Is COVID 19 intervention fund being politicised?

Since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria, the federal government has put in place sundry measures to ameliorate the harsh effect of the virus, but not without controversies. Our correspondents write.

Initial controversy over N620m

Early last month when the outbreak of the coronavirus –COVID 19 actually caught the attention of Nigeria, the federal government hinted that the sum of N620m to fight the scourge.

However, the release or otherwise of the sum became controversial as the agencies said to have received the fund sharply denied having received it. Both the ministries of finance and information and national orientation were divided on it.

Recall that the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, had during a tour of the Isolation Centres located at the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, Gwagwalada, expressed sadness that no part of the N620 million was yet to be released to NCDC, and further requested the Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed, to immediately make the money available.

Lawan had said: “I am sad, we are indeed actually sad, that of the N620 million that was supposed to be released to this place for fixing of everything here to NCDC, not a kobo has been released.

“We are going to get across to the Minister of Finance and all the other authorities that have anything to do with this to release this money latest between today and tomorrow.

“As leaders given responsibilities, we have to do what is right. This is unfortunate. So, the Ministry of Finance should release the N620 million between today and tomorrow,” he stated.

There is controversy because it is assumed that Lawan was not aware and or not properly briefed by the ministry on whether or not the first tranche of the money was released to NCDC.

However, Yunusa Tanko Abdullahi, Special Adviser on Media and Communications to the minister of finance, disclosed while responding to BusinessDay enquiries on Thursday that part of money has since been released.

According to Abdullahi, the release of the fund was an unexpected expenditure due to the emergency of the coronavirus outbreak hence quick approval by the federal government to contain the scourge.

The Presidency chipped in words that the money had since been released while the ministry of finance denied not receiving same. The presidency later had words with the leadership of finance ministry and the matter was resolved.

Subsequently, the federal ministry of finance announced release of the second tranche of the N620 million budgeted for emergency response on coronavirus outbreak to be released to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

Eventually as the virus takes a vicious grip on Nigeria with many testing positive, the government agency NCDC became la lot more active than it had previously been, the federal government saw the need to source funds by way of interventions to provide needed relief. The initial package was from the IMF COVID-19 Rapid Credit Facility drawn from Nigeria’s existing holdings with the World Bank Group and the IMF. She disclosed that the IMF COVID-19 Rapid Credit Facility would be drawn from Nigeria’s existing holdings with the World Bank Group and the IMF.

The minister explained that the loan would not be tied to conditionalities, but noted however that Nigeria does not intend to negotiate or enter into a formal programme with the IMF at this time or in the nearest future.

Ahmed also disclosed that the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) had access to a Regional Disease Surveillance Systems (REDISSE) facility from the World Bank to the tune of $90million.

Out of this, $8million has been drawn for the coronavirus fight, while the country requested to fully draw down on the outstanding balance of $82million.

“The government has also requested for additional financing of $100million from the REDISSE project to meet COVID-19 emergency needs in all the 36 States and the FCT, through the NCDC and Federal Ministry of Health.

But this led to yet another round of controversy as the South-east region protested vehemently that it was left out of the booty. Besides, Rivers state governor, Nyesom Wike cried out aloud wondered what criteria was used to dole out N10 billion to Lagos state while his state was neglected.

The PDP kicks

Also, leading opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) joined the fray by asking the federal government to explain to Nigerians the source(s) of the N1.3 trillion intervention fund to combat the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s public health and economy.

The party lamented that the ruling APC has battered the Nigerian economy and so far has lost credibility in fund management. The party National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbodiyan, said in Abuja, that under the APC- led federal administration: “the nation’s economy has been battered leading to loss confidence by foreign investors long before now and demanded an accountability to the Nigerian public on the side of the government in the plan strategies to deploy the intervention fund.

“The PDP is worried over allegations of corruption in the handling of the N1.3 trillion set aside to cushion the effect of COVID-19 on the economy. Our party demands ultimate transparency.

“The federal government should come clean on the source of the intervention, the specific intervention projects where the fund will apply, the level of involvement of other tiers of government and private stakeholders, as well as the mode of disbursements and monitoring.

“The PDP demands that the COVID-19 interventions be allocated to the three tiers of government for effective delivery and monitoring.”

Recall that the Cetral Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor,  Godwin Emefiele, had through a statement, announced N1.1trn intervention fund to support critical sectors of the economy.

Specifically, the fund would be used to support “local manufacturing sector as well as boost import substitution. The Central Bank Governor also said: “N100bn would be used to support the health authorities to ensure laboratories, researchers and innovators work with global scientists to patent and produce vaccines and test kits in Nigeria.”

Also, Olognodiyan called on the All Progressives Congress-led federal government to dismiss with any plan to further increase taxes as a means of funding the budget presently facing difficulty due to drop of revenue source following global pandemic on the virulent COVID-19.

He also tasked the federal government to recover the alleged N14trn stolen by some individuals and other such allegations.

South-east barks

A South-East group, Igbo Renaissance Forum has knocked the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government over its approach to the N20,000 stimulus package for the ‘poorest in the society.’

The group said it was baffling that the government decided to share a total of ₦52bn to 2.6 million poor families in cash, without a clear system for accountability and transparency.

The Forum described as shocking government decision to give cash to individuals across the table, adding that by this, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Sadiya Umar Farouq, had flouted the government’s order on social distancing and clearly contravenes the money laundering Act.

Calling for accountability, the Forum demanded that the ministry should immediately make available on their website, the details of those who were benefiting from the stimulus exercise.

“It has also become very evident that the preparedness level of the Federal and State Governments is nothing to write home about. We were caught napping, even though citizens were told that there was full proof readiness by government,” the group said in a statement signed by its international Coordinator, Nze Ugo-Akpe Onwuka (Oyi).

It added that, “This we view as capable of completely eroding the little trust the citizens have for the political leadership in place today.

“There is a complete failure from the state to the federal level, including the National assembly that is abnormally obsessed with sucking the nation dry; sharing exotic cars in the middle of a health crisis and still bent on spending a whopping 37 billion on the renovation of the National Assembly building while the federal government went BEGGING for ventilators to keep themselves and the citizens alive. What a shame!

“We are aware that the federal government has announced palliative measures, which included disbursement of stimulus cash of twenty thousand naira to the ‘poorest in the society’ as they claimed.

“It is, however, very shocking to see the crudest form of disbursement of the stimulus cash that would give medieval men goose bumps, as cash is given to individuals across the table.

“Equally perplexing is the claim that 2.6m million individuals would benefit from N20,000 CORONAVIRUS palliative immediately, even as the 11,400 others are still to benefit. What baffles us is that government says it plans to share a total of ₦52bn to 2.6 million poor families IN CASH, without a clear system for accountability and transparency!

“We demand that in this period of very lean resources, that the ministry should immediately make available on their website, the details of those who are benefitting from this stimulus exercise.

“We want to state categorically that we are far from convinced with the figures put out on the number of Nigerians living in extreme poverty, which is clearly defined by UN standards as those living below $1.90 per day.

“This figure according to the World Poverty Clock stands at 95,903,776 million or 48 percent of our 201,623,008 million population.

“It is, therefore, absurd to read the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Sadiya Umar Farouq state that the social national register that we have as at March 31, 2020 is made up of 11,450,537 poor and vulnerable people in 35 states and 453 Local Government Areas across the country. We demand to know the fate of those that are not captured in this exercise.

“We, however, wish to condemn in very strong terms, the approach adopted by the ministry for sharing this stimulus cash. It very clearly contravenes the money laundering Act and we demand immediate explanation to the citizens for such action.

“We have cause to believe that the South East has not been adequately factored into the disbursement bracket of the ministry for this palliative.

“We demand that the minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Sadiya Umar Farouq make public the register that is being used for these disbursements so we can verify that the South East is not relegated and short-changed as we have seen severally.

“We shall continually sustain our demand through legal means until we are satisfied that there is equity in the actions of the ministry.”

FG seeks NASS’ approval for N500b

Just last Saturday, the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, disclosed that President Muhammadu Buhari has asked the National Assembly to approve the establishment of a N500b Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Crisis Intervention Fund.

Mrs Ahmed, who disclosure this when she met with the leadership of the National Assembly in Abuja, said the meeting was a follow-up meeting to the one held last Wednesday between the National Assembly leadership, and members of the Presidential Committee set up for the management of the COVID-19 crisis.

While presenting the request Ahmed said: “What we are proposing is an establishment of a N500b COVID-19 Crisis Intervention Fund. This Fund that we are proposing, that should be created, will involve mopping up resources from various special accounts that the government, as well as the Federation have, to be able to pull this N500b.”

The finance minister further said that in addition to the identified special accounts from where the money would be drawn as loans, the proposed intervention fund is also expected to be sourced from grants being expected and loans from multilateral institutions.

She added: “We know that there will be a need for the parliament to agree and approve the taking of loans from these special accounts and we will be coming back with a proposed bill in that regard that will define what the fund will be used for.”

The President of the Senate at the meeting openly faulted the sharing of N20,000 largesse as palliatives to select families across the nation, to cushion the effects of the lockdown, which President Muhammadu Buhari ordered in Lagos and Ogun states, as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), saying there was an urgent need to redefine the Social Intervention Programmes (SIP) to make it more efficient.

“I think time has come for us to redefine the implementation of the Social Intervention Programme. Probably going out to communities to give them N20, 000 per person might not be the best way to go. It is still an effort, but I think we need a better approach that will be more efficient,” Lawan said.

Lawan stressed: “Just like we told Nigerians, when there is need for us to meet, or to take legislative action in support of ensuring that the government responds appropriately to developmental issues and challenges in the country, we will do so.

“This meeting, the second in the series after we shut down the National Assembly for two weeks, is a clear testimony of what we have said. Governance requires that we work together, so we want to listen to those things that you have on your side and how we can also play our constitutional role in ensuring that Nigerians continue to benefit from governance and how we are able to weather the storm created by COVID-19.”

Buhari orders withdrawal of $150m from NSIA account

And on Monday this week, the federal government stepped up its aggressive efforts to combat the rampaging COVID 19 pandemic, when the president ordered that $150 million be withdrawn from the National Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA).

According to the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, the withdrawal would be made from the NSIA stabilization fund, to augment disbursements to the three tiers of government by the Federation Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC).

Ahmed said that the fund was also to address these emerging fiscal risks that the pandemic had caused.

She noted that the Stabilization Fund was created for such emergencies and was to be utilised for this purpose while the government was also exploring other options to augment FAAC disbursements over the course of the 2020 fiscal year.

She explained that based on the fiscal assumptions underpinning the 2020 Appropriation Act, monthly Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) disbursements to the Federal and State Governments were projected at N888.5 billion.

She said however, due to the significant drop in international oil prices, FAAC monthly disbursements had declined in recent months to N716.3 billion in January and N647.4 billion in February 2020.

According to her, their experience shows that monthly average FAAC receipts must average at least N650 billion for the Federal and State Governments to meet their current obligations. Unfortunately, they project that monthly receipts may decline to below N400 billion, over the next three to six months.

“This intervention is vital to create fiscal space for the States, as they deal with the health and economic impact of the crisis. States will also be encouraged to explore similar arrangements for their outstanding debts to Commercial Banks,”she explained.

PDP insists on transparency

The PDP also swiftly reacted Saturday following a follow-up requested for a further N500billion as another round of intervention fund against COVID-19.

The party, in a statement issued by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr Kola Ologbondiyan, on Saturday in Abuja, said the call was important to ensure that the fund reached the desired targets.

Ologbondiyan called on the legislature to examine the expenditure layout and put adequate clauses to eliminate diversion.

He also urged the lawmakers to ensure prudence, as well as guarantee broad-based transparency in target-specific disbursements across all areas of need in the fight against the pandemic.

The PDP spokesperson said the call was predicated on apprehensions in the public space over allegations of diversion of funds in the recent disbursement of N20,000 social palliative.

He urged the National Assembly to demand the Federal government to furnish it with details of how the N500bn would be spent.

Ologbondiyan also called on the lawmakers to ask what amount would be spent on interventions on individuals and families, as well as a template that guaranteed that the fund would get to vulnerable Nigerians.

“The PDP insists that such information should also include details of what each state of the federation gets; the parameters for allocations, the monitoring system and foolproof measures to block all loopholes and check fraud.

“The Federal Government needs to place these details before the National Assembly.

“This money, which is to be mopped up from various special government accounts, belongs to Nigerians.

“As such, the National Assembly must ensure that it is fully utilised for their well-being.

“The PDP therefore, urges the National Assembly to instill checks and balances, by ensuring implementation involves trusted and transparent eminent Nigerians from the private sector, to further guarantee accountability and overall confidence of Nigerians in the scheme,” he said.

Ologbondiyan also called on the National Assembly to direct a quick investigation into allegations of diversion of the N20,000 social palliative.

According to him, the direct disbursement of the money instead of going through the Central Bank Nigeria (CBN), is part of a design to manipulate the system and stifle accountability of the funds.

Women group cautions

An NGO, Women Arise for Change Initiative, on Monday urged government to provide proper accountability on all COVID-19 donations and their utilisation.

In a statement, Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin, President of the NGO, said the account of utilisation of all donations must be put in the public domain.

Okei-Odunmakin said that the media should insist on strict accountability, while the government must give status updates on such funds and its applications to the public on a regular basis.

“With the general complaints accompanying the distribution as well as quality of relief materials across the country, it has become imperative for government to take a closer look at the templates adopted for the exercise.

“Let each governor be atop such sensitive programme of this nature to distribute relief materials directly and monitor same effectively for the benefit of the people’s welfare,” she said

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