Thursday, 27 December 2018

Investigation: Free Feeding Fraud In Benue

(Number eight on the list is a ghost school)

A plate and spoon in hand, five-year-old Lember Iorhemen stood by  the door of the next class, salivating over a plate of palm oil-garnished spaghetti in front of the pupils of 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 scorching their innocent faces, even as they,  in Tiv language, chorused for  food: “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, according to the government record at the time of this investigation.

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 malnourished.

Despite spending N49 billion on the free meals in two years, not many school pupils are frequently fed, even when they are fed, the quality of the food is poor. Data collected from three states of Benue, Taraba and Plateau showed the 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.

Not fewer than 303 schools are excluded from the free meals scheme in Benue State. 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 around. 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 per cent; 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 benefiting 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 the 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 the 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 per cent 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.

As reported By International Center for Investigative Reporting (ICIR)

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