‘I lived as a beggar. I begged to eat, I begged to wear clothes, I even begged to put my head under a roof’

Without a future plan, the Federal Government disengaged about 400,000 youths from its National Social Investment Programme (NSIP), N-Power following the expiration of their contracts. IFEDAYO OGUNYEMI writes on the sorrow, tears and dashed hopes from the agonising tales of persons with disabilities also disengaged from the programme.

EMMANUELLA Udeh had just finished peeling melon inside the one-storey building she lives in when Saturday Tribune called. Surrounded by a calm environment in Emene, Enugu East Local Government Area of Enugu State, the 39-year-old paraplegic recounted her experience since she was disengaged as a beneficiary of N-Power, a scheme set up by the Federal Government to address the issues of youth unemployment and help increase social development.

A former member of the Batch ‘B’ N-Power corps, Udeh can longer see or teach SSS 1 (Accounts) students of Government Secondary School, Enugu. This is because she is part of the 500,000 Nigerians whose terms of contract have elapsed as N-Power beneficiaries.

Prior to 2018, Udeh stayed indoors all day every day. She had thought she would never be useful or able to contribute anything to the society because she is physically-challenged. She, however, told Saturday Tribune that her engagement as an N-Power beneficiary gave her hope and allowed her to see herself as an accepted member of the society.

She said: “It also helped me to relate more with people because as a physically challenged person, I normally stayed indoors all day. I didn’t hustle; no movement. But since I was engaged in N-Power, I was able to go out every morning and relate with people, especially students. I was enrolled to help out in teaching but because of my condition (being in a wheelchair), the person in charge asked me not to teach because I was unable to write on the board. Instead, he gave me notes to write and scripts to mark and to record. He asked me to stay in the class while teaching was ongoing so that I could help to control the students. From all this, I learned how to do the work of teachers because I am not a teacher by training; I did not do NCE; I am a B Sc. holder. I really learned how to teach but I did not practice. It was an amazing experience though.”

Udeh’s newfound skill as a classroom teacher and her hope of becoming a soap maker were shattered following her disengagement from the job creation and empowerment initiative, which is one of President Muhammadu Buhari’s Social Investment Programmes (SIPs).

Her daily routine has been reduced to house chores and peeling melon “from Monday to Saturday save for Sundays” when she goes to church with her brother and her caregiver. According to her, “whenever I am at home, I also read and then learn some new ideas because I dream of becoming a soap maker.”

Udeh added: “I put everything in the hands of God because after I graduated from the university seven years ago, I lived as a beggar. I begged to eat and I begged to wear clothes. I even begged to put my head under a roof. Now that the Federal Government has ceased to engage us and pay us salary, I don’t know what is going to happen next but I put everything in the hands of God who created me. He knows that I am physically challenged and He allows me to live. He has a reason for that, so I have no choice but to continue to live and face whatever that is coming.

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Emmanuella Udeh peeling melon

“My disengagement as an N-Power beneficiary has shattered my dream because I had planned on using savings from the stipends we were getting to establish a business. All the savings are already gone. My father is late. My mother is alive but she is old. She looks to me for her upkeep. She suffered a lot to see me get educated even against the advice of some family members who believed that I would end up achieving nothing. They said they failed to see how I would make it when even able-bodied and trained members of the family did not achieve anything. My mother turned deaf ears to them and saw me through school. She invested all her money and effort in making sure I got a good education. After my graduation in 2011, I started looking for jobs. I searched everywhere, from governmental to non-governmental organisations, but I was could not get a job.

“One of the non-governmental organisations I went to said I could not work with them due to my physical challenge and the stress that came with working there. They advised me to get work with the government. I went to state and federal establishments but I was not given employment. My mother was dejected. She had expected that I should be taking care of her by now.”

Udeh’s situation is no different from visually impaired Ifeoluwa Abejide who hails from Ikere-Ekiti, Ekiti State. Abejide, a newlywed and father of a days-old baby served as a classroom teacher at Government Special School, Ikere-Ekiti, where he was posted to as an N-Power Batch ‘A’ beneficiary.

Abejide holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Philosophy from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and a Master’s degree, also in philosophy, from the University of Ibadan. He is the first in his family to attain such a level of education. Being the last of nine children of his parents, the joy of his nonagenarian father and octogenarian mother knew no bounds when he was selected for the programme in 2016. He took care of their well-being from the stipends he was paid. He was also able to see to his father’s medical care when he got sick a couple of months ago.

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Abejide Ifeoluwa

Abejide said: “The programme helped my integration into the society because I was doing something like other, regular, people. It also helped me to impact meaningfully on the lives of the young people I taught, especially the blind ones among them, whom I encouraged to get to the level currently I am. These are contributions that cannot be denied. I was able to make an impact in the three and a half years that I served. Now this disempowerment or disengagement has not just affected me, but it has also affected my family, immediate and extended, because the responsibilities which were hitherto taken from them, they now have back. Being back without a job, when one has a wife and a child, is going to be difficult. I got married last year and my wife was delivered of our baby just last week. You know how hard it will be for someone who just gave birth but has no job. Our June salary was withheld; you know how hard that will be. The situation that is following the disengagement is devastating and we are appealing to the government because while people without disabilities could hustle and do some things, there are limited opportunities offered to people with disabilities, especially visually impaired persons. It was a philanthropist who has a hospital that was able to help me treat her (my wife), take care of the baby free of charge. It is a long story though. Everybody knows it is not a permanent job but the fact that the government would not make any provisions for those disengaged is disheartening.”

Udeh and Abejide are not alone. Their horrible experiences are similar to that of other persons with disabilities (PWDs) who benefited from the two batches of the programme across the country. These include Balarabe Umar, a Batch ‘B’ beneficiary posted to Special Education School, Tundun Maliki in Kano State and Muazzam Fadilu Haido who served at the Government Girls Secondary School, Masallachi, also in Kano.

Haido told Saturday Tribune that he was sad because of the disengagement. He said he forfeited his educational career to participate in the programme when it started and that there is no way for him to continue. “I am only waiting for what will happen to me. We went to their offices several times but nothing came out of it,” he added.

For Moses Agada, a Batch ‘A’ beneficiary who was posted to CMML Special School (for disabled children), Iyale in Dekina Local Government of Kogi State, life has not been the same. “Nothing is moving. I am now experiencing the poverty I used to live with. Things are difficult; they were easier when I was still engaged in the programme. The principal of the school, Dr David Matthew, has been supporting me financially since then,” Agada, who suffers paralysis in one leg, said.

The ministry in charge of the programme said the disengagement of the Batch ‘A’ and Batch ‘B’ beneficiaries was a necessary step taken to create opportunity for a new set of youths to benefit from the programme. It said such “opportunity will be denied them if we do not create the space for them to take part.”

Disturbed by the conditions of the PWDs, a couple of non-governmental organisations have tried to no avail to interface with the Federal Government on behalf of these disengaged persons. Copies of letters sent to the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, were sighted by Saturday Tribune.

President of the Association of Technology-Inclined Visually Impaired Persons of Nigeria (ATIVIP Nigeria) Tolulope Aluko, told Saturday Tribune that none of the correspondences was replied or acknowledged by the government.

He said: “We have tried to liaise with the government but nothing is forthcoming and it is a very sad development. We have been pushing. We even wrote to the president but nothing has been done about the already disengaged PWDs and now we are considering sending a delegation to Abuja to meet with the government.

“It is very pathetic that some disabled persons are now committing suicide because there is nowhere to go. Some have got married but where is the money to feed their wives and children? It is a very pathetic situation. Most of us are Master’s degree holders, PhD holders, BSc holders and HND holders, in spite of the rigorous academic exercise. It is not easy to be a disabled person in Nigeria and that is the situation of PWDs.

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President of the Association of Technology-Inclined Visually Impaired Persons of Nigeria (ATIVIP Nigeria) Tolulope Aluko,

“The Disability Act was assented to in 2019 but it is far from being implemented. The discrimination is still there and it provides that the government should allow five per cent of jobs in agencies, ministries and parastatals to go to disabled persons but the situation now is pathetic.”

Although there is no exact figure of PWDs disengaged from the programme, Aluko, who heads a coalition on disengaged disabled N-Power beneficiaries, said the estimate should be around 5,000 nationwide.

President of Abuja-based Association of People with Disabilities Applicants (APDA), Saifullahi Mukhtar Sadiq, told Saturday Tribune that “it is only when they cry that the government will be able to hear them and they have been crying in silence but you may not know.”

While commending the government for reserving 10 per cent slots for PWDs in the Batch ‘C’ programme, he berated the authorities for neglecting the plight of the few who participated in the batches A and B. “There is no actual figure of N-Power beneficiaries in Batch ‘A’ and Batch ‘B’. We can’t get the actual number. The number is highly insignificant because in my state, Kano, hardly can I count 10 persons who are beneficiaries in batch A and B,” Saifullahi said.

Commenting on the issue, the national coordinator of the Transnational Support Initiative for Persons with Disabilities (TRANSPED), Timlehin Olonisaye, lamented that “social science researchers now see us as the best tool to measure poverty level in Nigeria. That is because the rate of poverty among them is too high. The Federal Government needs to step up and ameliorate the poverty among PWDs by harnessing the potentials in these PWDs and placing value of their productivity in order to contribute to national development.

“The Disability Act is just a lion without a roar. It is bereft of impact. That act is supposed to compel all establishments to provide at least five per cent engagement for PWDs. That remains a façade till date. We have written to the Federal Civil Service Commission, ministries of finance, labour and employment, humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development, the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives to engage us on how PWDs will become productive. None of them have yet to acknowledge us,” Olonisaye said.

It will be recalled that President Buhari signed into law the National Disability Act 2018 (also called Discrimination Against Persons Living with Disabilities (Prohibition Act)) in January 2019 as part of efforts to curtail the discrimination against persons with disabilities whom the National Population Commission of Nigeria (NPC) estimate to be no fewer than 19 million in Nigeria. In contrast, the Center for Disability and Development Innovations (CeDDI, 2016) claims there are 25 million Nigerians living with at least one physical deformity.

Aside from the reservation of at least five per cent jobs for PWDs by public institutions, the National Disability Act 2018 provides for the establishment of a national commission for people living with disabilities. The commission is to be saddled with the responsibility of monitoring, evaluating and ensuring the realisation of government policy objectives on persons with disabilities. As of today, none exists. However, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq, on Tuesday, 7 July, 2020, said that efforts were ongoing towards the establishment of the commission.

When contacted for comment on the plans of the government for PWDs already disengaged from N-Power, the Director of Press in the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Mrs Rhoda Iliya, said she would contact the desk officers and get back to Saturday Tribune next week, adding that all officials of the ministry were presently engaged with the ministry’s first anniversary.

Iliya had on Friday, 24 July, stated that the Federal Government could not afford to roll out N300 billion grant for the over 500,000 disengaged N-Power (batch ‘A’ and ‘B’) beneficiaries. This was in reaction to protests by some N-Power beneficiaries who laid siege to the National Assembly and the Federal Secretariat complex.

“They requested the Federal Government to employ all the 500,000 beneficiaries as well as pay them a grant of N600,000 each. The ministry wishes to state that this demand was not part of the agreement of engagement they signed with the Federal Government which clearly stipulated that they will be exited after two years. Furthermore, the government cannot afford the N300 billion they were asking for as grant. It is noteworthy to state that the FGN has expended hundreds of billions on N-Power beneficiaries during the last four years and is liaising with the office of the Accountant General of the Federation, which is responsible for the payment of their stipends, to ensure that any outstanding legitimate claim is settled. The Federal Government cannot afford to continue to pay the exited N-Power beneficiaries stipends indefinitely, more so that the process of engagement of new beneficiaries has already began,” adding that the “ministry is in contact with other ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) such as CBN and NALDA, to see if the exited beneficiaries can key into their empowerment programmes,” Iliya stated.

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Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan

Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan, urged the Federal Government to rethink its ideas on the programme, adding that more special attention should be paid on PWDs.

Hassan said: “The project has a timeline to elapse but we appeal to the Federal Government to keep the PWDs as part of the programme. They are already disadvantaged by reason of their disability and this disengagement will lead to more abject poverty. The government must create a special programme to specifically target PWDs in Nigeria. In fact, it is not too much to ask for an N-Power project that is specifically for persons with disabilities. It is also time for the government to rethink its ideas on the N-Power. Running a programme where participants will immediately be worse-off financially if disengaged belies the whole essence of the intervention.”

 

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