Many residents of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) are in agony over the distribution of the palliatives running into millions of naira as allegations of thuggery; partiality and wanton corruption mar the exercise. African Quarters investigates
Blessing John was eight months pregnant and alone when she fell. At first, she imagined a strong hand would reach out and pull her up, but in the midst of the thousands of people who had converged on Byazhin primary school field in Bwari Local Council Area of the Federal Capital Territory Abuja, nobody took any notice.
“I fell face down,” she said softly. It seemed her voice hardly left her lips and then she tried to demonstrate the gravity of the fall with her two hands. “Nobody stopped, people were shouting and running around me, the soldiers were chasing and beating people and then they started to trample on me. I began to scream for help.”
Help did not arrive for 28-year-old Blessing as she began to bleed and lost consciousness. Her mother, Beatrice took over the narration. “Somebody came to call me that Blessing had died on the field while trying to get the palliative the government sent to the community. We all rushed there and found her on the floor, unconscious. She was rushed to a private hospital and an operation was done immediately.”
The treatment cost the family and her community N200, 000 and her eight-month-old baby was delivered. It was a “beautiful” baby boy but he was dead. It took another two day before the bereaved mother would come around.
On the day of the tragedy, someone had notified the heavily pregnant Blessing that the palliatives promised by the government to cushion the effects of the lockdown occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic had arrived in their neighborhood.
Blessing was divided between getting whatever small amount of foodstuff she could lay her hands on or staying at home in her crushing poverty. It was a no-brainer and she immediately joined the thousands of people who had gathered on the field to fight for whatever foodstuff she could get.
African Quarters learnt that the entire palliative shared for individuals consisted of small quantity of rice, bean and seasoning totaling about N2, 000. “They killed my son,” Blessing said with a smile, it was not the pleasant smile but that of regrets. “Because of a small amount of food, she lost her son and almost lost her life,” Beatrice added.
That was not all she lost, as soon as her boyfriend heard the baby was “dead”, he disappeared and he has not been seen since.
Lockdown and the Palliatives
The first case of coronavirus was recorded in Lagos on February 28, 2020. In another 100 days Nigeria had recorded a total of 11,844 confirmed cases of the virus with 333 deaths and an additional 3,696 people successfully treated. The high mortality forced the Federal Government to impose an initial 14 days lockdown on March 29, 2020.
Because of the expected economic hardship especially for the informal sector in which majority of the resident of the Federal Capital is categorized, the government decided to provide palliatives to support the “poorest of the poor” in the six area councils of the FCT.
On April 17, 2020, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Minister of State, Ramatu Aliyu, officially flagged off the distribution of palliatives to the 62 Council Wards in the FCT. The aim according to the Minister is to target 100,000 households in the six councils making 600,000 households captured in the FCT.
At the ceremony, the Minister represented by her Senior Special Assistant on Administration and Strategy, Muhammad Usman tasked the committee members handling the distribution exercise on utmost transparency and accountability in the discharge of their duties. She also disclosed that the FCT Administration has approved as follows: 30,000 bags of 5kg rice and condiments for each of Abaji, Bwari, Gwagwalada, Kuje and Kwali Area Councils, while 36,000 bags of 5kg rice and condiments have been approved for Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC).
Aliyu said: “It is our expectation that the committee at the Ward level must act to ensure only deserving beneficiaries are served and that they are properly enumerated. Committees shall be given forms to fill-out in continuation of this tradition of accountability.
“May I reiterate for emphasis, that I demand from the committees, utmost transparency and accountability in the discharge of their duties. As I have said during the flag-off of the first phase of this exercise, posterity will judge us if we fail to be just and fair in the distribution of palliative items to the vulnerable members of our communities.
“Irrespective of tribe or religion, every committee member represents her or his ward here and must know that she/he is the eye of the people. You must stand for your people and make sure that they are served. If you compromise, posterity will judge you.
“I want to state unequivocally that these palliative items are not for campaign and not for you to extend charity to your family members. The items are from the Federal Capital Territory Administration, as directed by President Muhammadu Buhari, to be distributed to the poor to cushion the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
A lopsided distribution
Gift Audu was happy when she heard that government had brought in Covid -19 palliatives, as an Assistant Class Teacher in a private school, she had been out of job since the lockdown began. As she survived on whatever profit she made from roasting corn by the roadside; the palliatives would be a breath of fresh air. However, her joy soon evaporated when she got to the venue of the distribution. “It was a war there,” she said with a smile of disappointment. “There was much stoning and we suffered, we had to run for our lives and eventually I didn’t get anything.”
ThankGod Soka, one of the youths in Byazhin community managed to lay hands on 5kg bag of rice but not from the FCT. “I was lucky, a man who owned a shopping complex gave some of us some palliatives, that was the only way I got mine,” he said.
The Chief of Byazhin community, Ezekiel Kaura was disappointed at the manner of the distribution. In an interview with African Quarters he said the palliatives given to his community was grossly inadequate.
“We are more than 5,000 people and what we received were small bags of rice that cannot even feed two families. But what was shocking is that what we see in the media especially on the television is not what we received. The last one we received was only eight small bags so we do not know who to share it to.
“The government is trying its best but even if they bring 100 bags here, only a few people will get anything, but now they are bringing very small bags and with that how can you tell people not to go anywhere to look for food,” he said.
In Kurudu community under Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC), the palliatives were distributed under the cover of darkness. Because of the cosmopolitan nature of the community, it was divided by tribe. However, in each tribe, those who were lucky to get anything got two cups of milk of rice and seasoning.
Gabriel James recounted his ordeal: “They brought the food in the night with the assistance of some SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) officers. But the sad thing is that the police officers shared it within themselves and left the remaining for the Chief. Then they began to share to their friends, the widows and the youths got wind of it and began a protest. They called us in and gave us some garri and rice.”
Chief Haliru Bako, the Asu Gari of Kurudu said there was nothing he could do than to adopt the formulae of sharing by the tribes. “The government brought rice, semo, garri and tomatoes. I said how do we go about this. Then I notified all the chiefs of the tribes. They were Tiv, Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Igala, Igede, Agatu, Gwandara and Aho. We shared everything the government brought.”
But this formula had its disadvantages and tend to exclude those who do not belong to the above-mentioned tribes like Ladi Ayuba from Plateau State. “They chased us away at the palace of the Chief in Kurudu; they attended only to their own tribe. But even what they shared was very small, two cups of rice and a sachet of salt.”
Chief Bako agreed that the distribution was pathetic. “What they brought was very small, it was not enough for the people, the people of this town suffered very much during the lockdown and they had very little compensation. The government can actually do better.”
In Kokosha community, Karshi Area Development, community leaders were happy to receive whatever the government brought no matter how small. “We cannot complain because we saw it as a gift, if they didn’t give it to us who are we going to fight?” Adamu Audu, the community leader said and raised his hands to the sky.
Kokosha with about 700 households received some garri, beans, vegetable oil and tomatoes, but it was too small to go around “the poorest of the poor” so the leaders decided to share it as much as they could.
“All the people that could get something even as small as a sachet of salt got. In July, the Karshi Development Area brought some sugar and spaghetti, which we shared with the widows in our community. There are a lot of people suffering here, but there is nothing we can do, they are part of the story of coronavirus in Nigeria,” he said.
Dimka Jesse from Angwa Dikko in Karshi believes he can pinpoint the problem. “The trouble is with the sharing, I don’t know why the government insisted on sharing foodstuff when every Nigerian with BVN could have been given at least N5, 000 in our accounts. With that, I know what I could do with it. The food they gave is not even up to N5, 000, I prefer they should have given us money, they would spend less than they did on food. But corruption won’t let them do that.”
No Respite for People Living with Disability (PLWD)
One group of FCT residents negatively impacted by the lockdown was People Living with Disabilities (PLWD). While many of them are destitute and operate as street beggars, the lockdown ensured they could not go out to ‘work’ and thus relied on whatever donations the government or sympathizers bring.
“We have 402 households here in Karimajiji,”the Emir of Physically Challenged People of Abuja, Alhaji Muhammed Sulaiman Kastina said through his secretary, Muhammad Dantani. The Disabled Colony as it is called has the largest concentration of people with disability in Abuja, many of who are beggars.
“It was so difficult to sustain life during the lockdown, many of our members are involved in one form of vacation or another but majority are beggars and they were affected by the lockdown negatively.
“We had to rely heavily on donations from kind hearted Nigerians, but you know before corona virus, people were free to come here and donate but now everybody is afraid of coming here so the donations are not coming in as we expected,”Kastina said.
However, the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, Sadiya Umar Farouq said her Ministry distributed palliatives to the colony in Karimajiji. “We are very aware of the issues concerning people with special needs and we have made their issue a priority of the Ministry, this group constitutes 15% of the Nigerian population and they represent one of the most vulnerable groups in the country.
“During a pandemic such as COVID-19, we always emphasize that palliatives measures and social safety net intervention be activated to reach out to this very special group,” she said during the presentation of food items.
But 65-year-old blind Saidu Zakari Yau who lives in the colony disagreed. “We are blind people; there is no assistance from the government. The food that was brought was very small and did not go round. We were begging people to come and help us because the children were very hungry.”
Kastina agreed the food distributed was small and inadequate, but some private individuals have been helping to supplement whatever they received from the government.
A controversial school feeding
One of the most contentious projects undertaken by the government during the lockdown was the continuation of the homegrown school feeding. Many Nigerians wondered why the government would insist on feeding the children at home when there is no accurate data to show where the students live.
On March 29, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari directed the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management to commence the homegrown school feeding. According to the Ministry, 3,131,971 households of children in primaries 1-3 will benefit from the school feeding.
The Ministry said the uncooked food that would be given is valued at N4,200 and include: 5kg of rice, 5kg of beans, 500ml of vegetable oil, 750ml of palm oil, 500mg of salt, 15 eggs and 140gm of tomato paste. The Ministry would also provide vouchers to eligible households.
But the distribution was not devoid of corruption. According to Africa Quarter investigations in four Council Areas, there was no distinction between the palliatives and the school feeding food items.
In Byazhin community, a few households got one mudu of rice, six eggs and a sachet of vegetable oil. However, in AMAC, the distribution was lopsided with the palliatives and many of the ‘identified households’ got nothing.
“They came to mark our houses and number them and we were waiting for the feeding programme but it never did. However, one day, I saw some officials in front of Government Junior Secondary School, Orozo, they were distributing three raw eggs to children, just that. There is no accountability in everything the government did regarding the palliatives,” he said.
The government has tried to deflect criticisms of its handling of the School Feeding programme. According to the Minister, 124,589 households impacted between May 14 and July 6, 2020 saying the programme was only implemented in three states: Ogun, Lagos and the FCT.
Farouq said: “The provision of Take Home rations under the modified Home Grown School Feeding Programme was not a SOLE initiative of the federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. The ministry in obeying the Presidential directive went into consultations with state governments through the Nigeria Governors’ Forum following which it was resolved that Take Home Rations remained the most viable option for feeding children during the lock down. So, it was a joint resolution of the ministry and the state governments to give out Take Home Rations and the stakeholders resolved that we would start with the FCT, Lagos and Ogun states as pilot cases.
“Each Take Home Ration is valued at N4, 200 and that figure was not arrived at without proper consultation. It was not invented. According to statistics from the NBS and CBN, a typical household in Nigeria has 5.6 to 6 members in its household, with 3 to 4 regarded as dependent and so each household is assumed to have three children. Now based on the original design of the Home Grown School Feeding Programme long before it was domiciled in the ministry, every child on the programme receives a meal a day. The meal costs N70 per child. When you take 20 school days per month, it means a child eats food worth N1, 400 per month. Three children would then eat food worth N4, 200 per month. That was how we arrived at the cost of the Take Home Ration.
“In the FCT 29,609 households were impacted; Lagos recorded 37,589 households while Ogun state was 60,391 households making a total of 124,589 households impacted between May 14, 2020 and July 6, 2020. If 124,589 households received Take Home Rations valued at N4, 200 the total figure will be N523, 273,800. And note this was not spent daily. The FCT commenced first, followed by Lagos before Ogun state. It was not DAILY.”
There’s no perfect exercise anywhere- FCT Minister
The Minister of State for the FCT, Ramatu Aliyu speaking through the Special Assistant on Media Mr. Austin Elemue told Africa Quarters that the Ministry tried to ensure distribution of palliatives went without a hitch but there is no perfect exercise.
Aliyu: We have heard stories of how the palliatives were not equitably distributed and it is expected because there is no perfect exercise anywhere in the world. But suffice it to say that the composition of the committees for the distributions of the palliative items was a demonstration of inclusive governance. It might interest you to know that in each political Ward, members of the distributions committee were representatives of Christian and Muslims community, political parties (APC and PDP), representatives of traditional rulers or community heads, representatives of various security agencies, representatives of CSOs, youth leaders, and People Living with Disabilities.
“The reason for this expanded committee is for community ownership and to guide against compromise. In other words, the FCT Administration wants the communities to own the project. However, we should also bear in mind that such complain coming from Bwari Area Council is expected because Bwari was the only Area Council in the FCT where the Administration recorded hitches in the distributions of the palliatives to vulnerable people in the Territory. It is on record that some restive youths invaded trucks load of palliatives in Bwari Area Council.
“On the second leg of your question regarding the number of targeted households, I can tell you for free that in the first phase of the palliative distributions, the Administration reached out to 25,000 households per ward. We have 62 political Wards in the six Area Councils of the Territory. Other phases of the palliative distributions also capture professional bodies, youth/women organisations, civil society groups, frontline workers, religious bodies among others.”
While the government is trying to put its house in order, Blessing sits in her house all day, in a dark and dingy room with a small opening to let in the lights softly singing a lullaby which would have been for her dead son.
The Palliatives should not be politicized- Chief Ezekiel Kaura of Byazhin
How did the lockdown affect your community?
Since when they said there is lockdown, we are trying to be there and obey all the directives because we want they government to work and solve the coronavirus problem. The government said when we stay at home, they will provide palliatives for us, but the small bags they were sharing did not get anywhere. We are more than 5000 people here in this community both indigenes and outsiders, even for a bag to each house is not enough, I am talking about those tiny bags not the big ones.
So we are trying to manage it with prayers, but what was shocking is that what we see in the media especially on the television is not what we received. The last one we received was only eight small bags so we do not know who to share it to.
Do you mean the government did not do enough…?
The government is trying its best but even if they bring 100 bags here, only a few people will get anything, but now they are bringing very small bags and with that how can you tell people not to go anywhere to look for food.
This sickness they are talking about, our people do not know anything about it, but we are running, when they say do not go anywhere that is why we are keeping on lockdown to be on the same page with the government.
Were traditional leaders involved in the process throughout?
I cannot say government should lift the lockdown and curfews, the government is trying to curtail the virus and we do not want to blame the government for anything. We just want the government to do the right thing, let the palliative reach everyone. This should not be politics, they should carry all the chiefs along, but we see politicians saying you carry this or that, but this should not be so.
President Buhari cannot be everywhere, our Minister here in Abuja is our Buhari, the one we see, everyone should be carried along and this matter should not be politicized.