“We will stop corruption and make the ordinary people, the weak and the vulnerable our top priority,” said Muhammadu Buhari while delivering one of the speeches in which he reeled out promises to Nigerians ahead of the 2015 Presidential election. Now president, Buhari is trying his best to stay true to his words but the very promises that made the ‘ordinary Nigerian’ vote for him may be his downfall.
One of the promises of Buhari’s campaign was to create a Social Welfare Program of at least N5000 that will cater for the 25 million poorest and most vulnerable citizens. This will be given once it can be the poor can demonstrate children’s enrolment in school and present evidence of immunisation.
While the social safety net has been lauded as a growing number of developing countries are investing in social safety nets to improve the lives and livelihoods of billions of poor and vulnerable people, according to the World Bank.
In Africa alone, the number of countries setting up social safety net programs has doubled over the past three years. World Bank Group’s Senior Director for Social Protection and Labour notes that “More countries at all income levels are investing in social safety net programs because they are transformational”. Truly, there are evidences to show that these programs provide poor families with funds for the education and health of their children. However, only one out of 10 people on the continent is covered by such programs. The numbers could be worse in Nigeria where data gathering has been a big issue. President Buhari is proposing a conditional cash transfer model, which the World Bank recommends as the best targeted safety net program. This is because it devotes as much as 50 percent of benefits to the poorest 20 percent of the population. The international lender also notes that nearly half of every cash transfer money spills over into the local economy because beneficiaries invest in livelihoods. The prospects look good but several questions have emanated from the proposed social safey program that President Buhari needs to answer truthfully (to himself) before embarking on. More so, no one will hold him for not delivering on one of his promises as he told Nigerians soon after he won the presidential election that his manifesto was ‘subject to modification’.
The first question President Buhari must ask himself is whether the number of Nigeria’s poorest does not exceed 25 million and whether the poorer ones would do just fine without a similar program. According to World Bank’s 2014 figures, there are 178.5 million people in Nigeria, 33.1 percent of which are poor. These numbers show that there are about 59 million poor people in Nigeria. While several Nigerians often argue that World Bank’s data may be flawed as there are several poor people in the country that are not considered in data gathering due to reasons we can only blame the Nigerian government for. A friend once visited Adikpo-Ichol in Benue State and from his description of life in the remote town where there is no power, pipe borne water or health centre, it is unlikely such places get covered in any development indexes. As far as their State government is concerned, the town only exist on paper as they are also said not to be included in the country’s electoral process. However, if Buhari insists there are 25 million ‘poorest Nigerians’ who need the safety net, he should ask himself another question.
Can Nigeria afford the social safety net program at its current state? The president might have answered this to himself already, and that may explain why the program is yet to start. Besides, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) had announced prior to the elections that he would plug all loopholes through which public funds are being lost. When this happens, the party said the government would “have reasonable quantum of funds for social investments programmes in education, health, and safety nets such as free school meals for children, emergency public works for unemployed youth and pensions for the elderly”. Seeing that the president is still trying to block the leakages, it may be unfair to ask why the program has not started but considering how much the government will be spending on the social safety net program, even when he succeeds in plugging leakages, President Buhari may need to consider other pressing needs that could easily translate to better lives for the country’s poorest. If the government pays N5, 000 to each of the 25 million poorest people every month, the government will be expending N125 billion monthly and N1.5 trillion every year on ‘handouts’ – about 34 percent of Nigeria’s 2015 budget. While safety nets have the potential of reducing poverty, for Nigeria, there is hardly any economic sense in spending as much. Remember there are still no good roads nor good schools or health facilities. We have to fix them first.
Maintaining his people-focus stance, President Buhari also recently decided against removing fuel subsidy despite the proven strain it puts on the nation’s finances. Although the transition committee he set up to design a blueprint for his administration’s activities had advised him to end the subsidy regime which currently costs the country N1.69 billion daily, what President Buhari cares about is how a removal could affect transportation, food, rents, etc. The state of Nigeria’s finances calls for some difficult decisions to be made by the president, but he seems too scared to offend the common man whom he promised ‘Change’ when begging for his vote. With Nigeria still deriving 75 percent of its revenue from oil and oil prices keep crashing, it is only a matter of time before the decisions Mr Buhari is leaving unmade haunt him.