Unending trend of ghost issues

A recent story titled ‘Free feeding fraud in Benue, Taraba, Plateau schools’ which was published by Daily Trust on Sunday in its December 23, 2018 edition reveals how corruption still survives in the public service in spite of the on-going war being waged against it by President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration.

The school feeding programme of the federal government 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 so far failed to achieve most of these targets. The Daily Trust on Sunday story reports that in spite of the huge sum of N49 billion spent on free meal for school children in two years, many pupils still don’t get fed. Those who get fed eat poor quality food. According to the story, data collected from the three states of Benue, Taraba and Plateau confirm the existence of ‘ghost’ schools on the scheme. While some cooks (or vendors) engaged to provide the free meals are underpaid, others play truancy.

Feeding fraud was reported in the story where, for instance, some schools in Benue state were on the list but could not be traced by the reporter. Residents of the affected local government area told the reporter that the schools were not physically on ground. The ‘ghost’ schools are NKST Primary School Abnayi purportedly having 80 pupils with Philomena Akwae as the food vendor; LGEA Primary school Maduen purportedly having 77 pupils with Mgunengen Maduen as the vendor; and LGEA Primary School which allegedly had 72 pupils with Tyozenda Teryila as the vendor. This means the funds earmarked for the three schools would have been spent on ‘ghost’ pupils.

The story also uncovered three ghost schools on the programme in Takum Local Government of Taraba State. A crumbling mud house with battered rooftop was where the UBE Primary School, Kanshio, was sited about four years ago. Sadly, the rainstorm-ravaged school in Chanchanji ward of the local government has now been turned into a worship center; meaning that the school and its pupils have since joined the list of ‘ghost’ matters. Residents told the reporter that the school had been closed down since 2014. Findings according to the reporter revealed that wife of the chairman of the local government, Christy shiban is a food vendor at the school and she supposedly ‘feeds’ 61 ‘ghost’ pupils.

At UBEA Nukpoba also in Taraba state, the reporter learnt that no child had gone to school there since September 2007. A source told the reporter that, “There are no pupils, no teachers there. So, who will the vendor serve? We know that the school exist only on paper because it had ceased to exist in reality since 2007.

A source at the desk office of the school feeding programme in Takum confided in the reporter that the school at UBEA Gidan Ukwe does not exist but it is on the list of schools benefitting from the programme. The source lamented that while cooks were posted to ghost schools, real schools did not have vendors. The reporter gathered that pupils at UBEA Primary Schools in Kav, Aleva, Fio and Kpenfu, all in Takum LGA of Taraba state were not being fed because there were no vendors to cook for the pupils.

It would be recalled that the Saturday August 17, 2013 edition of this column carried a piece titled, ‘Spending N8.6bn on ghost books’. In that piece, I recounted how over N18 billion was claimed to have been spent by government in three years for providing free books: N5 billion in 2010; N6 billion in 2011; and N7 billion in 2012 with no books actually issued to pupils in public schools. A staff of Niger State UBE Board was arrested in 2012 for complicity in the sale of such ‘free’ books that were found at an Onitsha bookstore.

The write-up was sequel to the press briefing granted by the then Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, who told State House correspondents after the weekly FEC meeting of Wednesday August 14, 2013 that government had approved N8.6 billion for the printing and distribution of primaries 1-6 textbooks and library resources for junior secondary schools in 36 states and the FCT. That’s how corruption introduced ‘ghost’ books, ‘ghost’ teachers, and ‘ghost’ pupils into modern Nigerian English.  And now, it is ‘ghost’ feeding or ‘ghost’ food vendors.

Aside of the challenges associated with the operations of the school feeding programme some of which were captured in the Daily Trust on Sunday story, the complaints, accusations and inadequacies that have characterized its management in states where it was introduced raises more questions than answers about the real benefits of the programme especially its impact on the teaching and learning process in schools. The feeding programme was discontinued shortly after it took off in many states. While some of the vendors complained of being shortchanged in the payments due to them, the pupils (as beneficiaries) murmured over the poor quality of food served them. Some governors lamented over the financial burden incurred from the school feeding programme. The only significant gain of the feeding programme is the increase in enrollment figures of children into schools.

But, if one may ask, does mere going to school translate into effective learning? It certainly makes little difference for a child to go to school and sits on bare floor in a classroom that is not only having a dilapidated blackboard staring at the pupils but which roof had not been replaced since it was lost to rain storm. A class of ‘obese’ pupils who though are being taught by unqualified teachers and who in addition lack relevant textbooks would be nothing better than a bunch of learners who attend school but to eat without learning anything.

The fact that persons found to have engaged in fraudulent activities in the management of government programmes are left to go unpunished is a good reason for corrupt practices to persist among public servants. Unless appropriate sanctions are imposed on offenders, we should expect to see the ‘ghost’ syndrome extending io every sector of Nigeria’s economy. We would soon begin to hear of ghost roads, ghost clinics or hospitals, ghost pharmaceutical stores, ghost tractors, ghost NYSC members, etc. While we urge government to deal severely with the unending trend of ghost issues in the public service, we encourage it to re-examine the operations of the school feeding programme with a view to prioritizing the learning needs of school children. May Allah (SWT) guide our leaders to be patriotic in ensuring timely prosecution and proper conviction of corrupt public officers, amin.

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