A Controversial Public Works Scheme Commences

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Despite resolutions by the National Assembly halting the implementation of the 774,000 special works job programme, the federal government has commenced the recruitment exercise in earnest, writes Udora Orizu

The federal government, last week, ignored attempts by the National Assembly to halt the takeoff of the 774,000 special public works programme and commenced the exercise on the scheduled date of Tuesday, January 5, 2021.

The special public works programme is designed to employ 1,000 people from each of the 774 local government areas in the country, who would each be paid N20,000 monthly from the N52 billion voted for the exercise in the revised 2020 budget.

President Muhammadu Buhari had approved the programme under the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) to cushion the effect of COVID-19 pandemic. The programme was initially expected to take off in October 2020. Nigerians enlisted on the programme are expected to carry out public services such as street sweeping, waste disposal and the like.

However, since the announcement of the programme, members of the National Assembly and the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo have been at loggerheads over the recruitment modalities for the programme.

The Shouting Match

On 30th June 2020, the Minister of State for Labour, Employment and Productivity, Festus Keyamo, engaged federal lawmakers in a shouting match over the recruitment exercise.

The disagreement took place at the interactive session on the subject between the Minister and members of the National Assembly joint committee on Labour.

Trouble started, when the Committee requested the then Director-General of the National Directorate of Employment, Nasiru Ladan, to speak on the composition of a 20-man committee inaugurated by the Ministry for the implementation of the planned Programme.

Ladan in his explanation could not defend the N52 billion budgeted for the recruitment of 774,000 Nigerians under the NDE programme. He disclosed that he was aware of only eight members of the committee, referring the lawmakers to seek further clarification from the Minister.

The lawmakers were not satisfied with his explanation, having given the impression he was not in control of the programme.

At this point, Keyamo said his ministry was asked by President Buhari to supervise the recruitment but the lawmakers disagreed with his declaration, and this sparked off a shouting match.

Keyamo became angry as the lawmakers threw questions at him, accusing him of hijacking the programme from NDE and alleging acute lopsidedness in the entire programme.

The drama took a different dimension, when the lawmakers asked that journalists excused the meeting for an executive session with the Minister. Keyamo rejected this, insisting that having been openly accused, the media should remain in the room.

His outburst infuriated the lawmakers who asked that he apologised for his behaviour but Keyamo refused, saying he had done nothing wrong to warrant an apology. Keyamo’s threat to walk out of the meeting further irked the lawmakers, who asked him to go, if he wanted. When he refused to apologise, the lawmakers reached a resolution and asked him to leave the meeting.

Speaking with journalists shortly after, Keyamo accused the lawmakers of trying to take control of the recruitment under his ministry, saying while he was not opposed to the lawmakers investigating the programme, he would not allow himself to be controlled by them. The Minister opined that in doing so would mean sharing in the powers of President Buhari. He said despite granting the lawmakers 15% of the job placement; they still wanted to hijack the entire process and take over the powers of the President.

A Move to Suspend the Programme

Following the face-off, the federal legislators on July 1, 2020 passed a resolution suspending the implementation of the recruitment of 774,000 public works personnel, being supervised by the Minister, because according to them, the executive arm of government does not have an exclusive right over the recruitment programme.

Chairman of the Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Ajibola Basiru, who spoke to journalists on behalf of the two chambers of the National Assembly after an executive session of the Senate, also advised the Presidency to approach the court if it feels its powers are being encroached upon by the legislature.

The Senator, while responding to a question, said the conception of the programme was not exclusive to the presidency, explaining that its conception, approval and funding were with the considered input of the National Assembly because it believes it’s going to be beneficial for the purpose of addressing the challenges of COVID-19.

According to him, government revolves around the three arms – executive, legislative and judiciary.

Basiru and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Hon. Benjamin Kalu, in a joint statement, said the suspension of the scheme was necessary, because the lawmakers were concerned about the proper and effective implementation of the scheme.

They also mandated their Committees on Labour and Employment to immediately invite the Minister of Labour and Employment and any other officials of the ministry to appear before the joint committee to brief it on the modality for the implementation of the engagement of 774,000 persons for public works.

The lawmakers said they wanted to ensure transparency of the process just as it did with the National Social Register by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development.

A week after the shouting match, the substantive Minister of Labour and Productivity, Dr. Chris Ngige tendered a formal apology to the lawmakers over the incident. Ngige, who was a Senator in the Seventh Senate, tendered an unreserved apology during a visit to the leadership of the Senate and members of the National Assembly Joint Committee on Labour.

He asked the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, and the federal lawmakers to discountenance whatever position earlier taken by Keyamo on the implementation of the special public works project.

But Keyamo had insisted that he would still superintend over the recruitment of the 774,000 personnel for special public works programme, which was the source of the disagreement between him and the legislators.

Keyamo, who spoke to reporters after attending another consultative meeting with the National Assembly joint committee, declared that he was standing by his earlier position and that he would pursue it to the last including seeking legal interpretations from the Attorney General of the Federation.

Few days later, Keyamo confirmed that he had secured a fresh instruction from President Buhari on the issue, saying he’s now had the Presidential nod to proceed with the recruitment exercise.

Renewing the War on Public Works

Controversy over the public works jobs of the federal government resurfaced on August 18, 2020 as the National Assembly said it would not be part of the ongoing recruitment in which 30 slots were allotted to each member of the federal legislature.

Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinanya Abaribe, while responding to THISDAY’s enquiries about the job scheme said as far as the National Assembly was concerned, they were not participating in any recruitment exercise, because of their earlier reservations about the lack of transparency in the programme, where a minister has hijacked the programme for his own purposes.

He cited the earlier decision of the upper legislative chamber not to be part of the controversial public works scheme, saying, “The Senate of the National Assembly agreed that it will not participate in the programme as vehemently promoted without due process by Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Mr. Festus Keyamo.”

He explained that based on the earlier position of the National Assembly on the issue, the federal legislators would reject the various slots already allocated to them in their respective senatorial districts and constituencies.

On its part, the Minority Caucus in the House of Representatives also rejected the 30 slots allotted to each member of the House for their respective local government areas within their constituencies in the scheme.

House Minority Leader, Hon. Ndudi Elumelu, in a statement,a described the allotment of 30 out of the 1,000 slots per local government area as grossly unfair and unacceptable by the lawmakers.

The caucus demanded more transparency and a review of the criteria being used for the allotment, which it alleged to favour certain interests in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).

But Keyamo, in his response, told THISDAY that the rejection of the slots was irrelevant and of no consequence since their constituents would still benefit from the initiative.

“It’s the PDP caucus in the House of Representatives but that is irrelevant, because their constituents will still get the jobs. It’s 1,000 per local government. It’s just their normal sense of entitlement that they always had over the years that is worrying them.

“During their time, all social intervention programmes nobody heard about them. This is the first time that this government is making it multi-sectoral with Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Muslims and market women there. They should tell me just one PDP administration’s programme that involves all segments of the society; not one.’’

Recent Attempt to Halt the Exercise

However, the House of Representatives at plenary on December 15, 2020 asked the federal government, particularly the Minister of State for Labour to stop with immediate effect, all processes leading to the commencement of the programme until the list of beneficiaries compiled by the NDE in each state is used as a basis of selection.

It also asked the Minister of Finance not to release funds for the programme until all issues that are related to non compliance to due process are resolved, and mandated the Committees on Labour and Productivity and Legislative compliance to ensure compliance and report to the House in the next one week.

The House’s decision, which followed the adoption of a motion of urgent public importance and sponsored by Hon Olajide Olatubonsuni, also condemned the sack of the Director General of NDE, Mohammed Ladan-Argungu and advised that he be reinstated forthwith.

Olatubonsuni recalled that the Minister of State for Labour inaugurated selection committee for each state of the federation while NDE, as part of its statutory mandate was responsible for the registration of the beneficiaries.

The lawmaker expressed concern that the state selection committees in most states of the federation by-passed and ignored the list of beneficiaries compiled by NDE and forwarded a separate list of purported beneficiaries to the office of the Minister of State for Labour.

Olatubonsuni said he was greatly concerned that most Nigerians that have submitted their names to the NDE offices in their respective states have been unjustly excluded from this programme, which the Minister of State for Labour announced would start on January 5, 2021.

He said if the programme was allowed to go ahead without following due process a bad precedent would have been set for implementing programmes of this nature in the future.

As Programme Commences Regardless…

In total disregard to the House resolutions, Keyamo announced via Twitter that the special public works programme would kick off on January 5.

He wrote: ‘’President Muhammadu Buhari has approved the takeoff of the Special Public Works Programme (engaging 774,000 unemployed itinerant Nigerians) to begin nationwide on Tuesday, January 5th, 2021. All NDE state structures are already in top gear for the takeoff ceremonies.’’

The last has not been heard about the controversial public work scheme, as the two chambers of the National Assembly would revisit the issue once the federal lawmakers return from the Christmas break by Tuesday, January 26, 2021.