An employment scheme initiated by the Federal Government to cushion effect of COVID-19 on unemployment Nigerians across the 774 local governments has been enmeshed in unnecessary controversy to the disappointment of the public. Sunday Ojeme reports
The popular saying that when two elephants fight, the grass suffers appears to be rearing its head at the top level of government over an employment scheme initiated by the Federal Government to benefit the unemployed in the grassroots.
The scheme that is expected to commence in October and end December with the employment of 774,000 youths on a monthly salary of N20,000 is expected to gulp N52 billion from the Federal Government.
The hefty sum is already knocking heads as lawmakers are sparring with the executive, as represented by the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Barrister Festus Keyamo, over who should control the largesse in the guise of supervising the scheme.
The minister had, fortnight ago, engaged in a shouting match with members of the National Assembly joint committees over membership of the 20-man selection panel to drive the scheme.
As the lawmakers appear to have failed in their attempt to convene a closed door meeting with the minister, which the latter turned down, they are, however, hiding behind the shadow of National Directorate of Employment to extricate the scheme from the minister, who, though, has the statutory role to supervise the NDE.
Obviously, the current skirmish, which is yet to abate, is borne out of mutual distrust on the part of both parties. While the lawmakers are not comfortable with the minister handling the project all alone, taking the shine and benefitting hugely from the billions put into the scheme without recourse to supervision by higher authorities, the minister also suspects that the lawmakers are bent on hijacking the scheme to enhance their profiles in their constituencies as well as have a share of the money.
Scheme at a glance
To commence the scheme, President Muhammadu Buhari, had in October, 2019, approved a Pilot Special Public Works Programme in the Rural Areas. The programme was domiciled in NDE for implementation.
The Special Public Works in the Rural Areas is an employment- intensive technique acquired and adapted by NDE from one of the capacity-building collaborations with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in the late 1980’s to the middle of the 1990’s. The project was tagged ILO/NDE Labour Based/ Light Equipment Methods of Construction, Rehabilitation and maintenance of Public Infrastructure.
The ILO itself derived this idea of Special Public Works programme from several historical templates. According to the Development and Technical Labour Department of the ILO, these types of programmes were used during the Great Depression by industrialised nations to immediately respond to grinding poverty at the lowest level of society that normally bore the brunt of such economic upheavals.
It was also effectively used during colonial Africa to quickly respond to situations such as drought and famine by mobilising the unskilled populace to engage in other labour intensive infrastructural projects as a means of immediately alleviating their situation.
The concept was later adopted and developed by most Asian countries like India, China and Bangladesh to lift their countries out of the league of poor nations. This programme was one of the main reasons India quickly dropped in the poverty index and Nigeria overtook India at a point.
Beneficiaries are to be engaged in drainage digging and clearance, irrigation canals clearance, rural feeder road maintenance, and maintenance of the Great Green Wall nurseries and orchards in Borno, Jigawa and Katsina states.
Others are traffic control, street cleaning, and cleaning of public infrastructure like health centres, schools and the likes.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, the Honourable Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, later announced the approval by Mr President for the extension of the programme to all 36 states and the FCT from October- December 2020 as a means of mitigating the effect of the pandemic on the economy.
However, the scheme has since been entrenched in some political heat as neither the lawmakers nor the minister is prepared to yield ground.
As at the last encounter, the minister was still adamant that he was not going to cave in to threats as doing so would amount to breaching the oath he swore to, even as the senior minister, Dr. Chris Ngige, apologised to the lawmakers.
The President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, is, however, insisting that the NDE must be in charge of the recruitment across Nigeria.
He, however, said that the NDE and the Minister of Labour and Employment, Ngige, must first explain the modalities for the recruitment process, saying that since the N52 billion meant for the implementation of the programme was approved for the NDE, the agency must be in total control.
He said, “The National Assembly consciously and patriotically passed the request of the executive for N52 billion to undertake the programme of the public works across the country, where 1,000 youths will be employed in every local government area in the country, totalling 774,000 people. That was the approval given by the National Assembly to the budget request of Mr President.
“When the National Assembly was to pass the request, we were conscious that the NDE will be the agency to implement the programme and we approved that because we know the NDE has the capacity to implement the programme.
“So, that programme is an NDE programme approved by the National Assembly worth N52 billion.
On his part, however, Keyamo has vowed to continue driving the implementation of the project as against National Assembly’s choice of NDE, saying the project cannot be implemented without his approval.
According to him, “by virtue of Section 3 (2)of the NDE Act, as supervising Minister, I am the Chairman of the Board of NDE that superintendents and gives directions to the Management of the NDE
“That by virtue of section 15 of the NDE Act, I am also authorized, as supervising Minister, to give general directives to the Board and Management, with which they must comply. “By virtue of Section 16 (1) of the NDE Act, the supervising Minister has the sole prerogative to constitute Committees for the Agency.
“In addition to the above, Section 6(2) of the National Directorate of Employment Act states that, ‘The Director-General shall, subject to this Act, be the Chief Executive of theDirectorate and shall be responsible to the Minister for the day-to-day management of the affairs of the Directorate.”
As the crisis lingers, there is no gainsaying those holding the implementation to ransom are comfortable in their own rights while the potential beneficiaries remain in abject poverty. So with the implementation currently suspended by the lawmakers, it is only hoped that the expected beneficiaries won’t be kept waiting for too long, especially since the intention of the scheme, which is to cushion the impact of COVID-19, has become very urgent.