INTERVIEW: How Buhari, Osinbajo conceived N-Power, school feeding, other SIPs- Presidential aide

The Nigerian government’s Strategic Intervention Programme (SIP) was aimed at giving the present administration a channel to reach and touch the lives of the most vulnerable people in society. The Senior Special Assistant to the President on SIP, Ismaeel Ahmed, explains to PREMIUM TIMES’ BASSEY UDO and IFEOLUWA ADEYEMO, in an exclusive interview in his office in Abuja, the impact of the four strands of the programme. EXCERPTS:

PT: The federal government’s Social Intervention Programme has been going on for some time now. But, how would you say it is really faring?

ISMAEEL: Very well, as a matter of fact, it’s coming up very well.

PT: How do you mean very well? What about reports of so many challenges its implementation appears to be facing.

ISMAEEL: Just like every other thing in life, challenges are normal. But, I think the programme is coming up pretty well from where we started from.

PT: Could you elaborate on this?

ISMAEEL: It’s interesting. But, let me give you a brief history how we came by this programme.

Several times we went out on campaigns, from 2007 through 2011, to 2015, wherever the president went, there were mammoth crowds that came out to either receive him or attend his political rallies.

So, in 2015, before he won the election, he went to one of those outings in one those states, the people that thronged out to see him were so much we couldn’t just see any heads.

The vice president (Osinbajo), then a candidate, was sitting next to him. Then, the president turned and said to him: “You know Prof., this 2015 elections, what worries me is not whether we are going to win, but whether we will be able to meet the huge expectations of this multitude of people”.

That statement struck a chord with the vice president as well. It was as a result of that they knew they had to initiate a programme that would impact the people directly.

Not as if there are no other intervention programmes that previous governments did before. But, we wanted to do something different that would touch the lives of the people and bring succour to the grassroots directly, cutting out all the middlemen.

That was how the idea of the Social Intervention Programme (SIP), as we later named it, came about, to help solve basic problems the people face every day.

For instance, you go to a local government and visit some schools, they have only one teacher for Primary Six, other than the headmaster. So, we knew clearly we had deficiencies in public schools – teachers.

Again, we know there were more than 10 million children who are out of school. Our universities are churning out between 500,000 to 800,000 graduates every year into the labour market.

There is no country in the world that would be able to sustain being the largest or the only employer of labour in a country. It has to create private sector-driven economy, where private sector would absorb people and give them something to depend on.

So many of these issues were identified as major problems that would need to be tackled.

Then, there was the issue of abject poverty. There are people living below the poverty line. So, we asked ourselves: What can we do? So, these things were conceptualised and four programmes came out it.

One, was N-Power, targeted at young graduates. It is not possible for government to take care of everybody at the same time. But, we needed to attempt to stop the vicious cycle of saying one does not have a job, because one does not have experience, or because one does not have experience, one cannot have a job.

So, we needed to get people trained. We called them volunteer teachers. We opened a portal for people to apply.

PT: What was your target?

ISMAEEL: Unemployed graduates that we pushed to public schools to teach, or public health institutions to become health support staff and agricultural farms, because agriculture is a large industry that can engage a lot of people.

We got 200,000 volunteers at the beginning. Now, we are deploying another 300,000. That’s about 500,000.

We pay them N30,000 every month. It might look small. But, in reality it is ‘humongous’, because they did not have anything before. Most of them never had jobs before. They were living off the benevolence of their parents and guardians.

The other programme is for non-graduates, which was supposed to have taken off with a 100,000 people and give them all kinds of vocational trainings and get them off the ground to be useful to themselves.

Then we have the Schools Feeding Programme, which is by far one of the most impactful programmes I have seen in the whole sub-Saharan Africa.

As we speak, we are feeding about 8.7 million school children between Primaries 1-3 in all public schools across 28 States of the federation every day. That’s a lot.

The essence of calling the programme ‘Home Grown School Feeding’ is because we buy the foodstuff from local farmers.

So, the menu we serve the children are detailed to tally with what is produced in their locality, so that you do not have people importing eggs, milk or other foodstuff that are supposed to be home-grown.

In doing that, what we have succeeded in doing is creating an agricultural revolution from bottom-up.

PT: How have you done that?

ISMAEEL: For instance, in almost all the schools, the programme is implemented, the children are fed, at least once a week, throughout the five days. We include one egg in each kid’s menu.

What this means is, with 8.7 million children being fed across the country, giving each of them an egg a week, we will need 8.7 million eggs.

For us to get 8.7 million eggs every week, we will need to have at least 250,000 poultry farms with at least 20,000 chickens that lay an average of six eggs every day.

Again, to feed those chickens to enable them lay those eggs, we need millet and maize or corn by local farmers for the poultry farms.

Imagine the ripple effect of that agricultural bandwagon. Think about similar impact on other items included in the menu, the children are served on a daily basis. The value chain created as a result of the programme is so huge.

So, it is a silent revolution for the people who were hitherto doing subsistence farming. Now, they are doing commercial farming to meet the high demand for the food items for the schools feeding programme. The beautiful thing is that the number continues to grow.

PT: What’s your target?

ISMAEEL: From the current 8.7 million, our target is to feed 12 million children by the time the programme has gone round the 36 States.

There is also the “Conditional Cash Transfer Scheme” we are doing in collaboration with the World Bank, to pay the vulnerable people N5,000 a month. Often, we put together and pay them N10,000 once in two months.

PT: But, critics say the N5,000 can hardly solve any problem for beneficiaries?

ISMAEEL: I have been to a place where I saw a woman, 54 years old, who has never seen N10,000 in bulk.

She was besides herself when she was selected as one of the beneficiaries. The first day she was to receive the money, she had to bring two of her sons, because she thought she needed several men to assist her in carrying the money. It’s as bad as that. It’s not a joke.

So, people living in the comfort of Lagos, Kaduna, Abuja and other such places and can afford N5,000 can think that it does not have any value.

But, if they have ever met anyone who has been robbed of any human dignity because of pure poverty, then they will know what it means to have N5,000 consistently every month.

But, it’s not just about the money. It is the consistency and confidence the person has that the money was coming to him. It gives the people a sense of hope and security, something to look forward to life every month.

It’s like a civil servant who takes N80,000 salary every month and lives in Abuja with three or four children.

Yet, he has to pay his way to come to work every day from wherever he lives. Obviously such a person would live far outside Abuja city where the office is.

If you aggregate what the person spends daily, apart from his children in school, which he has to pay school fees for, takes them to the hospital and pays the rent of where they live, clearly N80,000 a month is not enough.

But, the consistency that he gets that money every month gives him enormous confidence and hope about life. That is the most important thing.

Little as it may seem, it robs him of that basic indecency poverty breeds. That’s what the Conditional Cash Transfer is all about.

About 300,000 to 400,000 benefit from this scheme every month. We hope the number will go up to over a million households as we continue.

Then, we have the G-Market Money where we give up to about N50,000 to traders who are able to put their trade together their trade activities from point A to B.

If they can come together under a cooperative society, the G-Market money is given to them interest-free and they pay within six months, with a moratorium of two weeks.

So, these programmes are changing the lives of Nigerians wherever you go.

PT: Despite the picture you have painted, like everything ‘Nigerian’, sometimes programmes like this are mired by poor implementation and monitoring by the handlers, particularly the selection of personnel. How do you handle this?

ISMAEEL: I am not saying it is a perfect system. But, the way we select participants in the various programmes, either as beneficiaries or officials, takes care of all that.

For the beneficiaries of the N-Power programme, we open a portal for them to apply. Applicants will get a criteria for pre-selection for physical verification, to ensure their submissions are real.

Officials will also go for physical verification. There were so many people who were disqualified during the process of physical verification, either because they live in Enugu, but said in the form they filled that they lived in Kano.

There must be a process that ensures even the people living around you know you. We uncovered people with fake degrees and diplomas who were weeded out.

There is no preferential selection treatment given to any particular individual, whether as beneficiary or official. We follow strictly the criteria we had spelt out.

Application is online. If you listen to the testimonies by some of our beneficiaries, you would have heard them say this was the first time they got something from government without knowing anybody.

For the Cash Transfer Scheme, beneficiaries are selected in conjunction with the World Bank without any influence from any quarters. In fact, that is one of the criticisms by the elite who ask how money could be shared without their knowing those involved in their locality and who is getting what.

What I always said each time these questions are asked is that our goal is not to allow anybody know the people who are giving people the money.

PT: What about the allegation of diversion of food stuffs under the Schools Feeding Programme?

ISMAEEL: I will get to that point. What is happening is that there are community-based teams who visit the communities with the statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics, World Bank and other statistics agencies.

They identify the states that are much poorer than others, just as there are communities in those states that are poorer than others in the same state. That is where to start.

Then, in a town hall meeting with all the stakeholders – the imams, pastors, district or village heads, they identify what they consider as poverty in their environment. So, the process is open. Nobody sits down anywhere and writes down the names of beneficiaries.

But, the identification is done by NASCO, a subsidiary under the Office of the President, using the social register developed by visiting the households to now the asset or assistance the people have and so on.

Once that is done, the next place to go is the Conditional Transfer Office, which handles the disbursement of the funds.

Then, there is the grievance team, which handles complaints of people who have either been stigmatised for being poor, and do not want him to benefit, or there is family history about being infected by one disease of the other. We try to identify all the problems and

address them.

PT: What about monitoring to check abuses?

ISMAEEL: Yeah, recently we set up our monitoring team, including civil society organisations and other third party monitors recently commissioned to monitor our activities. They are going to start work this August. They are going to visit the communities randomly.

In future, we plan to set up a telephone system for people to make calls to send in their reports. Again, we will be evaluating the programme on a monthly basis as we go on.

PT: From the monitoring so far, were reports of abuses established? What did the monitors find out?

ISMAEEL: The monitoring has been going on well. There were few issues here and there. We have been able to rectify them. We have had people who were given money and they have not been going to the schools they were posted to teach.

We have people who have been selected under N-Power and they have another job. We have been able to take such people out. Many things are happening. But, the important this is that the successes far outweigh the challenges.

PT: Some critics say the SIP is an indirect strategy by the present to use public funds to mobilise for 2019? How do you react to this?

ISMAEEL: Straight up, I will say that is absolutely not the goal of the president or his vice. But, even if it were, as a politician, I will tell you why not?

Which is better: to continue to share the money among politicians as others were doing in the past and the people did not benefit, or to do what we are doing to add value to the people’s lives?

But, let me say that there are some of these programmes the government has been implementing in collaboration with the state governments, most of whom are not controlled by the ruling All Progressives Congress.

In those states, we have issues with our party members who complain every day. For instance, in the South-south, they say APC members are not benefitting, as the governors are using them as if they were their own programmes.

So, if they have any political motive, they would have been delayed in states not controlled by the APC.

I can understand why people are making such insinuations. The SIP is a huge project with a humongous impact touching the lives of the people at the grassroots directly. And this is where the real voters are.

One of the few places the Schools Feeding scheme started was Anambra, which is not controlled by the APC. Our members in the state are not happy. They are saying the governor is using the programmes for his benefit.

PT: There are 36 States and the FCT. And you are talking about 28 States. What is happening in the remaining?

ISMAEEL: In terms of the Schools Feeding programme, we have to do MoUs with each of the states. All public schools are owned by the state governments. The federal government cannot just push its way to start the programme without the states playing their roles.

Those states left have not done all the things they need to do for us to engage them in the scheme.

PT: What are these things they have to do?

ISMAEEL: Some of those have to do with the number of schools and pupils they have. The Parents/Teachers Association of the schools are supposed to identify and select the cooks who are going to cook for their children, to achieve the level of hygiene required. The state governments should be able to hold the meetings and fix all those details for us.

PT: The beauty of the Schools feeding programme is perhaps its linkage with the agricultural sector. Do you see any threat to its sustainability, in terms of supply of the foodstuff in the near future?

ISMAEEL: Demand drives supply. Once there is a demand, people would be compelled to move to supply to meet it. This programme will make a lot of people go back to the farms, because there is a ready market for the products and perhaps money to be made.

On the other hand, government is driving a lot of initiatives – be it the CBN Anchor Borrowers Programme, or the Ministry of Agriculture, to ensure several hectares of land are cultivated to produce the country’s staple foods. For now, the local farmers are happy to sell stuff to us and (are) smiling to the bank.

PT: What about the fear of sustainability beyond this administration?

ISMAEEL: I cannot speak for another administration. Our goal is to ensure there is enough ownership of the programme by the people themselves. Nothing can be forced on any administration. For me, I never thought the government had the capacity to impact on people’s lives the way these programmes have.

PT: In those states you said a lot of abuses were uncovered, how did you handle them?

ISMAEEL: Once they are reported and we verify, we stop the programme until they (issues) are rectified.

PT: What about the issue of paying back the loans to enable others also benefit?

ISMAEEL: That is the reason beneficiaries have to come through cooperative societies and not individuals, to allow us hold the leadership of the cooperatives responsible if the beneficiary defaults in payment. It’s not for people who do not have an existing business.

PT: So far, are there cooperative societies whose members defaulted and were sanctioned?

ISMAEEL: Yeah, there have been some of them. But, I can’t have their names at the top of my head right now. Usually if the cooperative society has, say 100 members, the first 20 would be given, just to see how serious they are.

The other 80 would put pressure on the 20 to make sure they repay so as not to spoil their chances of getting theirs. Despite that, we have people who thought since it was government, they can take it as freebie.

PT: How did the Abacha loot come to be involved in the Cash Transfer scheme?

ISMAEEL: Initially, it was the federal government budget we used to do the Cash Transfer. But, the recovered Abacha looted funds came in because the World Bank was interested in getting involved in the Cash Transfer, to get to the real people impacted by poverty.

The Bank made sure they put eyes on how the beneficiaries were selected. At the end, they were comfortable the selection process was transparent, without any political interference. Then, they decided they were going to loan us about $500 million to do it, not for the logistics of it.

The recovered funds from Abacha loot ($322million) has been going on for a while in the court case in Switzerland. When the court finally decided to release the money, the judgement came with a proviso they will only release the money to Nigeria on condition that it was going to be applied in a projects to be supervised by the World Bank.

They had released similar monies in 2005 and it were misused by the previous government. As long as Nigeria gets the money and the World Bank is involved in knowing where it goes, the government was comfortable with that arrangement and gave its approval.

PT: Talk to us about the future of these programmes, going forward?

ISMAEEL: I am beginning to have the feeling people are beginning to see that they own it now. I hope there would soon be a legal backing through the National Assembly.

But, ultimately, I think there is a populist move toward owning this programme and having it sustained. I hope it continues, because we are in a developing country.

We need interventions and social safety nets. Regardless, whatever happens the next 10 to 12 years, I doubt there will be another programme that will be able to cater for the less privileged and the vulnerable in the society as this. I am confident this programme has come to stay.

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