Nairametrics|There’s a story I like to tell. In 2003, I was working as an electoral agent for the National Conscience Party (NCP). The governorship election that year was my first close up contact with full-blooded Nigerian politics. My polling unit happened to have a market women leader working for the Alliance for Democracy (AD). Her job was to ensure the polling unit and ward were delivered to the party. For this, she had been fully ‘mobilised’. She subsequently told the young men, with nothing but time on their hands, in the area to go vote, then come back to her for payment for their troubles. After they voted, they marched to her house to get paid. She changed the rules and said she would only pay them after the results had been announced and AD had been declared the winner. This meant the boys had to wait a few hours.
Perhaps she had already seen the results from the INEC staff. But once the results were announced, the boys went back to her house only to find that she had gone out through a back gate. She did leave some jollof rice and fish to be given to them. Nobody got any money. The boys were livid and threatened a glorious revolution in her compound. In the end, after much ranting and raving, they ate the rice and fish and went their separate ways. And that was that.
The recent announcement that the Federal Government was to start paying poor and indigent Nigerians N5,000 per month, in fulfillment of a campaign promise, reminded me of that story. It has always illustrated to me a fundamental failure of Nigerian governments that begins even before they win elections and have power – the inability to communicate with Nigerians without a middleman. Nigerian governments have been failing Nigerians for a very long time. But even at the most basic task of sharing money to its citizens to pacify them, successive governments have not been able to perform.
It turned out that the market women leader had been given a lot of money to share to the boys in exchange for their vote. She had probably pitched the party to deliver her ward at a given cost per vote. There were rumours that she had even been given money to buy a cow which of course turned to fish at the coalface. She kept the bulk of the money to herself and only spent a small part on the jollof rice which ended up looking like a random collision between tomatoes and rice. The question is why did the party have to channel funding through her? Why didn’t the party have a list of its supporters and find a way to pay them for their votes directly. The model adopted was quite risky – what if she didn’t deliver? The strategy she adopted was quite risky – some other party could have turned up with some money and bought the boys’ votes. At any rate, the fact she was able to ‘deliver’ the polling unit with ex post rice and fish suggested the party wasted whatever money it gave her.
Look around you and you see this pattern everywhere. Governments in Nigeria at all levels do not know how to directly communicate with their citizens on a large-scale. They either use market leaders or youth leaders or dubious associations, all of who claim to be speaking for some exaggerated or imaginary group somewhere. In the end, money changes hands and the actual supposed beneficiaries get only a small fraction, if anything at all. Recriminations and cries of betrayal quickly follow. Nothing ever comes of it. Soldiers fighting in the north-east get cheated out of their allowances because someone somewhere has taken a huge cut before it gets to them. The militants in the Niger Delta also complained of being cheated out of their pacification payments. A former Police IG famously kept money for police salaries in a fixed deposit account while delaying payments to them. Pensioners have to be ‘verified’ every so often because the government doesn’t really who is who. A few years ago, someone I know got handed about N20m to go deliver to someone just before an election in a south-west state. He kept half of it and only delivered half. How can governments which specialise in stealing from Nigerians be so incompetent at basic money sharing? A different manifestation of this failing is the recent Lake Rice launched by Lagos and Kebbi states to much fanfare. The rice was subsidised, presumably to help the poor, and a one man, one bag policy was enforced at the point of sale. But, as expected, people bought the rice at N12,000 and went on to resell it for N15,000. If the government really wanted to help the poor, why didn’t it just give them the cheap rice directly? Well, to begin with, it would have to know who is poor and who isn’t.
Because of this I find the new direct cash transfer programme of the current government quite interesting. I am also cautiously optimistic about it. Forget about the actual amount – N5,000 is hardly a life changing sum for anyone even the poorest in society. But, working closely with the World Bank, the programme has been designed in such a way that the payments will go directly to the beneficiaries’ bank accounts. Each person in the scheme will get the advertised N5,000 not N2,000 or even N800. Some work has been done to find those truly in need across 9 states to begin with and then gradually roll it out to a total of 1 million people. If it works, it will be the largest direct communication between the government and the people in Nigeria in my lifetime.
Living abroad, I can take this for granted. Whenever the tax man writes to me, the letter is sent to my house and addressed with my full name. I pay my taxes directly to the government and if the government needs to send me a tax refund, it sends it directly to me in my name – no middleman is ever involved. This tradition of knowing who is who in a country goes back a long time. In 1085, King William (The Conqueror) commissioned what is now known as the Domesday Book covering England. It was a survey of all the property and wealth in the country for the purpose of assessing them for tax. It counted people, livestock and even farm tools. This book, written nearly 1,000 years ago, contained 2 million words and made it possible for credit, among other things, to develop in England.
It is long overdue for the Nigerian government to be able to have a direct line to its people. People do need help and government can play a role. Beyond just paying people money, it is a chance for government to develop this most basic skill of governance. It will have an idea of who is on the programme and who has moved on. We might be able to have a useful measure of social mobility later – who started off collecting N5,000 per month from government and is now a business owner? What exactly are people spending the N5,000 on? What is the real nature of poverty in Nigeria. There is also the intangible of dignity – people will not need to go and queue or grovel before some middleman to get a small amount of money. The money will go directly into their bank accounts.
Of course this is Nigeria and many things could go wrong. The World Bank might hand over the programme to Nigeria later and it will go downhill from there. The list of beneficiaries might get lost. Politicians might find a way to start getting people on the list. Government might run out of money and start owing them. Nothing might be done to ensure those who are able-bodied are given better opportunities so they can graduate out of collecting N5,000 monthly from the government. The scheme might be used to buy votes before an election. The list of possible failures is endless.
But if it works, it will be a quiet but giant step in the evolution of the relationship between the Nigerian government and the people. For that, I’m hoping it is successful.
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