In my early days as editor, one day, as I agonised openly over what I had considered was a misreading of my intentions leading, at times, to hostility towards me, my colleague Tony Nzotta, asked me to come over to the newsroom. Nzotta had a penchant for the dramatic. Once we got to the door of the newsroom, he stopped abruptly, halting me in the process. He then re-enacted what he described, was the action of a one-time editor of the New York Times who, faced with similar predicament, had gone to the entrance to the newsroom and, in exasperation howled at nobody in particular: “For crying out loud, why does everybody hate me here?” The reply was instant. One of the personnel who was in a similar position as Tony Nzotta was now occupying, retorted: “Because you are the editor of the New York Times”. Looking straight into my face, Nzotta quipped: “Because you are the editor of The Statesman”. That was in 1988. I was 31 at the time.
Tony was to explain further. The convention was: nobody ever loved the editor of the New York Times. If he was ever loved, then he was not the task master extra-ordinaire; he was not the deadline maestro and he was likely to fail in his duty. According to him, all that the job called for was respect and if love came along, it was a bonus.
Some jobs come like that. Not many a worker ever admired the auditor or the person in charge of internal control in an organisation. Similarly, not many people are patient with a reformer or any functionary with an honest desire to effect change, particularly disruptive change that bothers on transparency. In fact, in most cases, the advocate of change becomes a victim of all manner of umbrage and blackmail. The reason is simple: change comes with the loss of privilege; and those whose comfort zone have been threatened or disrupted are not likely to let go without a fight.
The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouk appears to have fallen into the editor’s (or should I say, auditor’s) dilemma. In recent weeks, she has been subjected to serious vilification over the activities of her ministry. Principal targets have been the Modified School Feeding Programme and the N-Power Programme. While criticism of the former has focused on the desirability or otherwise of continuing implementation under the lockdown, critics of the later have demanded the outright removal of the minister, claiming that she is incompetent. I shall dwell more on the later whose proponents happen to be enrolees of the programme.
Their grouse is that payment of the stipend has fallen into arrears since the minister assumed office. For that reason, they have employed expletives such as “wicked” and “incompetent” to malign her. Besides, they claim that the programme was better run by its previous managers.
For a better understanding of the controversy, it is well to recall that the programme, a laudable one at that, was initiated by the President Muhammadu Buhari Administration as a platform for capacity building, employment creation, people empowerment and social engineering. It has the strategic imperative of taking jobless graduates off the streets and crime; of equipping enrolees with life skills and in the process, boosting the economic power of families. For effect, it was domiciled in the office of the Vice President.
However, the programme, with other components of the equally ambitious Social Investment Programmes (SIP) of the Federal Government, was transferred to the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs upon its creation in 2019. Ever since, hell has known no greater fury.
For good reasons therefore, the minister is bound, like the editor, to be worried that she is so viscerally hated, to the extent of calling for her head. Why not? How many people of her age have been privileged to occupy such a huge strategic ministry? What does she expect when her charge touches directly on jobs creation and the daily livelihood of millions of people, in a personal manner? At any rate, as a public officer, every action or inaction of the minister is fair game for public scrutiny, including, occasional insults or throwing of rotten tomatoes and eggs; the price you get to pay when you are being fed, by the poor tax-payer. To that extent, the rage of the enrolees will seem understandable. But is their logic justified. I doubt that.
For a start, granted that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, the attempt to personalise the delay in payment of stipends is not only mischievous but patently untenable. An honest enquiry would have revealed that, as the minister stated, payment was delayed by technical hitches that were beyond her control. Of course, it would not have helped the case of the petition writers if they had acknowledged that the minister had kept to an earlier pledge that the payment would be done, the week before last. Good a thing, that has been cleared. But would that be the first time that payment was delayed? The answer is an effective no.
Obviously, without prejudice to the effort of earlier managers of the programme, any attempt to paint a picture of a scheme that had, hitherto operated, seamlessly, would tantamount to standing truth on its head. For one, long before now, there had been protests, by N-Power beneficiaries, over delayed stipends. Besides, while it is acknowledged that the stipend, the bread, is a very important component of the programme, it will defeat the noble objectives of the program to hinge its success on that singular value.
Anyone who has monitored the programme would have observed the several shortcomings calling for concerted and decisive solution if its overall objective is not to be defeated. One of such malfeasance that the Ministry is working to eliminate is the situation whereby some already gainfully employed people connive with unscrupulous officials to defraud the system. Under the arrangement, some enrolees who never reports for duty agree to part with a percentage of their stipend, in favour of a cartel that spans a broad gamut of the programme. In fact, as far back as 2017, while on a visit to one of the states, the Special Assistant to the President on Job Creation and Youth Employment, Mr. Afolabi Imoukhuede reportedly discovered cases where enrolees were receiving their stipends without reporting for work. Interestingly, in a sting operation in January 2019, that was several months before the creation of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, an undercover journalist of The Cable newspaper had detailed the elaborate conspiracy of a broad network of persons who gamed the system by hosting “ghost” enrolees. Though Imoukhuede had denied any such infractions, he nonetheless admitted that, like any other programme, the N-Power programme was not perfect. Pray, how could a programme that was not perfect in January 2019 be said to have been running seamlessly, at the same time? And if the programme was already fraught with problems several months before the Minister, Sadiya Farouk, assumed office, does it not translate to blatant falsehood, deliberate mischief and wanton character assassination to pillory her in the brazen manner that those calling for her innocent head have done?
If her critics were sincere, rather than engaging in puerile and scurrilous demonisation of the minister, they should be supporting her genuine effort, to fix fundamental flaws that continue to undermine the lofty objectives of the programme. One such flaw is the lack of a clear exit strategy which explains the untenable situation whereby enrolees whose programme is for 24 months have grossed 40 months without any clear exit strategy. Paradoxically, even with such a serious flaw, the petitioners still claimed that the programme was running efficiently, with the deceptive caveat that the former managers were already concluding their exit plan. Pray, why did it take all of one year after the expiration of their programme for the exit plan to begin to take shape, if the program was indeed running efficiently?
As things stand, the Minister, Sadiya Farouk, should realise that she is in a rocky flight; she must tighten her seat belt as she seeks to correct the obvious anomalies that have frustrated the full realisation of the vision of the N-Power Programme. In this regard, she should never capitulate to the ploy of some enrolees who, in their desperation to remain in the system, are ready to deploy every sinister tool of blackmail, to scuttle her resolve to return to the original vision of the program; that is, to work with other stakeholders towards exiting those who have completed in order to create room for others.
During a recent briefing of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Sadiya Farouk had disclosed that the Ministry was reviewing the program with a view to reforming and streamlining it for better efficiency. The minister’s definitive clarification demands that, the time for selfish conspiratorial inter-agency and politically motivated filibustering is over. For the sake of the Nigerian youth whose fate may well be tied to this programme, it is time for every hand to be on the deck; to facilitate the emergence of the new template being put in place by the ministry. to promote transparency and overall effectiveness of the programme. Achieving a transparent recruitment process; eliminating collusion to defraud the system through effective internal control and establishing workable exit strategy for the enrolees, on completion of the programme, are some of the long-standing deficits inherited by Sadiya Farouk that, when resolved, will place the program on near auto-pilot.
Agu, publisher of ZEST TRAVELLER Magazine is a fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ).