A plate and spoon in hand, five year old Iember Iorhemen hung around the door of the next class, salivating over palm oil-garnished spaghetti in front of the pupils in Primary 2 at NKST Primary School, Akile, Benue State.
She was one of many pupils who may not get their rations for the day. The bright July morning sun was not only scorching at their innocent faces, it was gnawing at their little stomachs. In a cacophony of shrill voices, they muttered in Tiv language: “Give us food; we are hungry.”
It was the time of the year when folks in the rural areas struggle to feed because mid-season crops were not yet ready for harvest.
Little Iember was one of the few pupils who were enrolled in school when the Federal Government in collaboration with the state government started the Home Grown School Feeding programme. The programme captured about 8.5 million pupils in 24 states of the federation with over 90,670 catering staff engaged,
The programme, which was conceived to improve nutrition, encourage enrollment of pupils as well as grow smallholder farmers’ economy, among other objectives, has failed to achieve most of these. In almost all the schools our reporter visited, the food served the school kids did not look nutritious and some children looked scrawny.
Despite spending N49 billion on the free meals in two years, many school pupils still don’t get fed, even when they are fed, the quality of the food is poor. Data collected from three states of Benue, Taraba and Plateau showed existence of ghost schools on the scheme and underpayment of cooks. In most cases, the cooks also play truancy. But where the feeding has been taking place, enrollment has increased. The Federal Government has put the increase at 30 per cent.
At least 303 schools, 11 percent, are excluded from the free meals in Benue. The state has 2,755 schools but only 2,452 are currently benefitting from the free meals.
At NKST Primary School, Akile, the free meals were served six months after the programme was flagged off in Benue in June 2017.
The school is about 16 kilometres away from Makurdi, the state capital, but there is a world of difference between what happens in schools in the capital and what obtains in this suburban school.
While St. Catherine’s Primary School, High Level Makurdi, has 10 vendors cooking for 380 pupils from Primary One to Six, there are just three vendors cooking for 240 pupils in Primary One – Three at Akile. The vendor feeding Primary Three at St Catherine has 36 pupils in her class but on the official list there are 91. The reverse is the case at Akile, where the vendor feeding Primary Two feeds about 100 pupils but she is being paid to feed 63 pupils.
A teacher at NKST Primary School, Akile, who preferred anonymity for fear of being victimized, said the vendor who cooks for Primary One at Akile plays truancy.
“She doesn’t come every day. She comes whenever she feels like and even when she does come, the food hardly goes round. Sometimes the headmaster has to come and ration the food himself so that it can go round the pupils. When that happens, the pupils get small rations,” she said.
She said the pupils come with plates from home and the food is tasteless. “If it is rice, the vendors only put salt, palm oil and seasoning on the food and there is no meat or fish,” she added.
She also said the pupils don’t often get juice and biscuits which are supposed to be served every Friday. “When they do get, it is either a child gets biscuits or juice but not both.”
Mchivir Yandoo, a 5-year-old Primary One pupil at NKST Akile, told our reporter that she looks forward to eating the food but that it was not served every day. “The ration is also small and the food is not sweet,” she said.
However, the headmaster of St. Catherine’s Primary School, Mr. Moses Aondoakaa, spoke well of the programme. He said, “As far as my school is concerned, the programme is a success. It has increased enrollment and attendance; it motivates the pupils and has enhanced learning. The little challenge is that there are breakages in the feeding process, sometimes they stop for two weeks before they resume. It should be continuous.” He said enrollment has increased by 2.2 percent; from 370 pupils to 380 in one year.
Our reporter learnt that vendors are engaged on the basis of political affiliation and patronage. A source who preferred to be anonymous said most of the vendors are highly connected and they are ‘important people’ who did not want to go to rural schools.
But the focal person of the Social Investment Programme in the state, Dr Terries Damsa, denied the allegations, saying the programme was insulated from political influence in the state. He also explained that during mappings for the programme, figures of pupils obtained from the benefitting schools were given by the schools’ authorities randomly, which was why there were inconsistencies with the number of pupils in class and those on the feeding list.
He also explained that N39.00 is deducted out of the N70.00 per child per day, for the juice and biscuits and paid to the contractor who supplies the biscuits and juice. Why the pupils do not get up to the value of the money deducted, was something the office did not explain.
Further investigations revealed that there are at least three ghost schools benefitting from the programme in Benue State. A source privy to the operations of the school feeding programme showed our reporter the distribution list for food items of Vandeikya Local Government in which there were three ghost schools.
The list indicated that NKST Primary School Abanyi has 80 pupils with Philomena Akawe as the food vendor; LGEA Primary School Maduen has 77 pupils with Mgunengen Maduen as the vendor, while LGEA Primary School Adamu is allocated 72 pupils with Tyozenda Teryila as the vendor. Our reporter who was in the local government could not trace the schools and residents said the schools were not physically on ground.
The programme, having been run in the state for up to a year as at the time our reporter made the investigations, it therefore, means that the school feeding took place for nine months, minus three months of vacations, then N2, 885, 400 (Two million, eight hundred and eighty five thousand, four hundred naira) would have been spent on the ghost pupils.
Again, Damsa denied knowledge of the ghost schools but promised he would root them out once he found out they existed.
Many vendors across the state, who spoke to our reporter in confidence, said they were being short changed. A vendor who
was enlisted into the programme by her son’s godfather, an aide to the governor, regrets accepting to participate in the programme. She said she was at home when the governor’s aide brought the vending form for her to fill.
“I applied in December 2017 and I was engaged in May 2018 to cook at RCM Mishi, Ikpayongo, Gwer LG. I was paid N45,000 to cook for 65 pupils for 20 school days,’ she said.
If the threshold of N70.00 per child per day is used, then the woman was supposed to get N91,000 for the 20 days and not N45,000. But if money was being deducted for biscuits and juice, N39.00 for every N70.00, it would be N10,140 for the four Fridays that are in a month and there would be a shortfall of N35,860. The vendor said she had always been in the dark about the deductions and had not summoned courage to ask. Several other vendors made similar allegations.
When Dr Damsa was asked to account for the shortfall in the vendors’ payment in August, he said he was recently appointed and was trying to clean up the mess left behind by his predecessor.
At LGEA Primary School, Ashinya, Vandeikya, the feeding took place very well, according to the head teacher of the school, Mrs Christiana Chia. She said enrollment has increased up to 17 percent since the free feeding started. The school now has 132 pupils as against the 110 it had before the programme started. She, however, said all the vendors were not from the community and that made it difficult for them to be consistent.
The Parent Teachers Association (PTA) chairman of the school, Mr. Ityoakaa Akosu, said the programme has increased enrollment which has put pressure on the school infrastructure and made learning difficult.
“Instead of feeding the pupils, the government should have improved teacher quality, infrastructure and provided teaching materials. These are more important to the education of a child than a free meal in a day,” he said.
Taraba ghost schools
Our investigations also uncovered three ghost schools on the programme in Takum Local Government of Taraba State.
A crumbling mud house with battered rooftop was where Universal Basic Education Authority Primary School, Kanshio, was situated about four years ago. But now, the rainstorm ravaged school in Chanchanji ward of the local government has been turned into a worship centre.
When our reporter visited the place in August, he saw benches and drums in the decrepit building and was told by locals that the school closed down since 2014.
“As from 2014, teachers stopped coming to the school so pupils too stopped attending. Parents were forced to take their children to Peva and Sati. By 2016, rainstorm destroyed the building which was donated by the community for the establishment of the school. When it was abandoned for some time, the people decided to convert it to a church,” Mlumun Tyosaregh Damsa, a villager said.
Findings revealed that the wife of the chairman of the local government, Christy Shiban, is a food vendor at the school and she supposedly feeds 61 pupils.
At UBEA Nukpoba, our reporter learnt that since Government Day Secondary School Kufai, Amadu, opened in 2007, the primary school ceased to exist.
Mr. Joshua Ulantyo, who finished from the primary school in 1994, said no child had gone to school there since September 2007.
‘There are no pupils, no teachers there, so who will the vendors serve? We know that the school exists on paper but it had ceased to exist in reality since 2007,” he said.
Another resident of the area, Patrick Kiva Ahmadu, collaborated what Ulantyo said, insisting that the school had ceased to exist.
A source in the desk office of the school feeding programme in Takum confided in our reporter that there is a similar situation at UBEA Gidan Ukwe. According to the source, the school does not exist but it is on the list of schools benefitting from the programme.
He lamented that while cooks were posted to ghost schools, real schools did not have cooks. Our reporter gathered that pupils at UBEA Primary Schools Kav, Aleva, Fio and Kpenfu, all in Takum Local Government, were not being fed because there were no vendors to cook for the pupils.
Besides, 9.4 percent, 154 schools are not covered by the programme. The state has a total of 1,631 public primary schools but only 1,477 are being served free meals.
At Salisu Dogo Primary School Jalingo, pupils in Primary One to Three were being fed. A vendor who cooks for primary one said she had been doing it for the past one year.
Stella Lukong said she feeds 63 pupils and she is paid N80,000 to do so for 20 days. She is, however, unaware that she was supposed to get N88,200 for feeding 63 pupils.
When contacted, the Focal Person for the Social Investment Office in Taraba State, Ms Beatrice Kitchener, asked the Secretary of the Programme, Idris Goje, to forward a letter the acting education secretary of Takum Local Government wrote to them to our reporter.
In the letter, dated October 31, 2018, the acting secretary explained that vendors who were posted to the ghost schools had been transferred to other primary schools because of herdsmen crisis in the area.
The office did not deny the existence of the ghost schools.
Plateau State pupils underfed
The programme has suffered setbacks in Plateau State and many pupils are not fed, especially in Jos. The free meals for pupils are not served in many schools since the programme took off in June of 2017, even where it started, investigations have revealed it was not sustained beyond one month or one term. Only 57.9 percent, 1,402 out the 2,420 schools in the state are served food. In 1,018 schools (42.1 percent of public primary schools in Plateau), pupils do not know how the free meals taste.
When our reporter visited Olusegun Obasanjo Model Nursery and Primary School Hwolshe, teachers there said they were not even aware that the programme was being run in the state. They declined making further comments saying it was only the head teacher who could speak to the press. But the head teacher was not available for comments.
At a nearby school, Obasanjo UBE Primary School (B), the headmaster, who preferred to be called Mr. Adams, said only 140 pupils out of 629 pupils were fed in July of 2017 when the programme came on board.
“When the programme started, the two vendors assigned to my school were to feed 70 pupils each and they did that for one month in the third term of 2016/2017 session. Since then, the vendors have not been coming again and I gathered that they were disengaged while the school was on holiday.
“The programme is provocative because they are not feeding all the children and those that do not get the food hate the teachers, they feel it is the teachers that are responsible for them not eating the food,” he said.
He also said the vendors were from Kuru so serving the food at Hwolshe was quite a difficult task, as most of the days they came late.
When our reporter spoke with two of the cooks, they said they both fed the pupils for only one month.
Kaneng John Pwajok said she started cooking for 70 pupils on July 4, 2017 but was disengaged from the programme when school vacated on July 28, 2018.
Martina Gyang Ngyem on her part said she started serving at the school on July 5, 2017 but when school resumed in September, she was not paid and when she made inquiries, she was asked to wait and she had been waiting for one year now.
Our reporter learnt that the programme was not faring any better in rural schools in the state. At Pilot Science School, Shiwer, Kanke, vendors served food for just two weeks in the third term of 2017/2018 session.
The headmaster of the school, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the cooks were far from the school, which made it difficult for them to be regular. The cooks who spoke with our reporter said they were not paid regularly and they cooked only when they were paid.
Dr Fadimatu Hamza Sumaye, the Focal Person Plateau State Social Investment programme said the school feeding has fared very well in the state.
“We have started and engaged some cooks who are feeding pupils in Primary 1, 2 and 3. Besides that, it has impacted on the cooks and also the school system. Some of the cooks have shared their personal stories with us. It has impacted on their economic status, some have reinvested as a result of the little gains they make,” she said.
She, however, said since the programme took off last year around June-July it had hitches in some places because of Biometric Verification Number mismatch.
“You know, the issue of school feeding is that in a school, if you have eight vendors, you find out that only two have valid BVN numbers and they will be the ones feeding the pupils. So the school will be feeding but not all the pupils will be fed. That is the situation we find ourselves in.
“We have serious challenge of BVN and valid account numbers. These are rural women and they don’t know the implication of borrowing account numbers. When their names were sent with their account numbers to National Inter-banks Settlement System (NIBSS), there was BVN mismatch and so only 2,006 cooks have been paid stipends,” she explained.
This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.