How SIP Turned N’Assembly, Executive against Each Other

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The four-year old Social Investment Programme of the federal government was the basis of disagreement between the Executive and the Legislature last week, writes Deji Elumoye

It was not the best of times for both the Executive and the Legislative arms of government last week as they both had open disagreement over the implementation of the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP) introduced in 2016 by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.

Prior to this engagement, the relationship between the Presidency and the National Assembly had been very cordial since the re-election of President Buhari last year and the inauguration of the Ninth Assembly last June.

In fact, the President of the Senate, who is also the Chairman of the National Assembly, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, at every given opportunity had always stressed that the legislature and the Executive are always on the same page, when it comes to the issue of delivering democratic dividends to the citizenry.

This synergy had actually led to the timely passage of the 2020 budget by the Assembly last December, which returned the budget cycle to January to December instead of the old order of June to May fiscal year.

The cordial relationship between the two arms of government in the last one year or thereabout also saw to the Assembly approving in good time, all requests for ministerial as well as other statutory appointments by the Executive.

The situation, however, changed last week as the leadership of the National Assembly, which had for sometime been engaging the executive arm over the issue of providing palliative to the citizenry to cushion the effect of Coronavirus pandemic, questioned the rationale behind the implementation of the Social Investment Programme of the federal government.

At one of such meetings last Tuesday with the top officials of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development led by the Minister, Hajia Sadiya Farouq, the leadership of the National Assembly apart from expressing concern that the SIP was yet to be backed by an Act of Parliament also described as fraudulent the poverty list compiled by the Presidency to benefit from the Coronavirus pandemic special fund and rejected it outright.

The National Assembly therefore directed the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs overseeing the project to overhaul the scheme in four weeks while also asking it to discard the register and all indices used to generate those that are poor and vulnerable across the 360 federal constituencies in the country.

At the meeting, President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, faulted the way the SIP was being implemented and called for an enabling legislation in line with global best practices.

The meeting was held at the instance of the leadership of the National Assembly against the backdrop of the ongoing federal government intervention initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the most vulnerable Nigerians.

The two presiding officers made it clear that the SIP, which was established in 2016 under the Presidency but which is now under the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs needed a reform to make it more efficient and effective.

Lawan, specifically said the National Assembly was very much interested in the current Intervention initiatives of the ministry particularly with respect to the disbursement aimed at assuaging the plight of the poorest of the poor Nigerians against COVID-19.

According to him, the National Assembly is concerned about the conditions and guidelines for the intervention programmes, which are directed specifically at the most vulnerable Nigerians.

“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 Internet. They have no bank account, 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 said.

He therefore concluded that, 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 the Coronavirus.

“Now with Coronavirus, 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, on his part, told the Minister that she was in the thick of the storm now, because all eyes are on her

“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 practised 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,” Gbajabiamila said.

The Executive was quick to respond to the allegations of the National Assembly on the execution of the SIP as the Special Adviser to the President on Social Investments, Maryam Uwais, faulted the submissions of both Lawan and Gbajabiamila on the programme.

In a release issued last Wednesday and entitled “Lawan, Gbajabiamila Got It Wrong”, while stressing that the National Social Investment Programmes (NSIPs) had since October, 2019 been handed over to the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs “it has become necessary to respond to the unfortunate allegations made at the National Assembly on the 7th of April 2020, for the purpose of:

“Safeguarding the entitlements of the poorest of Nigerian citizens, whose benefits are likely to cease, because they are not known or connected to National Assembly members or any other person of influence;

“Protecting the integrity of the NSR, which development has been a painstaking process over the past four years, along with the huge investment and effort expended on data that is critical for development and poverty analysis; and

“Ensuring compliance with the World Bank Financing Agreement (FA) signed by Nigeria and the World Bank, as well as the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Nigeria, the Swiss Government and the World Bank, to facilitate the return of the funds recovered from the Abacha family”.

Uwais’ response however generated another reaction from the National Assembly leadership that claimed its response to the National Social Investment Programme was to make it more effective but not to denigrate any government official.

The National Assembly leadership advised officials and agencies of government to exploit their access to the legislature in making clarifications before reacting to newspaper reports on its deliberations.

The Special Adviser to the Senate President on Media and Publicity, Ola Awoniyi explained that the leadership of the National Assembly had called the said meeting as part of the legislature’s collaborations with the executive arm of government for effective management of the Coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria and mitigation of the harsh effects of the measures adopted in this respect on Nigerians.

Accordingly, Awoniyi said, “The comments at the meeting were not made to denigrate any official but to make the scheme more effective in the delivery of its critical mandate and these comments were well taken by the Honourable Minister and her delegation. The minister was honest enough to admit that the NSIP had some ‘challenges’ and also bedevelled with ‘intrigues’ which she was yet battling with”.

According to the statement, the observations made by the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, captured the views of many Nigerians. These observations also reflect feedback from the people they represent who are the targeted beneficiaries of the scheme”.

“We, therefore, take strong exception to the innuendo by the presidential aide that her rejoinder was issued towards “safeguarding the entitlements of the poorest of Nigerian citizens, whose benefits are likely to cease because they are not known or connected to NASS members or any other person of influence. That insinuation is unfair to the members of the National Assembly and entirely baseless”.

The leadership of the National Assembly added that, “Public office holders should be receptive to constructive ideas and suggestions expressed to enhance service delivery and to improve the performances of public projects and institutions”.

As a way of dousing tension between the Executive and the legislative arm, Farouq, has assured of change of approach in subsequent disbursements of NSIP.

The Minister, who gave the assurance in a statement last Thursday said issues raised by leadership of the National Assembly on SIP implementation, when she appeared before them on Tuesday, will be addressed.

“Issues raised by the leadership of the National Assembly on implementation of the disbursement of packages to assuage the plight of poor Nigerians will be tackled in a manner that will lay to rest the reservations of Nigerians”, she stressed.

The Minister specifically assured that her ministry would widen the scope of the scheme in the direction of the poorest of the poor in rural areas across the country and as well digitalise the next payment processes.

“I assure you that by the next payment, we must have started the digitisation process of disbursement. The ministry in consultations with state governors, have agreed to come up with accurate data on primary schools, so as to streamline the food rationing to households”.

According to her, the ministry has obtained a comprehensive and digitised register that will put an end to fears raised by the National Assembly on both the school feeding programme and the vulnerable people.

“Required reforms aimed at implementing a good scheme for the poor and in particular, disbursement of packages as palliatives to cushion the effect of the COVID-19 on the vulnerable Nigerians, are already put in place.”