In this analysis, KUNLE ODEREMI looks at some issues underlying the directive of President Muhammadu Buhari to use the school feeding programme of his administration to cushion the spiraling effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on children across the country.
LAST Sunday, President Muhammadu Buhari rolled out a number of strategic plans to fight the war on COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the country. The President listed more than 10 areas and items that are of utmost priority in the desperate bid by his administration to tame the pandemic and restore public confidence in the establishment. The list includes reactionary, preventive and pragmatic measures at individual, corporate and institutional levels.
While some of the steps include those that are already being implemented, others require further planning and appraisal before execution. Perhaps, one of them that seems novel and weird to many is the strategy of deploying the school feeding programme to tackle the debilitating effects of the pandemic on children, who are among the most vulnerable at this time of the crisis. Though, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq, has tried to expatiate and further clarify the motive behind the adoption of the approach, the issue has continued to generate intense public debate, scrutiny and curiousity. Her frenetic effort is against the backdrop of the assurance made by the president. In his 20-minute national broadcast, he stated: “Furthermore, although schools are closed, I have instructed the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development to work with state governments in developing a strategy on how to sustain the school feeding programme during this period without compromising our social distancing policies. The minister will be contacting the affected states and agree on detailed next steps.”
Many are expressing serious doubts on the workability, timing, mode and capacity of the system to effectively and efficiently embark and handle such a lofty programme. They have even gone beyond raising wide-ranging logistic issues to implement such scheme at this trying time in the chequered history of the country, given chaotic battle against the scourge. In fact, a few of the salient teasers bothering the minds of many include: why should the government, in the first place, contemplate adopting the school feeding scheme as an option to cushion the effect of COVID-19 with all already forced to shut down? How feasible is the strategy designed to tackle the COVID-19 disease which requires mandatory social distancing? Where will the humongous fund needed for the intervention come from, given the frightening steady dip in oil price, the nation’s mainstay, in the international market? What are the mechanisms on ground to guarantee transparency and accountability, in view of the crisis of integrity trailing the existing school feeding programme, which from empirical evidence, is currently on an apparent free fall? How will the strategy be all-inclusive since not all states operate a school feeding scheme, or any other programme that the Federal Government can key into with its own pet project? With 13 million children out of school in the country, coupled with the preponderance of those children domiciled in the rural areas where 70 per cent of the estimated 200 million Nigerian population resides, what is the template already designed to capture them in the exigent social safety net?
Available statistics indicate that as at 2012, a total of 24,893,442 children enrolled in Nigeria’s public and private primary schools, with the figure rising to 25.6 million in 2016. Whereas, a significant percentage of the figure is not captured in the Federal Government’s scheme for pupils, by August 2018, the government said it was spending N13 billion monthly on the programme. In the same year, the government said it was spending more than $1.8 million every day on the scheme, just as it disclosed that $183 million had so far been pumped into the scheme.
Launched in 2016, the scheme aims to provide children of public Primary 1 to 3 free school meals, with the overall objective of bringing 24 million children as beneficiaries of the scheme that is part of a N500 billion funded Social Investment Programme (SIP).
While the promoters of the project claim that part of the aims and objectives are gradually been achieved, the programme has not been without hiccups such as alleged abuse by some officials resulting in their suspension by the authorities. Some were accused of diverting funds meant for the scheme into personal accounts.
In December 2019, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq, said more than 9.9 million pupils were under the scheme. Many schools in the rural and swampy areas are excluded from the programme because of difficult terrains. Report also has it that the nursery section of the schools are not included in the scheme. For example, about 80 per cent of the primary schools in Enugu State are in the rural areas, while 546 schools are not captured by the programme in Benue State.
Mixed feelings among Nigerians
With the economy in a dire strait and at its lowest ebb, the president’s directive on the scheme is mired in controversy. According to a school of thought, the plan is typical of the Nigerian leadership to taking hasty decisions that often to create more problems, confusion and controversy than the one originally meant to tackle and resolve. Nonetheless, there are suggestions by senior citizens on how to wriggle out of the envisaged quagmire in case the government insists on going ahead with the strategy. For instance, a frontline politician, Chief Shuaib Oyedokun, advocates the setting up of a broad-based committee that should comprise men of integrity from across-board to fine-tune the scheme if it must subsist. According to him, the challenges confronting the country now requires that all Nigerians leaders shelve all narrow interest and partisanship in order to save the nation from the threat from COVID-19. Oyedokun warned against creating another avenue to fleece the country.
According to Senator Olu Alabi, “This looks like another policy somersault. It sounds more like another campaign talk. How are we going to get the food to the pupils on a daily basis, especially with the total lock downs in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja; and partial lock down in other states,” he queried. “It is just another talk shop. Both the pupils in private and public will not be available, except the schools are reopened, which will contradict the government directives on COVID-19 pandemic,” he stated.
The acting national chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Chief Supo Shonibare, said this was a period of emergency that required the total support for the measures being adopted by the government to contain the pandemic. “We are in an emergency situation which calls for a common nationalistic approach between the ruling parties and the opposition parties, to rescue us both from this virulent pandemic ravaging even developed countries with good medical support system, which we know we have great deficiency of and drastic further downturn in earnings. We therefore have to do all we can to activate the World Health Organisation and the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) advice as enjoined by the President,“ Shonibare said. On the social safety net for the pupils enunciated by Buhari, the SDP leader, however, said the scope of the beneficiaries of the food subsidy could be expanded to include other categories of the vulnerable segments of the society. “It is understandable that the government will need to augment the subsidised meal a day for school children which were being offered at schools by channeling what has already been budgeted to the families; maybe, it will be more effective if this is enabled by food supplies to the household of the students. Federal and state governments should also come up with food supplies palliative to assist the productive working class, the poor and the underclass in our society,” he urged. He opined that such humanitarian efforts should also be a tool adopted by churches, mosques and philanthropists to alleviate poverty.
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