What is empowerment?

The thing where Sam Ortom in Benue gave out wheelbarrows to young people as a means of empowering them has generated a bit of a furore online, and as has sadly become the habit around these parts, the furore is partisan.

Ortom is an APC governor, and many APC leaning netizens are supporting the move, with the justification that at least he is giving them jobs. Opposition leaning netizens (PDP is dead) are on the other hand frothing at the mouth.

Sadly, both sets of people miss the point of what empowerment really is, and because of the Nigerian habit of binary thinking, both sets of people do not realise that they are both right, and they are both wrong. The reality, as with so many things in life, is somewhere in the middle.

Shortly after his reelection in Abia state in 2003, Orji Uzo Kalu rolled out an empowerment scheme that involved giving wheel barrows to loads of young people in Umuahia and Aba. Wheel barrows were also distributed to each of the local government areas, and I was witness to a group of young people in Ohafia getting really unhappy because there were not enough wheel barrows to go round.

Why would some young people, threaten a riot because they did not get wheel barrows if they did not see a value in those barrows?

The truth is that giving these people, who are in many cases at the lowest end of society, a means to make some change each day, is a form of empowerment. But for a country like ours, we have too often been guilty of not measuring outcomes. This is what brought us to where we are…

Empowering young people, especially in a country like Nigeria, is an exercise that ought to be measured. Which brings the question, the OUK Assisted Wheel Barrow Scheme as it was called, what was the outcome? Are we able to, fourteen years later, pinpoint one person that found his way out of grinding poverty as a result of that scheme? Were there measurable outcomes from the scheme, and if yes, how did the scheme stack up against the expected outcome?

The near riot I witnessed in Ohafia all those years ago, one of the reasons was that rather than the barrows being distributed, officials colluded, and held on to most of the barrows, in order to sell them. What are the chances that after the glitz of the cameras, the same won’t happen in Benue?

For the record, wheel barrows distribution can in no way be called job creation. At best, it can be likened to creating stop gaps for people to hold it together, while the real structures to create jobs are put in place.