Palliatives: What will Tinubu learn from SURE-P, Conditional Cash Transfer?

WHEN President Bola Tinubu announced the fuel subsidy removal in his inaugural speech on May 29, it came with mixed feelings and some uncertainties. 

Days after, Nigerians started witnessing a new dimension of hardship with an increased cost of living—the rise in the cost of food and fuel price, leading to public agitation.

It was clear to the new administration that the pains were overwhelmingly unbearable.

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and relevant stakeholders kicked. And prominent among public concerns was why the Federal Government would initiate such a policy without the needed shock absorbers – reliefs.

Tinubu would later promise a palliative measure which many described as setting the cart before the horse.

The palliative…

In no time, on July 13, the President wrote to the Senate seeking approval for the $800 million palliative loan from the World Bank. He described the plan as “shock-responsive safety net supports for all and vulnerable Nigerians and the cost of meeting basic needs.”

Bola Tinubu
President of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu

Tinubu explained, “under the conditional cash transfer window of the programme, the federal government of Nigeria will transfer the sum of 8,000 a month to 12 million poor and low-income households for a period of six months with a multiplying effect on about 60 million individuals.”

The plan to disburse N8,000 to 12 million poor households still met stiff condemnation. Most Nigerians kicked against the plan. They considered it irrational considering the rising inflation put at about 22.79 per cent, low purchasing power and the increasing cost of transportation, which will render the sum worthless.

The average transport fare within major cities has increased by 97.88 per cent. This is based on the Transport Fare Watch data uploaded by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) Saturday, August 12, 2023. An average cost of a kilogram of beef stood at N2,653.02, indicating a growth of 27.55 per cent.

The ICIR even examined the feasibility of the federal government’s proposed intervention. Findings showed a typical Nigerian household has about five persons in a family. The family size is much higher in rural areas, with 5.42 individuals, according to the NBS, and 4.50 in urban areas.

In fact, the NBS survey on Nigeria Living Standards (2020) pegged Jigawa state as having the highest family size of 8.15 persons. And this implies such a family, for instance, would rely on N8,000 for a month to cushion the effect of the economic reforms if they emerged as beneficiaries.

Following public outcry in some quarters, the president withdrew the palliative for review, after which it was announced that each state, including the FCT, will get N5 billion as palliative.

But how has this kind of initiative fared in the past?

In the past, when the federal government implemented similar palliative projects, accountability and transparency in the distribution were a major public concern. And to a large extent, it did not work as it should. Politicians influenced who got what.

Highlights of Tinubu Speech

The scandalous hoarding of COVID-19 palliatives during the pandemic is still fresh in the mind of many and has remained a cause of distrust among most Nigerians.

The Subsidy Reinvestment Empowerment Programme (SURE-P) under former president Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is often considered as slush funds where government resources got looted in the name of palliatives to the masses. Few eyebrows were raised on the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) of the immediate past administration through the controversial.

How CBN allegedly disbursed N3.5 trillion for COVID-19 Palliatives

The Sure-P experience 

The SURE-P initiative commenced in 2012. The idea was to reinvest savings from the nation’s fuel subsidy removal for social safety nets and public infrastructure. The entire initiative was to benefit the people directly.

But the pioneer chairman, Christopher Kolade, was the first to raise credibility concerns on the fuel subsidy palliative. He accused officials of the Jonathan administration of undermining the initiative and being overwhelmed by certain forces within the former President’s administration. Kolade later resigned, and the project went south.   

“We started by saying we would offer employment to 5000 youths from every state. Of course, if you are sitting in Abuja, and you want to identify 5000 youths in all the states, it is difficult unless you involve people who are on the spot.

“Now, it was the feeling of our committee, led by me, that we needed politically neutral people to identify people in the states. In other words, get civil servants to go in there and say, according to the criteria you’ve agreed, these are the 5000 youths from this state. But we were told that would not be acceptable.

“So something was set up called State Implementation Committees made up mainly of people with political affiliations with one party or the other. When that was brought into play, I pointed out that I feared this would politicise our actions. And that therefore I felt we should take politicians out of this. But I was overruled by those who had the power to overrule me.

“And then, it started happening…”

In January 2018, a former Permanent Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity, Clement Onubuogo, forfeited N664 million and $137,680 to the federal government, having been prosecuted for diversion of funds from the SURE-P programme. This was after the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arrested him.

By May 2022, a judge, Babs Kuewuni of the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos, sentenced the accused to 12 years imprisonment, among other forfeitures, to the government’s coffer. But he was not the only one accused of fleecing the government through the SURE-P.

In the same year, the former governor of Katsina state, Ibrahim Shema, was accused of laundering N5.77 billion SURE-P funds. He was prosecuted before a justice, Hadiza Rabiu Shagari, on a 26-count conspiracy and money laundering charge.

Shema allegedly stole the money from the state’s SURE-P account.

In May 2022, the EFCC arrested the former governor of Zamfara State, Abdulaziz Yari, over alleged financial fraud of about N22 billion linking the politician to the SURE-P programme.

The anti-graft agency, in a statement issued on July 28, 2022, revealed that Yari, who was considered to have benefitted from the corruption of Ahmed Idris, former Accountant-General of the Federation, ordered N17.15 billion be paid into a private firm – Fimex Professional Services. 

It remains unclear whether Yari and other accused persons listed by Idris will be prosecuted to the point of conviction. But, these were the sets of persons identified by the anti-graft agency.

In 2013, the Plateau State House of Assembly raised the alarm over unspent N3 billion SURE-P funds stored in government accounts, not disbursed to the beneficiaries. In November of the same year, the Senate queried Bala Mohammed, the former FCT minister, over the mismanagement of FCT funds. The lawmakers grilled him for the wrong transfer of N1 billion fund meant for the SURE-P project into the Abuja Investment Funds.   

Towards the inauguration of the former President, Mohammed Buhari, in May 2015, beneficiaries of the SURE-P programme almost disrupted the swearing-in activities. The aggrieved group numbering 119, 000, under Community Service for Women and Youths Empowerment Project (CSWYEP), threatened over concerns the Buhari government might not settle unpaid benefits accrued from the SURE-P programme.

“But as we speak, the Federal Government owes February, March, April, and May; they are owing state operators also. Even the N100,000 monthly allowances of the state chairmen and other state operators have also yet to be paid. The Minister of Labour sent a memo, dated May 18 2015, to all states of the Federation stating that the programme will end May 29, 2015.”    

The rots around the SURE-P project execution continued a year after Buhari assumed office.

The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), in November 2016, recovered 95 vehicles from public officials involved in SURE-P projects, among other loots worth N29.77 billion, recovered by the commission.

ICPC recovers 95 SURE-P Vehicles from government officials. File copy

The ICIR, on August 2018, further documented how N600 million SURE-P funds meant for tourism development centres were either never executed or done shoddily. A few of the projects in question were constructing art and craft markets at the National Stadium, Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom State and the popular Ikogosi Cold and Warm Spring in Ekiti State. Both reportedly got awarded N11.5 million each, but a field visit revealed “there was no project or building designated as an art and craft centre” at the supposed project sites.

Buhari’s national social register 

On Thursday, July 20, the National Economic Council (NEC) of the Tinubu-led administration resolved to discard the national social register over integrity issues.

For instance, the Anambra State Governor, Charles Soludo, argued that most of those who claimed to have been beneficiaries of the palliative through the social register under the Muhammadu Buhari administration would usually not own bank accounts, thus, challenging to have digitally received any money through transfer.

Soludo, while briefing the press at the presidential villa about some of the issues discussed at the council meeting, queried how the data of the poorest of the poor was generated. The Anambra state governor, a former head of Nigeria’s Central Bank, further argued that the beneficiaries may not even own mobile phones.

Regional distribution of the social register sourced from the National Social Safety-Nets Coordinating Office (NASSCO)

“Let’s talk about a social register and them distributing things through the social register by digital means, implying that these people already have account numbers and they have phone numbers.

“Maybe we are talking about some other people and not Nigerians. The poorest 25 per cent of Nigerians are likely, if not totally unbanked, and lack access to a telephone,” Soludo said.

“Now, in thinking through that, we felt that sitting in Abuja and calling on somebody in Anambra to compile a list and send it to you and then the person depends on who he brings, and the registers are generated, and people go to those villages and ask where those people are, and they don’t show up. This is stress testing. We think we need to go down back to the drawing board.”

He advised that if the FG was to deliver such palliative from Abuja, it should be executed in partnership with the state government using peculiar parameters and formats to generate the comprehensive register.

Soludo said such a move would be open and satisfy specific testable criteria, such that relevant officials could call out the villagers and everyone would confirm the real vulnerable people if the government is truly targeting the category of the masses.

“So the integrity test is what is missing with that register. Many have just described what is being counted as national register as bogus; some describe it as a phantom, some in all manner of terms. So we need to face the problem that we don’t have a credible register and get back to work on this.”

Having been recommended by NEC, this implies a possible scrap of the social register. The NEC is rated as the top decision-making body in the country. But this may not sit well with the social safety office.

The recommendation has since caused anxiety at the National Social Safety-Nets Coordinating Office (NASSCO), with different actors sharing conflicting positions. The office, managed by the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development (FMHDSD), insists the register is an aggregation of state registers put together by the respective states across the country, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

“States build the register using a community-based targeting approach undertaken by targeting teams and enumerators engaged by states and overseen by their ministries of planning.”

Experts react 

A professor, Bell Ihua is among those who believe it should be updated to capture new variables rather than puncturing the integrity of the national register.

“The compilation of the national social register is not a wasted effort. Taxpayers’ money was spent to compile the register, and the experts who handled the assignment are still around.

“We must not jettison the register, rather work towards verifying and upgrading it.”   

Former Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (NEITI), Waziri Adio, shared a similar perspective as Ihua. In h his article titled, Distrusts, Politics and the National Social Register, he criticised Soludo’s remark, stressing that the social register is the database of Poor and Vulnerable Households (PVHHs) in Nigeria; put together with input from the states and financial support from donor organisation.    

“The way Soludo frames the issue, an impression has been created that Nigeria’s social register is a phantom one, cooked with dubious intent, totally devoid of rigour, and most importantly, assembled with no inputs from the states other than someone in Abuja casually calling some random persons and asking them to send whatever lists they could lay their hands on or conjure.

“Such an impression is not only incorrect, it is gravely unfair to the process that led to the NSR and the stakeholders that put it together.”

This was Adio’s position, standing solidly behind the process. He firmly believed the data aggregation process involved multiple stakeholders, including from the states, especially the ministries of budget and planning from the 36 sub-nationals, and thus, might invalidate the position shared by the national economic council.      

    The Permanent Secretary of the humanitarian affairs ministry, Nasir Sani-Gwarzo, further alluded to the earlier submissions of how the database came to be. He spoke recently at a multi-stakeholder meeting on Policy Dialogue on Nigeria’s Poverty and Vulnerability Profile. Present were representatives from the European Union (EU), World Food Programme (WFP), Save the Children, International Labour Organisation (ILO), the World Bank, United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), and NASSCO.

    Perm Sec @FMHDSD Dr. Nasir Sani-Gwarzo: “The National Social Register is not a dataset that addresses every problem, but it’s a complete dataset that foresees every problem around poverty”

    — NASSCO Nigeria (@NasscoNigeria) July 25, 2023

     It is not a national beneficiary register, he said. He explained it is a pool of data stakeholders and policymakers could leverage to identify social intervention beneficiaries.   

    “The national social register is not a dataset that addresses every problem, but it’s a complete dataset that foresees every problem around poverty.”    

    Though the government already indicated an interest in reviewing its proposed N8,000 palliative plan, carefully observing the gaps in the previous intervention projects would be handy.

    Olugbenga heads the Investigations Desk at The ICIR. Do you have a scoop? Shoot him an email at [email protected]. Twitter Handle: @OluAdanikin

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