The recent announcement that the Buhari presidency is poised to commence free meals for school children and modest social security for the destitute revives a tradition of public discourse that had gone out of fashion in most states of the federation until the 2015 presidential election.
For the past sixteen years, our country’s political and economic space has been dominated by two major themes: wealth creation and humanitarianism. All the PDP governments since the end of military dictatorship had focused on creation of material wealth at the expense of the welfare of majority of the citizens. Compared to many countries on the continent and despite the oil boom, Nigeria had paid lip service to provision of quality public education that can enable majority of the citizens compete in the expanding global economic space. General (now President) Buhari and the All Progressives Congress brought the theme of equality and what Aristotle called distributive justice back to the nation’s political space first during the 2015 political campaign. Just last week, the Buhari presidency moved from the plane of campaign promise to policy development when the vice president announced that school children would be given one free meal a day in school.
The last time Nigerians were bombarded with messages about the importance of bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots was during the last campaign of Chief Obafemi Awolowo for the presidency in 1983 and, more recently, during the campaigns of Action for Democracy and Action Congress of Nigeria between 1999 and 2007. When public policy rhetoric was not solely about war against corruption during Buhari’s first coming or structural adjustment in the era of Babangida, it was about primitive accumulation in the Abacha presidency, and endless attempts at economic and fiscal restructuring of Obasanjo’s second coming or the mania for wealth creation for and by those with assured access to the country’s treasury in the last six years of Goodluck Jonathan.
The recent announcement that the Buhari presidency is poised to commence free meals for school children and modest social security for the destitute revives a tradition of public discourse that had gone out of fashion in most states of the federation until the 2015 presidential election. But, as expected, the leaders of yesterday’s party of power have started to pooh-pooh Vice President Osinbajo’s announcement. They warned against simple-minded imitation of an Aregbesola model that the same party had campaigned against and identified as the source of failure of the Osun governor to pay workers’ salaries as and when due. This theory of Osun State’s failure to pay its workers ignored the fact that there were more PDP-controlled states that were also unable to pay their workers’ salaries on time. Also amusing is the PDP’s silence on the negative impact of decline in revenue from petroleum and of the federal government’s decision to take loans from domestic and international money markets to settle federal workers’ wage bills.
Nothing is unusual about PDP leaders’ negative stance on Aregbesola’s initiative to improve access to and retention rate in public schools. The negative attitude of PDP spokespersons is in character with the struggle for power in a multiparty democracy. What is bizarre about PDP’s characterisation of modest measures of social assistance to school children and poor citizens is the facile generalisation that such government expenditures on citizens are part of campaign rhetoric after elections. Despite similar criticism of Aregbesola when he introduced this social programme a few years back, the programme has enjoyed commendation from its beneficiaries and the international community on account of Aregbesola’s responsiveness to the state’s most economically vulnerable communities. It is also on record that Fayemi’s failure to win re-election in Ekiti in his second term bid was not because of his modest social security benefits to the aged of his state. Indeed, it was in spite of his responsiveness to the most vulnerable group in the state.
It is a good beginning for Buhari and the APC that the poor and the forgotten in the country are the first community to benefit from his administration. Provision of free or subsidised meal for school children in elementary and secondary schools in many advanced countries has many advantages. Research has shown that children who have breakfast concentrate better in school than those who do not, just as those who have nourishing food in or outside school also improve school retention rate than those who do not have the opportunity of nourishing meals. It may be difficult for those with easy access to the wealth of the country to believe that there are millions of school-age children in the country who are malnourished on a daily basis. But the truth is that the country’s classrooms are full of children whose parents cannot afford to provide one nourishing meal a day. Without the kind of the model provided by the Aregbesola government, many of such children would have found learning too stressful and enervating.
There is also an economic aspect of free or subsidised meals for school children. It helps to stimulate agricultural productivity. Better opportunities for bulk purchase of farm produce for farmers exist in Osun than in any other state in the southwest. Bulk and regular purchase has the capacity to improve farmers’ credit worthiness and to increase agriculture-related jobs, not to talk of providing employment for cooks and chefs. A visit to Osun State will reveal that no state has better public hygiene culture than what obtains in Osun today. As this column observed a few years before Aregbesola came to power, each school child should be given one glass of fresh milk and one glass of fresh orange or pineapple juice each school day as part of the meal for the day. Apart from the additional nourishment such beverages can bring, the provision of vitamin and protein-rich drinks is capable of stimulating modernisation of dairy farming in the savannah region while daily serving of vitamin-fruit juice can boost modern fruit farming in the rain forest region of the country.
On the few occasions I had visited Osun State, school children whom I interviewed were full of praise for the free lunch programme in their state. They were so enthusiastic about the free-meal policy that they described in glowing terms the meals given to them every day at the state government’s expense. Some of them even repeated the clichéd expression of “being given the opportunity to enjoy dividends of democracy.” It was not surprising when parents came out in droves to defend their votes when the nation’s security forces (or their clones?) supervised in a blood-thirsty way the state’s gubernatorial campaign and voting last year.
If the experience of Osun school children is anything to go by, President Buhari and his party should act with confidence and waste no time to kick-start implementation of the free meal policy and other citizens’ welfare-related policies. Majority of Nigeria’s school children and their parents must be very excited about this policy. So must the federal government provide leadership to states on the need to use political power to enhance equality of opportunity for less materially-endowed citizens so that they too can add value in their own way to development efforts. Doing so will eclipse decades of politics of primitive accumulation by personalistic and patrimonial political and public office holders. It will also provide a new and enviable model for good governance in the country.
But the efforts to reduce inequality must not be limited to one free meal per day for school children or token social security assistance to the elderly or the poor. Majority of Nigerians need government assistance in many other ways to enable them meet their basic needs: transportation, health, jobs, and salaries that can pull them out of poverty. Citizens are aware of the economic mess inherited by the Buhari government and do not expect miracles. However, they expect sincere efforts on the part of government at all levels to address poverty-alleviation and enhance equality across the country.