The only raw material with which we can build a man or woman is a boy or a girl. That aphorism is true. Our children are our bundles of joy. They are our tomorrow and that perhaps is the reason we go to great lengths to protect them for the assurance that our tomorrow is not in any way subsidized or mortgaged. A parent may starve, wear a ten-year old shirt and trek twenty kilometres just to give a beloved child the basics of life. In an ideal situation, a parent may not be able to afford to give a child the best clothes or provide decent shelter, or even afford to send the child to school, but at least the child would eat. While writing this last sentence, the thought just struck me that this is not often so. In many homes, it is the father or mother who eats the biggest piece of meat or fish or takes the milk, drinks from the bottled water and eats the corn flakes, perhaps not realizing that it is the child who needs the proteins and vitamins in these foods. By age 40, our body metabolism slows down considerably, and a regular intake of foods like meat, eggs and only increases our waistline. It is a growing child that needs the nutrients embedded in these foods. A child’s brain, and indeed our brains feed from what we eat. A recent report by UNICEF titled Levels and Trends in Child Malnutrition, key findings of the 2015 edition says that one-third of all stunted children reside in Africa. The report as well goes on to say that the number of overweight children under five years in Africa has nearly doubled since 1990. In between an overweight and a stunted child is the fact that most children in Africa either do not get a balanced meal, or are children of a class of parents whose access to public funds is questionable.
Therefore when the present government promised in its campaigns to embark on a feeding programme for primary and secondary school students in Nigeria, two things happened. Undecided voters immediately made up their minds in favour of the presidential candidate, and the political party making this kind of promise. The other thing that happened was that most of us who had benefitted from this kind of school-children feeding in the 80s were transported down memory lane. Under the UPN government of Professor Ambrose Folorunsho Alli as executive governor of Bendel State, school children were fed in the state at least once daily. As a child, I had free uniforms, free books, Mathematical set and an extra pencil. When we left a class and moved to the next, we would find our school books already waiting for us on our desks. Another child would find the ones we had left behind on his desk. Of course, at any Independence Day celebration, most primary and secondary school children were given a bowl of rice and a piece of meat. I was a direct beneficiary of some of these things that sound like fantasy, and I remember with a lot of pain that what I experienced as a child seemed to have been flushed down the drain in today’s Nigeria.
The argument that is often given for the seeming inability of government to continue to feed school children is that the Nigerian population has exploded. In the early 80s, we were not up to 180million people and therefore the cost of governance would be expected to be high. But that is an unreasonable excuse for any responsible person who is really interested in the upkeep of their children no matter their number. Government records say in 2011, Nigeria earned $18.14 billion in 2011; $18.16 billion in 2012; $15.19 billion in 2013; $8.01 billion in 2014, and $2.17 billion in 2015. The three tiers of government share an average of $3billion every year, and have done so for the past five years. Each tier of government has been allocated what is statutorily theirs. Now from these monies, Nigeria earmarked and paid out N2.14trillion from the excess crude account to make payments on fuel subsidy to petroleum products marketers between 2011 and 2014. I am not good with numbers but nobody can convince me that a trillion naira will not feed all the children in public primary and secondary school children for more than a decade from today.
What really is happening is that we are a people and a government of misplaced priorities. Most of our revenue goes to areas of least value to human development. Take for instance the kind of monies that go into the maintenance of Nigeria’s refineries, the payment of subsidy to petroleum marketers and the security vote allocated to governors monthly. If my assumptions are anything to go by, most state governors collect about N500million monthly to guarantee peace, orderliness and security of the ordinary person Nigeria. These monies cannot be accounted for, mostly because they are disbursed discreetly to informers around a spy network. But daily, Nigerians sleep with only one eye shut; kidnapping and abductions have become lucrative professions. With more money for security in the hands of persons in authority, we get less and less secure. Shouldn’t we be thinking of an outright abolition of these security votes and use the monies for the upkeep of our children?
One of the reasons why there is insecurity in Nigeria is that there is a lot of injustice in the land. Therefore, instead of voting a lot of monies for the protection of a few government officials who would come and go, we suggest that those monies should be used to tackle issues which lead to insecurity. A child who is fed in school, and taken care of by the state is less likely to take up arms against his fatherland. Feeding children in school develops them physically and mentally, and prepares them for the future. According to the World Food Programme School Feeding in 2014, 27 countries have a school feeding programme tied to their local agricultural policies. There is Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya and there is even The Gambia and Niger Republic. Nigeria the giant of Africa is not among the lot.
***Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku is communications manager with the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice, ANEEJ.