Nigeria: Farouq and the N-Power Programme

Nigeria Govt organisation N-Power, Minister of Labour Festus Keyamo, top right
30 June 2020

Sadiya Farouq and her team have injected a new lease of life into the programme.

If anyone ever thought that public policy would pass unscrutinised, such a person will be living an illusion. Even at the best of times, members of the public would have a field day, subjecting most public policies, to various forms of scrutiny and integrity tests. At moments of extreme disquiet such as the nation is passing through presently, with public cynicism at its highest level, it is almost predictable that a youth empowerment initiative, such as the N-Power programme of the Federal Government, would elicit rigorous public attention. With unemployment figures exploding exponentially, the N-Power programme has become, for many, a veritable access, not only to guaranteed employment but the prospect of further capacity building and post 'internship' self-actualisation.

It is therefore not surprising that, no sooner had the portal for registration, of the third batch of the programme, been opened than the media started beaming its searchlight on the process. In one such scrutiny, an online medium reported that 50, 000 forms, for enrolment into the N-Power Programme, had been issued in advance, to some legislators and politicians in the country. This situation, the story goes on to claim, would rob the ordinary people who are in the greatest need of the programme, of the opportunity to take advantage of it.

As it turned out, the story has been denied by both the office of the Senate President as well as the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs. In other words, we are dealing here with a genuine case of fake news. Unfortunately, such a concoction, presumably instigated by detractors of either the Minister or the Buhari Administration, amounts to a great disservice to the commendable watchdog role of the media in Nigeria; a role that has induced a serious drive towards greater transparency, accountability and inclusion.

In spite of the obvious falsity of the news report, there is still merit in interrogating the dialectics of a possible allocation of employment slots, to legislators and how such an action, if and when it happens, would constitute either a corporate governance breach or lead to inequitable distribution of public patrimony. Prior to that, it will seem to me that of equally great importance is the need, to appreciate the background to the present development. Of course, it is a known fact that the N-Power programme is one of the major pillars, of the ambitious social investment architecture, of the Buhari Administration.

With other programmes in the basket, the ultimate objective, according to the President, is to lift 100 million people out of poverty. So far, 500,000 youth, in two batches of 200, 000 and 3000, 000, have benefitted from the programme. What also is not in doubt is that the programme started in 2016 under the supervision of the Vice President before it was transferred to the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, in September 2019.

It is perhaps correct to say that among the responsibilities inherited by Sadiya Farouq, the incumbent Minister, none compares in complexity and controversy, as the N-Power Programme. Two major problems have loomed large in respect of the programme. The first is that batches A and B participants have overstayed. Thus, the hordes of potential beneficiaries of the programme have had to anxiously wait as their compatriots monopolised what belongs to all. Second problem has been the delay in payment of allowances to beneficiaries; a problem that has always dogged the programme. Not to mention the fraudulent and unpatriotic acts of a syndicate that, over time, perpetrated the ghost worker syndrome whereby dubious participants feed on the porous internal control mechanism of the programme, to short-change the system.

The foregoing is important to the extent that it provides a better pedestal to appreciate the enormous effort that has gone into repositioning the programme, for effective service delivery, since Sadiya Farouq assumed office as the pioneer head of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. The fact that the programme is now, in a position to discharge many of the participants into productive engagement, epitomises the painstaking, result-oriented approach adopted by the ministry, under the watchful eyes of this youthful minister whose somewhat gentle mien and unobtrusive style, are often mistaken for weakness. But ask anyone who works with her and you will be told that, here is a tigress who prefers to operate without the swashbuckling style of many a public office holder or the self-adulation of those who forget that only the President deserves the limelight.

As the popular saying goes, unless you wear the shoe, you will not feel the pinch. It was the late Robert Nesta Marley, aka Bob Marley, the reggae maestro of old who sang, "Who feels it, knows it". For the hundreds of thousands of Nigerian youth who stand to benefit under Batch C stream of the programme, whose hope for a lifeline, no matter how tenuous, has been rekindled, this is indeed a great moment. Their anxiety has been broken; their hope rekindled; their frustrations assuaged. Will they get the job? Will they be side-lined by an unfair system? What percentage of those who apply will get the jobs? No matter how these questions are answered, one thing is clear: Sadiya Farouq and her team have broken the jinx; henceforth, the programme is moving away from the status of being constantly in motion without any movement.

It is also noteworthy that the programme is substantially up to date in the payment of allowances to most of the 500, 000 exiting participants of Batches A and B, the only outstanding being the 12, 000 members who, according to the Minister, were inexplicably excluded from the payment schedule by the GIFMIS platform of the Federal Government. Of course, it is public knowledge that the issue of delayed allowances has always been a sour point, for the greater part of the programme's existence. The public expects that, going forward, this problem would have been effectively rectified. If the truth must be told, most members of the public consider it unconscionable to delay payment of the modest, I hate to say paltry, allowance that is all, that the participants are expected to live on; at a time when inflation has significantly eroded the purchasing power of the people.

Available evidence shows that, unlike previous batches, Batch C will start, riding on greater efficiency and purpose. For one, though no system can be regarded as fool-proof, there is greater assurance that, the new hybrid enrolment template introduced by the minster will, in addition to substantially eliminating fraudulent enrolment, reduce the hitches associated with payment of allowances to participants. What this means is that, for the first time since its inception, Nigerians will have the opportunity of experiencing seamless administration of this pace-setting programme. From the foregoing, it can be seen that the programme is not exactly all about problems; that if we look at it positively, rather than being half-empty, the performance glass that Sadiya Farouq is holding is, in reality, more than half full.

Of course, it goes without saying that Nigerians will not accept a situation where access to the programme is restricted to the children and wards of privileged members of the public. The people would expect that the ministry provides a level playing field for all applicants. But this legitimate expectation cannot be an alibi for misleading the public as the purveyors of the story have done. In their blind fury, to nail an innocent foe, in this case, the minister, they failed to realise that the dubious pictorial evidence they paraded amounted to nothing but a gargantuan hoax; that there is no provision for paper application and that applications for N-Power Batch C can only be filed through the official online platform. To compound the falsehood, some of the forms in circulation have slots for N-Tax, a provision that is completely non-existent in the form. For emphasis, Batch C is focusing on N-Agro, N-Teach, N-Health and N-Power, Creative and Tech. Perhaps this should serve as a warning to prospective applicants that, without prejudice to their right to seek assistance from willing benefactors, wisdom suggests that they restrict their dealings to the official portal for the programme.

However, as I indicated earlier, we lose nothing by interrogating the reasonableness of adopting diverse enrolment modalities, in so far, as the requirement of equity is not compromised. Agreed that the rules should not be bent in favour of any special group, it will appear that the peculiar nature of representative politics, in our system, provides a justification, even if somewhat tenuous, for certain actions. Here is a country where the electorate expects the legislator to fix their family members in jobs, pay the school fees of their children, underwrite medical expenses, provide public amenities like electricity and pipe-borne water and even bankroll weddings! Any legislator who is unable to do these things is regarded as a failure.

Curiously, while theoretically, such privileged allocation of slots on the programme could be regarded as discriminatory, at the end of the day, the children of the less privileged end up filling these slots. We can think of two reasons for this development. First, most of the well-placed people will never send their children to the N-Power programme. No. They would rather leverage high net worth opportunities in the oil and gas sector, security, the financial services sector and the public service generally. For another, their sole motivation for corralling these opportunities is to boost their political capital by dispensing IOUs to be paid for, by the beneficiaries, at the next elections. Is that slavery? No. It is called patronage system. Is it morally defensible? That is a question I would rather leave to the philosophers.

For now, what is certain is that, to borrow a jargon that was commonly used by the military, Sadiya Farouq and her team have injected, a "new lease of life", into the N-Power programme. That the present participants can now confidently exit into productive engagements, is a breakthrough of immense significance. That some of the many unemployed graduates, who have waited for years, to be enrolled into the system will now realise their dreams, is a reassuring development that cannot be ignored. Finally, that the programme will now run on a robust digital platform that minimises the shortcomings of the past, is a much-desired paradigm shift that builds greater confidence into the management of public policy. Hopefully, with much-needed understanding between the ministry and the National Assembly as well as other stakeholders, the programme will be assured of seamless budgetary empowerment, to the benefit of all.

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