By Laolu Ayoola

The controversial Special Public Works Programme (SPWP) inaugurated by the Federal Government in January 2021 has ran aground despite the fanfare that greeted its flag off, Business Hallmark investigation can reveal.

The Federal Government, it would be recalled, had in January flagged of the scheme with the recruitment of 774,000 workers from across the 774 local governments across the 36 states of the federation after series of setbacks and postponements.

According to BH findings, the SPWP, designed as a tool for participants to engage in the rehabilitation and maintenance of social infrastructure for a token, was approved October 2019 by President Muhammadu Buhari to address the problem of unemployment across the country, especially in the rural areas and was initially domiciled in the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), a parastatal of the Ministry of Labour and Employment and Productivity.

However, the outbreak of Covid19 and its effects disrupted the pilot phase of the programme which was launched in eight states of the federation in January 2020.

As a result, the government could not continue with the programme and was able to pay only one month stipends to participants.

The successful takeoff of the programme was also affected by the clash between the NDE and the Federal Ministry of Labour, Employment and Productivity over who controls the programme on one hand, and the battle for control between the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Productivity and the National Assembly (NASS), on the order hand over the recruitment of 774,000 workers for the scheme.

The NDE, led by its Director General, Nasir Ladan Argungun, had kicked against the hijacking of the scheme from the agency by the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Productivity, insisting that it is the one legally empowered by the constitution to oversee the programme and that the sum of N52billion had been allocated to it in the 2020 budget.

Nasir Ladan Argungun was, however, consumed in the tussle for supremacy as he was relieved of his job by the president which many blamed on his supervising ministry.

Shortly after the tug of war between the NDE and the labour ministry ended, another one surfaced when the National Assembly accused the Minister of Labour, Employment and Productivity, Festus Keyamo, of not factoring in federal lawmakers in the recruitment process.

According to the lawmakers, there is no way they could determine the performance of the scheme since they, as representatives of the people, were excluded from the recruitment process.

In his reply, Keyamo hit back, alleging that the lawmakers wanted to hijack the recruitment process in order to appoint their cronies, friends and families as beneficiaries.

The controversy deepened when the House of Representatives suspended the controversial programme.

Rising from one of its plenaries, the House asked the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget, and National Planning not to fund the scheme.

While urging President Muhammadu Buhari to reverse himself on Argungu’s sacking, the House demanded that Keyamo should be sanctioned.

Despite the hiccups, the programme eventually kicked off in January 2021, with expectant participants heaving sigh of relief.

Speaking during the official flag off in January, Keyamo had assured the nation that the programme would not go down the drain at the expiration of the tenure of the current administration in 2023 because it had been approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC).

However, the minister’s promise did not last beyond 2021, as the programme has come to an abrupt end, just three months after its inauguration.

The Deputy Director, Information and Public Relations of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), Edmund Onwuliri, had last week disclosed that that the Extended Special Public Works programme will last for only three months, putting paid to all hope of an extension still been held by many participants.

He, however, assured that beneficiaries of the Extended Special Public Works scheme would be provided adequate business and entrepreneurial training as an exit strategy.

Onwuliri added that while engaged in the three-month programme, participants were actively engaged in activities within the public works sector where they provided services such as environmental sanitation services in public places, drainage clearing and desilting, vegetation control, road traffic management and other community based and environment-specific public works services.

“While providing such services, participants were paid a stipend of N20,000 per month for three months that the programme was designed to last. 1,000 unskilled persons were recruited from each of the 774 local government areas of the nation.

“It is expected that the training will further enhance the capacity of the participants to migrate from the transient job phase to sustainable and self-reliant status, thereby reducing mass unemployment among the unskilled and skilled,” he said.

He also noted that the training will expose participants to the basic rudiments of identifying and running micro and small business enterprises. The participants are expected to acquire relevant skills that will enable them to identify and manage micro and small businesses of their own after they exit the extended special public works programme.

The training is scheduled to hold in each of the three senatorial districts across the country and three locations within the FCT.

BH reliably gathered that the decision to end the scheme, which was abinitio designed to run like the N-Power scheme, was taken earlier in the year due to the paucity of funds.

Some of the beneficiaries of the of the ESPW programme had taken to the social media to intimate Nigerians about the non-payment of their N20,000 allowances for three months.

A participant by the name Dubagari Jnr, tweeted: “What is happening with the SPW? Up till now, we have not been paid and have successfully finished our work. Please Honourable minister we need explanations on why we have not been paid.”

Another participant, Abdoul Baqee tweeted: “People are hungry regarding the payment of stipends. Please fast track the payment of these people. 774, 000 people waiting anxiously for their payment with hunger and they don’t even have phone to come to your timeline.

“When you get hungry just remember those people that work with hunger without their entitlement,” Baqee tweeted.

However, rather than addressing the complaints, Keyamo directed them to the acting director-general of the National NDE, Abubakar Fikpo.
“We are still in the process; we have identified some loopholes here and there,” Fikpo in turn responded.

According to a source in the ministry of labour, employment and productivity, the decision to scrap the programme and make it a one-off scheme was reached sometimes last year.

“Some officials in the presidency initially opposed the plan to end the scheme after only three months, but the delay in paying participants their monthly due of N20,000 and the protest that followed really embarrassed the government.

“Those who initially opposed the move had no option than to support it (scraping). Many people were afraid that the opposition could capitalise on it to gain political advantage.

“The president had to look for money to pay off the agitated participants to prevent the situation from degenerating,” the source claimed.

Meanwhile, findings revealed that out of the 774,000 expected participants, only 413,630 have been paid to the tune of N24.8 billion as at June ending, leaving out 360, 370 unaccounted for.

While speaking in June, the Minister of State for Labour, Employment and Productivity, Festus Keyamo, had confirmed to the nation that the federal government might not be able to pay all the 774,000 participants.

“In a large programme like this, we may not achieve the 774,000 to the last number but for me, if we are able to achieve and pay up to 600,000 persons, we would have achieved a lot,” he had said.

Apart from the paucity of funds which affected the programme, it was also marred by allegations of fraud, with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and unemployed youths who had expected to be engaged in the scheme alleging that majority of the beneficiaries were members of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

The main opposition party and the youths who lost out accused APC chieftains, traditional rulers, religious and community leaders of hijacking the process and favouring their cronies.

One of the concerned participants who spoke with our correspondent, Adekunle Dada, lamented the decision of the federal government to suddenly end the programme.

“What do they (government) expect us to do now? We had thought that the scheme will be in existence till at least May 2023 when President Buhari will leave office.

“Short of giving us take off grants to allow us to hit the ground running after our training, the scheme be a total failure,” Dada stated.

But Onwuliri argued that the business training to be received by participants will further enhance their capacity to migrate from the transient job phase to sustainable and self-reliant status, thereby reducing mass unemployment among the unskilled and skilled.

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