El-Rufai’s Schools Feeding Programme: A Moment of Truth, By John Danfulani

Over the years successive governments have generated multifaceted programmes to mop up over 12 million kids of school age wandering the streets as almajiris or guides of physically challenged persons in Northern Nigeria.

Aside these loitering millions, there were other millions who simply refused to attend or were denied enrolment into primary schools by their parents or guardians. Government efforts to nip this predicament in the bud this stemmed from aspirations to meet up with the MDGs (now SDGs), security measures and development challenges concomitant with the menace these kids were constituting.

To achieve this goal of ridden the streets of wandering kids, governments adopted the carrot-and-stick strategy. It’s on record that many state governments in the North enacted legislations making primary school education compulsory and stipulated punishments for parents who refuse to comply with enrolling their kids in schools. In remote communities where law enforcement agencies aren’t present, traditional rulers were bestowed with powers of enforcement of these laws. Side by side these were incentives including free tuition, and the provision of free uniforms for these kids, etc.

Worried with previous unsuccessful attempts, the Kaduna State Government under Nasir Ahmed El-rufa’i introduced a school feeding programme in January 2016. The Vanguard newspaper of January 15th, 2016 reported Dr. Shehu Adamu the state commissioner of education stating the mission of the scheme thus: “The main goal of the school feeding programme is to attract out-of-school children to school and keep them in class for them to acquire education and better their lives”. Daily Post of January 9th, 2016 captured the government’s financial preparedness: “the 2016 budgets make ample provision for this government’s school feeding programme”, and stated another benefit not pronounced in the Vanguard report of January 2016 by announcing that this intervention will improve the nutritional needs of pupils covered by the scheme.

Like most of the decisions embarked upon and policy statements made by El-rufa’i since mounting the saddle on May 29, 2016, this generated opposite reactions from the political class and seasoned educationists in the state. The Leadership newspaper quoted Senator Danjuma Tellah Laah of Kaduna South Senatorial District as judging the scheme a misplaced priority. Sen. Laah said, “from the government records, so much is sunk into feeding the pupils for a state that is battling with many issues; feeding children in schools should never be a priority”. Laah pressed further with displeasure: “I found that in some schools in my own Kaura Local Government, the feeding was done under trees as the primary schools classes had collapsed”. He counselled that, “my advice is that the enormous resources going into the feeding programme will be better utilised if classes are built and furnished”.

Adding to the position of the opposition to El-rufa’i’s feeding scheme is former Deputy Governor of Kaduna State under Alhaji Dabo Lere’s regime, Engineer James Bawa Magaji (JBM) in Pulse NG of March 3, 2016 said, “instead of feeding children with food they are alien to, empower parents with fertiliser so that they can produce enough food”. Like Laah, he also spoke about the learning environment, which is far from acceptable standards.

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth” – Buddah.

Seasoned and reputable educationists consulting for UNICEF, UNESCO, WORLD BANK and other bodies struggling to make basic education universal and compulsory have advanced concerns about El-rufa’i’s feeding scheme. These stem from the lack in what they consider as the requisite set-up and facilities necessary for the successful implementation of a feeding programme. Mr. Isa Yunusa and three others stated such conditions in their paper titled “School Feeding Programme In Nigeria: A Vehicle For Nourishment Of Pupils”. These experts advised that before such programmes are implemented, some basics must be on ground: effective infrastructure and sufficient instructional facilities; existence of implementation committee down to school level; and the training and provision of incentives to teachers.

Reports initiated by the State Primary Management Board and other committees suggest the lack of adequate infrastructure, insufficient instructional materials and absence of incentives to teachers. There are schools without a single block of classroom, let alone furniture. Primary school teachers are owed many months salaries and other array of arrears. These issues were all in the open when the debate for and against the scheme started. Despite the words of caution by experts and politicians, the Kaduna State government still rolled out the scheme.

Insensitivity to other views and headlongness have become the trademark of “rulers” of Kaduna State. In all governmental businesses, it’s either their way or highway, hence the Governor’s insistence last year in a town hall meeting in Kaduna on either his version of the truth is accepted or people can face Kufena mountain. Lest they forget, primary education in the state is in total shamble and need of rescue, and playing politics around any policy that affects it will further aggravate the predicament.

A simple arithmetic shows that for the 1.5 million kids covered by the scheme, 90 million naira goes into the feeding programme daily, amounting to 450 million naira weekly and 1.8 billion naira monthly. The regime of Yero and others before it in the state constructed good blocks of classrooms at 3.5 million naira each. Since the present government claims to be more prudent in project management, I want to assume that it can execute the same with 3 million naira or less. It therefore means that the 90 million naira going into feeding a day will give the state 30 blocks of classrooms, 150 blocks of classrooms a week, and 7800 blocks in a year. The last report suggested that the entire state needs a little above 6000 blocks to tackle infrastructural problems in education. If that alone will be the only intervention made in this year on education, much would have been achieved.

Equally, the scheme is loaded with security risks to pupils due to environmental and hygienic factors. the recruitment of food vendors was surreptitiously and randomly done without anyone assessing their hygiene and cleanliness. We have seen pictures of pupils eating foods from polytene bags with their bare hands. Food vendors serve the kids without offering water to them to sanitise their hands before and after eating. It’s a fact that most of the primary schools don’t have sources of water supply (wells or mono pumps) for their pupils’s use before eating, and it is most appalling that no one supervises the food vendors to ensure the nutritional standard of what they are offering. This scheme is increasingly placing kids at the risk of infections that can wipe away whole schools.

Despite their intransigence to wise counsel, the same Commissioner of education came out complaining about how pupils desert schools after eating their meals. This is a tacit confirmation of the total failure of the scheme and a mockery of the theory of using food to attract pupils to school. Yes, food indeed attracts them to school, but is the ultimate aim of getting them educated achieved? It has become a welfare scheme for helping parents who gave birth to kids without having the capacity to feed them. Why can’t the government just modify the aims and objective of the programmes to offering ‘food rations to kids whose parents can’t afford to feed them’?

El-rufa’i and his sing-along team must know that they don’t have the monopoly of knowledge of and experience in everything under the sun. They have to learn to listen, consult, and retract from most of their elitist and unpopular policies when it is vivid that things aren’t adding up and their policies are boomeranging. Listening to certified experts and other views in the act of governance is a virtue and not an act of weakness. It often happens that the best brains can fashion out what they consider as superb policies, yet get things twisted in their implementation. The builders of The Titanic assumed that their ship took care of all known maritime eventualities, but still the ship eventually recorded one of the worst known world maritime disasters. Now that it is clear that their money wasting scheme has crashed, will they muster the courage and dump the policy or maintain their intransigence in the face of a total tumble of the scheme?

Closely related to school feeding is the provision of school uniforms to pupils in the state. In one of El-rufa’i’s town hall meeting in Saminaka Lere Local Government, he quoted the figure of people already engaged in tailoring uniforms for primary school pupils. It is clear that some cool billions of naira will go into this school uniform scheme. Pupils might still queue for the uniforms and convert them to personal cloths. Like our simple arithmetic showing that feeding scheme could tackle infrastructural challenges, that of uniform can effectively eradicate other challenges in the primary education in Kaduna State.

El-rufa’i action and inaction is justifying James Madison’s treatise that men in power must not be trusted. This also brought to mind some lines from Ronald Reagan’s inaugural speech of January 20th 1981 ruling that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”. This aptly fits into our situation in Kaduna State from May 29th 2015 till date.

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