Deji Elumoye and Chuks Okocha in Abuja
The leadership of the National Assembly has rejected the list of the vulnerable compiled by the presidency as beneficiaries of the COVID-19 special fund, describing it as fraudulent.
The lawmakers have also expressed concern that the Social Investment Programme (SIP) introduced by the federal government in 2016 was yet to be backed by law.
It, therefore, directed the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, overseeing the project to overhaul the scheme in four weeks.
The ministry is also to discard the register and all indices used to generate those that are poor and vulnerable across the 360 federal constituencies in the country.
These were the highlights of yesterday’s meeting between the National Assembly leadership, led by the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, with the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Ms. Sadiya Farouq, and top officials of the ministry.
At the meeting, Lawan and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, faulted the way the SIP of the federal government is being implemented and called for an enabling legislation in line with global best practices.
Lawan and Gbajabiamila expressed their reservations about the scheme at a meeting attended by the Deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege; Deputy Speaker, Hon. Idris Wase, and some other principal officers and members from both chambers.
The meeting was held at the instance of the leadership of the National Assembly against the backdrop of the ongoing federal government’s intervention initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the vulnerable.
The two presiding officers said the SIP, which was established in 2016 under the presidency but which is now under the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, should be reformed to make it more efficient and effective.
Lawan, in his remarks, said the National Assembly was interested in the current intervention initiatives of the ministry particularly the disbursement of the palliatives.
“We feel that we need to work together with you to ensure that there is effectiveness, there is efficiency, that those who are supposed to benefit, benefit directly,” Lawan said.
According to him, the National Assembly is concerned about the conditions and guidelines for the intervention programme directed at the vulnerable.
“When for example, some conditions are set that those who will benefit will have to go online, through the internet or BVN and the rest of it, I want to tell you that the majority of those who are supposed to benefit have no access to power. They have no access to the Internet. They have no bank accounts; so no BVN. In fact, many of them don’t even have phones and these are the poorest of the poor. Yet, some of the conditions or guidelines which you set inadvertently leave them out,” he added.
To him, the poorest of the poor have not been sufficiently captured by the programme.
“We believe that when we work together, the executive side of government and the National Assembly as representatives of the people, we will be able to reach much more of these people who are in serious distress even before COVID-19.
“Now with COVID-19, they need our attention more than ever before. The time has come that we review the ways and manner we use to deliver the services under the SIP to Nigerians. We need to be better in terms of strategy for delivery and definitely, what we have been doing in the past cannot deliver exactly what will solve the challenges of the most ordinary and most vulnerable Nigerians.
“So, we need to put on our thinking cap and work out some strategies on how to identify the poorest persons in Nigeria. I think we have not been able to reach far out there to get them properly captured,” Lawan said.
Gbajabiamila also told the minister that she was in the eye of the storm because all eyes were on her
He said: “Your job right now is probably the most important as we speak because you are saddled with the responsibility of alleviating ‘poverty’ or the hardship, due to no fault of anyone, being thrust upon Nigerians and I know that you came into a system, or you met a system that has nothing to do with you, but what we will be asking you to do is for you to change that system.
“When you walk into a system, no system is 100 per cent perfect. The word reform is something we use all the time and this is the one time when that word reform must be used in the truest sense of that word.
“The questions are going to be asked, how do you come about your list? How comprehensive is your distribution list? What are the parameters? What is the geographical spread? So these are tough questions that are going to be asked but I want you to look at them as frank questions that we need to ask.
“If you really want to define the meaning of representation, if that was being practiced in the real meaning of representation, then we shouldn’t be here. Because, all the questions we want to ask, we should already have the answers. We should be providing those answers to the Nigerian people we represent.
“But if they ask me, as the speaker of the House, or ask the Senate president or any of my colleagues here, we are going to be struggling for answers. If we were really representing, then we will not need to ask because we will have the answers.”
According to him, committees in the House have been complaining even before the minister was appointed about the inability to access information about the programme.
Gbajabiamila said the SIP was similar to the Unemployment Insurance Act in the United Kingdom and the Social Security Act in the United States.
“There are a lot of takeaways from this COVID-19. One of them is the international best practices. My point is that these things are backed by law. They are codified by the legislature so that these issues and these questions will not arise.”
The speaker urged the minister to talk with the committees and the National Assembly leadership on the best way to codify the scheme.
Responding, the minister said the SIP was moved to her ministry for sustainability and institutionalisation.
“I am very pleased to hear that we are going to work together to see that we give legal backing to this programme because that is the only way to go,” she said.