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A curious N75b youth empowerment fund

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In what appears to be a response to the cry over youth unemployment in the country, the Federal Government recently earmarked N75 billion as youth empowerment fund. In principle, this is a gesture laced with good intentions because it is a modest but necessary intervention to the employment crisis in the country.

According to the Minister of Youths and Sports Development, Mr. Sunday Dare, the fund, which is billed to cater for youths within the age bracket of 18 and 35, “is meant to create a special window for accessing credit facilities and financing on the part of our youths that will help to fund their ideas, innovations and also support their enterprise.”

That the government deemed it expedient to respond to the challenge of unemployment of Nigeria’s youthful population in this manner is an expression of concern. The poor, non-responsive state of the economy, widespread insecurity, the propensity for violence and the potential danger, which the estimated 68 million unemployed youths pose to a battered polity are genuine causes for concern. Moreover, there are many skillful and potential entrepreneurial youths for whom a few million-naira worth of loan would be a life-changer if and when properly guided. To this category of Nigerian youths, this gesture is welcoming.

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However, despite the laudability of the intention, critics have asked, when did the government become as altruistic to care for the youths of this country? Why is the government responsive to matters of fund disbursement to youths when it vacillates on stepping up modalities that would facilitate the establishment of superstructures for youth development? They have also questioned the rationale behind the establishment of a youth fund and what purpose it seeks to serve. This query seems justified in the context of the many young empowerment programmes that have been inaugurated in the last 20 years.

Since the transition to civilian rule in 1999, successive governments, including the present administration, have restructured youth empowerment programmes as a strategic move to address youth unemployment in the country. So far a roll call of such programmes include: Youth Enterprise with Innovation in Nigeria (YouWin), Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P), N-power, Youth Empowerment and Development Initiative (YEDI), Youth Initiative for Sustainable Agriculture in Nigeria (YISA), Graduate Internship Scheme (GIS), Youth Entrepreneur Support Programme (YES-P), African Youth Empowerment Nigeria (AYEN), Diamond–Crest for Youth Education Foundation, Youth Empowering People (YEP).

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So far, three of the current and most prominent programmes include the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P), the Youth Enterprise With Innovation in Nigeria (YOU-WIN) and the current N-Power. By far the most popular of the three, The SURE-P, was introduced in February 2012 by the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan. Experts who have studied the programme explain that it “focuses on management and investment of Federal Government savings derived from proceeds accruing from the partial removal of the subsidy on petroleum products. The SURE-P is the flagship of recent efforts to provide job opportunities to graduates of tertiary institutions. It is more or less a whole range of activities and programmatic schemes, including the Graduate Internship Scheme (GIS), Community Services Scheme (CSS), Vocational Training Scheme (VTS) and Community Services, Women and Youth Empowerment (CSWYE), among others.”

If there had been so many successful youth empowerment schemes, how is this youth fund different? What makes it stand out? As the minister alleged, this is the first time in the country the youth would have what he termed a ‘‘youth bank.’’ He also stated that the Ministry of Youths and Sports Development would work the Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning and the Central Bank of Nigeria to facilitate youths’ access to the fund and thereby meet its set objectives.

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This position itself raises questions about the nature of youth empowerment schemes in the country. Who will be in charge? How will youths who need grants from the fund be assessed? How will eligible beneficiaries be assessed? Is N75 billion a realistic sum when compared with the humongous amount spent in a few weeks for the controversial school feeding programme during the lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Thus like road to hell, which they say is paved with good intentions, Nigerians need to take a more curious look at the youth fund to ascertain the level of accountability and transparency in its disbursement. Recent dramas of unsavoury episodes depicting wanton mismanagement, incurable taste for gargantuan allocation of funds for phantom projects, lack of accountability in the management of government finances have compelled enlightened Nigerians to be suspicious of government spending. They have also led to incredulity to any policy of this administration that seeks to spend tax-payers’ money on nondescript, mass-oriented programmes.

This administration has been so adroit in its efficiency for mismanagement, waste and irresponsibility that it has lost the moral clout that any responsible government ought to have. It is a sad commentary that with each passing day, the credibility of this government to carry out any pan-Nigerian project is fast waning.

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If government must allay the fears of critics who view this empowerment fund as another avenue to distribute money to cronies of the ruling administration, it should create structures from the system to effectively monitor the fund from approval to disbursement to beneficiaries. Such structures should ensure that not only will the beneficiaries be nationally distributed beyond religious, ethnic and partisan leanings, but also ensure that only youths who can make judicious use of the fund benefit from it. What this further suggests is that clearly understood criteria for eligibility should be set so that only competitive proposals, which address the fundamental requirements for youth empowerment, merit allocation or grants from the fund.

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