Every month, the federal government spends about N15 billion as stipends on 500,000 volunteers of the N-Power scheme, a component of the National Social Investment Programmes (N-SIP). Dubbed as the largest post-tertiary employment programme in Africa, the Muhammadu Buhari government sees the scheme as one of its major achievements. Although some critics have said the programme is non-existent, this investigation that covered a year revealed that it is real and beneficiaries do not need high-wire connections.
Headquartered under the office of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, N-Teach is the most popular of the N-SIP, which also focuses on health, agriculture and public finance. Due to the deficiency in the number of teaching staff in public schools, many “unemployed graduates” were deployed to schools in order to complement the efforts of the staff on ground. But after conniving with corrupt officials, some of these volunteers abscond from their duty post. They receive monthly stipends with which they bribe school authorities and milk the federal government in billions of naira. TAIWO ADEBULU went undercover to get first-hand details.
In 2016 when the N-Power programme began, 200,000 beneficiaries were selected and deployed to their primary place of assignment (PPA) out of about 700,000 Nigerian graduates who reportedly applied. However, several allegations arose from the exercise, ranging from absenteeism of the volunteers from PPAs, impersonation and fraudulent practices by officials handling the programme.
With the announcement of the 2017 batch, I proceeded to the N-POWER web portal and registered for the programme. I selected Ondo state, did an online assessment test on my mobile phone and participated in the screening process which took place in Akure, the state capital. Aside the lack of monitoring for the open test which was prone to malpractice by applicants and the constant tipping of officials by beneficiaries to get screened on time due to the huge population, the screening process was largely transparent and efficient.
But despite several efforts by the administrators to sanitise the exercise and retain only volunteers who are genuinely unemployed, inside workings still revealed large-scale fraud involving the programme officials, school officials and beneficiaries who get paid regularly without reporting for work.
BENEFICIARIES PAYING N8000 TO BE REDEPLOYED
On June 17, 2018, I received a message from N-POWER congratulating me for being among the 300,000 new beneficiaries, selected out of 2.5 million applicants, for the second batch engaged till 2020. With the identification number NPVN/2017/125765, I was posted to Ikare-Akoko, the headquarters of Akoko north-east local government area.
At the National Orientation Agency (NOA) office at the federal secretariat in Akure, where the programme is coordinated, open-secret deals are being hatched. I met a group of beneficiaries who had complained of being posted to different local governments from the ones they chose. They were discussing about one Pascal, a government official working as an agent for the N-POWER officials. Pascal could “process” a change of local government. His phone number was shared among the group and I engaged the agent, who said I should pay N8000 being the usual charge for the “deal”.
After the amount was paid to his account, he set off to process the deal. While some deals pulled through, mine and a few others didn’t. While Pascal assured me that he was going to keep working on the deal, I received my deployment letter signed by one Olubunmi Ademosu, the state focal person. I was posted to Ansar Ud Deen Primary (AUD) School IV, Ekan, and instructed to resume on or before Friday, August 10, 2018.
NOA OFFICIALS CO-ORDINATE THE FRAUD
At the NOA office, I met with the young officials who were handling the physical verification and assessment. After explaining to them that I had a stable job but wanted to strike a deal to “ghost” the exercise, one of them asked if I was ready to pay the sacrifice and let go with part of my stipend. I told him I was ready to let go.
“But to be sincere with you, things have changed from the way it used to be with the way the programme is being seriously monitored now,” an official said.
“During the 2016 set, there was little or no monitoring. So, it was easy for us to strike good deals with beneficiaries from here and they won’t show face at their station at all. Now, the beneficiaries must involve his or her PPA before things can work out because if we are able to handle our monitoring team, what about the ones who come from Abuja without notifying us? Go to your PPA and strike a good deal with the school officials who can easily protect you; then, come back here. In as much as our own men are aware of the arrangement, there won’t be any problem when they visit your school.”
THE 50-50 SHADY DEAL
The easiest road to AUD primary school was through a flowing stream, where I had to climb a tree with some other pupils to cross a small stream and get to the school. With four buildings, two totally condemned ones and the other two in use, the school has a population of about 200 students and six staff in all. Four N-POWER teachers in the 2017 batch were posted there.
One of the senior teachers popular called “Mr. Ray” had asked why I reported late. I told him that I had a permanent job which I was fully engaged in another town and couldn’t cope with the stress of combining it with teaching at the school. Then, he offered a way out if only I was going to “co-operate” and sacrifice part of my monthly stipend as it is done by my colleagues in other schools.
“There is a way we can do it for you to beat the system and nobody would detect. I will help you find someone who can impersonate you. You don’t have to come here. The person resumes, bears your name, appears when supervisors come and you pay the two of us. You have to divide your stipend into two, half for us and the remaining one for you. You need to co-operate because that is how your colleagues in other schools are doing it. In as much we have a good deal with you, you have no problem wherever you are,” he said.
For the next 15 minutes, Ray and I haggled over the sharing formula for my N30,000 stipend. At last, I succumbed and we agreed to a 50-50 deal. He takes N15,000, out of which he removes his share and pays the impersonator who would stand in for me in case there is need for my physical presence while I manage the rest. When asked if there’s any possibility that the deal might go wrong at any point, Ray assured me that he’s going to carry other staff along and also work with officials of the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) who come around occasionally to check on the volunteers.
“Even with the fact that you are a man, the person that will represent you will be a woman. They can’t know because they do not come with your bio-data and passport, even the ones who come from Abuja sometimes. Any gender could bear your name. You don’t worry; the SUBEB people are my friends. They are aware of such deals and they also have their own candidates. We know how to settle them,” he concluded.
Thereafter, he gave me the attendance register where I wrote my name from the days I was absent to that very day. He assured me that my impersonator would register my name in subsequent days. In just three days after I left the town, Ray had found a replacement for me –- a woman indeed. She resumed duty. He reassured me that I didn’t have to come back again as long as I fulfill my side of the bargain. Then he jokingly sounded a note of warning. “Don’t forget that I will always know when your stipend is paid. So, don’t play pranks with me.”
‘WE NEED TO LEGALISE THE CONTRACT AND BE SURE YOU ARE REAL’
After a month of a smooth-running contract, a new head was transferred to the school. Even without my knowledge, Ray had informed the new headmistress of the deal in order to get her to support it. The headmistress objected and ordered for my presence in the school. Ray swung into action to convince the new head how the former headmaster played along and how officials from NPOWER and SUBEB are also involved. He gave me up-to-date information on the development. Still, the new woman insisted that I had to sign a legal contract in the presence of a lawyer where it would be stated that I won’t default in my payment or play smart with the school. The following week, I arrived at the school and met with the new headmistress.
“Mr. Ray has briefed about the deal between you and the school with the knowledge of some officials from the state,” she noted. “I understand everything that is going on and I know it happens in other schools. I’m just trying to be careful and also make sure there is someone on ground to do your work. I like your sincerity with the way you opened up that you are already working somewhere.
“In fact, the person who signed for you (former headmaster) said there should be a written document that you will sign to show that you are going to pay. But Mr. Ray said you will not disappoint.
“Sincerely, I don’t want part of your money. Just make sure you don’t default in your payment to him every month so that he can also settle the person representing you. Then, we won’t have any problem.”
In a chat with the impostor, she said some officials from the state and N-POWER visited the school twice but did not pose any problem as far as someone was available to bear the name and Ray had also done the needful.
FREE MONEY FOR THE BOYS
On November 30, after four months in which the programme began, beneficiaries started receiving bank alerts for their stipends. In a Facebook group for the beneficiaries, one of the members posted, “Alert is raining now. I received mine…EcoBank”. In the comment section, others trooped to testify that the alert is really “raining” and it keeps pouring. One said, “May this rain not stop, let it keep raining. This is showers of blessing.” At this point, it had not “rained” at my location several miles away from my PPA.
An hour later, I received alerts on my phone. They trickled in one after the other. They were stipends for three months and amounted to N90,000. The next day, I received a call from Ray to ascertain if the “rain” also poured at my location. I answered in the affirmative.
“Should I send my account number? This is free money for the boys,” he said immediately and chuckled. The next day, I sent him N30,000 to pay for two months of the contract.
A week after, the impostor called me to complain that Ray had refused to fulfill his side of the contract. After so much persuasion, the senior teacher paid the impostor for one month and kept the remaining fund to himself.
BILLIONS OF NAIRA GOING DOWN THE DRAIN
In 2016, the government had reportedly budgeted N500 billion for the N-SIP. However, as of May 16, only about N41 billion had been expended on the four programmes with the N-Power gulping N26 billion. According to Osinbajo, the N-Power scheme would provide jobs for at least 10 million Nigerians by 2023 — yet more money will go down the drain to volunteers who are not present at work, possibly because they have other jobs, but have found their way to beat the system in a way that fetch them “side money”.
In 2017, while addressing 5,559 volunteers in Kwara state, Afolabi Imoukhuede, senior special sssistant (SSA) to the president on job creation and youth employment, reportedly said about 60 volunteers on the programme are on payment hold and may be prosecuted for fraud.
He added that 363 volunteers in Kwara were ghosts and did not exist in the programme, while those found guilty of absenteeism would be forced to return all stipends received and prosecuted. Even with the warnings, findings showed that there is no solid structure in place to weed the ghost volunteers out of the system as they continue to milk the federal government billions of naira monthly.
In an interview with TheCable, Imoukhuede said he was aware of the cases of absenteeism in the programme but there was no way they could run a perfect system. He, however, denied that there is fraud in the system.
“That’s not true. That does not exist in N-POWER programme. We do know that there is no perfect system. But I do expect a minimal number of Judas out of every congregation of 12. There’s nothing you’ve written that I am not aware of,” Imoukhuede said.
“When we took the programme online, there were chances that those who deserve it and those who do not will come into the programme. That was why we introduced the physical verification process, which was a process they all had to go through before being engaged formally into the programme. The process helps check that there are no ghosts. Everyone was verified to be an individual, qualified, and has a BVN.
“Our state focal persons are mandated to provide us monthly reports of attendance, discipline and compliance by the volunteers. When people engage in absenteeism, they go on payment hold immediately. There is a control mechanism. Yes, you can be deployed and choose not to go to work every day if you want to dictate your own time. That is not our terms and conditions. It’s a full-time volunteering programme.
“What your investigative journalism will help us in doing is to name and shame as we often do on all our platforms when we receive the reports. For the second batch, we had 1.8 million qualified applications after we removed double-counts and incomplete applications from the 2.5 million we received and we selected 300,000. Like I do tell them, for everyone, there are other qualified Nigerians that can replace them.
“The volunteers have a whistle blower programme where they report themselves, especially those who don’t go to work. We have NPOWER in the states and local governments who have formed a monitoring team and they report absenteeism. We have independent monitors in every local government who also give us reports every month. Then, if some volunteers are really smart to beat all the systems, I can assure you that they can beat the system today, but they can beat it tomorrow.”
Government apparently needs to do more to plug the loopholes in the project which has no doubt put smiles on many faces.