s gesture because of the paltry amount, which they say will not alleviate poverty. Some cynics have even dismissed it as a smokescreen. Undoubtedly, the amount pales into insignificance with the spiralling inflation that has badly eroded the value of the naira. But what cannot be ignored is the fact that there are millions in the country that N5,000 could bring smiles to their faces. Evidence of this is on the streets. At bus stops and street corners in city centres, beggars are on the prowl, soliciting alms. Many others not physically challenged solicit transport fares from passers-by and fellow commuters. In many cases, they are ignored, perhaps because the expected benefactor is also financially handicapped.

However, Nigerians experienced some social intervention projects under Goodluck Jonathan’s Presidency, which included the YouWin programme. Some youths were given non-refundable grants ranging from N1 million to N10 million, to start up small businesses and be job creators too. In real terms, it did not achieve the intended objective.

Since the N5,000 stipend scheme will end in 2018, it means the beneficiaries will continue to remain vulnerable. Social safety nets of the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western European countries that cater for the unemployed, aged and the homeless are part of entrenched national culture and value for human lives, not tied to the populist design of any government in power. This should be Nigeria’s long term goal.

Therefore, the Buhari administration should think beyond its soap-box-driven placebo and unleash far-reaching reforms that will create jobs, provide infrastructure and create wealth that will take Nigeria out of the woods, which will inevitably guarantee better life for all. A radical overhaul of the economy is a far more solicitous policy measure.

Regrettably, all indices, both local and international, point to a dismal socio-economic landscape. According to the UN Poverty-in-Nigeria report issued in September last year, youth unemployment was 42 per cent in 2016, which it said created poverty, helplessness, despair and criminality. With a consecutive quarterly rise in the unemployment rate since the fourth quarter in 2014, the National Bureau of Statistics said that unemployment in Q3 in 2016 stood at 13.9 per cent.

Government should be ill at ease with this scenario. Initiating policies that will effectively put the private sector in the driving seat of the economy is the way to go. One gain, among many, derivable from this, is evident in the 49,587 jobs, which the formal sector delivered amidst this recession, and 144,651 contributed by the informal sector in Q3 of 2016, as against the zero quota from the public sector.

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