The federal government recently announced that recovered money from the loot traced to the late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, would be distributed to poor families in Nigeria. Justifying the utilisation of the money in this regard, it said the arrangement was in line with the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Nigeria signed with the government of Switzerland. Explaining how it is to be disbursed, the federal government said the money would be given to about 300,000 households, with each getting around $14 a month. It would be paid directly into the accounts of Nigerians considered as the poorest for two years. To ensure transparency, government claimed that identification numbers will be made available on the website being developed by the National Social Investment office and the World Bank.
Curiously, the payments are to be made to residents in 19 out of the 36 states of the federation using three targeted mechanisms to identify poor and vulnerable people across the country. The mechanisms further explained that the include geographical targeting using a poverty map of existing classifications of poverty across all states of the federation; community-based targeting using community members and leaders to decide local eligibility for the poorest and vulnerable households in their communities.The other is a proxy mean test using observable household individual characteristics such as location and quality of the household’s dwelling, education and occupation of its adult members, among others.
Although only 19 states are said to benefit from the programme, the federal government has assured there are plans to involve all the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory. The inclusion of states in the programme is, however, dependent on certain prerequisites, including the availability of the social register for each state and the state government’s preparedness to provide basic infrastructure and manpower for the programme in the state.
While this could be government’s genuine way of addressing poverty in the country, most Nigerians have queried the decision of the federal government to distribute the $322m Abacha loot using that criterion. Describing the action as economically illogical, they contend that even though the poor deserve to be taken care of, the cash transfer programme is not an effective way of tackling poverty in the land. This newspaper aligns itself with the argument that although giving money to the poor is a good way of injecting funds into the economy, the method adopted is wrong. It is proof of an abject lack of progressive thinking. Instead of this primitive method of wealth distribution, we are of the opinion that the government ought to use the money on projects that will impact positively on the poor. Giving cash to this category of Nigerians is not a sustainable way of fighting poverty or reducing crime in the society. If the money is used in providing infrastructure, granting loans to start-ups, building schools and awarding scholarships, it will make a greater impact than distributing cash that can be easily misapplied.
In our view, despite the strict conditions attached to the transfer of the money back to Nigeria, it makes no sense that the federal government accepted to sign such MoU with the Swiss government in 2017 on what it planned to do with the fund in the first place.
Furthermore, it is a fact that Nigeria has no reliable and comprehensive identity management system that can be easily deployed for such a complicated exercise with all the inherent tendency for abuse by those assigned that role. What is more, the chances of the process being hijacked by politicians who will readily turn it into ‘stomach infrastructure’ for election purposes is high indeed. Even worse, the programme which seems to reflect the government’s desperation to alleviate the overbearing poverty level in the country can be twisted to accommodate the next-of-kin predilections that are so rampant in the country. It has happened before with other well-intentioned policies of government. We have no convincing reason to believe that it cannot happen again this time round.
Without prejudice to the integrity of the MoU signed by Nigeria and the Swiss government, it is our considered opinion that sharing cash to Nigerians classified as poor will not be sustainable in the long run. What we advise the government to do is to revisit the so called MoU and fashion out ways of adapting it to the nation’s realities. Embarking on massive, job-creating infrastructural development, assisting start-ups, investing in education, agriculture and the health sector are, to all intents, more pragmatic ways of poverty alleviation. Sharing cash to the perceived poor is a recourse to the nation’s habit of throwing money at problems, more like administering paracetamol to a patient with migraine. It is wasteful and counter-productive.