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ANALYSIS: Five reasons why TraderMoni might just be a vote-buying strategy

THE federal government says its TraderMoni programme is aimed at financially empowering as many as two million market women across the country, from a N20 billion fund, using loans that start with N10,000.

The programme has however come under fire in the past few weeks for being much more than that, with many accusing the Muhammadu Buhari administration of using it to sway voters at the grassroots in their favour, as the general elections draw near.

Like the N3000 “stipend” paid into civil servants’ accounts by the Ekiti State government a day to the July gubernatorial election, the APC government critics say is indirectly buying votes with its interest-free loans to traders.

Awwal Rafsanjani, chairman of Transparency International in Nigeria, is one of those critical of the programme. He said, during a television interview on Tuesday, that vote-buying has evolved to have more official recognition as some government agencies now use public funds to promote partisan political campaigns.

“Nigerians are seeing what is going on,” he stated. “For the first time, we have seen official use of public funds in the name of TraderMoni to actually induce voters because this is a programme that is not part and parcel of the manifesto of the ruling party. And it was not done three years ago, it is only done when it is about election time. It goes contrary to our constitution and to having a free and fair election.”

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo, in his biting letter to President Buhari on Sunday, went a step further by describing TraderMoni as a “very shallow and lopsided, if not an outrightly idiotic programme”.

In any case, here are five reasons why the TraderMoni project has an undertone of vote-buying and politicking.

1. Belated date of birth, suspect timing

According to Whois, an online identity provider, the programme’s official website was registered on July 18, 2018 — exactly four months to the lifting of ban on political campaign and about seven months to the presidential election. It is also three months and a week after Buhari openly declared his intention to seek a second term in office.

Marketmoni’s website, on the other hand, was registered as far back as February 21, 2017. Also indicative is the fact that while the latter’s domain was booked for two years in advance, TraderMoni’s was only reserved for only a year. Unless it is renewed, the website will cease to exist by August.

In addition to that,  MarketMoni joined Twitter as far back as June 2015, whereas TraderMoni only joined in August 2018.

2. Something isn’t right with the domain, email

It is odd that the domain registrant of TraderMoni is Uzoma Nwagba (for the Bank of Industry), who is the Chief Operating Officer of GEEP and Special Adviser to the Minister of Trade and Investment.

Usually, government-owned websites have their domain registration and web maintenance outsourced to private companies. For instance, Marketmoni, a programme also said to be executed by BOI, has its domain registered by Meka Olowola, Managing Partner at Zenera Consulting, a reputation management consultancy that provides communications services. Asides this, federal government websites generally make use of Galaxy Backbone, a government-owned Information and Communications Technology Services provider.

It is also observed that while the official email address of MarketMoni is stated as marketmoni@boi.ng (that is connected to the bank’s domain name), that of TraderMoni reads as support@tradermoni.ng.

3. Simply too risky

TraderMoni shares common features with Marketmoni, besides the logo. Both loans range between N10,000 and N100,000, but they are miles apart when it comes to structure and rigidity.

“With TraderMoni, you can receive interest-free loans starting from N10,000 and growing all the way to N100,000 as you pay back,” says the site’s about page. “Getting the next loan is automatic. As soon as you pay back any loan within three months, you dial a code on your phone and you get the next higher loan immediately.”

For MarketMoni, on the other hand, beneficiaries must belong to a registered and accredited market association, cooperative or trade group; they must have a valid Bank Verification Number; they must be nominated and guaranteed by the market association or group must nominate a cooperative or trade group; the market association or group must be registered with BOI; and they must have a business location to be verified by MarketMoni agents.

The implication of this is simply that loans given under MarketMoni can easily be tracked and refunds can be enforced by the government. However, under TraderMoni, the risk involved is huge. It is not only the N20 billion required to pay N10,000 to two million Nigerians that is at risk of not being retrievable; this loss can stretch from this figure to as much as N200 billion.

The reason for this is that beneficiaries may hack the system by regularly returning the loans within three months until they get N100,000, and then refuse to pay back. Considering the attitude with which many Nigerians approach other social investment programmes such as the N-Power programme, the scheme can thus be largely likened to a gratuitous package.

4. Quickened, flawed manner of execution

With the way the presidency is going about executing the programme, it is almost like a market-centred campaign rally. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has been to nearly all the benefiting states in the past few months to mix with the traders, making sure to blow the administration’s trumpet at each opportunity.

To inaugurate and monitor the programme, Osinbajo has been to Lagos, Ekiti, Benin, Edo, Delta, Niger, Oyo, Cross River, Abuja, Imo, Kwara, among others — mostly states in the Southern region — between September and January.

There are also indications that the implementation is, for some reason, hurried. It has gone on with a relentlessly swift pace, despite reports of corruption, kickbacks, fraud and partisanship marring the project.

An investigation by Sahara Reporters has revealed that staffers at “Access Bank, Diamond Bank, Ecobank, First City Monument Bank (FCMB), Fidelity Bank, First Bank, Polaris Bank Limited, and Standard Chartered, all said they had not received instructions on repayment of the Trader Moni refunds,” contrary to what the Vice President would have Nigerians believe.

The report also exposed “numerous fraudulent activities that make repayment almost impossible”, as many of the traders are not directly linked to the loan but benefit through middlemen who take a cut, sometimes as high as 50 per cent. Some traders, in fact, bought new SIM cards to apply, in order to avoid having to repay, and many others see the cash simply as their share of “government money”—not a loan.

Errors on the programme’s website also support the position that its implementation has been shoddy. One that stands out is how exactly the same answer is provided to three unrelated questions under the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) session.

5. No progress on MarketMoni?

Finally, as the beneficiaries of the TraderMoni scheme continue to rise on a weekly basis, not much progress seems to have been recorded for MarketMoni in the past few months.

In May 2018, it was said that the MarketMoni “interest-free loan scheme has now successfully reached over 350,000 beneficiaries in all 36 states of Nigeria, and the Federal Capital City”. Eight months later, the same figure is still quoted by the Information Minister, Lai Mohammed.

The question begging for explanation here is: why the stagnation? Or has focus shifted away from the programme because it is not as populist and does not give immediate results on the largest scale possible?

Wrapped in mystery — like the others

Just as other social investment schemes funded by the federal government, including the Anchor Borrowers’ Scheme and school-feeding programme, the financial and other details are not readily available to the public for perusal. Also, checks by The ICIR show that the breakdown of financial expenses on the various programmes, including GEEP, are not contained in the federal budget.

Though said to be executed by the Bank of Industry, there is strangely nothing on BOI’s website that suggests this as there is no mention of the project there, especially under managed funds and products. The only link to the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP) is this form for the nationwide registration of market associations, women, cooperatives, artisan groups, trade associations, and trade cooperatives.

The Chief Operating Officer’s defence

Uzoma Nwagba has in a recent article come to the defence of the TraderMoni project. His argument: the first GEEP programme commenced in May 2016, long before re-election campaigns started; and TraderMoni came late to the party because it was borne out of direct field lessons from implementing the Marketmoni project.

He wrote: “Moreover, for those who still push the vote-buying narrative, it is important to always ask: is GEEP (either MarketMoni, FarmerMoni, or TraderMoni) a wrong programme? In other words, is it impacting millions of Nigerians or not? If it is, then why would there be a wrong time to do the right thing?

“It is impressive to see the results so far. Over half of these 1.5 million beneficiaries are first-time operators of bank accounts or mobile wallets. Seeing them use these tools even after receiving their loans is a testament to the power of financial inclusion for our economy. The Bank of Industry is committed to targeting everybody who is not financially included.”

Nwagba, however, added a statement which appears to unintentionally lend credence to the vote-buying narrative. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “it is noteworthy that some of the states with the largest beneficiaries are not even states that politically align with the party in power.” Reasonably, if this outcome was intended from the outset by the project managers, it would indeed be a convenient political scheme.

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