The dumb distribution of Abacha loot
Against the objections of the National Assembly and wise counsel of civil society organisations, the federal government may this month begin the sharing of the $322 million (about N115.92 billion) loot recovered from the late dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, and his family to the poorest people in the country if it keeps to its pledge. The loot was recovered from Switzerland which until recently had provided a safe haven for corrupt rulers like Abacha and his co-travelers to hide the common patrimony of their people illegally acquired.
Under the auspices of its National Social Safety Net Coordinating Office (NASSCO), N5,000 will be paid to 302,000 households in 19 of the 36 states of the federation through the federal government’s Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) scheme – a welfare programme aimed at ameliorating poverty through the transfers of money to persons who meet certain undefined criteria. The wealth distribution programme, according to persons involved in the exercise, is in consonance with the agreement reached with Swiss authorities that the recovered loot should be spent on social protection programmes in the country.
The exercise is coming despite the vehement opposition of some CSOs which contended that the plan to share the loot among households is mere tokenism and would neither have a significant impact on poverty alleviation nor satisfy the twin objectives of justice and development. Warning the government against the move would have no significant impact on poverty alleviation, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), for instance, stated that distributing N5,000 to households would neither improve the socio-economic conditions of beneficiaries nor achieve the enduring value of a more transparent and robust system to manage recovered loot.
On its part, the National Assembly argued that the presidency ought not to embark on such agreement and spending without parliamentary approvals. Other stakeholders, including opposition political parties are apprehensive that coming just ahead of the 2019 elections, the exercise lacks discernible parameters for determining poor households in an atmosphere where the country is yet to evolve a coherent welfare programme. In fact, they pointedly accused the ruling party of using the opaque conduct of the exercise to re-loot the recovered money.
The programme is a puzzling piece of social engineering. Recently, the US-based Brookings Institution classified Nigeria as home to the largest number of extremely poor people in the world well ahead of India. The classification is based on the fact that 86 million of Nigeria’s about 190 million people live on less than $1.9 per day. This is the minimum income required by an individual to have a decent living daily, according to the United Nations. N5,000 amounts to about $14 which a “household” is expected receive to alleviate poverty. If an individual, in this case 86 million Nigerians, are in extreme poverty for having access to less than $1.9 per day, how would sharing $14 to 302,000 “households” monthly “alleviate” poverty?
Wealth as in the management of businesses and affairs of nations is the source of creating wealth on which the living standard of the people are improved. $322 million is a lot of money that can substantially impact on the effectiveness of programmes in health, agriculture as well as small and medium scale enterprises. Each has the capacity to improve a people’s living standard. Unfortunately, resorting to sharing the recovered loot at N5,000 per household is a short-sighted, visionless and dumb way of fighting extreme poverty.
Even if the federal government is given a benefit of doubt, the idea of executing the exercise in only 19 of the 36 states under any guise is insensitive, unfair and discriminatory. This is the more so given that majority of the 19 states – Niger, Kogi, Kwara, Bauchi Gombe, Jigawa, Benue, Taraba, Adamawa, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa, and Borno – are in the north while only five – Ekiti, Osun, Oyo, Cross River, Anambra – are southern states with south south and southeast regions having one state each. Unfortunately, such lopsidedness, even though avoidable, has been the hallmark of the Muhammadu Buhari administration.
However, the main issue is that the poverty alleviation plan to share the money is too pedestrian and dumb to have any modicum of effect on the quality of lives of the beneficiaries. We hereby urge the federal government to suspend the exercise immediately. If the government lacks ideas on how the huge sum can be utilised to create wealth, there is no dearth of Nigerians with the right and viable ideas. We urge the government to consult CSOs and agencies with rich experience on how limited funds when accessed by entrepreneurial Nigerians can empower the people to create wealth. That the Swiss government insisted on utlising the money directly to improve the living standard of the people is commendable and understandable. The problem is with the federal government which adopted an unimaginative approach to interpreting the agreement.
On suspending the exercise, the administration should convert the money into a trust fund to be transparently managed and invested into tangible projects that would improve access of those living in poverty to essential public services such as water, education and health. It should also be used to provided sorely needed resources in driving the growth of SMEs. In the end, distributing N5,000 to household would neither improve the socio-economic conditions of beneficiaries nor achieve the enduring value of a more transparent and robust system to manage recovered loot.