February 04, 2024

From Farouq to Edu: The murky reality of poverty alleviation programs in Nigeria - Luminous Jannamike

In Nigeria, a nation where the gulf between the rich and the poor seems to widen by the day, the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management, and Social Development was set up on August 21, 2019, by an executive pronouncement from former President Muhammadu Buhari with the noble intention of bridging this chasm through poverty alleviation programs. The ministry’s mission included developing humanitarian policies and providing effective coordination of national and international humanitarian interventions. However, a closer inspection reveals a disturbing trend of corruption and inefficiency that not only undermines the purpose of these initiatives but also raises questions about the integrity of their implementation.

Funds Misdirection: The Painful Toll on the Impoverished

Recently, there have been allegations and investigations into corruption within the programs of the ministry. For instance, the former Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management, and Social Development, Sadiya Umar-Farouq, was detained this week by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for questioning over allegations of corruption in the handling of N37.1 billion social intervention funds during her tenure. The EFCC uncovered a total sum of N37,170,855,753.44 allegedly laundered in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs under former minister Sadiya Umar-Farouk. The funds were transferred from the Federal Government’s coffers and sent to multiple bank accounts, leading to the purchase of luxury items and houses, as well as involvement in Federal Government contracts. However, she has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that she had absolutely no dealings with the contractor alleged to have laundered the said billions of Naira.
Similarly, her successor, Dr. Betta Edu, faced scrutiny after issuing a memo instructing the Accountant-General of the Federation to pay N585 million into the private bank account of a project accountant in her ministry, sparking calls for her sacking and probe of the transaction. 
At the heart of the controversy lies the dubious criteria used to select beneficiaries for these programs. Consequently, according to insiders and several reports, the unsettling reality is that the process of determining beneficiaries lacks transparency, and funds often end up in the wrong hands, bypassing those in dire need. What data are employed to determine who qualifies for aid? The lack of transparency in the selection process renders the poverty alleviation programs a source of frustration rather than empowerment for those in need. A study conducted in northeastern Nigeria and published on April 26, 2023, in the Journal of International Humanitarian Action revealed discrepancies in the definition of vulnerability in data gathering, raising questions about how targeting is carried out to identify vulnerable people and its implications for exclusion.
Another study by USAID titled “Cooperation Strategy (CDCS): The United States’ Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) for Nigeria (2020 – 2025)” emphasized the importance of transparency and accountability in data gathering and utilization for various development initiatives by the ministry. Instances of money meant for the poor being channeled to the wrong recipients in Nigeria include the current scandal at the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, where intervention projects that were supposed to be a relief to the citizens and a boost to the economy became conduits for corruption. The current allegations made against former minister Sadiya Umar-Farouq and suspended minister Betta Edu regarding mismanagement of public funds and irregular financial transactions, including payments made into personal bank accounts highlight the absence of transparent mechanisms and data reliability in the ministry and raise questions about the extent to which humanitarian programs address the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized segments of the population. The allocation of funds to different states and the disbursement of grants have also been subject to controversy, raising doubts about the fairness and impartiality of beneficiary selection processes. The implication of these is that poverty alleviation initiatives, meant to uplift the downtrodden, are now being scrutinized for their susceptibility to corruption. In the bustling markets and streets of Nigeria, citizens voice their concerns, emphasizing that payment processes are shrouded in secrecy and lack a clear mechanism to identify the truly impoverished.
“How do they even determine who is poor? It feels like tumbom-tumbom (Igbo word for gamble). We don’t have any hope. We hear about these programmes, but the help never seems to come our way,” remarked Mrs. Ifeoma Udegbulam, a food vendor who hawks her goods on a wheelbarrow in Wuse market, Abuja. The sentiment echoes across the nation, highlighting the widespread skepticism towards the efficacy of these programmes. “The poor in my community have not seen this ‘help’ they speak of. They (government officials) say they have a social register, but who are on this list?” questions Samson Danjuma, a youth leader in Karon-majiji, a suburb in the Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC). Speaking on the impact of these irregularities and systemic lapses on the intended beneficiaries, Amina Ahmed, a social worker registered with the Council of Social Work in Nigeria (CSWN), told Saturday Vanguard, “The irregularities in the implementation of poverty alleviation programs have a profound impact on the intended beneficiaries, leaving many in dire straits despite the purported aid. “The extremely poor are left out, and the failure to accurately identify and support those in genuine need perpetuates the cycle of poverty and deprivation, further deepening the divide between the privileged and the marginalized in Nigerian society.” However, there had been cases very poor Nigerians benefited from the cash sharing of the ministry especially in the northern parts of Nigeria.

Financial Aberrations:

A Shocking Revelation Meanwhile, yet another startling revelation has emerged, shedding light on the financial dimensions of corruption. The Humanitarian Affairs ministry awarded a staggering N438 million contract for the mere review of the social register, a task that has raised eyebrows across the nation. The contract was awarded to a company with alleged ties to the Minister of Interior, Mr. Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, suggesting potential cronyism. The exorbitant figure raises eyebrows and prompts citizens to question the motives behind such seemingly routine tasks. “N438m just to review the social register? That’s daylight robbery. That’s an outrageous sum for a review! Who is benefiting from this?” questions Adeolu Adewale, a civil rights activist and convener, Anti-Graft Advocates Network. “We cannot continue like this. The impoverished deserve better, and we demand answers from those in power,” he adds. Prior to her suspension, Dr. Betta Edu, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, highlighted shortcomings in the budget allocation for the ministry. She led officials from her ministry and its affiliated parastatals to defend the 2024 budget before the Joint National Assembly Committee on Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, chaired by Senator Idiat Adebule.
She criticized the 2024 budget allocation of N532.5bn, deeming it inadequate in light of the inflationary rate and the ministry’s mandate to alleviate poverty in Nigeria. Additionally, she pointed out that the capital budget ceiling had been reduced, a move that did not align with the ministry’s imperative to effectively address poverty. However, an official in the ministry, who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the failures of the system as well as the corruption scandals linked with Dr. Edu and her predecessor, said, “It doesn’t matter who is in charge or how much money is released; we never seem to get it right. We need a complete overhaul of how these poverty alleviation programs operate.” When asked for her comment, Fatima Ibrahim, a lecturer at Isa Mustapha Agwai Polytechnic in Nasarawa State, said, “The system is rigged against the poor. Without accurate data and a transparent process, how can we trust that with the release of more money to the ministry, aid will reach the right people?”

Historical Echoes: A Scam Spanning Administrations

This saga of corruption isn’t confined to the present; it stretches back to the Buhari administration and continues to cast its ominous shadow into the Tinubu era. Under the Buhari administration, there were reports of irregularities in the disbursement of funds under the National Social Investment Programmes Agency (NSIPA) initiated by the government. The NSIPA was designed to provide financial support to vulnerable individuals, but concerns were raised about the lack of transparency in the selection of beneficiaries and the effectiveness of the programme in reaching those in genuine need. During this time, there were allegations of inflated contracts and mismanagement of funds within the poverty alleviation programmes, raising suspicions of financial impropriety. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), has recovered about N39.8bn out of N44.8bn allegedly embezzled from the government account by Halima Shehu, former National Coordinator of the National Social Investment Programme (NSIPA) appointed by former President Buhari. Under the Tinubu administration, which succeeded the Buhari administration, similar concerns persisted regarding the transparency and effectiveness of poverty alleviation programmes of the ministry. In light of these challenges, there is a growing consensus among experts, civil society organizations, and concerned citizens about the urgent need for a comprehensive reform of poverty alleviation strategies in Nigeria. This reform would encompass measures to enhance transparency, accountability, and effectiveness in the administration of aid programs, ensuring that the most vulnerable segments of the population receive the support they require.

Physical Palliatives as a Solution:

In the midst of these revelations, a growing sentiment calls for a shift in approach – a move towards physical palliatives. Many Nigerians argue that physical palliatives rather than cash payments would serve as a more tangible and less corruptible form of aid. They posit that direct assistance, devoid of bureaucratic red tape, might offer a more immediate and impactful solution. 
“If they put 500 buses in any city transport costs will drop. That’s palliative. That will help the poor,” said Benard Oko in Enugu.
“They can help the poor settle medical bills, he added.
“If they gave us food or materials, at least we would know it’s not going into someone’s pocket,” suggests Hamza Alkali, a farmer in the nation’s capital.
Similarly, Gabriel Tsuzom, a furniture maker, asserts: “We need real help, not just promises. Physical palliatives can bridge the gap where these programmes fall short.”

Ongoing Investigations: Navigating the Path to Accountability.

As investigations continue, the delicate balance between exposing wrongdoing and ensuring fairness becomes crucial. The flaws within the Humanitarian Affairs ministry’s programmes threaten not only the credibility of poverty alleviation efforts but also the well-being of countless Nigerians. The time is ripe for a recalibration of priorities and a reformation of strategies that genuinely prioritize the welfare of the nation’s most vulnerable. “While Nigerians believe that change is possible, first, we must see accountability and reform in these programs. The accused should have their day in court, and justice should swiftly be served on those guilty of embezzling funds intended for the poor and vulnerable,” stated Barrister Emmanuel Ivoke with a chat Saturday Vanguard.
The story of Nigeria’s poverty alleviation programs is one of unfulfilled promises and lost hope. As the country grapples with the economic fallout from a global pandemic and internal displacements due to violent conflicts, as well as natural disasters such as flooding and erosion, the need for effective and corruption-free support programs is more urgent than ever. This situation calls for the government and its agencies to step up and safeguard the interests of the most vulnerable in society.
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