By Ezekiel Greg Omafume
THREE years ago, Nigeria was in the frenzied grip of another sort of campaign. There were intense arguments for, and against the planned removal of fuel subsidy. By January 2012, organised Labour paralysed the country with a nationwide strike that had echoes of similar work stoppages in the preceding decade when fuel prices were increased rather peremptorily. In the heat of the debate, anyone could have been forgiven for being cynically dismissive of the Federal Government’s insistent pledge of what it would do with its own share of the savings from the partial withdrawal of fuel subsidy.
Now, three years later, it is fair to ask whether the cynics have seen their worst fears materialise. On the contrary, there is growing evidence that the Federal Government is keeping faith with its pledge of judicious use of its accruals arising from the fuel subsidy removal.
In 2006, the Federal Government awarded the dualisation of the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja highway. But the project languished in the doldrums owing to inadequate geological surveys occasioning poor design, and majorly the abject lack of funding, as the annual budget of the Federal Ministry of Works could hardly make any impact. Contractors abandoned their various sites on the Lots. Since 2012, following the launch of the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P) by the Federal Government, the story of the project has changed dramatically: the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja Expressway is now a reality.
Similarly, for more than two decades, the Benin-Ore-Sagamu Expressway had collapsed, and the remedial patchwork that often was carried out on that critical arterial road was as laughable as it was dangerous. SURE-P funding is now making a huge difference that is clearly measurable in the reduced travel times on that route. The Benin-Ore part of the Expressway has been totally reconstructed, while work is proceeding determinedly on the Ore-Sagamu axis. Indeed, the story is the same with the on-going total reconstruction of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, which has a basket of funding to which SURE-P is contributory.
Move over to the Loko-Oweto bridge that connects Nasarawa and Benue states, and SURE-P funding is the reason the project is already more than 65 per cent complete, not to reference the hundreds of direct and indirect jobs being created in the process. Furthermore, the SURE-P wallet is one of the assured sources for financing the much-delayed Second Niger Bridge, the authentic ground-breaking ceremony of which was performed this year by President Goodluck Jonathan. After many sorrowful years for commuters, the East-West Road in the South-South was at about 22 per cent completion in early 2012 when SURE-P was created. Within two years of injecting funds, the East-West Road has notched more than 70 per cent completion with a new lot added, not to mention overcoming the havoc wreaked by the floods of 2012.
The Lagos-Kano rail line that represents the Western line of Nigerian Railways is active today with regular commuter and cargo traffic, because of massive supplementary funding by SURE-P. The Eastern corridor, which runs from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, has also witnessed tremendous rehabilitation, on account of SURE-P financing. But one must also add that the brand new standard gauge rail line from Kaduna-Abuja is a dream come true because SURE-P weighed in with funds. It is also deploying resources of up to N10 billion in support of the Abuja light rail project that is expected to ease intra-city transportation upon completion.
The 21-member Committee that manages SURE-P as a unique interventionist agency was established on February 13, 2012, after the smoke cleared from the protests against the partial withdrawal of subsidy. The mandate is the judicious and transparent application of the Federal Government’s 41 per cent share of the subsidy savings. The funds accruing to the Federal Government are domiciled with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). All the 36 states of the federation and the 774 local governments are entitled jointly to 54 per cent of the subsidy savings, while the remaining five per cent goes to Ecological Fund, as well as cost of collection.
SURE-P started receiving funds in July 2012. From then until now, it has received a total of N441 billion, according to Dr Bright Okogu, Director-General of the Federal Budget Office. The Programme has an annual allocation of N180 billion, but its receipts so far have been N126 billion (2012), N180 billion (2013), and N135 billion (2014). SURE-P operates through specialised sub-committees and project implementation units that are embedded in, but insulated as much as practicable from the stifling bureaucracy in relevant Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs). SURE-P does not choose or award contracts on behalf of the MDAs. However, projects and programmes that are targeted for funding are evaluated by SURE-P in-house technical staff and outside consultants where necessary, to certify work done, before payment certificates are approved. The payment certificates are then forwarded to the Federal Budget Office, which scrutinizes the certificates, before advising the CBN, which credits the contractor’s account. So, you are not likely to find contractors milling around the SURE-P offices, begging for payment. This approach, no doubt, has boosted the confidence of contractors handling the infrastructure projects, hence the rapid milestones they have achieved in so short a time.
SURE-P is focused primarily on critical infrastructure projects and social safety net programmes, which directly and positively impact on the people. The infrastructure projects include roads, bridges, and railway, the progress report of which is highlighted in the preceding paragraphs of this piece. On the other hand, the social safety net programmes cover mass transit; maternal and child health; community service, women and youth empowerment (incorporating the Graduate Internship Scheme); public works (under the aegis of the Federal Emergency Road Maintenance Agency—FERMA); vocational training, as well as culture and tourism.
If SURE-P can crow about its achievements in infrastructure intervention, it can crow even louder about the impact of aspects of its social safety net programme, which are not as visible as roads and bridges. Let us take it for granted that the major works in railways and on roads and bridges are generating jobs. Yet many more jobs are being created in the course of executing the social safety net programmes. No fewer than 12,400 youths have been engaged in maintaining 40 priority federal highways nationwide under the FERMA Public Works project. In the same vein, more than 120,000 jobs have been created for the youth, women, and physically challenged across the federation, under the Community, Social, Women and Youth Empowerment programme. This is just as thousands of graduates have taken advantage of the Graduate Internship Scheme that prepares them for employment, even as they receive monthly stipends.
By far the most remarkable is the landmark success in the Maternal and Child Healthcare programme. The programme is designed to increase the supply of skilled health workers to offer maternal and child health services at the primary health care (PHC) level, undertake infrastructural renovations to PHC centres, raise supply of essential commodities at PHC facilities with a view to upscaling service delivery, and above all to increase demand for maternal and child health care services in underserved and rural communities by deploying conditional cash transfers. As at August 2014, SURE-P had recruited nationwide 11,912 health care workers made up of 2,811 midwives, 3,133 community health extension workers (CHEWs), and 5,966 female village health workers.
Between October 2012 and March 2014, an estimated 766,308 pregnant women received antenatal care services; 106,537 babies were also delivered alive by skilled birth attendants, while 67,363 women accepted modern contraception, according to data supplied by the National Primary Health Care Development Agency. Indeed, Mama Kits and the conditional cash transfer are popular among those who patronise the PHC facilities where SURE-P services are on offer. Cumulatively, the measures, and results from the maternal and child Health programme of SURE-P are helping Nigeria meet Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5, by drastically reducing maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity in the country.
Three years ago, who could have believed that the successes recorded thus far by SURE-P were possible? No one can assert that SURE-P is perfect; but it has shown what 41 per cent has achieved, and what lies ahead. If only we could also tally the aggregate positive showing of states and local governments with their combined 54 per cent receipts, we would have a much happier picture that the firm promises of partial subsidy withdrawal are being kept.
Ezekiel Greg Omafume, a public affairs analyst, writes from Abuja.