This morning I picked my notebook, waiting for inspiration that would move the pen in my hand along the lines of the blank page staring at me. Inspiration did come, but from a different source. It came from the recesses of my stomach—a growling that dared me to disobey.
As I gently placed spoonful after spoonful in my mouth, munching in near perfect rhythm, I remembered that many Nigerians do not enjoy this “luxury”—meals when due. Then I reflected on a WhatsApp discussion yesterday about high-sounding campaign promises and APC’s pledge to provide daily meals for every child in Nigerian schools—public schools.
Now that I have refilled my tank, the needed inspiration has invited itself. Before I proceed, let me say that I am as neutral as the white colour that contains all the colours of the spectrum, and my views may be as wrong as a person who enters a beautiful ship at Port Harcourt, seeking to arrive in Abuja.
Nigerian politicians never seem to learn from history. They prefer “experience is the best teacher”, instead of, “learn from the mistakes of others”. In 2011, Goodluck Jonathan claimed he had a magic wand to solve all Nigeria’s power problems in just four years. After four years, we now know that he has just hammers and screwdrivers, not Harry Porter’s wand. I heard a presidential candidate has promised to stabilize crude oil prices. Let us leave that, and focus on the mass feeding plan.
I asked some of my APC-backing classmates to make any sensible assumptions, and create a theoretical execution plan for Buhari’s mass school feeding plan. No one stepped up to the challenge. However, one neutral person asked me to create a plan. I threw in Google, some relevant numbers, records, and some brainwork. The plan I cooked up was quite a beauty. However, it had a major drawback—figures from organisations that I could not vouch for. Don’t blame me. Even the finance minister doubts official government figures.
I presented the flawed beautiful plan to my colleagues, and an interesting discussion ensued. One classmate extolled the virtues of such a programme, saying it would boost the performance of the students. At the sidelines, another classmate said the APC government (if elected) will empower farmers with subsidized agricultural inputs to boost harvests, receive bigger taxes from farmers, use the taxes to feed the school children (at reduced food prices). Promise fulfilled. After all, it worked in Awolowo’s time.
However, a look at the financial aspect of my plan raised objections. I estimated over a trillion naira per annum (almost 30% of the budget). Removing private school students brought it down to about 400 – 500 billion naira. We all agreed that it was a huge sum of money.
How do you fund such a massive project? Someone said it should be decentralized so LGAs handled it. However, I pointed out that LGAs could not be “forced” since it was a federal project. We talked about raising taxes, and recognised the pushback that would come from individuals and business. We also talked about printing more naira notes, but the threat of hyperinflation frowned at us. Some said the “missing” $20 billion or ₦30 trillion could fund it. Others said if the bloated civil service was streamlined, recurrent expenditure would drop, and the feeding plan can be funded.
At the end of the day, many of us agreed on one thing. Even if the funds for such a project were to be easily available, Nigeria has more pressing needs. If you give a schoolchild lunch, what about breakfast and dinner? Eating a “good” meal only at lunchtime is not a sign of good nutrition. The doctrine of “stomach infrastructure” is slowly entering the psyches of Nigerians. Like I told a classmate, stomach infrastructure may make people happy, but it deprives them of a better deal—real infrastructure that would help them live better lives.
Which is better? Giving someone a fish or teaching him how to fish so he can always feed himself, and even make money from any extra fishes? Instead of spending billions of naira on “unproductive” free meals, why not spend that money on providing better infrastructure, making Nigeria a better place to grow in, providing power, roads, credit access, houses, hospitals, more schools, improving the educational sector etc. Why not create an enabling business climate that ensures that the parents/guardians of these schoolchildren can earn meaningful rewards for their daily labour, and so, be able to provide the children with better nutrition three times daily.
The government has never shown itself effective at handling large-scale largesse-sharing programmes. It always gets mired in corruption and inefficient delivery. Even if an APC government were so efficient and corruption-free, executing that mass school feeding plan would be tantamount to wasting our resources. Nigeria needs a government that would focus on enhancing the productivity of its numerous citizens.
Free meals and other stomach infrastructure components may increase the popularity of a government, but they simply exchange future sustenance for present gain. The fuel Nigeria needs is not free meals, but a productive economy to drive the engine of development. We need governments that understand that eating tomorrow’s yam will never help anyone.