Despite being the seat of the Nigerian government, Abuja still serves as home to thousands of school-age children who are out of school.
Currently, Nigeria has an estimated 13.2 million out-of-school children, the highest in the world, according to UNICEF.
In Abuja, about 13 per cent of children who are of school age are out of school. The figure rises to about 27.2 per cent in the North-central region of Nigeria, which Abuja is part of, according to a UNICEF study.
However, parents of many of these children say they believe a major programme of the Muhamamdu Buhari-administration, if implemented in Abuja, would make them enrol their children in school.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how despite its challenges, the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSF) has increased school enrolment in states like Kaduna, Enugu and Osun.
Curiously, the federal government, which also controls Abuja, is yet to implement the programme in the Nigerian capital.
The project, according to the federal government, is aimed at feeding 12 million school children across the nation.
The programme’s goal is to also increase the enrolment rate by mopping up the huge number of out-of-school children in Nigeria and also tackling early year malnutrition.
The School Feeding Programme
The programme, in its third year, was introduced in 2016. The federal government started the Home Grown School Feeding and Health Programme based on the Universal Basic Education (UBE) Act 2014.
The Act stipulates that, at a minimum, all state primary schools must provide one meal a day to each pupil.
In 2004, the federal government piloted the implementation of HGSF. The Federal Ministry of Education was the designated implementing agency for a phased-pilot rollout, beginning with the FCT and 12 states selected from the six geo-political zones.
The programme was stopped by 10 states and the FCT, not long after commencement, leaving only Osun and Kano states with some sort of school feeding programmes.
But in May 2014, the federal government convened a National Advocacy Meeting with support from Imperial College London’s Partnership for Child Development (PCD), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the World Bank Group, and the Vitol Foundation to develop a roadmap for implementing the HGSF programme across Nigeria.
The subsequent recommendations of the meeting reinforced the need for urgent action to establish the programme across all 36 states.
A government document titled ‘Investing in our people; A brief on the National Social investment programmes in Nigeria’ revealed that the school feeding programme is now being implemented in 30 states across Nigeria and it is targeted at 12 million school children.
The document, which was released in March 2019, stated that about 9,536,860 pupils in 52,604 public primary schools in the country are beneficiaries of the scheme.
The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) boasts that the scheme is widely recognised for its multiple benefits for schoolchildren, particularly in low and middle-income countries.
It says evidence shows that children are more likely to stay, attend and be able to learn through the provision of school meals.
Also, in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territoy (FCT), parents and guardians in many communities believe the implementation of the school feeding programme will reduce the number of these children drastically.
But since the inception of the initiative in 2016, many of them are still waiting to benefit from the programme.
For most children in Angwan Hausawa, an Abuja surburb, there is little or no chance for any of them attending school because most parents are still battling with feeding them.
Baria Lawal, a mother of seven who has none of her children in school, said: “sending children to school is too expensive, all I want is a help because I cannot afford it.”
According to her, ”if the government can help with books, stationery and food, we will be sending them to school.”
Her case is akin to that of many rural communities PREMIUM TIMES visited in the Nigerian capital.
In Wassa community, Abuja Muncipal Area Council, many of the parents who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES had similar lamentation. They said they are still struggling to eat and cannot afford school fees for their children.
A visit to Kabin Mangoro, another the community in Kuje Area Council, showed a similar situation.
When PREMIUM TIMES arrived in the area during school hours, many children were seen playing around the village.
The village head of Kabin Mangoro, Yinusa Kabir, said the children in the community need some ‘incentives’ such as the ongoing school feeding programme that would encourage their parents to send them to school.
“By the time the government extends their school feeding and scholarship scheme here, I know it will increase enrolment. The major problem of my people is hunger. Once they know there will be food in school, they will push their children to school,” Mr Kabir said.
Meanwhile, the chairman of displaced persons in Angwan Hausawa, Umar Muhammed, said the issue of out-of-school children could be eliminated through assistance from the government.
He said despite the issue of poverty and sustainability, ”parents will send their wards to school once they know there is food available in schools.”
Also, the headteacher of L.E.A Damagazza primary school, who identified herself as Mrs Adejayan, said the FCT administration is yet to start the school feeding programme.
Mrs Adejeyan said the implementation of the school feeding programme would encourage more parents to send their wards to school.
“They didn’t start it. They said they were on it. Since January they said bring data, but we are yet to hear anything,” she said
According to statistics released by Vice President YemiOsinbajo, the government feeds public school pupils with 594 cattle,138,000 chickens, 6.8 million eggs and 83 metric tons of fish every week.
But despite these claims, many, including their teachers as well as parents, have reservations about the size and quality of what is served.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how the federal government budgeted about N500 billion for its social investment programmes including the school feeding annually. But, only N79.98 billion was released in 2016; N140 billion in 2017 and N250.4 billion in 2018.
The presidency also said the federal government spends N70 per meal daily to feed over 9.7 million pupils in 53,715 government primary schools in 31 states under feeding programme.
The programme is such that the federal government feeds primary one to three pupils in public primary schools while the state government feeds primary four to six pupils.
In an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the FCT Homegrown School Feeding Programme manager, Victoria Aleogena, said she could not explain why the programme that started in 2016 was yet to be implemented in the Nigerian capital.
“I wouldn’t know, we were only inaugurated August last year but the FCT was operating other components of the NSIP,” she said.
Ms Aleogena, however, said the scheme will start soon.
“It was only August last year we came on board. And so by that August last year, we came on board. By October, we went to all the six area councils to do community sensitisation. Last week of November, we started the screening of the vendors. So by first week of December, we were through with the screening and then we now came back to the office to do paperwork. Then we needed to write for medical screening,” she said .
“Now we did the last phase of the process on May 14 which was on the nutrition, environmental officers from the area councils. They are meant to train the vendors. But if you notice that, from 14th to this time is (Islamic) fasting period. The FCT has decided to shorten the process so that the programme can kick-start fully. Both the training and biometrics will take place on the same day,” she explained.
The official also explained the payment by cooks to be hired and how the purchase of foodstuff is being handled.
She said the cooks were to pay N5,200 each, ”so when we wrote first to public health, they told us this was what it was going to cost and I wrote to the permanent secretary to subsidise it to N2000; but the FCTA (eventually) paid all the money.
“We are not dealing with individual farmers, we went through their associations. For example, the poultry and bakers’ association have been contacted,” she said.
When asked why a federal government project is yet to be implemented in FCT, the cluster head, National School Feeding Programme, Abimbola Adesanmi, said ”the federal capital territory administration is yet to complete the criteria.”
“The programme itself has a list of criteria to get them to feed. Any state at all. So FCT has not met all. The point they are now is the training of their cooks. So once they do that, then they can open a bank account. So the delay may be because of the leadership because once the federal government tells you we want to feed in your state, the state themselves have to put something in place to get that activity done. So they haven’t met all the criteria for now.”
However, the federal government is also the ‘state government’ for Abuja. The FCT minister, appointed by the president, heads governance in the Nigerian capital while the National Assembly makes laws for it. In other words, despite being a major policy of the government since 2016, the failure of the Buhari administration to implement the school feeding yet in Abuja may have prevented thousands of children from going to school.
Ms Adesanmi spoke about some of the criteria the FCT must meet to commence the school feeding programme. These include ”having a programme manager over the scheme and the FCTA has done that,” she said.
“The managers have to be trained to be able to design what their programme will be like. They have to design their menu, submit all the analyses of the pupils in the state as well as the agricultural produce that they have. Then they also have to recruit women from their neighbourhood who will cook for these children, and they have done that too.”
She said the administration must also screen the women medically and train them on food safety and hygiene.
She said FCTA is currently at the point where they need to train the cooks.
“Once we train them, they go back to train the cooks, so it’s the point at which they train the cooks that they are in now. Then after training the cooks, they open bank accounts. That means they have been cleared to be able to feed children.
”Once they open a bank account, they send it to us, we’ve screened that they have valid women and we come to inspect that everything we want to be in place, their menu and everything, is in place before we pay,” she said.
“Well, obviously the school feeding programme has helped enrollment in the number of states where it has been implemented. I mean notwithstanding, corruption, school feeding can help to ensure that children are able to concentrate in class and that can help, not just enrollment, even the retention. But like we have always pointed out, that is not the only measure that is necessary,” said the national coordinator, Education Rights Campaign (ERC), Hassan Soweto.
He said the government needs to provide more funding and ensure other aspects of the education sector are taken care of.
“With regards to school feeding itself, there also has to be accountability and transparency in the disbursement of the funds. We think that is the best way to ensure that programme does not go the way of previous intervention programmes,” he said.