Thursday, 8th June 2023

Why controversy over FG’s COVID-19 palliatives persists

By  Lawrence Njoku (Enugu), Kelvin Ebiri (Port Harcourt), Seye Olumide (Lagos), Njadvara Musa (Maiduguri) and Rotimi Agboluaje (Ibadan)
26 April 2020   |   4:29 am
The distribution of palliatives by the Federal Government to cushion the effect of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on poor and vulnerable Nigerians in parts of the country has been nothing short of bedlam.

The Honourable Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq. PHOTO: TWITTER/Sadiya_farouq

• Oyo, Customs Tango Over ‘Weevil-infested’ Rice
• You’re Politicising FG’s Palliative, Playing With Peoples’ Health – APC Tells Makinde
• CRPP Slams Lagos’ Sharing Of Relief Package
• Don’t Use SIP Data To Share Coronavirus Palliatives – Onuegbu
• This Is The Best Time To Invest In Data Mining – Harry
• Nigerian Living Standards Survey, A Reliable Source Of Data On Poverty – Ukeje

The distribution of palliatives by the Federal Government to cushion the effect of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on poor and vulnerable Nigerians in parts of the country has been nothing short of bedlam.

Also, President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent directive for the expansion of beneficiaries of the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) from 2.6 million to 3.6 million, with more focus on the urban poor, who depend on the informal sector to earn their livelihood (daily wage earners), as well as people living with disabilities appear to have failed to impress millions of Nigerians that are living way below poverty line in far-flung parts of the country.

The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouq, recently announced that Nigerians, who recharge their mobile phones with more than N100, and have more than N5, 000 bank balance are ineligible to benefit from the palliatives.

Not only did these parametres set by the government draw the ire of developmental experts for failing to meet standards, they also questioned why focus on the urban poor alone, when the country is now regarded as the poverty capital of the world.

Indications that all is not well with the ongoing distribution of palliatives in the country emerged after Oyo State government, on Friday, indicated that it might return the 1,800 bags of rice donated to the state by the Federal Government as the grains were weevils-infested.

The Executive Assistant to Governor Seyi Makinde on Agribusiness, Dr. Debo Akande, explained that the three trailer loads of rice given to the state, through the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) on Monday had gone bad and unfit for human consumption.

A day after the state government made the claim, the NCS, Oyo/Osun Area Command, yesterday, countered the claim, which it described as “annoying and appalling.”

The Public Relations Officer of the command, Abdullahi Lagos when contacted on phone, said: “The Executive Assistant to Governor Seyi Makinde on Agribusiness, Dr Debo Akande, together with the Special Adviser to the governor on security, Fatai Owoseni earlier came to our office to check the rice before it was evacuated from our warehouse,” he said. “We were shocked to hear that the rice were not good for consumption. How can we now release expired rice for the public? This is very annoying.”

He explained further, “Oyo/Osun command has two warehouses, so the government representatives were the ones that even choose the rice they want, Oyo State was the first to evacuate its rice before other states came for their.”

Lagos who, however, noted that although it is possible that a few bags of rice might have issues, stressed that that does not means that all the bags of rice were not good for consumption.

But the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Oyo State, yesterday, chided the Makinde-led administration for rejecting palliatives, saying the action was politically motivated.

The publicity secretary of the party, AbdulAzeez Olatunde, in a statement made available to journalists in Ibadan, said: “The rejection of the rice palliative from the Federal Government did not come to Oyo State APC as a surprise, because the government of Oyo State under Engr. Seyi Makinde was not the only state that was given rice palliative, but we know the rejection has political colouration.

“It is very thoughtful of the Federal Government to have given the rice palliative to Ekiti, Ondo, Osun and Oyo states the same day. To God be the glory, none of the other three states that collected the rice consignment the same day had made similar complaints. This is another point to buttress our observations of unnecessary politicking of COVID-19 pandemic by Oyo State government.”

In a related development, the Lagos State Chapter of Conference of Registered Political Parties (CRPP) has expressed dissatisfaction with the way the state is managing the COVID-19 palliatives.

A statement issued by the Publicity Secretary, Mr. Oguntoyinbo Olumide Hassan, while commenting on steps taken so far in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, added that the “government is gradually drifting towards anarchy, with the way citizens are being maltreated and humiliated by government and security agencies in relation to COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, identification, isolation, diagnosis, test, treatment and management of palliatives to cushion the effects of the lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja.”

CRPP said urgent care must be given to vulnerable citizens in the interest of humanity, and that the so-called palliatives must cut across all strata of Lagos residents, irrespective of social, political and economic underlying to avoid another human catastrophe of highest magnitude.

It said: “What about artisans, who eke out their livings daily? These people also vote during elections. Is the government saying they are irrelevant or insignificant? Or is this a punishment for not belonging to the APC? The state must change its method of distributing palliatives at this period.”

It urged Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to act now to avoid hunger pandemic that has turned some youths to robbers in some parts of the state.
GOVERNOR Babagana Zulum of Borno State, while flagging off the distribution of COVID-19 palliatives to Maiduguri residents, informed that the palliatives were being distributed to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and vulnerable groups in camps and some host communities.

At the exercise, which took place at Muna Customs House IDP camp, he said the distribution of food items was to cushion the effects of the lock down, and contain the pandemic in the state.

He explained that the distributed food items, were released to government by the North East Development Commission (NEDC) for distribution to IDPs in camps and host communities affected by the decade-long insurgency in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states.

“I thank the Commission for the supply of food items in the twin crises of COVID-19 and Boko Haram insurgency,” he said.

After a critical appraisal of conditions listed by the Federal Government to qualify for the Conditional Cash Transfer, a policy analyst and Executive Director, Anambra State Investment Promotion and Protection Agency (ANSIPPA), Dr. Ifediora Amobi, faulted the parametres, stating that ability to recharge a mobile phone with more than N100, and a bank balance of more than N5000 were not standard parametres to measure the poor and vulnerable in the society.

He said: “Of course, they are not parametres in any sense of the word. First is it ₦100 per charge? ₦100 a day, or what? Again, is the bank balance of ₦5,000 over what period? In many cases, poverty is measured on the basis of levels of income, consumption and other indicators such as illiteracy level, lack of job opportunities, malnutrition, lack of access to healthcare, safe drinking water and sanitation.”

Amobi explained that ability to recharge a mobile phone with more than N100, or a bank balance of up to N5, 000 does not necessarily remove the tag of poor and vulnerable from anyone, stressing that indicators of poverty have to be clearly defined, “otherwise if I recharge N150 and have N5,500, would that mean that I am rich?”

Also speaking, a development economist, Dr. Chiwuike Uba, noted that whereas poverty measurement is multi-dimensional, the standard deployed by the Federal Government is not one of them.

“It is important to state that the government of Nigeria has been conducting poverty surveys in the past and what was announced has never been part of the measures. I guess this measurement is specifically for COVID-19 pandemic palliatives distribution.

“As a standard, anyone who is physiologically deprived access to economic resources to satisfy basic material needs (basket of food and non-food basic needs-including shelter, clothing, and health) is considered poor. Available statistics show that over 90 million Nigerians are poor and out of this number, over 68.8 per cent are food poor, which means they are unable to have a basic meal per day. Over 69 per cent of the Nigerian population lives below poverty level of $1.90 a day,” Uba said .

The economist further observed that mobile phones of some poor folks were recharged by either friends, relations or well-wishers, adding that it was inappropriate to use the amount of recharge to determine who is poor or not.

Another economist and Vice President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Chika Onuegbu, also said that it would be wrong for government to use the data currently being used for the Social Investment Programmes to determine beneficiaries of Coronavirus palliatives.

Onuegbu alleged that the data were politically manipulated and should not be adopted for the exercise.

“What government needs to realise is that its policy on Coronavirus has made the urban daily wage earners to now have nothing to eat. And as a result of having no means of livelihood, they are deemed poor. Government modalities evoke doubts on how it first identified the those receiving the SIP funds,” he said

According to him, a lot of people in the informal sector in the urban areas, whose survival was contingent on getting a daily wage, usually do not have savings, thus risk exclusion from the palliatives.

He said palliatives for Coronavirus ought to truly be for people in the informal sector who have been deprived of earning their daily livelihoods and unable to take care of their families.

“Government having asked people to stop work, created new poor people, the urban poor, who are basically self-employed people, who go out daily to look for jobs. Those people usually don’t have savings. An electrician who has nobody to work for is not different from those that government had been disbursing conditional cast transfer money to,” he added.

Chairman, Board of Trustees of the South-South Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Billy Harry, said the lack of clarity about how government arrived at the modalities to alleviate the impact on the poor was worrisome.

“What is the basis of their calculation?” He queried, adding that since N30, 000 is now the minimum wage for the country, it should be “the most minimum we should use. Anybody who earns that minimum wage should be qualified from the palliative. If there are people who should be given palliative, it should be those that earn the minimum wage,” he said.

Harry’s submission tallies with the views of a former Director of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Dr. Stan Ukeje, who said that Nigeria should rely on past poverty surveys to arrive at acceptable parametres for determining beneficiaries of the palliatives.

He said: “Well known parametres of household poverty are categorical characteristics such as age, gender, household composition and disability status, and socio-economic factors such as income, employment, property, assets and education. Ownership of cell phone and recharge amount and bank balance are not recognised criteria and they will pose periodicity problem – over what period for instance.

“The reliable source of data on poverty should be the Nigerian Living Standards Survey (NLSS) conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) but the last published survey was conducted in 2009/2010. Another survey was scheduled for October 2019 but there was no money provided for it.”

Ukeje also said the impact of expanding the conditional cash transfer would be very little. He added: “Data should be collected at a particular period for all eligible beneficiaries, all of who may not be enrolled in the Social Protection Register. What should have been done now would have been merely enrolling. In the current crisis period, it will be difficult to collect data and enroll, objectively. Any exercise to meet the current challenge may be susceptible to leakages.”

Amobi, Uba and Ukeje, however, commended President Buhari’s directive for the expansion of the beneficiaries of the conditional cash transfer from 2.6 million to 3.6 million, with focus on urban poor, but noted that the number falls short of the country’s poverty index.

“Statistically, Nigeria cannot be the headquarters of the world’s extreme poor if only two per cent of the entire population (3.6 million) is considered poor.  The CCT should reach 70 million Nigerians or 38.8 per cent (official poverty rate) of the Nigerian population. The 3.6 million is barely the population of the poorest of the poor in only one of the six geopolitical regions,” Amobi said.

On the best way to determine truly poor and vulnerable Nigerians, given that the country is bereft of reliable data, Amobi recommended credible census, National ID system, genuine national insurance scheme, verifiable state registers with account details and BVN, and target groups.

For Uba, “the proposed 3.6 million persons is less than two per cent of Nigeria’s poverty population, and that tells you that it would amount to a flash in the pan.”

He added: “Whereas it is commendable that the government is thinking on cushioning the negative effects of COVID-19 on Nigeria’s poor, it is important to begin to plan for a sustainable policy that would lift them from poverty. Such policy should be geared towards employment creation. Therefore, I would be happy to see the government deploy some of the funds earmarked for sharing to building cottage industries that would not only employ people, but would increase revenue to the government. People can also be encouraged to go into farming/agriculture and are supported with part of this money. Teach them how to catch fish.”

He noted the local councils would have been able to determine the poor and vulnerable if they were truly functional.

“This would have made the distribution of whatever palliatives the government has for the poor and vulnerable in our society easier. Don’t forget that at the community level, everyone knows who is who, and it would be easier to say who is actually poor or not.”

Nevertheless, it is important to involve town union presidents, traditional rulers and local governments’ authorities in the allocation and distribution of palliatives. To ensure transparency and accountability, proper profiling and documentation of the beneficiaries should be put in place and made available to the public,” he suggested.