Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq has become a household name in the country, apparently because she is in charge of a ministry in which everyone has a stake. Covid-19’s emergence shortly after the Muhammadu Buhari administration created the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development – the name is a mouthful – and spelled its mandates was enough justification for its raison d’etre. Many Nigerians today need humanitarian assistance, as every part of the country faces one disaster or the other.

 The pioneer minister of humanitarian affairs is the youngest of Buhari’s ministers; she is also the minister most maligned in recent years. Only recently, for instance, Asari-Dokubo in a viral video said she shared more than N600billion to schoolchildren whose schools were closed. The former Niger Delta warlord narrated this fairy story to justify alleged looting of “just” N81billion in the NDDC. So, a probe into the NDDC heist should stop, Asari-Dokubo inferred, because N81billion is chicken feed compared to N600billion “shared” to “ghosts”. The unfortunate thing is that Asari-Dokubo’s tantrums reflect what many discuss in their homes and at beer parlours.

Farouq is pilloried, I guess, because too many Nigerians need jobs or humanitarian assistance. They include not just those displaced by insurgency and natural disasters but also the poor, the destitute, the unemployed and the physically and mentally challenged. Social disorders such as illiteracy, ignorance, armed robbery, drug addiction, kidnapping and terrorism – the usual causes of man-made humanitarian crises – threaten almost every young Nigerian. Humanitarian disasters are themselves offshoots of social disorders that have to be managed. Covid-19 has made each worse.  

She is also a victim of circumstance: Unknown to many, most of the ministry’s programmes are executed through state governments. Besides, the government’s policy of sharing cash among people adjudged to be “very poor” is bound to stir controversy. Vice President Osinbajo was taking the heat before the Social Investment Programmes (SIP) were transferred from his office to the new ministry. N-Power in particular has generated tension among the youth: delay in payment of the beneficiaries’ stipends could cause a civil war! And even though the young graduates know the programme was designed to last just two years for each beneficiary, they nevertheless want it to last forever as a social welfare benefit. It is understandable: better jobs are nowhere for them to pick, so they should receive an allowance by whatever name called. After all, wealthier nations pay unemployment allowance and other social benefits as well as offer health insurance to their citizens.

As the noise over distribution of Covid-19 palliatives and over the Home-Grown School Feeding Programme (HGSFP) subsides, another major challenge seems to be emerging. After marking its first anniversary on August 21, the ministry must brace up to fight flooding in different parts of the country in September. For most of August (the August break was real this year) rainfall ceased, signaling the likely return of rainstorms with a vengeance in the next few weeks. And when dams in Nigeria or Cameroun overflow or are opened, the resulting deluge is likely to wreak havoc. Although NEMA has issued warnings, and “prevention is better than cure”, there’s little people who live in flood-prone areas can do except to relocate to safer places. Likely, Farouq will take the blame if anything goes wrong; she’s NEMA’s supervising minister.

Internally displaced persons also look up to the minister. About 3million IDPs are in the north-east, north-west and north-central, even as Boko Haram or ISIS or bandits are still murdering innocent Nigerians and sacking them from their homes. Parts of the south-east and south-south, especially those near the banks of the River Niger, may also ask for help in September.

After her appointment was announced last year, and before the mandate of the new ministry was made known, I commented that she could be regarded as Nigeria’s prime minister because “upon her head now rests most of the country’s burden”. And I felt she was experienced enough to take the challenge, since she was a federal commissioner at the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons (NCFRMI) before her ministerial appointment. “I hope someone won’t try to make her the fall guy (or fall gal)! The federal government’s annual budget, N9–10trillion, won’t be enough for the new ministry alone, if it attempted to find genuine solutions to the country’s intractable humanitarian and development challenges.” My prediction has come true, with the current barrage of attacks from those who believe she’s now the custodian of all the money in Nigeria.

To highlight the importance of the ministry, I did point out also that South Sudan, China, Niger and Rwanda have similar ministries. Nigeria now faces even more humanitarian and development challenges than these other nations. Nevertheless, we’ve been lucky that, in this part of the world, disasters like cyclones, hurricanes, landslides, tsunamis, earthquakes and tremors are non-existent. Until recently, stories of the damage done by terrorism, disease epidemics, drought, wildfires and flooding were associated only with foreign lands. Erosion problems that afflict mostly southeast states and flooding in coastal areas are insignificant in comparison.

That was before Covid-19. Now, the economy is in deeper trouble, as funds dry up and servicing of loans eats up almost all of our revenues.

This week’s announcement of the establishment of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, NCPD, and appointment of its members must rank as another feather to Farouq’s head-tie. She intones: “Today is a very happy and fulfilling day for me as one of the vulnerable groups that are close to my heart finally have a commission and executives in place to cater to their needs and protect their rights.” She congratulates “over 30million persons living with disabilities in Nigeria” on “the realization of this worthy dream”. But I believe the number of handicapped Nigerians is far greater than 30million! One may not have physical challenge but may have handicapped pockets. So, while she celebrates for delivering on her promise, the rest of us still look up to her.

Minister Farouq and her ministry should change course as they move into their second year. I know they can’t upturn government’s policy but reforms in the implementation of the SIP seem inevitable. Rather than give the poor fish to eat (under the Conditional Cash Transfer, Home-Grown School Feeding Programme or “Modified HGSFP”, Tradermoni, Marketmoni and Farmermoni schemes), they should teach them how to fish. How many people can the ministry fend for, anyway? How many lives can it touch in the “poverty capital of the world”?

N-Power could also be refocused so that its beneficiaries won’t have to look for jobs after enjoying stipends for two years. The youth especially should be helped to become self-reliant after graduating from tertiary institutions. And this can happen if the ministry and the minister support us entrepreneurs to point them toward the right direction. Schools have failed to prepare millions of young people being sent to the job market each year. I say more in a new book, Jobseeker to Entrepreneur: How Career-focused Education Can Multiply Businesses and Inspire Leaders, which is now being printed.

At the grand-finale event commemorating the ministry’s birth, Farouq thanked almost everyone – the media, UNOCHA, World Bank, World Food Programme, UNICEF, DFID, USAID, the EU and many other local and international partners – for helping it to achieve “a happy and successful year… defined by a kaleidoscope of teething problems, happy memories, valuable friendships, modest but impactful achievements, and enduring relationships”. Her special adviser, strategic communications, Halima Oyelade, in a statement quotes her saying “we have kept our eyes on fulfilling our mandate which requires that we provide humanitarian interventions, prevent and mitigate disaster while evolving social safety net strategies that help us build resilience for the future”. A more reliable verdict on the achievements should be expected at this time next year when there will be another year to compare with the first.

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