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COVID 19 RELIEF FUNDS: HOW MUCH HAS NIGERIA SPENT SO FAR?

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From every indication, all is still not well with the way Covid-19 relief funds donated by respective donors both within and outside the country were being managed as questions are being raised in many quarters about what happened to the fund which is already raising headlines in the form of what analysts now refer to as ‘giving charity a bad name’.

This question, though not peculiar to Nigeria alone, but is of particular interest to Nigeria as President Muhammadu Buhari’s zero tolerance for corruption is second to none on the continent, according to recent reports.

Just last week, a human rights watch, Social and Economic Rights Accountability Project (SERAP) in its recent report took a swipe at the manner the said fund which was meant to alleviate the suffering of the poor masses was being managed. It said, “We are seriously concerned that millions of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable persons have not benefited from the announced palliatives, donations, reported cash payments, cash transfers and other benefits made to the country in the recent past.”

That is not all; a foremost columnist Azu Ishiekwene in a recent article raised a lot of questions regarding the Covid-19 relief fund which Nigeria and most African countries received, but with nothing on ground to suggest transparency in the way the fund was allegedly disbursed. For example, Ishiekwene in a rhetorical question asked, “Why is all the money going to government – or to put it bluntly, to the ruling party – and what has government, so far, done with the billions of cash received in the name of the poor and vulnerable populations?

In his opinion, instead of relief, there is anguish, bitterness and sour taste in the mouth of some yet-to-be recipients.

“It’s also a big problem in Nigeria. The trail of the palliatives is littered with complaints and bitterly imaginative skits by ordinary people who swear that they are being robbed.”

While taking a leap into the quantum of donations made to Nigeria in the wake of the recent pandemic, he said, “And Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, has been right up there on the league table of COVID-19 package recipients. Within weeks of announcement of the index case on February 27, the European Union (EU) announced a donation of $54 million to the Nigerian government in a widely publicised ceremony, which drew favourable comments from Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari.

“The EU’s gesture was followed by a donation of 50 ventilators by the United Nations (UN) and personal protective equipment valued at $2 million to the government. The German government donated €26 million; the US government, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) weighed in with new funding for Nigeria for prevention and mitigation of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) that has reached $21.4m while the Chinese Chamber of Commerce announced a donation of N48 million.”

Writing further he posited that, “On its part, the private sector in Nigeria has raised an estimated N27 billion as of June 2020 while the government recently announced plans to withdraw $150 million from the Sovereign Wealth Fund to fight the virus, which as of now has infected over 20,000 people and claimed about 500 lives.”

This in the views of many is an indication that something went wrong with the various donations made to the country in the fight against the pandemic.

The world, he said, is in tears but the eyes shedding the bitter tears, he noted, can still see even as the grieving hearts are asking questions regarding the fund.

Taking the example of Sierra Leone, another country that has politicised its palliatives in the face of the pandemic, he said, “Relief distribution in that country has become so dangerously politicised and weaponised that the opposition, civil society and the media are compelled to ask if COVID-19 has party colours or if the virus knows only the residential addresses of opposition parties.”

On its part, SERAP noted that there is ethnic imbalance in the way the fund was being dispensed.

It noted that, “In a country where ethnic tensions are fraught, the government is already being accused of using palliatives as yet another weapon of marginalisation.

“A number of communities in the South-east controlled by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) complained openly of neglect in the distribution of relief materials at the height of the five-week lockdown between March and May.”

To that extent, the human rights watch has filed a lawsuit against the federal government and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in order to compel them to publicly identify and name Nigerians who have so far benefited from any cash payments, cash transfers, food distribution and other reliefs and palliatives during the lockdown in Abuja, Lagos, Ogun states and any other part of the country most vulnerable to the pandemic.

In a suit FHC/ABJ/CS/657/2020 filed by Kolawole Oluwadare and Joke Fekumo at a Federal High Court in Abuja on behalf of SERAP last week, it is, among other things, seeking for “An order for leave to apply for judicial review and an order of mandamus to compel  the minister of humanitarian affairs and disaster management and social development, Sadia Umar-Farouk and  Godwin Emefiele, CBN governor, to publish spending details of public funds and private sector donations to provide socio-economic benefits to the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”

Also, it wants, “An order to direct and compel the minister and the CBN governor to publish up-to-date list of donations and names of those who have made payments as per their publicly announced donations; spending details of the N500 billion COVID-19 intervention fund and the names of beneficiaries and whether such beneficiaries include people living with disabilities (PWDs).”

Part of the suit further reads, “Any perception that the reliefs, funds and donations are not reaching intended beneficiaries would undermine public trust and the integrity of the entire processes and modes of distribution of reliefs/benefits to these Nigerians.”

Also, the Lagos State House of Assembly recently asked Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to give account of the various donations received in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak in the state. Its speaker, Mr Mudashiru Obasa, stated this.

According to Obasa, “It is our own duty to do what is right. The law says the executive will come forward to give account on what they have expended.”

In the same vein, the chairman of the House committee on health services, Mr Akeem Shokunle, according to reports, urged the governor to be mindful that the funds referred to were neither budgeted for nor in the consolidated fund or development fund.

Meanwhile, the government has requested that all participating Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) must provide information on all COVID-19 fund transactions requested from them under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) within seven days of receiving the request.

The government also asked that the funds would not be disbursed until appropriation by the National Assembly.

The minister of finance, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, was told to promptly liaise with the lawmakers to pass a supplementary budget for the utilisation of the funds based on estimated total collection for the year and it must detail the needs with estimated costs as the basis for allocation of funds in order to enable post expenditure reporting and audit.

More so, funds are to be appropriated directly to participating MDAs and spending units like the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, and Nigerian Centre for Disease Control rather than to an intermediary.

It was also gathered that henceforth, only the Government Integrated Financial Management Information System (GIFMIS) is permitted to make payment to necessary agencies in accordance with the laws, rules, and regulations, including those relating to the Public Procurement Act and subject to the guidance of Bureau for Public Procurement.

Another condition, it was gathered is that the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation must publicise on a daily basis, all inflows and outflows for the funds and the statement must show the source of the outflow.

To that extent, all MDAs were also urged to publish detailed reports of their activities relating to COVID-19 funds on their websites at the end of every week for the sake of transparency.

Opinions however differ on the usage of this fund which in the views of many should be directed towards revamping the limping health sector. According to Oluwatola Toluwani, a practising dentist in Osun state, “The current pandemic has demonstrated the central importance of health in our national life for which without it, we have nothing. It has also shown how we can do things differently as regards to financing health care in Nigeria.

“Over the years, health financing has been a major barrier to building a strong health care system in many low- and middle-income countries, Nigeria being no exception. Efforts directed at tackling COVID-19 are already providing a way forward for addressing some of the challenges of health financing in Nigeria.

“At the moment, the total health expenditure is derived from the allocations for health and allocations for the Basic Health Care Provision Fund (BHCPF) which is put at 1% of the consolidated revenue fund. Since the inception of BHCPF, however, its allocation has always been below the earmarked 1% of CRF; the allocation in 2020 is about 50% less than the value of the 1% of CRF. Taking a stand to address this discrepancy in subsequent budgetary allocations would be a way to start increasing the fiscal space for health. And this is where the question about the use of this palliative comes to mind,” he said.

As it is, Nigerians are yet to know details of the various donations made to fight the pandemic between March and June this year.

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