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BETTA EDU’s DOWNFALL AND LESSONS FROM SADIYA UMAR FAROUQ

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Combo photos of Betta Edu and Sadiya Umar Farouq

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BY ONYEME DIKE

The Nigerian blogosphere has been roiled over the past week with news of the suspension of the newly appointed Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Betta Edu.
Her travails began with news that she had approved the payment of N585m into the accounts of one Oniyelu Bridget, described as Project Accountant Grants for Vulnerable People.

The Accountant General of the federation, according to Premium Times, said her office refused to approve the payment because it was in contravention of civil service rules in line with the Public Sector Financial Regulations Act 2009 which states expressly that: personal money shall in no circumstances be paid into a government bank account nor shall any public money be paid into a private bank account. An officer who pays public money into a private account is deemed to have done so with fraudulent intention.”

Many have wondered why Edu would be suspended over an instruction that was not honoured. But facts now indicate that her travail goes beyond an instruction that was not honoured.
A leaked memo has emerged showing payments made for a N3bn consultancy contract to come up with a new National Social Register. That leaked memo has set off a seismic reverberation threatening other public officers.
This intervention will, however, focus on Edu’s downfall and the policy dissonance that led to the N3bn contract which has now stymied the career of one of the youngest members of the Tinubu cabinet.

This scandal would have been avoided if this administration had heeded the truism that government is a continuum and let the new minister continue from where her predecessor stopped.
It all began with one of the first populist moves by the Bola Ahmed Tinubu administration; an announcement that administration was going to pay N8,000 naira to 12 million Nigerian families over six months as palliatives to cushion the effect of the subsidy removals. The announcement was received with mixed feelings ranging from anger to bemusement and incredulity.

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Musical artist, Eedris Abdulkareem was scathing in his comment. “#8000 wey no fit feed one household for a day. Na it [sic] you want give dem as palliative for a whole month. You dey whine?”
Organised labour and civil society were not enthused either. A labour leader in Lagos, Mrs Funmi Sessi, noted that “Looking at the money and the effect of the subsidy removal that has escalated the prices of everything in the market, I wonder what the N8,000 can do for a family in a month.”

Twitter users also weighed in. @drdebodun was in support of the scheme albeit with a caveat. “#ConditionalCashTransfer: Don’t let the influencers fool you. CCT is a world-bank recognised intervention for poverty reduction in developing economies. It has been extensively used in Asia with good results. We only need to ensure our people don’t steal it.”

The payment, which was meant to come from a $800 million World Bank loan, was to be made through digital channels in order to, the presidency said, ensure credibility of the process to 12 million poor and low-income households for a period of six months with an expected multiplier effect on about 60 million individuals.

The plan was subsequently shelved with the Tinubu administration promising a review, following the outcry that trailed the announcement.

But while the plan was being reviewed, Governor Chukwuma Soludo of Anambra state shared some curious news when he addressed press men after a National Economic Council (NEC) meeting on July 20, 2023 convened to address the matter.
Soludo according to a report in TheCable “proposed the implementation of a cash transfer programme for states based on their social registers and a cash reward policy for public servants for six months.”

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But what raised eyebrows among policy makers and civil society organisations was his comment which called into question the integrity of the National Social Register (NSR) developed by the Buhari/Osinbajo administration.
Soludo told the press that NEC “agreed that states should come up with their own registers using formal and informal means. “We need to face the problem of the fact that we don’t have a credible register,” he said.”

The government’s plan to jettison a National Social Register that took over 10 years to build with the World Bank providing oversight was a clear case of policy dissonance and a needless re-invention of the wheel.

Americans say, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it.” The National Social Register according to Rev. David Ugolor, in a piece published on the website of his organisation, Africa Network for Environment And Economic Justice (ANEEJ) was not broken and did not lack integrity.

The Executive Director of ANEEJ said ”it is also important to clarify that the World Bank was central to the development of the Register, which factor facilitated the disbursement of the funds from the first tranche of the Abacha loot returned to Nigeria, through a judgement delivered by the Swiss Government. Donor agencies and development partners actually commended the integrity of the National Social Register and the diligent process that produced it.”

The register was developed through collaboration between the World Bank under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Finance during the Goodluck Jonathan administration. Adopted by the APC-led government of Muhammadu Buhari to help in achieving President Buhari’s ambitious aim of lifting 100million Nigerians out of poverty, it was initially domiciled in the office of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo as part of the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP) before being transferred to the newly formed Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development led by Sadiya Umar Farouq.

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At the time of the transfer, as at June 2018 according to yemiosinbajo.org, the “total number of people captured in the National Social Register is [sic] 503,552.”

While in office, Sadiya Umar Farouq and her ministry working with the National Social Investment Management System (NASIMS) and National Cash Transfer Office (NCTO) grew the register to 12.8 million poor and vulnerable households and 56.88 million individuals across 150,000 communities in 752 LGAs. Just 22 LGs short of capturing the entire 774 LGs in Nigeria according to figures from the ministry.

Independently verified figures from ANEEJ indicates that as at June 2023 the register contained “62,819,214 individuals; 15,730,004 households, over 8,000 Federal electoral wards, 764 LGAs and almost 200,000 communities across all the States of the Federation & the FCT

Ugolor notes further that “it is on record that our organisation-ANEEJ, with over 800 monitors across the country, monitored the disbursement of the Cash Transfers and commended the integrity of the National Social Register in our reports. We stand on that commendation, any day, any time,” and “There are numerous video testimonials by beneficiaries of the World Bank-assisted cash transfers, and the use of the NSR for the benefit of the poor and vulnerable households was not in contention.”

The World Bank had noted in its June 2023 edition of the Nigeria Development Update that ‘19.4 per cent or about 40.21 million Nigerians benefitted from the programme,” thanks to the National Social Register.
With these glowing testimonials, how did NEC arrive at its lack of credibility resolution?

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That dissonance in policy planning and understanding now appears to have claimed a major casualty in Betta Edu and put a blot on the Renewed Hope Agenda of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

Dumping the National Social Register and transferring the implementation of the planned conditional cash transfer initiative has also made a mockery of the time and money and sundry material and human resources committed to building a register that everyone agreed was well done.

There was no way that the Tinubu administration was going to build a social register of 12 million vulnerable Nigerians in a matter of months, something that took the World Bank, the Umar-Farouq led Humanitarian ministry, sub-national level actors and a slew of CSOs ten years to build.

Building such a register in a hurry was therefore bound to leave it fraught with irregularities aside from very likely producing a list populated not by vulnerable people but with names of party supporters and political cronies thereby defeating the whole purpose.

Finally, the case of the N585m transfer to a private individual has shown that payment via digital channels cannot be implemented without a register?
This point is important when you consider the fact that according to ANEEJ “83% of the individuals on NSR had bank accounts and electronic wallets opened for them to enable them receive cash transfers from various programs that have adopted the NSR for various reasons. Tedious as this was, the truth is that vastly improved levels of financial inclusion had actually been attained among Nigeria’s most vulnerable citizens.”

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The point to take away is this; if the extant social register was used, there would have been no need for an instruction to be issued to transfer N585m to Bridget Oniyelu and Betta Edu would still be Minister.

The issue gets even more confounding when you take into account the fact that this is an APC government which, if we agree that government is a continuum, should have relied on an already developed social safety net template that has been tried and tested by a preceding APC government.

With the unfolding drama around Betta Edu and the N3bn contract she awarded to consultants to come up with a social register in a matter of months, we can now look back and say the Conditional Cash Transfer programme which achieved lift-off under Sadiya Umar Farouq’s leadership provided a solid foundation which sadly was discarded leading to this avoidable scandal.

***Onyema Dike, a public analyst, writes from Lagos.

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