The Federal Government claim of feeding school pupils during the COVID-19 lockdown is one of the most controversial claims. Victor Emeruwa visits several schools and communities in Kaduna State, he finds several cases of abandonment, non-compliance and outright cases of corruption in the government home grown school feeding program.
By Victor Emeruwa
Bilikisu Shuabu, 48 is an excited mother of 12 children. Her broad smile hides her suffering and daily want of food and clothing for her children. Her home is located inside Abdulsalam LGEA Primary School, Amgwanbishir, Sabongari, Kaduna State. School enrolment for her children was not a priority for Bilikisu, she just wanted them to have food to eat and nothing much. Her eldest son, Ahmed is 14.
Already, he takes on the responsibility of a breadwinner. Early each morning, Ahmed hawk cooked groundnut and makes a profit of 200 naira before mid- day. That profit is saved to buy maize flower for dinner.
“It is tough raising 12 children,” Bilikisu said in a hush sad tone. She lost her husband barely 9months ago. As Bilikisu tries to fight back tears, she recalls that her saving grace has been the School Feeding Program: “There is no way I and my children would have survived without the food they bring from school,” she said through an interpreter.
Ten of Bilikisu’s 12 children are enrolled at the Abdulsalam Primary School, her motive was not for them to get education alone, she wanted them to have a decent meal at school. The federal government school feeding initiative was a relief to Bilikisu. But that relieve was temporal. Bilikisu and her 12 children have fallen back to their ‘normal’ lives of struggles and want for food.
Since March 2020 when school shutdown because of the COVID 19, it has been difficult to survive. Bilikisu’s story reflects the experience of millions of parents and children who have been badly affected by the disruption of the school feeding program.
Muhammadu Sani Auwal, six, is a primary 1 pupil of Faki Road Primary School, Tundun Wada, Sabongari. He appears lean and malnourished but his feet are not as feeble as he looked. Auwal begins his day by hawking bean buns (akara): “I have to hawk every day before I come to school,” the boy admits that the routine affects his school work but he is left with no choice. “In the morning, we take pap, no food in the afternoon, in the evening we eat rice, I must hawk so that we can have food to eat,” Auwal said through an interpreter.
Like many pupils at Faki Road Primary School, Auwal always looked forward to school because of the meal served. Asiya Abdulahi, eight, is a primary 1 pupil, unlike Auwal, he takes his breakfast at home but he said it is not satisfactory. Asiya is eager to go to school because he is sure of getting more nourished meal there: “I am always happy to go to school because I am sure of eating at school,” he said with a pinch of excitement. Hajara Abdulahi, the school principal attests to the high number of school enrollment because of the school feeding program. The school enrollment jumped from 1,219 pupils to 1,480 pupils.
Hajara said it has been tough for parents and children during the period of the COVID 19 lockdown. Many children who depend on the school feeding program for decent meal were badly impacted by the lockdown. However, when the federal government announced intention to continue the school feeding program during the lockdown, it was the most desirable news to parents and children who were dependent on the program. It was also good news to the food vendors who depend on the program for their own sustenance.
“They collected data from us, they told us to go round and call all the parents, they collected their names, phone numbers and house addresses but never came back,” said the disappointed school principal who claims to be daily besieged by parents whose data were collected.
As much as the parents hope that the government will continue the school feeding program as claimed, there is growing suspicion that the program will not be executed during the school lockdown period. “Aside issues of logistics, there is this suspicion that government have just come to collect data from us for their own documentation. If you tell people to come out for data capturing now, they are unwilling because they think it is a scam and that government is just using them to gather data,” said Abubakar Abdulkadir, School Based Management Committee Chairman, Faki LGEA Primary School.
Abdulkadir is not alone in this considered opinion, a concerned parent of a beneficiary of the program queried the rationale behind calling for new documentation when the schools already have a list of beneficiaries: “When they told us that they will give us raw food during the lockdown, we were very happy but now, it is more than three months, we have not seen anything, we have not heard from anybody, we have just been abandoned to our suffering” said Aisha Yinusa.
A source close to the Ministry of Humanitarian and Disaster Management tells why the school feeding program will not be feasible during the lockdown: “The truth is that there will be huge logistics problem if we embark on moving house to house to drop food to households, it will turn out to be a disaster and will compromise the need for social distancing, we want to maintain the health protocols as much as we want to provide supplies for the people that need it the most,” he said.
The source who does not want to be named for reasons of persecution clearly states the yet to be disclosed position of the Ministry: “The Ministry has reached out to States who are willing to execute the home grown school feeding program during the school lockdown, the immediate feelers is that the States themselves would need huge logistics support and they are not willing to put additional resources to it, I can tell you that the school feeding during lockdown is unrealistic and unlikely to be properly executed,” the source authoritatively maintained.
Contained in a document from the office of the National Social Investment Program, NSIP.
“The main objective of the Home Grown School Feeding Program is to provide a balanced meal each school day for 12million pupils in classes 1-3”. The program according to the document is taking place in 30 States and provides a single day school meal to over 9million pupils in over 52,000 schools across the country. “HGSFP is formulated to feed primary school pupils, to increase school enrolment, reduce malnutrition, empower community women as cooks and support small farmers to stimulate economic growth” the document states.
The Theft and Corruption
Fourteen vendors from schools around Sabongari, Zaria were the first to raise alarm on missing food supplies. Usually, the vendors pick up food items from assigned local governments distribution points.
“Bags of rice were reported missing, creates of eggs are usually missing to the point that it will cut the ration of children, sometimes, they skip egg in their meals because it has been stolen,” said Garba Danlami Umar, a traditional ruler and chairman of the School Based Management Committee, SBMC. Umar spoke of how the local government had to intervene over report of incessant stealing and misappropriation of food supplies.
“We had to dissolve the food distribution network that has been in place and make recommendation for direct supplies from local farmers, cutting off third party which was used to steal the food material,” Umar maintained.
Hajia Hadiza, the coordinator of vendors at Sabongari, Zaria says the vendors receive supplies inconsistent with what was agreed upon in the contract: “We get whatever they give us and we manage it without complaint,” she explained that they are compelled to ration the meal to enable it go round the pupils and narrates how egg supply was halted for months, yet recorded in the books that it has been delivered saying “we serve them one large spoon of meal, sometimes one and half spoon, it is usually not enough” she said.
Another fraud revealed through Actionaid Nigeria Cook Audit Report is the inflation of pupil’s population. The population of pupils’ was padded as indicated in the report. According to the preliminary report of the audit conducted in 10 Local Government Area of Kaduna State, such issues as inflation of school pupil’s population, underpayment of vendors and stealing of food material were uncovered, the loophole was blocked at the instant of the report but perpetrators were not prosecuted.
When contacted for clarification, the office of the Minister of Humanitarian and Disaster Management referenced this reporter to press document released on 8 April, 2020. In that document the Minister while unveiling the modified Home Grown School Feeding Program, now tagged: ‘Take Home Ration’, tried to push back on several allegations of corruption and funds misappropriation.
The statement read: “It is critical at this juncture to provide details that will help puncture the issues of lies being peddled in the public space. The Ministry is obeying the presidential directive, went into consultations with State governments through the State Governor’s Forum, following which it was resolved that ‘Take Home Ration’ remained the best viable option for feeding children during the lockdown” the document stated. In the proposed ‘Take Home Ration’ each child is expected to be served raw food commodities worth 4,200 naira. This reporter can tell that the ‘Take Home Ration’ is yet to be executed in Kaduna State.
Vendors claim of irregular pay
One of the purposes of the school feeding program is to stimulate the local economy through engagement of local vendors and farmers. In Kaduna, this purpose appears to have been significantly achieved. There are success stories to show how vendors who got into the program as full time housewives now own their own petty businesses and are financially independent.
Fatimah Suraju, 38 years has 10 children, before becoming a vendor of the school feeding program, she was full time housewife, and she was absolutely dependent on her husband. Three years into the program, she saved enough to buy a grinding machine and she is now into livestock business: “I now rear goats, I have six goats,” she said. Hauwa Jamilu, 32 years saved enough to purchase a piece of land and a refrigerator.
Rahamatu Zakariya, 32 has five children with seven dependents, before the program she was doing petty business, she cooked groundnut and have her three children hawk, they earned 100 naira to 200 naira from hawking: “we couldn’t even feed ourselves with one good meal a day,” she said, all that stopped when she was selected as vendor.
Halima Yusuf, 47 years with nine children lost her husband just at the start of the program, all her children of schooling age were withdrawn from the private school because of lack of support to keep them in school, she said: “my children are now back to school since I commenced and started earning money.”
But all these stories could have been better if the program ran without the hitches of bureaucratic delays in payments and incessant skipping of the payment exercise. Hadiza, coordinator of the vendors reveals how inconsistent the payments structures are: “They don’t pay on time, we agreed for a monthly payment of 74,000 naira which covers four weeks of school days but in a term which has about 3 months, they pay for only 2 months and it is spread irregularly,” said Hadiza.
The Desperate Need
Umar Abdulahi, 74 is a widower; he lost his wife who was the breadwinner after he retired from civil service. Abdulahi is caregiver to Musa, his nine-year-old grandson. Musa’s school enrolment was motivated by the school feeding program. It was a delight and a relief to Abdulahi who had struggled to feed himself and his grandson. Musa had been part of the program since inception.
Last year he was to be promoted to primary 4. When Abdulahi got wind of the information that the feeding program will not be extended to Musa’s new class, he approached the school principal and demanded that he wants his grandson to remain in primary 3 in order to have access to the daily school meal. All explanation advanced to make him change his mind fell on deaf ear: “My son is in school so that he can have at least one good meal per day if he is promoted, he will no longer be allowed to have the meal and there will be no reason for him to continue in the school.”
Shocked by this demand, the principal decided to make special provision that allows Musa take a meal in school while in primary 4, a rare exception allowed because of the desperate need.
Ahmed Mustapha, is a primary 2 pupil at the Abdulsalam LGEA Primary School, Amgwanbishir, Sabongari. Ahmed caught the attention of the vendor, when he hid his food after he was served by the vendor. The vendor, Halima Hamza queried Ahmed’s action, and later learnt the reasons. Ahmed takes his meal home to share with his three brothers. “This is the most nutritious food; I want to share with my brothers because we only eat pap everyday,” Ahmed told the vendor.
Umar, of the traditional rulers at Sabongari narrates unpleasant stories of the sufferings of the population as a result of the lockdown: “The level of suffering of the people can only be imagined not explained,” Umar said.