Three years after the President Muhammadu Buhari administration launched the national home-grown school feeding programme, Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL of Guardian reports the latest allegations of fraud levelled against government officials as the scheme resumes while all public schools are shut amid the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration claimed that at least 7.4 million pupils are benefitting from the National Home-Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP) with critics doubting the number being bandied around by the government. But with the latest announcement that the feeding programme will resume amid COVID-19 pandemic, many people feel government officials are embarking on a fraudulent mission.
The NHGSFP is part of a N500-billion funded social investment programme designed by the government to tackle poverty and improve the health and education of children and other vulnerable groups – was put in place. The programme aims to feed over 24 million schoolchildren, which will make it the largest school feeding programme of its kind in Africa. Nigeria has one of the highest burdens of childhood malnutrition. In fact, malnutrition disorders affect more than 42 percent of schoolchildren in the country and are responsible for 49 percent absenteeism of primary-school-age children.
The United Nations’ agency, UNICEF, estimates that 2.5 million Nigerian children under the age of five suffer from severe malnutrition each year, with about half a million children dying from it. This is the principal reason the President Muhammadu Buhari administration launched in June 2016 the NHGSFP in which pupils have one free meal a day.
However, when the Federal Government said this month that the feeding programme for primary school pupils in Nigeria would resume on May 14, not a few were left bewildered and they have their reasons.
According to Sadiya Umar Farouq, the minister of humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development, the programme will begin in Abuja and later in Lagos, Ogun, and other states targeting 3,131,971 households. Each household is expected to receive a take-home ration (THR) valued at N4, 200 made up of five-kilogramme bag each of rice and beans, respectively, vegetable oil, palm oil, paste, and seasoning.
“The ministry in consultation and collaboration with state governments identified the distribution of take-home rations to the households of the children on the programme as a feasible method of achieving this directive. This is a globally accepted means of supporting children to continue to have access to nutrient-rich foods despite disruptions to the traditional channels of school feeding by the pandemic.
“The provision of take-home rations will, therefore, be carried out based on data provided and structures put in place by the feeding programme over the years,” Farouq explained.
A civil rights group, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) does not buy that explanation. It accused the Federal Government of planning to “feed ghost pupils” since all schools in the country are on lockdown for nearly two months.
The Federal Government disclosed that over three million children in public schools would benefit from this phase of the programme. In this scheme, parents and caregivers of beneficiaries are to collect the take-home rations using QR-coded vouchers, serialised with dates, and time-stamped. The households will be able to access take-home rations from distribution centres.
Farouq added, “Each household will receive uncooked food items that have been assessed and approved by nutrition experts as adequate for the children.”However, over 6,000 schools will serve as distribution centres for clusters of communities except in some states with unique security and safety issues where other structures will be used.”
The civil rights group believes there is more to the school feeding programme when schools have been shut than meets the eye. HURIWA asked: “From where do they want to get the pupils to feed whilst the lockdown is in place? Are they going to bring up displaced àlmajarais as the bona fide pupils or will they as usual manufacture ghosts as pupils? These schoolchildren have all gone to their homes and millions of these kids may have been relocated to towns other than where they reside with their parents or guardians. Why is this government so incorrigible and resistant to the truth?”It argued further, “Why can’t the government do first things first but would press on with a muddled-up plot to divert public funds under the guise of feeding school children and by the way school children who are not in schools are not school children so the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission and the EFCC, if they are patriotic enough, should question the minister of humanitarian affairs for pretending to feed school children when there is no school in session and assuming without conceding that there are children to be arranged and fed, those are not school children because school children are found in schools and not from all corners of the streets when the schools are understandably on vacation.”
Critics of the feeding programme alleged that the decision of the government to carry on the scheme during the COVID-19 lockdown was “a perfect alibi for the massive scale of theft and diversion of public fund.”
President, National Parents Teachers Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN), Alhaji Haliru Danjuma said the body was not consulted before government took the decision to feed their wards from home.
“Therefore the minister for humanitarian affairs should take note and do the right thing by consulting the education minister and of course the commissioners of education at state level to find better ways of handling issues concerning our children, which will be the best way to find a better solution by doing the right thing. You may wish to note that during the Ebola scourge, PTA and the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) played a very significant role and it worked, not the way ministry for humanitarian affairs is handling issues because school feeding is not what we want, all we want is our children’s education. How can they locate our children while they are with us at home? How can they reach households of a country with 774 local government councils even if it’s put on average of a 100 primary per local government with only 100 pupils? How will they reach and feed them? For what period of time? All we are saying is that the ministry should find a better way of making good use of the huge amount allocated to her. HURIWA thinks the plan is a ruse to steal from the nation’s treasury.
It stated, “The announced intention to proceed with feeding school children who are not in school is a systematic and well-choreographed plot to steal public funds. This must be stopped”
Yet, pressing on, the minister assured Nigerians that measures had been put in place to ensure transparency and accountability. She noted, “As an extra layer of monitoring, the ministry has requested other agencies of government including the DSS, EFCC, ICPC, Code of Conduct Bureau, and a host of non-governmental NGOs and CSOs to help monitor. “The ministry’s hotlines will be made available to the public to provide accurate information and for grievance redress.”
In the same vein, the national president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Mr Adedoyin Adesina said as a stakeholder, the union is not against the scheme but with a proviso that such must achieve the needed objectives. “As we have said, we just want the Federal Government to be very transparent, open and show accountability in what they are going to do. There is no way government can feed all the children, what they are trying to do is to identify the vulnerable ones.
“We had a stakeholders’ meeting in Lagos, where the SUBEB chairman invited all stakeholders so that all of us can brainstorm and see how the scheme can be done transparently to make sure that the mistrust and doubts by members of the public about the programme are addressed. We were there with the WFP serving as technical aide; we have data of those children and their addresses. They will go to those homes and look at those ones that are vulnerable.
“The scheme should be devoid of political sentiments, the political elites in a particular community should not interfere, and they should allow those who have carried out the survey and enumeration to do their job,” Adesina added. The resumption of the feeding programme, however, is not a policy supported only by the Nigerian government. In response to a recent report from the United Nations Secretary-General, which highlighted the number of children missing out on school meals, World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF were reported to be working with governments to support children who are out of school during the COVID-19 crisis.
In 68 countries, governments and WFP are providing children with take-home rations, vouchers, or cash transfers as an alternative to school meals.Under the partnership, WFP and UNICEF will assist governments in the coming months to ensure that when schools reopen returning children benefit from school meals and health programmes. This will also provide an incentive for parents to send their children back to school. The agencies are also working together to track children in need of school meals through an online ‘school meals’ map.
To support the work – which will initially focus on 30 low-income or fragile countries to the tune of 10 million children – UNICEF and WFP appealed for $600 million. Their work will be closely aligned with the UNESCO-led global education coalition, a global push to ensure children keep learning despite the disruptions caused by COVID-19.
Across the states, there have been different reports on the success or otherwise of the scheme. While some states admitted that the NHGSFP has indeed increased school enrolment and reduced absenteeism, others were of the view that the scheme has done little or nothing to boost primary education.That did not start today. In 2017, former President Olusegun Obasanjo had also faulted the Buhari administration’s handling of the school feeding programme.He said, “Any programme that will enhance food intake, particularly of the youth, and will help them in their growth, vitality, and in giving them better nutrition, I would regard as a good programme. (When I was the President) I encouraged it. It is not supposed to be a Federal Government programme. “If I remember correctly, I think Nasarawa State had a similar programme, which was good; Kano State had one, which was good. I think one of the states in the Southwest also had one. But it was not a federal programme. It’s not a Federal Government programme; it shouldn’t be.”President Buhari during his campaign in 2015 promised that his government would provide free meals for primary school pupils in the country as well as create thousands of jobs for Nigerians.