WHY THE SCHOOL FOOD PROGRAMME MIGHT NOT WORK.
“The climax of every tragedy lies in the deafness of its heroes [and heroines]” Albert Camus, 1903-1960. VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTES, VBQ P 90.
When the current year ends on December 31, 2016, several previously sterling reputations would have been diminished because they were deaf to advice which did not emanate from official circles. Despite all the nonsense about having all hands on deck, they preferred to err their own way instead of being corrected by others. In order of protocol, the reputations steadily declining are those of President Buhari, Vice President Osinbajo, SAN, the Minister of Budget and Planning, the Minister of Finance and Mrs Uwais, wife of the former Chief Justice of the Federation who is the Director of the N500 billion Social Welfare Programme, SWP.
Buhari and Osinbajo had exploited the promise of a SWP which would provide free money to millions of unemployed Nigerians; provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of teachers and supply free food to millions of school children. It was vote catching and only God knows how many millions of votes they received by pretending to want to run a government with a human face. Buhari became President approximately eighteen months ago – meaning that thirty-seven per cent of his tenure is gone. Yet, none of those promises had been delivered. Increasingly, this government is acquiring the image of previous governments who had cynically adopted the attitude that “Promises, like pie-crusts [biscuits if you like] are made to be broken.” (Jonathan Swift, VBQ p 203).
To be quite candid, given the caliber of people who ran the All Progressives Congress, APC, campaign in 2014-5, most of us were lured into a false sense of security. The pervasive feeling was that the promises would not have been made unless the party had done its homework and was sure it could deliver. Today, we know it was a swindle. Indeed, “it was beautiful and simple as all great swindles are.” (O Henry, VBQ p 239). Today, we are learning to our sorrow, that Buhari’s promise was based on nothing; that they are just now scrambling around trying to undertake studies which should have been conducted before the promises were made. As you are reading this article, not a single one of those promises had been delivered. And, it is certain that none of them will be fully delivered this year. Two might not even be addressed.
Of all the promises not delivered, the most scandalous is the school feeding programme. Buhari, a grandfather had promised his Nigeria grandchildren and in November 2016 they have not received a grain of rice, gari, a lump of amala and akpu or what have you. And Baba is not talking. Instead we have heard from the Vice President, who in late August, flanked by two APC Governors (one from the Northwest and another from the Southwest) openly promised that the food would be made available when schools opened in September. The Vice President, another grandpa, is no longer talking.
Mrs Uwais, who heads the entire programme had made only one statement publicly. Asked, in September, by a House of Representative Committee for the details of the SWP, she honestly confessed that they were not available. It is quite possible that they are still not available with less then seven weeks to go in the year. It is safe bet that the food intervention programme might not take off this year for two reasons – money and the absence of an action plan.
The money matter can be quickly dispensed with. The Federal Government allocated N500 billion out of the ill-advised N6 trillion budget for 2016. Even when more qualified commentators told them that the budget was unrealistic, they went ahead with it. By June the budget was fit only for wrapping fish. The 2016 budget failed by the end of the first half of the year. Thus, it was in September that the Minister of Finance announced that N70 billion had been released for the SWP. Even a thousand geniuses, working with Mrs Uwais, could not have delivered food to schools earlier than November – if at all. Now it is becoming clear that even if all the money in the world is available, sustainable food supply to selected schools might not be achievable.
The fundamental reason for pessimism in this regard can be summarized briefly. But, before going into the food programme, a diversion is necessary to further illustrate the points being made here.
There had been a recent outcry about corrupt practices in the distribution of food items to Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs. If all other Nigerians were surprised about that outcome, one group of professionals would have smiled; shrugged their shoulders and said “what did you expect?” They are Marketing/Sales/ Distribution Managers of national brands – Coca-cola, Guinness Stout, Omo, Dangotte Cement, Indomie, etc. These are the guys and girls who ensure that at every community in Nigeria, their products are available “within an arms length of desire”. I was in Agatu in early May this year, as rural a community as you will ever find in Nigeria, and there were certain brands there 24/7 year-round. What these professionals have done is to have mastered the intricacies of distribution of goods to all corners of the country to satisfy the needs of millions of consumers. When a national project comes up requiring the large scale distribution of relief items, we reach for public servants who have spent their entire service careers sitting in offices. Predictably, they mess up the project introduce corrupt practices, national objectives are not achieved and we send good money after bad by ordering probes. Unless the food programme is based on solid foundations, it will yield results very similar to the IDPs scandal.
Nationwide distribution of goods is a complex and painstaking task and a very good Distribution/Logistics Manager and his boss the Marketing Manager are usually worth their weights in gold. Without them, all the detergents, soap, toilet bowl cleaners, RAID, spaghetti etc produced would just go to waste. One attribute they have in common is a deep knowledge of Nigeria; they literally know Nigeria like the backs of their hands. They know the best and most cost-effective ways of getting their products to Argungu (NW), Katsina-Ala (NE), Bacita (NC), Otuoke (SS) Ikirun (SW), and Oguta (SE) and all the places in between. And, they must deliver during all seasons – especially rainy season when a lot of state and rural roads are washed out. Without somebody, not a civil servant who had mastered the intricacies of delivery to the most difficult places to reach no food programme can be sustainable; neither can it succeed.
In addition to that, those charged with the distribution function must be conversant with the relative cost of transport. In my own experience spanning over thirty years of products distribution in Nigeria, the first lesson to learn is that no two areas are alike. The cost of delivery over thirty kilometers vary so much all over the country, budgeting for that aspect of the programme is a back breaking task – but a necessary one. Furthermore, the cost varies with seasons. So no straight line cost can be used for budgeting.
Invariably, the schools and kids most in need of the food intervention initiative are the same ones situated in the most difficult to reach. It is easy to supply food to schools daily in Yola, Funtua, Bida, Nnewi, Eket or Akure. It is almost a nightmare to do it Birnin Ferin, Gembu, Kainji, Forcados and Abonema. A real example will help to illustrate the point being made here.
Up to the mid-1980s BOOTS on UK had a presence here in Nigeria. One of their brands was Ethidium used to prevent Tse-tse fly attack on cattle resulting in sleeping sickness. It was a seasonal product which, if not administered to cattle at the right time was a waste of effort. During that brief period, the BOOTS staff in the North had to know the itineraries of the largest herdsmen. We all ended up knowing a lot of the rural North like our backyards.
If food will reach the rural schools, the Federal Government will need to recruit such people to help. Otherwise the food might be available, but the kids might never get to eat them. Mrs Uwais would be well-advised to look outside the public service sector for help.