It’s Unfair to Tag TraderMoni  a Vote-buying Strategy

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Afolabi Imoukhuede

His passion could be mistaken for an unusual aggression whenever he wanted to respond to a question or an assertion that he felt was not accurate. But it was all passion for his job and love for his fatherland as far as the Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to the President on Job Creation and Youth Employment in the Office of the Vice President, Afolabi Imoukhuede, is concerned. Imoukhuede studied accountancy, with experience in international development and special focus on construction, real estate and small business development. He is also a certified project management and human capital consultant with particular emphasis on technical, vocational education and training (TVET). He was, at a time, the deputy team leader/intervention lead with the UK Department for International Development (DFlD)/GEMS programme with sector focus on stimulating growth and employment in the construction and real estate.  In this interview with Samuel Ajayi, Imoukhuede talks about the nPower intervention scheme, the controversy surrounding the TraderMoni loan scheme, particularly allegations that the initiative is a vote-buying strategy, latest of which came from Transparency International, while also highlighting the effect of the schemes on Nigerians and why they needed to circumvent government bureaucracy to achieve results.

The nPower and the other schemes under it seem an ambitious intervention programmes. How have you sustained it till this moment and what is your role in them?

My role was created as a result of what we knew and campaigned for and how resolute we were to tackle them when we came in. The three things that President Buhari campaigned on were economy, security and corruption. We came and tried to sort out the root cause of insecurity. From economic point of view, unemployment is a structural challenge. One is population growth and our economic growth does not go with this. Graduate unemployment has to do with our educational system. The output of this system is not in tune with trends in the market. And this is what is causing ‘unemployability’. Nigeria is a youthful country because the greater number is under the age of 45. Compared to other countries, we are not doing badly. But if you unpack our 16 per cent unemployment rate, then it has to do with youth. That is why the focus of my job is in that region.

Upon resumption, at the last quarter of 2015 and early 2016, with DIFD and Ford Foundation, we went round geopolitical zones and interacted with different sectors.  We looked at which sector could absorb our young people in the short term and also in the long term, take them on. The priority sector that we identified was agricultural sector and agribusiness sector. The other sector is construction because it is multi-layered and could take as many people as possible. The third is ICT because we knew it could not take many people, but was an enabler and also an employer. Another sector is retail area which is an area where Nigerians play. There was also renewable energy sector. I can go on and on.

Beyond this, what have you looked at to curb the rising employment rate since there is also the informal sector that employs so many people?

Anywhere in the world, the MSMEs (micro, small and medium scale enterprises) are one area that drives the economy. It is a major driver that can take people at the lower rung of the society. The government set up the Presidential Enabling Business Council, PEBC, to hasten business registration and help ease the process of doing business. But even with this, we still have the MSMEs in our mind. Because even as bad as the economy is, we still have multinationals coming in and bringing in people. In other words, we have a great volume of immigration.

But like I said before, the other area is security. We have to look at unemployment in post-secondary and post-tertiary. The countries we are looking at have multi-channel ways to knowledge acquisition. Here, it is just one channel: that is just one way. People leave secondary school and they go and sit for JAMB. And out of millions, maximum that could be taken is just 500,000. If you look at those who are used for thuggery, they are in the ages between 16 and 20 and that is mainly post-secondary age.  

At the bottom of the pyramid, there is greater number of Nigerians. We did not wake up to the challenges we have now. One thing we must say is that, especially about this government, we saw the challenge and decided to tackle the challenge. How do we affect the various demographics of Nigerians without undermining the functions of our various institutions? Look at the school feeding programme. It is home-grown feeding. The farmers, who provide the food are Nigerians and also the women who cook are community women. We have to take a dive into the informal sector because over 100,000 cooks have been engaged. Many farmers are selling their local produce to us. The conditional cash transfer for the very vulnerable poor in the community is also there and then the TraderMoni, which has reached so many low-income traders.  The last component is the nPower programme, which has graduate and non-graduate components and so on.

These are very huge projects, no doubt. But we have to know the budget and the  results? And how many have you been able to absorb into these programmes?

Our budget is N500 billion every year, but budget is not same thing as release. It is just climbing to N250 billion now and with that amount and 25 per cent of our budget released to us, I will speak of nPower. 500,000 graduates are now under the nPower programme and are deployed in the 774 local governments across the country. They are in schools, hospitals and farms. We could have done more than that but we were hit with recession. It started in June 2016 and closed August 2016 and we got 750,000 applications; 350,000 for graduates and 400,000 for non-graduates. From December 2016 to 2017, our payroll was N6 billion and it was being paid directly into the participants. No one sees cash. The money goes through the TSA to the inter-bank credit scheme. Before they pay, there are validations that have to be carried out. The moment we validate your record and identification, you are paid. Since August 2018, we got 2.5 million applications and got 1.8 million clean applicants and we took 300,000 more. Since August, our wage bill has been N15billion. The non-graduate component has grown exponentially. Our focus area has been skills. In the nBuild cadre of nPower, we have 20,000 of them out there in the construction sector and they get N250,000 start-up tool-kit after the three-month training. In the nTech, they have devices like a tablet, and that with local content in this.

What is the structure of this programme?

As massive as these programmes are, they are oversighted by the Office of the Vice-President. My own job is just to oversee job creation employment and these two dovetails into the economy and social investment. My role was created as a result of what we knew and campaigned on and resolved to tackle. Like I said, president’s focus was on economy, security and corruption. And we felt we had to look at the root cause of insecurity which was unemployment. From the economic perspective, it was obvious that the problem of unemployment was structural. One area is about our population growth and graduate unemployment and this has to do with our educational system. The output of our educational system is not in tune with modern trends in labour management.

Let us look at the issue of  TraderMoni. It has been alleged that it does not make economic sense going by the cost of going around distributing the N10,000 economic intervention package. Secondly, some see it as a campaign gimmick by your party. And there was this allegation that some of these traders actually received N8,000 and not N10,000. How do you react to these?

If I tell you this, you won’t believe: our party leaders and members are angry with us because we have refused to let these schemes be used for political patronage.  The pictures you see were from the financial institutions that powered this scheme. The process of getting the cash was simple, but some people would still say they could not do it and then the agent would say, if I help you do it, this is what you would give me. The person would agree and after the ‘transaction’, the person would come out and say he got only N8,000. But if someone tells you this tomorrow, what you should ask is for him or her to show you the original text he or she got in his mobile wallet.

The bottom line of these social intervention schemes is to reduce poverty to the barest minimum?

Yes.

But you will recall that in July last year, there was this Brookings Institution report that poverty has affected 87 million Nigerians. One will wonder why all these interventions have not reduced this alarming poverty figures.

I will always wish that when we report headlines, we should put things in proper context. If someone says poverty is high, it should be linked to what period and compared to what it was before. The poverty figure was 100 million pre-2015. That is the point. It is about relativity. We have to know what facts to take and push forward. We seem to politicise everything. One thing you cannot deny this administration is that you cannot say we are not ready to confront our challenges. How can you have an ambitious social intervention programme and you won’t be ready to face challenges. There have been social intervention programmes before and with billions budgeted, what did we get? So we have to understand where we are coming from. You see, only those, who were beneficiaries of these social intervention schemes that can tell the effect on them. For instance, one of the beneficiaries of the conditional cash transfer was asked to come and collect her own N5000 and she came with Ghana-Must-Go bag because she felt N5000 must be a massive amount of money as she had not seen such amount in her life before. We did not just become the poverty of the world overnight; we should ask the party that was in power before and wants to come back.

But micro-finance banks are complaining that some of these schemes are affecting their businesses since these are interest-free loans.

You see, this is another problem. We know what these micro-finance banks do. They give you loans and you pay interests on weekly or monthly basis. I mean high interests. Let us face reality. If everything we have designed in this country has worked, would we need any intervention? Just like the other day the National Directorate of Employment, NDE, claimed that nPower should have been their responsibility. Are these micro-finance banks not dying now? We know what the Bank of Industry, BoI, said when we took the seed money to them. They complained of lack of access to credit facilities by low and medium-scale enterprises. They too said they could not give you more them N10million. Some of the beneficiaries of this TraderMoni do not even know where banks are located. We do not need any international organisations to tell us what are problem is. If we did not know our problems, we would not be where we are today. Who could have believed that a social intervention programme could have 500,000 beneficiaries? A government agency was telling us when we were about starting that we could not do more than 37,000 beneficiaries at a time. And that was 1000 per state with the FCT. You have to look at the economic inclusion as well. Let me tell you something, because of the strict conditions that we put in place, 60 per cent of nPower beneficiaries went to open their bank accounts after we had taken them on board. And let me also say that we are not going to discredit or do away with government institutions because that will even kill the sustainability of the programme. But we needed to do what we did so that the system could take them up later. When you pay up the first N10,000 of the TraderMoni, for instance, before you can qualify for the next one, which is N15,000, you must have a bank account. It is part of the economic inclusion that made us say they have to have a bank account before they could benefit again. And I have to say this: it is a loan and not a grant. It is not a gift to bribe voters.

If someone in nPower is earning N30,000, why can’t you make the N10,000 a grant?

But the guy in nPower is working and that is why he is earning a stipend. We did loan, you said it is vote buying. If we had made it free as you said, they would even say we did not want to conduct election at all.

We learnt about the beneficiaries of nPower as there are reports saying,  it is working, but you have to admit this: what is the value of N30,000 and N10,000 respectively four years ago and now? A bag rice was N8000 in December 2014 but N18,000 in December 2018. What do these interventions add to the purchasing power of these people?

This is best done if we bring these beneficiaries and ask them. Those who have never got any form of support in their lives before can never relate to the kind of evaluation you are talking about. That is the raw fact. You and I are in different category. So what factors affect us, do not affect them. You can look at economy at top-down or bottom-up. If you look at the bottom-up approach, you must look at it from the inclusion perspective. While I agree with you about the purchasing power and what these interventions add to what they can buy, these beneficiaries are more interested that they are even included in the social bracket. And that is what matters most.