By Omoniyi Salaudeen

For all that has happened in some corrupt-infected departments and agencies of government, especially the big shake-up in the National Social Investment Programme and the Ministry of Humanitarian, Disaster Management and Poverty Alleviation, some pundits have tagged the quick decisions taken by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu as “a week of thousand bites.” 

And rightly so while investigation into alleged mismanagement of public funds in these agencies is ongoing, people are already counting causalities.

Until the presidential panel set up by the president to probe into the scandal concludes its assignment, there can be no respite for the individuals who have been found culpable.

The Social Investment Programme was established by former President Muhammadu Buhari in 2016 as a social safety net with an initial seed fund of N500 billion to care for the poor and needy. That was said to be the biggest welfarist programme in Africa. At inception, it was applauded as a laudable programme in the belief that it would promote a more equitable distribution of resources to vulnerable populations, including children, youth, and women.

It also aligns with the World Bank’s submission, which says, “Social protection systems are at the heart of boosting human capital and empowering people. They help individuals and families, especially the poor and vulnerable cope with crises and shocks, find jobs, improve productivity, invest in the health and education of their children, and protect the aging population.”

According to the World Financial Institution, “Social protection systems that are well-designed can have powerful impacts in the long-term, by reducing inequalities, building resilience and ending the inter-generational cycle of poverty. Such systems and tools are transformative as they help mitigate economic and fiscal shocks and provide opportunity by giving people a chance to get out of poverty and become productive members of society.”

The components of the administration’s SIP include the N-Power Programme, the National Home-Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP), the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme, and the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP), which consist of the MarketMoni, FarmerMoni, and TraderMoni schemes. All of these are intended to address the negative effects of poverty and promote economic development. 

However, the management of funds for the programme under the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry has been inherently fraught with controversy, lack of transparency, and accountability.

And partly because Buhari is such a leader who delegates responsibility without supervision, there was no monitoring and evaluation template put in place to ensure that this huge investment was adequately utilised for the intended beneficiaries.

For instance, Buhari’s wife, Aisha, once rubbished the programme, saying that it had failed ‘woefully,’ to address hunger and poverty in the North.

Aisha, who hails from Adamawa State, said the situation in her home state, as far as the SIP implementation was concerned, was pathetic.

She also cited Kano, a highly-populated northern state, as another example where she believed the programme had failed, despite the huge funds the Federal Government had budgeted for it.

Similarly, the leadership of the previous National Assembly also irked by the way and manner the social investment programme was being implemented, had one time expressed displeasure with the social register being used, which it claimed was contrived by ‘the World Bank method,’ and insisted that it must be discarded.

The then Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, Farouq, and some top officials of the humanitarian ministry said that the funds had failed to reach those for whom the initiative was created.

Only recently, precisely, on July 20, 2023, the National Economic Council unanimously resolved to do away with the national social register used by the Buhari administration to implement its conditional cash transfer, saying it lacked credibility. Instead, it asked states to generate their registers for the cash transfers.

It is, therefore, not surprising that President Tinubu suspended the programmes following the startling revelation of the financial scandal that has crippled the agency and subsequently set up a six-man panel to reposition it for effective performance.

Before then, the current Humanitarian Minister, Betta Edu, had been put under suspension, while her predecessor, Sadiya Faruq, has been undergoing a thorough investigation by the EFCC.

The six-member committee which is mandated to probe into the scandal, according to the presidential spokesperson, Ajuri Ngelale, is made up of six ministers and led by the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance, Wale Edun.

He said: “This Special Presidential Panel is tasked with immediately undertaking a comprehensive review and audit of existing financial frameworks and policy guidelines of the social investment programmes to implement a total re-engineering of the financial architecture of the programmes with detailed modification to procedures guiding the programmes’ implementation moving forward.”

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The Special Presidential Panel, comprising ministers representing strategic sectors, is made up of the following members: Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance (Chairman), Coordinating Minister of Health and Social Welfare (member), Minister of Budget and Economic Planning (member), Minister of Information and National Orientation (member), Minister of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy (member) and Minister of State for Youth (member).

It is expected that the panel will come up with a workable approach that will ensure openness and accountability and ultimately boost public confidence in the social investment programmes. 

Some eminent Nigerians, who spoke with Sunday Sun, applauded the president’s initiative, saying it would ensure adequate checks and balances and reposition the agency for better delivery of service.

A renowned elder statesman and notable leader of thought in the North, Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, while speaking with Sunday Sun, described the suspension of the programmes as a welcome development, adding that the outcome of the ongoing investigation would help the government to block the areas of abuse.

He said: “I think the president who introduced the idea did so believing that people would benefit from it. But as it turned out, those who were entrusted with the responsibility of managing the programmes did not appreciate the gesture.

“So, there is no alternative than to withdraw it for something else. I look forward to seeing what will be the alternative to the one that has been suspended. It is within the powers of the president to withdraw it or to reintroduce it.

“People who introduced corruption into the system are the ones who are trying to spoil the programme. I am sure the president is thinking about how to block the areas where people are abusing the programme so that he can introduce a better one for the appreciation of the people.

“There is no doubt that the motive behind the introduction of the programme is a good one and I am sure the president also believes that the intention was good. I am sure the president is thinking of introducing something different. Let us wait and see. It is for the president and his advisers to look into what people are not happy with and correct it.”

A financial expert and Managing Director of Cowries Asset, Mr Johnson Chukwu, also shared his perspective with Sunday Sun, noting that the objective of the programme aligned with the practice in advanced economies.

He, however, said that there must be checks and balances to curb the ongoing corruption in the system.  “The programme is a social intervention scheme to support the most vulnerable people. The purpose is to cushion the effect of the hardship of the economy. Whether the programme has been successful or not is a different matter entirely. It aligns with what obtains in other parts of the world where you have social safety nets that are supposed to be used to help those at the lowest rung of the ladder,” he said.

He listed some measures that could be taken to help the government monitor the programme and ensure the direct flow of funds to the beneficiaries.

“The objective is a good one, but the methodology of reaching out to the poor is the issue in question. What has happened is that the manager of the programme used it as a slush fund which they can use at their whims and caprices. What needs to be done is to introduce checks and balances. We need to have a social register that can be validated by everybody. “That register must be put in a public place to ensure that it does not contain fictitious names.

“The disbursement should be done directly to the beneficiaries instead of using contractors. That way, the Federal Government will be able to know whether the money has got to the beneficiaries.

“It is just like what happens in advanced countries where they have a social safety net that allows the government to distribute palliatives and bring them directly to the beneficiaries in their homes. In England, during the COVID-19 sit-at-home, the government had to distribute food items to individual homes. Even now, the government has a way of reaching out to the aged in their homes.

“So, it all depends on what the government wants to do. If they want to treat it as a slush fund, they can continue to use contractors as a way of disbursement. But the basic thing is that the objective is not in question. The challenge has been the intentional use of conduit that is designed to circumvent scrutiny and thorough audit,” he posited. 

A chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress in Ogun State, Senator Gbenga Obadara, also lent his voice to the discourse, commending President Tinubu for taking the bull by the horns.

He said: “The Federal Government has to investigate what has gone wrong in the system. And during the investigation, the programme has to be put on hold so that the investigation will not be tinted.

“So, the President has taken the bull by the horns. He has done his best to safeguard the interest of the vulnerable people who are supposed to enjoy the programme.

“After the outcome of the investigation, the government will be able to look into the laxity in the programme and tighten it up. That way, they will be able to come up with something better that will benefit the people. The suspension is a commendable initiative. It is the best approach to it. When they start it again, the programme will be retooled to block the leakages.”

President Tinubu, in a suspension order issued recently, said the decision was influenced by an “ongoing investigation of alleged malfeasance in the management of the agency and its programmes.”

This clarification was made known in a statement issued by the Director of Information, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Segun Imohiosen, claiming that a thorough investigation would be made into the activities of the agency to introduce the necessary reforms.