When President Muhammadu Buhari approved the engagement of 774, 000 Nigerians for Special Public Works programme in the country to cushion the effect of COVID-19 pandemic, he may not have had an inkling of the impending controversy to be generated by it. The President, in rolling out that policy that he hoped will lift, even if temporarily, the down but not out of the society, did not anticipate the level of street fighting between the Minister of State in charge and the leadership of the National Assembly. The hustling almost degenerated to a show of power and near fisticuffs.
This newspaper recalls the indecent behaviour on the floor of the Senate, the altercation between the Minister and the Senators; the allegations of high jack as well as the revelation that the National Assembly members were asking for a certain percentage of the jobs if they must be carried along.
It is important to point out that Special Public Works Department is one of the four core programmes of the National Directorate Employment (NDE), a parastatal under the Ministry of Labour and Productivity. It seeks to identify and exploit employment opportunities that abound in the public works sector by organizing the skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled persons that are unemployed to carry out utility, environmental, infrastructural development and sanitation works. The programme is to promote mass employment strategies. At least on paper.
But this particular programme, as its name implies, is specially designed for Nigerians who are mainly unskilled and who may have lost their jobs due to the economic crisis. It is meant to be a palliative measure to assuage the effect of COVID-19. It is to last for three months and beneficiaries will earn N20, 000 for each of the three months.
The job description is interesting, in our view, and it includes drainage digging and clearance; irrigation canals clearance; rural feeder road maintenance; traffic control; street cleaning and cleaning of public infrastructure like health centres, schools and the likes. Ordinarily, if not for political considerations, this level of job ought not to attract the kind of noise Nigerians are inundated with.
Notwithstanding, it is obvious that the programme is clear on who are to be considered for the job. There is no ambiguity as far as that goes. But the intriguing aspect of it and which is why Nigerians are seemingly confused is that the fat cats in government, in both the National Assembly and the Executive arm, are tearing themselves to shreds over it. They are even reluctant to oblige the hoi polloi, the jetsam and flotsam of the society, this little chance of having a feel of governance. It is that rancour that attracted the attention of most discerning Nigerians to the programme and which also forced them to try to find out what it is all about.
We must not forget that there is a budget for this menial job programme which, according sources, runs into billions of Naira. That is the attraction, who is going to control that money. This is not about its judicious distribution or ensuring that the target population benefitted as they should. Even worse, the wrangling is not intended to guarantee that the job is done. It is about some officials positioning themselves to corner the money, fill the place with, at worst, ghost beneficiaries and, at best, party thugs who, being politically well connected, may not even attempt do the job and will be paid the money anyway which they will regard as their own political patronage.
When it comes to issues like this, the National Assembly has a disappointing and abject lack of transparency, accountability and integrity. We point this out with every sense of responsibility. Its record in the handling of constituency projects with the huge budget they attract, is a lesson on how not to behave in public office. But that does not justify the disrespectful behaviour of the Minister of State for Labour and Productivity when he appeared before the National Assembly.
It is the opinion of this newspaper that this programme does not require the kind of fire billowing from the nostrils of the Minister. If his interest in the programme is altruistic, he knows that NDE is better suited for the assignment while he maintains a supervisory role. That employment agency has a track record in this regard.
It is worthy of note that what is going on since the President rolled out this Special Public Works programme palliative is typical of what has left the nation where it is today – the politicisation of otherwise noble intentions of government. It is evident from the jockeying for a share of the cake, as they perceive it, is not because they desire to actualise the intendments of the president which is to alleviate the sufferings that class of Nigerians are going through since the outbreak of this pandemic. It is more of the usual display of a tendency to abuse official positions, resources and tell the rest of us to go to hell.