By Ekemini Simon
Aniefiok Effiong, a father of four, wakes up every 4:30am to prepare to leave the house in order to make ends meet. His children believe he should bring home money for sustenance. Yet, they are unaware that as their father treks for over six kilometres with various working tools to a location that has come to be known as the labour market located at Edet Akpan Avenue, Uyo, he will only be waiting for luck to shine on him. He does not know if his services will be required that day in the very competitive and increasing labour market.
At this market filled with many men and women of different ages, any car that pulls over is enveloped by labourers who market their skills.
However, although Effiong was trained in welding, he has acquired several other skills to be relevant at this labour market. Despite his attempt at versatility, Effiong relates that there are several days he stays from morning till evening without seeing anyone ask for his services mostly due to the fact that each day, there are well over 60 unemployed persons at the labour market. At such times, he is left with no choice but to return home disappointed and anxious of how to cater for his responsibilities at home.
Life at the Labour market is filled with tales of hopes, determination and drive. It is also saturated with disappointed hopes and fear of one’s life when work opportunities finally beckon. There are reports of persons who get missing after being taken by unknown persons as labourers. Their families never get to see even their corpses. Yet, the risk these persons expose themselves to would never have happened if they had the resources to establish their businesses. Interaction with the labourers at this labour market reveals that majority among them have acquired skills in their chosen endeavour but do not have the wherewithal to ply their trade hence choose to become labourers for life sustenance. “Almost all of us here have been trained in one trade or the other. It is just that we do not have money to start our businesses. Some of us need at least N300, 000 then we will become established and would not need to come and stand here at the risk of our lives,” says Effiong. He continues “We are citizens of this State and we believe our government has the resources and should support us with what we can use to establish ourselves “.
The resources that could address the business needs of Mr. Effiong and many of the labourers at the labour market are not far off for the State government to provide. About 4-kilometers from the labour market is a project tagged Akwa Ibom International Worship Centre. This project has gulped multi-billion naira of State resources despite its questionable economic and social value.
The amount of money spent by the Government of Akwa Ibom State on the construction of Akwa Ibom State International Worship Centre in four years alone can change positively the high unemployment rate of the oil-rich State or at most provide multi-million naira business start-up for 3000 Akwa Ibom persons, findings by TheMail Newspaper has shown.
This implies that each 31 local government areas of Akwa Ibom State will have at least 96 persons get a minimum of N4.2m each from the State government for business capital. How, you may wonder. That will be explained in due course. Yet, there are many eyebrow raising issues in the International Worship Centre project.
A Contentious Project
Data from the Akwa Ibom State Appropriation Law 2016 through 2022 shows that the government of Akwa Ibom State budgeted a total of N32.3bn for the construction of the 5,000 capacity international Worship Centre.
Citizens and civil societies have over the years kicked against the project on account of its questionable economic and social importance. Worthy of note is the position of a civil society organisation that promotes fiscal and ecological justice, Policy Alert at the public hearing for 2021 budget. The organisation noted “It is worrisome that the State continues to budget billions of naira for the worship centre. For 2021, the State Government plans to spend N6.75bn on the project when we have several worship centres around. The citizens have overtime asked that funds for this project be used to better their lives. The claim that this project is for tourism is questionable since there are many tourist sites in the State that have been abandoned or undeveloped “.
Although the State Governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel had from the inception of the project claimed that key part of the funds that will be used to develop the project will stem from donations, findings show that State funds in billions of naira have so far been spent on account of the worship centre.
Discrepancies in Appropriation law and Supervision
Data from the Akwa Ibom State Financial Statements of 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020 shows that within these four years alone, N12.7 billion of state funds have been spent on the project.
Although TheMail could not access line items on capital projects in the financial statements for other years within consideration of the analysis, the State Government failed to disclose information on what was spent on the project in 2017, 2021 and half quarter of 2022. Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Housing whose budget the project appeared from 2016 to 2018 was not acceded to. The experience was not different from the Ministry of Special Duties which according to the State Appropriation Law is responsible for the project between 2019 and 2022. In reply to TheMail’s FOI request, the Ministry, through the Head, Information Unit, Glory James, said the project is not under their supervision rather the Ministry of Lands and Water Resources.
Yet, if it is determined that the information sought is domiciled with another ministry, section 5 (1) of the Freedom of Information Act also gives the Ministry of Special Duties the responsibility to transfer the request to the concerned ministry, not the journalist.
When TheMail contacted the Chairman, House of Assembly Committee on Special Duties, Mr. Aniekan Uko on the discrepancies, he acknowledged that the Assembly had discovered the discrepancies when the project started, but later understood that the Governor has the power to assign any project to any Commissioner he wants.
He said “It was specifically assigned to Late Arc Ime Ekpo due to his exposure and experience in landmark projects in the State”.
Asked if such practice is legal and would promote accountability, Mr. Uko claimed that since the project is awarded to Julius Berger, it does not affect accountability as a Ministry is only responsible for supervision.
On why the project has not returned to the Ministry known by the Appropriation Law of the State 18 months after Late Ekpo exited office, the lawmaker said “If it is removed from the Ministry of Lands and returned to Special Duties that is where discrepancies will now occur.”
Questionable Spending on the Worship Centre
Findings have shown that although the foundation laying for the worship centre which was originally 8,500 capacity but later reduced to 5000 capacity took place on January 21, 2018, funds were already disbursed on the project two years earlier. The Accountant General’s Report and Audited Financial Statements for 2016 shows that N200 million was spent for the “design” of the project while N1.34bn was spent for “Building works” despite the fact that no construction ever took place at the location of the project that year. Allocation on this project that was yet to commence followed in 2017 with N1.5bn budget. TheMail through FOI request had sought for evidence of spending during these questionable times but this was greet with silence.
Surprisingly, the State Government cannot present evidence that part of the funds used in the construction of the project stem from donations as assured by the Governor, Mr Udom Emmanuel. TheMail newspaper in a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Finance had requested to know the amount so far donated for the project, individuals and organisations that have made donations and the fiscal year the donations were made. Again, this request was not responded to.
Yet, analysis of the financial statements of 2018 through 2021 gives strong indications that there are no donations for the project. Within these four years, it was only in 2020, the year of COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria that the State reported to have received revenue of N2.5bn under the subhead tagged “Refunds, donations and other exceptional income”. It could be recalled that in 2020 the year of COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria and the lockdown witnessed many financial donations and support from individuals and organisations to the State in the fight against COVID-19.
Curiously, amidst the challenges that followed COVID-19 outbreak and lock-down in 2020, the government of Akwa Ibom State made spending on the construction of the Worship Centre topmost among all the projects executed during the 2020 fiscal year. Analysis of the Citizens Accountability Report published by the Office of the State Auditor General reveals that this project recorded 100 percent implementation for the year. Out of the N5bn budgeted, N5bn was released. Comparatively with the exigencies of that year, all the expenses on the control of COVID-19 was N1.98bn even as renovation and upgrade of primary healthcare centres which had a budget of N1.6bn witnessed no release. Yet, there is a deeper problem which the funds spent on the controversial project can address.
Billions Spent on Controversial Worship Centre Regardless of High Unemployment Rate
Data published by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in the fourth quarter of 2020 shows that Akwa Ibom is among the top five States in Nigeria plagued by high unemployment rate. Out of 3.7 million people within the working age population in Akwa Ibom State, NBS reports that 1.3 million (51%) are unemployed. It was worse in the third quarter of 2020, when Akwa Ibom ranked second in the unemployment rate index in Nigeria.
Yet, this scandalous unemployment rate would have been addressed if the administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel gave attention to State Government programmes on life enhancement. For instance, since 2016 when disbursement for the Worship Centre began to 2021, the Government of Akwa Ibom State has budgeted a total of N1.3bn as capital expenditure for the Akwa Ibom State Life Enhancement Agency.
This agency has the mandate to develop and enhance the life of people living in Akwa Ibom through creation of job opportunities, youth empowerment, men and women empowerment and provision of loans. Some of the programmes of this agency which has reoccurred in successive year budgets within the six years under review include; financial assistance to facilitate establishment of small/ medium scale businesses/rent, provision of industrial electric iron, welding/metal fabrication equipment, plumbing/pipe fitting machines and battery/charging machines.
Others are purchase and distribution of Emei Industrial Sewing machines, cassava processing mills, hydrometer for soap making, palm processing mills, industrial mixer, and generating sets among others. The agency also has budgetary provisions for training in addition to assisting businesses with registration at Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
Yet, checks into the financial statements for these six years revealed that no dime was released for these lofty programmes. The N1.3bn needed in six years for the provision of these items is 10.2 percent of what was spent for the worship centre in just four years.
What N12.7bn Spent on Worship Centre Could Have Fixed
Interestingly, the Government of Akwa Ibom State on Monday, March 15, 2021, flagged-off a project tagged Ibom 3000 project.
This project was to train and empower 3000 youths as a means of job creation. The first batch of 1000 beneficiaries were trained under Oil and Gas, Information and Communications Technology (ICT), Agriculture and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).
The then Commissioner for Trade and Investment, Mr. Ukpong Akpabio had assured that the Government will provide Start-up packs for the 1000 trainees and subsequent 3000 trainees even as government plans to train 23,000 youths in various fields of endeavour before the end of the Governor Emmanuel’s administration in 2023.
16 months after the flag off, 188 youths who graduated on ICT training received a laptop each while other trainees in other sectors received N100, 000 each. Checks into the number of persons published in the graduation programme shows that a total of 857 persons emerged beneficiaries short of 143 persons to make it 1000 designed for the first phase.
However, most of the beneficiaries, although showing appreciation for the gesture, said they are doubtful that the N100, 000 funds will be substantial enough to fulfill the business needs they were trained on. During this same period, the Kwara State Government had supported 100 youths with a million naira business grant each.
But what difference would the huge amount spent on the worship centre make in addressing the unemployment rate of the State and also lift many families out of poverty?
Since the Ibom 3000 initiative was driven by the administration of Governor Emmanuel, TheMail attempted to calculate what N12.7bn spent on the worship centre in four years can do if shared as a business grant for the 3000 persons the State Government originally planned in the project. The calculation shows that at least each of the 3000 youths will receive not less than N4.2 million as business grant and a minimum of 96 youths from each of the 31 local government areas of the State can become beneficiaries.
Business survey undertaken in Akwa Ibom State Capital, Uyo by TheMail gave indication of the possibilities from such venture capital.
For instance, for those who were trained in crop farming like tomatoes and cucumbers, just a business grant of N3.5 million to an individual will turn such a beneficiary to become a millionaire in four months if properly managed.
The Chief Executive Officer of Antia’s Farms, Aniebet Antia who has been in crop farming business for over three years in the Uyo Capital City, says a beginner may use at least N3.5 million to rent a hectare of land for two years, provide borehole water, irrigation system among other farm inputs. He added “After investing about N3.5m for a fully mechanized farm, the profit you make in a tomato farm during your first planting which is within four months is over N2m.
“You don’t need to spend even half of the capital again during your second planting because you have already set up your farm. With that, your profit is doubled.”
What is more, for those who were trained on ICT, another survey showed that with at least N3 million naira, one can start an ICT service centre. The Chief Executive Officer of Emma Passion Creation, Emmanuel Thompson who has been in the ICT business for over eight years said that N3 million can get a beginner a well-furnished office space for two years, Modern Direct Image Printer, furniture, generating set, computer systems with necessary software.
What is more, if the Government of Akwa Ibom State spends 100 percent of what it budgeted for the worship centre in 2021 and 2022, in addition to the N12.7bn spent in 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020, it implies that N24.5bn would have been the total expenditure for the project within seven years. This means that if the amount were to be given as a business grant to the 23,000 persons the State Government said it plans to empower before the end of Governor Emmanuel’s administration in 2023, each of the 23,000 persons will receive at least N1.06 million. This suggests that at least 741 persons in each of the 31 local government areas of Akwa Ibom State will become beneficiary of the N1.06 million business grant hence contribute meaningfully to the economy and lift many families out of poverty.
Other Solutions to Address High Unemployment Rate in Akwa Ibom State
There are several funding opportunities that can be explored besides the ones offered by the State. For instance, the Nigerian Youth Employment Action Plan (2021- 2024) published by the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development recommends youths to explore N75bn Youth Investment Fund (NYIF) for the period of 2020-2023.
The NYIF aims to support innovative ideas, skills, talent and enterprises of Nigerian youth by providing access to credit and soft loans leading to the generation of 500,000 employment opportunities. The Federal Government notes that as of 2021, 6,054 youths have so far received between N300, 000 to N3 million.
The Action Plan adds “The Government can benefit from funding support for youth employment from bilateral and multilateral institutions, such as the United States Agency for International Development, the Korea International Cooperation Agency, the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), the European Union and foreign embassies in Nigeria, which can also provide support for initiatives at subnational levels. The Government, at both federal and state levels, will explore these avenues to strengthen youth employment financing in Nigeria.”
Desktop research by TheMail reveals other funding opportunities available for MSMEs. Some of these funds include the Central Bank of Nigeria ( CBN) MSME Development Fund which was launched in 2013 with a share capital of N220 billion. Others are the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP) inaugurated in November 2015, to create a link between anchor companies involved in the processing segment and Small Holder Farmers (SHFs), of the required key agricultural commodities.
There is still affordable financing through the Bank of Agriculture, Bank of Industry and Development Bank of Nigeria which embrace interventions that improve the business environment with focus on results, and most importantly- reduce youth unemployment.
Be that as it may, more is expected from the Government of Akwa Ibom State. Experts recommend that the Government of Akwa Ibom State need to be deliberate on prioritizing human capital development if the issue of high unemployment rate must be addressed.
The Operations and Development Manager of a Civil Society Organisation, Youth Alive Foundation, Kingsley Atang noted that the increasing rate of unemployment in Akwa Ibom State requires the strong political will of the leadership to take prompt action with a strategic vision and plan of action especially as it concerns youth empowerment.
While noting that youths are the most affected in unemployment, Atang blames absence of state policy or guidelines for youth empowerment as the key reason behind high unemployment rate in Akwa Ibom.
He added “Adhoc Programs and youth political jamborees won’t work because it has no measurable impact to the economy of the State. A Blueprint was drafted by the Youth Alive Foundation and 53 youth organizations, and it was pushed through the 6th Assembly through advocacy efforts.
“On March 13, 2019, the legislation was approved but has not gotten assent by the Governor. The Akwa Ibom Youth Development Fund AKYDF Bill is a long-term strategic framework for Akwa Ibom State’s youth development. It aims at improving youth economic development, creating jobs, attracting investors/donor support, stimulating growth and further increasing the State Government’s revenue base.”
Atang who called on the Governor to give assent to the Akwa Ibom Youth Development Fund bill stressed that the action will serve as a key panacea to addressing high unemployment rate in the State.