My Problem with Buhari’s Free School Meal

I have always said Nigeria is an irony, a paradox. Some even call it a mockery. A country so rich, but so poor. She has abundant petroleum, but imports its products. She can’t even import it anymore. The fuel pump has run dry. The queues have run into several kilometres of tailbacks.

She has literacy programmes for some African countries. Trying to teach them how to read and write. While her citizens are the world’s most illiterate. She ranks second to Canada as the world’s largest deposit of bitumen, with 42.74 billion metric tonnes deposit. But her roads are largely in sorry state. She is always the first to volunteer her military for peacekeeping missions in the continent. While she cannot provide peace and security in some parts her land. What more can I say?

It’s this culture that entrenches the practice where governments first implement a policy before formulating it. The father of all contradictions. Education is no exception. Government is used to making outrageous announcement for obvious political expediency. So was it in 1976. The Federal Government decided to take over all primary schools, through the Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme. Without any statistical planning. So it boomeranged! Instead of the 2.3 million expected, 3 million pupils showed up. What would happen to the excess 700,000 pupils? Where will they find classroom space? Teachers??? The government was shooting before aiming. That is the paradox called Nigeria.

The situation worsened. Because of the nature of the programme, the enrolment increased from 3 million to 15 million. All within five years. Expectedly, the federal government had to abandon the programme. It had no choice. Oil boom turned to oil doom. Petrodollars were depleting. The complexity of the programme itself created additional avenue for the sleaze. Best of days for corrupt contractors and their bureaucratic accomplices. In less than six years, there was a policy summersault. There had to be.

That was between 1976 and 1982. Incidentally, President Muhammadu Buhari took over from that regime a year later as a military Head of State. Although he didn’t inherit the burden of the policy then, he seems set to introduce one upon himself now. He wants to feed the whole pupils in public schools every day. To fulfil an irrational campaign promise. Free meal without free thought. What will it cost the government and the nation? What is the priority or otherwise of the proposed policy when compared with other needs of the education sector?

First, what’s the cost? According to the Roadmap to Nigerian Education Sector, there are over 24 million pupils in primary schools. Feeding these pupils daily is like…assuming each pupil is fed with N100…N2.4 billion! N2.4 billion everyday! In a term, a minimum of N156 billion would be gulped by the programme. That is about half a trillion naira within a year! Where does Buhari hope to get that from? How long can he sustain it? This is different from the N5000 monthly unemployment benefits he promised the youths. In a time he laments the government is broke.

It’s true that the government at the centre can intervene in any level of education. But charity begins at home. What is the condition of its own universities, polytechnics, colleges of education, and even its secondary schools? Where will it get the money from?

No doubt, the 10 million out-of-school children in the country will troop to school. Will they be turned back? What plans are in place to build more classrooms to accommodate the asymmetric demand? Which agency will handle the project, considering its complexity? What logistics are being put in place for it? The questions are just too many.

Instead of regurgitating indigestible campaign pledge and rooting for its unplanned implementation, the presidency should apologise to the citizenry and do what will ultimately benefit it. After careful planning, of course. Since that appears to be lacking before the elections. No one is above mistake. Which is what this project is.