The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq, has insisted that her ministry spent over N500 million on feeding schoolchildren in two states and Abuja during last year’s COVID-19 lockdown.
There are, however, modifications to some details – figures and the nature of food distributed – which the minister was quoted to have provided concerning the programme last year.
While responding to public scepticism questioning the transparency of the social intervention programme at a briefing by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 last August, Ms Farouq was quoted as saying that N523,273,800 was spent to feed pupils in Ogun and Lagos states as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, between May 14, and July 6, 2020.
But in a court document which was filed on her behalf at the Federal High Court in Abuja on January 26, 2021, an official of her ministry stated that “the 1st respondent (the minister) spent N535,873,800 on 127,789 households as against the N523,273,800 on 124,589 households claimed by the applicant.”
The official of the legal unit of the ministry, Ahmed Abdullahi, who gave some details about the programme in a counter-affidavit he deposed to on behalf of the minister and the ministry, stated that “he was briefed by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Home-grown School Feeding Programme, Titilayo Adeyemi”.
The counter-affidavit, seen by PREMIUM TIMES on Saturday, was filed to oppose a Freedom of Information (FoI) suit seeking an order to compel the minister and her ministry to release the full details of the spending and the beneficiaries.
In what comes as a new twist in the court document, Mr Abdulahi stated that about 5,000 cooks were engaged for the 20-day programme in Abuja and the two states, a claim that appears to negate the impression given by Ms Farouq at her last August’s briefing that it was “uncooked food” that was distributed to the pupils.
The deponent stated that 1,419 cooks were engaged in 20 Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Lagos State, 3,577 of them in 20 LGAs of Ogun State, and 895 others in the FCT.
Even though schools were shut down during the 20 days period of the distribution of the food, the official stated that 2,859 schools benefitted from the programme in the two states and Abuja.
A civil society group, Kingdom Human Rights Foundation International (KHRFI), had in November last year, sued Ms Farouq and her ministry, along with others, after they ignored its August 6, 2020 letter anchored on FoI Act, 2011, requesting the full details of the spending and the beneficiaries of the school feeding programme.
The organisation stated that it resorted to filing the suit because it “suspected act of corruption in the school feeding spending”.
Ms Farouk and the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development (FMHDSD), are sued as the 1st and 2nd defendants in the suit.
The rest of the defendants are, the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 , the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC).
Aside from the minister and her ministry, the other defendants have yet to respond to the suit which is pending before Nkeonye Maha of the Federal High Court in Abuja.
Mr Abdullahi, the FMHDSD’s official, stated in the counter-affidavit on the ministry and her minister that the school feeding exercise during last year’s lockdown gulped N535,873,800.
He added that “cash was not disbursed during the exercise”, but food items valued at N4,200 per household at N70 per child and based on assumption of three children per household.
According to him, a total of 2,859 schools, 382,765 pupils and 12,789 schools benefited from the exercise that lasted between nine to 20 days between May and June last year in Abuja, Lagos State and Ogun State.
The counter-affidavit read in part, “That the breakdown of the number of households in FCT is 29,609 and 37,589 in Lagos State and 60,391 in Ogun State.
“That the activity in Lagos started on May 21 and ended June 3, 2020.
“That the activity in Ogun started on June 17 and ended on July 6, 2020.
“That the activity in FCT started on May 21 and ended May 29, 2020.
“That the programme did not disburse cash, but food items valued at N4,200 per household at the N70 per child for 20 days (a month) assuming there are 3 Children within the targeted age group in each household.”
For the FCT, the official stated that that six LGAs benefitted “and the number of schools is 404, number of cooks is 895, number of pupils is 88,826, number of households is 29,609 and the N4,200 relief per household stood at N124,357,800.”
He said “20 LGAs benefitted from the programme in Lagos State, and the number of schools is 866, number of cooks is 1,419, number of pupils is 112,767, number of households are 37,689 and the N4,200 relief per household stood at N157,873,800.”
For Ogun State, the official stated that “20 LGAs and the number of schools is 1,589, number of cooks is 3,577, number of pupils is 181,172, number of households is 60,391 and the N4,200 relief per household stood at N253,642,200.”
He added, “That the total number of schools that benefitted under the programme is 2,859.
“That the total number of pupils that benefitted from the programme is 382,765.
“That the total number of households that benefited from the programme is 127,789
“That the total amount spent as per N4,200 relief/households stood at N535,873,800.”
‘Information not willfully withheld’
On why the minister and the ministry failed to respond to the earlier enquiry by the applicant, Mr Abdullahi stated that they did not willfully withhold information requested.
He acknowledged that the ministry received the applicant’s letter dated August 6, 2020 requesting the information anchored on section 2(1), (2), and (3) of the FoI Act, 2011.
Although the law gives a public institution seven days to respond to such request, the official stated the minister “did not deliberately refuse or neglect to reply the said letter”.
He added that the letter had been noted “with a view of replying the said letter” before the applicant proceeded to court.
As to why the addresses and phone numbers of the beneficiaries requested by the applicant could not be released, he stated that the information “is personal information of individuals receiving social, educational, vocational, and financial care directly from the 1st and 2nd respondents on behalf of the Federal Government of Nigeria.”
He added, “That the beneficiaries have at no time given their consent for their identity(ies) to be disclosed.
“That the respondent did not willfully withhold information for any reason.”
Accountability, probity still missing’
Meanwhile, the executive director and lawyer to KHFRI, Okere Nnamdi, said in a statement that the counter-affidavit filed on behalf of the minister and her ministry “is empty and carries no weight” and “lacks credibility, accountability and probity”.
The statement read in part, “We regret to state that the counter affidavit of the Minster and her Ministry is empty and carries no weight, as not even the names of the so called 2,859 schools were disclosed.
“Their counter affidavit is empty, lacks credibility, accountability and probity.
“Their empty counter-affidavit has now confirmed that indeed the school feeding programme during the covid-19 lockdown was one of the greatest scam of the year 2020 and a disservice to the nation.”
Mr Nnamdi observed that they “failed to disclose the names of the schools and the identity of the so-called households” that benefited in Ogun State, Lagos State and Abuja.
He said Ms Farouq and her minister should have, “in the minimum disclosed the names of the schools to enable us investigate by going to the schools to interact with the students and teachers of the schools to verify if truly the N535,873,800 was spent on school feeding during the 2020 lockdown.”
“We shall remain committed to our avowed stance to help stamp out corruption through public interest litigation of this nature. We shall pursue this case to a logical conclusion as requested in the freedom of information application,” Mr Nnamdi added.
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