In this interview with AFEEZ HANAFI, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Job Creation and Youth Employment, Mr Afolabi Imoukhuede, speaks about the high unemployment rate in the country and the social intervention programme of the government.
N-Power is one of the social intervention programmes of the President Muhammadu-Buhari led administration aimed at addressing the growing rate of unemployment in the country. However, it seems the rate of unemployment is worsening despite N-Power. Does this not mean that it is not achieving its purpose?
N-Power is over two years old now. We received implementation report in March 2016 and we moved into full-fledged implementation. The N-Power portal opened in June 12, 2016. The scheme was the campaign promise of the President to focus on vulnerable persons and unemployed youths. So it is one of the components of the national social investment programmes.
It has really been great and it has far exceeded expectations, but there is always room for improvement. There is a job strategy document. The President’s job creation strategy is that it would be private-sector-focused and government-enabled. Look at the broad strategy for job creation; that is the reason we have the presidential enabling council which is looking at how we can open up this market for greater private sector effort. The council is trying to remove the bottlenecks that hinder businesses with the MSME (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) clinic trying to see how we can stimulate more growth.
In truth, what records from other countries show us is that the biggest employer is always in the MSME. Unfortunately, they are always the ones that get hit when there is any little bottleneck. So we have the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council and the MSME clinic to address these issues. But while we are doing this, we know those are top-down approaches. We know youth unemployment is an emergency situation. We knew we had to disaggregate the National Bureau of Statistics’ figure on unemployed youth cadre within the age range of 18-35. When we started, it was as high as 40 per cent but now it has come down to 30 per cent. We knew something urgent needed to be done in that regard and that was why N-Power came alive. Empowering 500,000 people was our promise and we designed it as a learn-work entrepreneurship because we know the ability to keep them on forever is going to be a challenge. While it was a political promise, in our deployment it was purely developmental and that was governance at work. We collaborate with all governors across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory and in doing that, they are the ones that deploy the volunteers in the various places of primary assignment.
What we have seen in return is that our youths can do something with the stipends that they get. A lot of them have been able to use that stipend as a seed; planted it and are now generating harvest. A lot of them have gone into small businesses, especially farming. The success stories abound all over Nigeria. There are schools in some communities that have just principals and vice principals. Their teachers are N-Power teachers.
Many volunteers, especially those in N-Power Teach, will return to the labour market after the two-year period of the scheme. Doesn’t that mean the impact of the scheme is only temporary?
Two things: It’s a programme that is open to exit at any time. You’re not mandated to stay for the 24 months. It is a lifeline opportunity extended to you to pick yourself up. So, at any time they find jobs, they can resign and go into full-time jobs. Thousands of them (volunteers) are getting jobs. What we don’t encourage is for somebody to have a job somewhere and also work in N-Power. We actually discipline such people. It is a full-time volunteer programme.
Secondly, it is designed as learn-work entrepreneurship. So, the volunteers are not leaving N-Power hopeless and aimless when they go back to the labour market. We designed N-Power in response to what the labour market of the private sector told us when we were preparing the strategy document. They said a lot of the challenges we have with our graduates is employability. They don’t have the right employable skills, such the writing skill, communication skill and analytical skill. First, N-Power is designed as a remedial programme. The required skills are loaded in the N-Power devices which belong to the volunteers. They learn those skills during the programme.
One of the things we encourage is for the volunteers to count backwards so that with each month they are in the programme, they are looking towards maximising the stipend given to them every month, which is tax-free. Also, they work in their communities which limit the cost of transport or relocation cost. Take away Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt (Rivers State) where you may say N30,000 is nothing; for the greater number of volunteers, N30,000 is a lot because of what they are able to do with it. So we encourage them to think of what they can do to stand on their own when they are no longer in N-Power. With that device, a lot of them are actually earning extra income through enumeration. The social investment programme has a whole lot of component programmes beyond N-Power. In school feeding scheme, you need to enumerate community farmers that grow the food and the cooks. Rather than look for people to do the enumeration, we use N-Power volunteers.
Your claim that thousands of volunteers have resigned suggests that labour market is doing fine. Is that not contradictory to the recent data released by NBS, stating that there is an increase in unemployment rate?
Let’s try to put the statistics in a proper context. Let’s understand what the NBS is saying. Labour market is a function of how many people come into the labour market. When the NBS is looking at the employment statistics, it is not saying that those who are in jobs are not in jobs anymore. First, there was a history of recession. When we slipped into recession, people lost their jobs. But when the NBS was looking at 2017 to 2018, it did so considering the number of people who had come to the labour market. One thing we also need to recognise is that NBS actually referenced that unemployment dipped in terms of the youth unemployment after we introduced N-Power. When we did it in December 2016, there was a decline in the first quarter of 2017 NBS’ report. When we did it again in August 2018, in its Q3 2018 report, there was a decline from what it was in previous quarters. Whenever there is an intervention programme, it takes in a lot of people. But as those people are going out of the labour market through gainful employment or volunteer programmes like N-Power, you also have people from school coming into the labour market.
What we don’t shy away from is the fact that our unemployment challenge is a result of structural issue, which is population. The population growth far exceeds our economic growth. And as long as that continues to happen, we are going to have this cycle of more people in labour market than the jobs in the market to absorb them. That is the reason why we are directing the focus of our youths in N-Power towards entrepreneurship where they will no longer wait for 9-5 jobs to consider themselves gainfully employed. If you are just doing Uber, you’re already gainfully employed. If you’re doing data enumeration and you’re earning income, you’re gainfully employed. That is what we must continue to do to drive down the (unemployment) rate and change the narrative. The NBS was not saying that unemployment increased. No. It said more people are now in the labour market. Each year, universities will graduate people into labour market. Of course, you know we just pulled out of recession and economy is growing.
While you were addressing a gathering of volunteers in Kwara in 2017, you reportedly said ghost volunteers had been identified and then you promised to punish them. What actions have you taken against them?
That is a completely false quote. There is no ghost worker in N-Power; absolutely none. You cannot have ghost workers in N-Power. The process is simple; you apply online, take a test online, and we preselect you. Anything could have happened online. Anybody could have impersonated somebody else. A lot of youths actually went to cyber cafes to do their applications. People do all sorts of things. Some applications would have errors. Because of that, we introduced physical verification and the National Orientation Agency is a key partner. It conducted physical verification at every local government area to verify identities, credentials, and ensure that such volunteers were resident in communities where they would be deployed.
What I said in Kwara was that when we sent the list to states from the federal level, there was no way there would not be insertions. For instance, someone may want to replace Afolabi Imoukhouede with Tokunbo Ogunbiyi. When we found such cases, we removed them. We send the list and it comes back to us. If there is any form of insertion, we always remove it. What we also said was that whenever there were people who were not verified, we would remove them. Kwara was had a peculiar case at that time. Kwara posted many people without letting them pass physical verification exercises. They (officials) had deployed them before they realised that they did the wrong thing.
Rather than withdraw all the deployment letters, and allow only those that were successfully verified to go for deployment, they did not do that. So we had a situation where there were a lot of people we did not recognise on the payroll because they had not undergone physical verification. They kept going round, protesting that they had not been paid. And as of that time, the state government did its best to ensure that the affected volunteers passed through series of physical verifications. Till date, we have cleaned up that process. So there is no ghost worker in N-Power.
On those who are absent, because we pay them from Abuja, sometimes our partners (in the states) would say the volunteers don’t listen to them. We have three different monitoring mechanisms. One is that the heads of the places of primary assignment are the chief monitors that should report situations regarding attendance and discipline to us. Two, my team and I go out to monitor by ourselves. Three, there are independent monitors in every community. That way, we are able to monitor and control every volunteer. Categorically, there is no ghost worker.
There are claims that the TraderMoni scheme is a vote-buying strategy as the N10,000 loan has little or no business value. How would you respond to that?
Nigerians are so used to distorting facts. And I think part of the reason is because they don’t have the correct information. One, TraderMoni is not new. It is a component of the government enterprise empowerment programme that was launched the same time social investment programme was announced in December 2015 in the first budget read by the President at the National Assembly. We started first with GEEP (Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme). Part of GEEP is MarketMoni which is about giving people N50,000 loans. If you return it, you continue to get more up to N100,000. The next is FarmerMoni which is up to N300,000 loan. You must be a farmer with a sizable farm to benefit from the loan. TraderMoni is the third component of the GEEP programme. The reason it has got the biggest attention is because it is taking care of the petty traders; the masses, who are at the bottom of the pyramid, like those that fry plantain that is not worth more than N1,000, or those that sell ponmo (cow skin) that is not worth more than N2,000. A greater number of Nigerians are at the base of the pyramid. So the first thing to correct is that it (TraderMoni) is not new. Secondly, since it is not new, what do you mean by saying it is vote-buying? How? One thing this government has done is not to suspend governance for politics. That the vice president launched it in July 2018 does not mean work had not been going on.
Some TraderMoni beneficiaries alleged that they were asked to present their PVCs as part of conditions to get the loan. Doesn’t that connote vote-buying?
It is completely false. We don’t even give out forms. There is no form in the social investment programme. And the only reason why every politician has attacked us is because we are not giving out forms.
The budget for agriculture, which is one of the sectors your office oversees, was reduced by about 30 per cent in the 2019 budget compared to the previous year. Don’t you think that can create a setback in the sector being used to diversify the economy?
What the President has done is to say that everything is a priority to him, including investment in people, infrastructure and other sectors of the economy. So, that is really what happens in terms of how we share these resources. Nevertheless, agriculture is one of our chief drivers. Let us remember that agriculture also has supports such as Anchor Borrowers’ Programme that is not in the budget but is provided for by the Central Bank of Nigeria. We are also getting a bit of technical support from Brazil and Morocco.
There is a lot more of direct foreign investments and extra budgetary revenue that we can access. Truly, there is no amount of money we can give out for agriculture that can really meet the needs of the sector. What we do is to ensure that the little we have is used judiciously to create growth in the economy. We can always do more, but revenue is still a challenge for us as a country. All that we do in N-Power Agric is not under agric budget. It is under social investment (scheme).
In the last 14 quarters of President Buhari’s administration, economy recorded marginal growth six times and declined considerably eight times. Isn’t that a setback?
When we talk about improvement, we are talking about infrastructure. Let’s remember that even in our days of seven per cent growth, the same watchers of economy said our growth was ‘jobless growth’. Gross Domestic Product was growing, but no jobs were created. What it meant was that the growth was superficial. But to laymen, the (marginal) growth is not trickling down. The question is why. And you and I have the answer. There was no way it would have trickled down without infrastructure. There was no way it could have trickled down without connector. Real growth is being able to get produce to any part of the country which is by market. The state of our roads and rail was the reason why the growth was said to be ‘jobless growth’. It was largely growth in rising income of crude and there wasn’t much job growth in getting the crude out of the ground.
In the last three years, what has this government done to ensure meaningful growth?
The benefit of what (government’s efforts) you are seeing now can only show in future statistics trend. Let’s remember the way statistics work; they capture trends from the back after it has happened. They can also foretell and there have been many positive projections. For instance, I read that there would be real growth in Q1 of 2019 because the usual inflation that is attributable to election spending will not happen this year. Remember in 2015, this government did not have its own budget. It worked with its predecessor’s budget. It was in 2016 that our year of measurement started. In that 2016, the economy was hit by recession, low oil revenue, yet the government was trying to do more with less by building infrastructure projects. Without going into politics, that is the essence of “four plus four.” You may not agree, but everybody had a good Christmas. For instance, there was incremental power supply compared to what we had in the time of the previous administration.
Yes, our growth now is marginal, but it is what we call the real growth. With this growth, you can relate to the farms. Both CBN and NBS agree that there is great reduction in the importation of rice. You can see the farmers on the field and you can see the improvement in their lives and by extension, households.
During 2015 electioneering, the present administration said four years was enough for any responsible government to fix the economy, yet our economy is still in a bad shape three years after. Why do you think such a government deserves another term?
Let’s understand that government or governance is a continuum. Even if you fix Nigeria, won’t there be sustenance of what has been fixed? Perhaps, the man (Buhari) never made a promise that he would do one term. So constitution allows him to do another term. The only reason we can do more with less in a declining economy is simply because of the leaders that we have. When we got in, we suffered a recession. There were projections that it would take us two or three years to get out of recession. But see how fast we were able to get out of recession because there was no leaking treasury. I also believe that the social investment programme contributed to it. The focus on infrastructure is another thing that quickly got us out of recession. That is just to show that we are taking steps in the right direction. Even when you fix something, you must maintain it. So, we are fixing Nigeria. But the question is: has it been fixed completely? No, it has not.
When there was a lot of money coming into the economy, the then government was not doing things that needed to be done. Unemployment rose in the time of the supposed growth and there was plenty income. Those are the things we need to look at. If the common man is saying they are not feeling the improvement Mr Buhari is talking about, the question we should ask is, “Did they feel it when we had rising income?”
Yes, many people actually say they were doing a lot better during the previous administration…
(Cuts in) They fared better because everything was mostly coming from proceeds of corruption. Someway, somehow, proceeds of corruption will go round. But now, the people who are feeling better are those who are ready to work because the era of free money is gone. Let us look at the political season we are in now. The President made it a deliberate choice that his campaign strategy would be based on governance and accomplishment. And that is why until now, in the history of our current democracy, we never had a situation where general elections would be close and governance would continue as if there is no election.
People who are ready to create values are benefiting from the economy. In the social investment programme, there is nothing we did in the extended value chain of this programme that had any foreign input. What you have not asked is how we recruited 500,000 people for N-Power without any accident as it was recorded in the immigration recruitment a few years ago. It is technology. And this technology is purely home-grown. It was our youths in this country who designed the coding, the portal and everything that we used for the application, selection and deployment. They are still the ones maintaining the portal. All of these services are not free. They are services that are earning income for some people. That for me is being able to create value.
Let’s state the facts – do you know that a common man needs the impact of his local government? It is actually the impact of the local government that should come closest to him. So, really, to be in your community and feel the impact of the Federal Government is actually too far-fetched. It should be your local government first and then your state before the Federal Government. But even in the federation system that we practise, the Federal Government is reaching down to the common man. If a common man is saying that the gutter in front of his house is not being maintained and it is breeding mosquitoes, it is not President Buhari’s fault. He should ensure that in the next election, he votes out his councillor or chairman, who is not doing the work. If he says it is about (poor) Trunk C Road, which is over 70 per cent of our road network in Nigeria, it is not about President Buhari. If he talks about Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the question will be: you know the state of the road many years ago, but can you see what is being done now? If the common man is a TraderMoni beneficiary, you should know that ideally, it is something that local or state governments should be doing, but the Federal Government is only supporting. What is within his (Buhari’s) power, he is doing it. The funds that were within his power to release, he released to state governments and begged them to pay salaries and pensions.
Most MSMEs are still battling with erratic power supply and crazy billing which frustrate their business. What do you say to this?
Estimated billing is not a problem of the Federal Government. Power has been privatised. It is the electricity distribution companies that manage it. Of course you will ask whether the government is not supposed to regulate the sector. We have National Electricity Regulation Commission, which is under the Federal Government and it is doing its work. The Minister of Power, Works and Housing (Babatunde Fashola) always says that the agreement upon which privatisation was done was very faulty. But if the government says cancel it and let’s start again, people will say it has been politicised. We will continue to work with them. But where we see they don’t want to play their role and instead want to blackmail government, we will take action against them. Such is what we now see the Edo State government doing. The state government promised to take action against the Disco (there) even without waiting for NERC. That is the beauty of democracy. For the MSMEs that are facing the problem, I empathise with them. Thank God that in my home and some areas now, there are prepaid metres. The promise the Minister of Power, Works and Housing made is that there will be incremental power and we are fulfilling that. From 3,000 megawatts, it is now 7,000 megawatts. We even have a challenge in distributing the 7,000 megawatts because of the inefficiency of the Discos.
What we have done is to have off-grid power solution. That is what we are doing in some markets like Sura in Lagos, Sabon Gari in Kano, and a few other markets in Ondo and Benin, Edo State. Even in this, all that the government does is to facilitate. It is actually the private sector that brought their equipment for solar energy installations.
And people are ready to pay for power if they get it. I am convinced that we are taking steps in the right direction. You may say the two men (Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo) are not spending quickly enough; you may say they are not leveraging fast enough as a businessman, but at least, you won’t say they are depleting the resources.