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Nigeria’s school feeding programme in lockdown

…It’s fraudulent – Opposition, others …It is unrealistic - NUT …No, we mean well - FG

Early in the life of this government, Nigerians were told of a home grown school feeding programme which now appears to be riddled with “truths, half-truths and outright lies.”

To the extent that it was created to empower local farmers and food vendors, the programme is a good idea. But, so far, its implementation has been controversial.

The idea of continuing with the programme at a time when coronavirus, a global health emergency, has forced all schools to close down and households to shut their doors, is an act that not only offends people’s sensibilities, but also bruises their collective psyche.

“By implementing that programme at a time like this when pupils are all at home with their parents means there’s more to that programme than we know. This is the only country in the world where you hear and see unimaginable things happen,” Henry Ozioma, an accountant with a logistics company, said.

Ozioma does not understand what the government wants to achieve by insisting on feeding school children who are at home. “How are they going to do it? Will they be going to their individual homes or ask the children to report to their school when the same government is preaching social and physical distancing?” he wondered.

“I want to believe that the aim of all these pretence is to sustain the contract on the programme which, of course, is awarded to their cronies. Otherwise, this is a needless effort. The money being used on this programme now could be used on repairing the schools. Many of them don’t have chairs; others have leaking roofs and cracked walls. This is a good time to address all that,” Ozioma advised.

Though he sees some sense in the school feeding programme as a means of ramping up school enrollment, especially in the educationally backward states in the country, Josephat Aigbe, a retired school administrator, is not comfortable with the present style of implementation.

“I think somebody is out to play a fast one; what it means is that both the children and the parents have to be fed for it to make any meaning. Honestly, I don’t envy any section of the country that claims poverty as if it is a birth right. They have always depended on government and that is why they have remained poor despite all the privileges they enjoy,” Aigbe noted, stressing that the programme should have been put on hold now for other urgent needs.

In more ways than one, the Federal Government has demonstrated disdain for the feelings of the people. Like many other Nigerians, Ozioma is pained that the government always says what it does not mean or means what it does not say.

This same government that could not provide palliatives during the lockdown for even the people that are really vulnerable in the country is now claiming to have spent a huge sum of money on a programme that should not be part of its priorities at the moment.

This is the most loathsome outing by the government which is why Fafiolu Samuel, a Public Affairs analyst, says the programme is absurd, bizarre, vague and definitely full of dark spots, adding, “Most assuredly, a few people will get these relief packages and that’s why I feel it should have been called something else.”

For Oyedokun Ibukun, an entrepreneur, the billions budgeted for this project should rather be diverted to fixing infrastructural deficits or loan servicing, advising the government  to desist from wasteful spending and focus on productive things, because the country has more pressing needs than school feeding, especially during lockdown.

Dara Ogunaike, a chartered accountant, queried the source of the proposed N697million to be spent daily, amounting to N13.5billion a monthly on the programme.

“With N13.5 billion, government can setup cottage industries and small scale enterprises for the parents, who will feed their children from their profit and add to our gross domestic product”, Ogunaike said. But

Raphael Ikpe, a forensic expert, described the decision by the federal government to continue with the feeding initiative during lockdown as not only reckless spending, but also misplaced priority.

“There is no money anywhere, we are already borrowing and purchasing power is going to decline with the economic downturn anticipated after coronavirus is curtailed. So, it is unwise to waste money on things parents can handle if empowered”, Ikpe said.

So far, government claims that the NHGSFP initiative has engaged 107,862 cooks who are serving over 9.9 million pupils in 54,952 schools across the country.

But the figures, according to Ogunaike, are mere hype and not verifiable.

“For the minister to involve DSS, EFCC, ICPC, Code of Conduct Bureau and a host of NGOs and CSOs to provide an extra layer of monitoring, it means there is a possibility that huge fraud is going on that needs to be checked. How can you spend N13.5 billion on feeding children when we are running to International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loan? It is a scam because the children do not need the half-cooked rice without meat”, Ogunaike lamented.

Expressing his doubt over the authenticity of the initiative, Jude Odia, a university don, said the federal government has been making efforts at selling the initiative to Nigerians without success because it is the parents that need empowerment to take care of their children.

Speaking further, Odia explained that to make the initiative sail through during lockdown, it was rebranded as Take-Home Rations (THR) to the households of the children on the programme channels of school feeding.

“The truth is that the minister and even staff of NHGSFP will not allow their children to eat the so-called food being given to pupils because it is contract and poor in nutrition”, Odia observed.

It would be recalled that at the launch of the modified scheme, the minister said, “Beginning today in Abuja, this programme will target parents and guardians of children in primary 1 to 3 in public schools participating in the programme.

“A total of 3.1 million households are targeted for this intervention.  Lagos and Ogun states are next ports of call before the programme moves to other states.”

Many argue how government or the ministry arrived at the 3.1 million households and doubt if they could reach 500,000 before leaving Abuja.

“How can someone think of lifting people by feeding them? The right thing is to empower parents of these vulnerable children and leave them to care of the children”, Hassan Abu, civil servant, said.

He noted that nobody will take such food to private schools in Abuja or Lagos because the students and pupils are children of affluent people, and that government should desist from feeding children, rather empower their parents.

But while many are protesting against the feeding initiative and some argue in its favour, a few people, particularly food vendors, contractors and civil servants are smiling to the bank.

The Parents-Teacher Association (PTA) said recently, that the union was in support of the programme, but want government to carry the union along in its implementation.

The union, however, wondered how the government intends feeding the school children since schools are shut across the country.

The National Publicity Secretary of the Association, Ademola Ekundayo, said the school feeding programme would not achieve its purpose if the Federal Government continues with it during the lockdown.

“As a parent body, we are in support of the school feeding programme, we are as well looking for ways to augment whatever the Federal Government is offering. We want the Federal Government to allow the PTA to be part of the implementation so that we can know the types of meal they are giving to our children. There is need to carry us along in whatever they are giving to our children.

“However, we must say that we don’t know how the Federal Government intends to implement the policy during the lockdown period. I don’t think they can reach any of the pupils now, because the schools are lockdown. Maybe we have to wait to see how government intends to implement this. We are not aware of this plan and we don’t know how they want to realise this,” he said.

Also speaking recently, a chieftain of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Olabode George said it was obvious that the programme was a fraud, wondering where the government got data of residence of the school children from.

He said it was through the unity of purpose and collective efforts of all citizens that the coronavirus pandemic could be defeated, adding that the pandemic had thrown up serious issues in the economy, leading to hunger in the land with its attending problems.

“Pumping money into school feeding programme while the schools are not open is a little absurd. It is a redundant, unworkable palliative. In a nation where there is no standard numbering of houses, how do you get the food to the beneficiaries? This is more than laughable. It is tragic,” George said

Also speaking in an interview with BDSUNDAY, Wale Ogunade, lawyer and national president of Voters Awareness Initiative, said the government should explain and show Nigerians the beneficiaries of the programme, otherwise it would be giving credence to wave of suspicion currently trailing it.

According to him “Government should come clean on this programme, like they said they were giving palliatives to Nigerians, but we did not see anyone that benefitted from it. Now they are talking about feeding programme how would the logistics be worked out? They should come out, except there is something fishy about it.  Let see the children, which states is it been implemented?

“Let them come out clean, it is easy to say they have done this and that and. We have not seen anything in that regard,” Ogunade said.

We mean well – FG

However, despite the criticisms rocking the programme, the Federal Government has defended it, saying it was borne out of its commitment and determination to cushion the hardship vulnerable school children were facing at home because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Sadiya Umar-Farouq, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, who defended the government action at the official launch of the modified scheme in Abuja, said hunger was a by-product of the pandemic which necessitated government’s decision.

“Hunger is a serious by-product of this pandemic, which is why from the onset the ministry has been evolving strategies to facilitate humanitarian interventions,” she said.

According to her, “The Ministry in consultation and collaboration with state governments identified the distribution of Take-Home Rations (THR) to the households of the children on the programme as a feasible method of achieving this directive after exploring several options.

“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”.

Umar-Farouq further said: “A total of 3.1 million households are targeted for this intervention. Lagos and Ogun States are next ports of call before the programme moves to other states of the Federation.

“As noted earlier, we are working with the World Food Programme who are providing technical support while other agencies of government have been invited to provide an extra layer of monitoring.

“The ministry is using the opportunity of this modified program to collect and verify data with the support of CSOs and NGOs such as ActionAid, BudgIT, Tracka, and CMDA”.

Speaking with BDSUNDAY, Salihu Hum, spokesperson to the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, said the Ministry has adopted a new model which is in line with global best practices, especially as Covid-19 has forced the closure of schools all over the world.

“The current one is being undertaken in conjunction with the World Food Programme (WFP) which has deployed a similar model in the United Kingdom and the United States of America”.

Some documents made available to BDSUNDAY explained that through the Take-Home Rations (THR) which was designed with the cooperation of the WFP, a voucher is issued to the parent of a participating child, who must be from a household registered in the National Social Register.

“The parent takes the voucher for verification by NYSC members at the school where the pupil is fed. After confirmation of all the relevant facts, the parent is issued the packaged food ration for their child or children. The parents go home with the raw foodstuff to cook for the child, which should last for four weeks.

“That is how the modified school feeding is. The FGN funds it, deliver the food items to the States, the states implement it, but with monitors from PTAs, CSOs, EFCC, ICPC, Police and community leaders, including clerics and the teachers of the pupils”.

Efforts to get the real figures spent by government were futile at the time of this report as the Schedule/Contact Officer could not respond to questions sent to him

 

 

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