Ramadan feeding as gift of fish



I will not be surprised if some folks in Kano and other far Northern statesalready think of this year’s Ramadan period as the biblical Seven Years of Plenty.At the weekend, President of Dangote Group Alhaji Aliko Dangote, reputed to be the richest person in Africa having long displaced Harry Oppenheimer, flagged off the distribution of 120,000 bags of rice to one million underprivileged persons in the 44 local government councils of his native Kano State.

Dangote estimated the cost of the food items he procured for distribution throughout the country at N15 billion. Kano alone would receive 120,000 bags while the rest would go to the country’s remaining LGAs, about 730 of them.  The purpose, he said, is to provide immediate relief to those in need. Kano was chosen to flag off the program, he said, because of its large population and high level of poverty. This is in addition to his group’s daily feeding programme for 10,000 vulnerable people in Kano State which has been running since 1990, Dangote said.

Kano State Governor Abba Kabir Yusuf, who received the food,  called on other wealthy individuals in the state to emulate the gesture. Tens of thousands of them all over the region are doing that already, but the pressure must be mounting on all other persons who are wealthy or thought to be wealthy to also embark on Ramadan feeding programs, or else they may have their food stores and food trucks looted on the highways. Everybody says Ramadan is a costly period and millions of people need help to get by. I sometimes wonder about this claim because during Ramadan, adult and healthy Muslims do not eat or drink for up to 14 hours a day. Logically, when we do not eat for all those hours, I thought our food budget should drop. Instead, it goes up astronomically because people more than make up with elaborate and sumptuous dishes for what they missed during the day, hence the urgent cry for assistance.

Seven Northern state governments upped the ante this year by spending a reported N28 billion on Ramadan feeding. Katsina, Sokoto, Kano, Jigawa, Kebbi, Niger and Yobe together spent this tidy sum to provide Ramadan food to their citizens. The amounts varied, from champion feeder Katsina State’s N10bilion to Sokoto State’s N6.7 billion, Kano State’s N6 billion, Jigawa’s N2.83 billion, Kebbi’s N1.5 billion, Niger’s N976 million  and Yobe State’s N178 million. Population size had something to do with the variation, though not wholly so, because Katsina’s population is smaller than Kano’s but it budgeted nearly twice as much. Sokoto’s population is only slightly larger than Kebbi’s but it voted five times as much. No doubt many other Northern states  also embarked on Ramadan feeding, only that I could not lay my hands on the figures.

One of the problems with these kinds of programs is that once one state government starts it, other governors will come under severe pressure to do a similar thing, even when they have doubts about its utility. In the North things tend to spread like wildfire, such as when Zamfara State Governor Ahmed Sani started the Shari’a project in 1999 and eleven Northern states soon followed suit, mostly with inadequate conception and preparation. The same thing happened with the distribution of motorcycles. Once one state did it in 1999-2000, politicians in neighbouring states rushed to their governors and said it was a veritable vote-getter, so they must do the same thing. Kaduna State, for example, was late in starting it because then Governor Ahmed Makarfi, an expert in public finance, privately said commercial motorcycles known as Achaba should not be part of public transportation in a modern city such as Kaduna. When the 2003 elections approached however, I was amazed when I entered Sir Kashim Ibrahim House and saw 10,000 brand new motorcycles ready for distribution.

That’s only the first problem with Ramadan feeding programs, their cascading and steam rolling effect. Another issue is the involvement of contractors in the procurement of foodstuff and of vendors in the preparation and serving of the food. While government may be in it to help the needy and vulnerable, vendors and contractors are in it for the profit, in fact for the kill. No wonder that at the weekend there was this video of Kano State Governor Abba Yusuf visiting a Ramadan feeding centre and tasting the food. Disappointment was all over his face; he asked the pupils if this was all they got, and said it was far short of what the government budgeted.

That’s the vendors. Contractors make even bigger kills, often with the collaboration of some government officials. It happens in any sphere where contractors are involved, such as school feeding programs and procurement of emergency food items for refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs. The fact that this is food for Ramadan charity or the feeding of refugees or school pupils does not in any way deter many contractors from making a kill out of it, by persons who ordinarily think of themselves as humane and religious.

Recall that early in his tenure as Kaduna State Governor, Nasiru el-Rufa’i started a primary school feeding program which he stopped after some weeks. I was not surprised because years earlier, I heard from former Kano State Governor Malam Ibrahim Shekarau, a veteran educationist, why the school feeding program was unwieldy and counterproductive and highly prone to corruption.

Next in the matter of Ramadan feeding, there is what in Hausaland is called mutuwar zuciya. The literal translation is “death of the heart” or probably more accurately, death of the spirit. Around the year 2010, I arrived in Sokoto during Ramadan and in my hotel room, I watched television reports of the Ramadan feeding program started by then state governor Aliyu Magatakarda Wamakko. Two scenes shocked me. One was of some motorists who parked their cars near a feeding centre, alighted from the vehicles and joined the queue to collect pap and akara. One of them even came out of a Mercedes, an old model one to be sure, but anyone who drives around in a Mercedes could surely afford food in his house?

The Sokoto feeding program was also segmented into different lanes in  city wards. The TV report showed one inner city street near Yelwa Garden. All the elderly home owners came out and sat in front of their houses. The food vendor went to them one by one, filled their cups with pap and dropped several balls of akara alongside it. At that point I pitied Alu, as Sokoto people fondly called the governor. Could he feed virtually everybody, instead of the down and out as initially envisaged in the program?

I mentally compared that to the Salvation Army soup kitchens that I once saw in the United States. Very good food, well prepared, and a passer-by could see it through the glass windows. All you had to do was to go inside and eat for free, but only the really down and out, homeless and drug addicts sauntered in. Anyone with any pride in him, however hungry, will not go in there. I believe such a widespread social attitude is necessary before we can make a success of the feeding programs, when it is the really needy that will be catered for. But when nearly everybody is scrambling to get free food, even the N10 billion voted by Katsina will sink without much effect.

Then there is the small matter of what happens in the eleven months before the next Ramadan. There is no indication that hunger will disappear from these lands anytime soon. When for one month a man is used to going to a feeding centre and collecting free food, are you not setting a dangerous precedent of what could happen the day the program ends? I am not by any means opposed to charity work and assistance for the needy, but there is sure a need for streamlining and some reform of social attitudes in order to make it effective.

Okay, what happens to the old saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”? At the same time as the Ramadan feeding programs were unfolding, the Tony Elumelu Foundation announced last Friday that 1,104 “promising entrepreneurs” from 54 African countries will receive a non-refundable $5,000 grant each under its Entrepreneurship Programme. It is seed capital for them to pursue an enterprise. The rationale, program sponsor and UBA chairman Tony Elumelu said, is “We believe in spreading luck, we believe in democratising luck, we believe in prosperity, and we think that the easiest way to spread prosperity in Africa is by identifying our young ones, encouraging them and helping them to start their own businesses.” Oga Tony, are you saying the feeding programs in the North believe in spreading ill-luck, democratising poverty and spreading a dependence syndrome? I know you didn’t say that but with the two programs with completely opposing rationales and modus operandi coming at the same time, some contrasts are inevitable.

Many down and out Nigerians will look at the Elumelu program and salivate, that if only they can get $5,000, all their problems will be solved. Well, not so fast. Every young Nigerian you listen to will say that “lack of capital” is the only thing stopping him from launching a successful business. That is not true. Many of those people in Ramadan feeding queues, if you were to give them $5,000 each, they will be back in the same queues this time next year. At the weekend I saw TV reports of former President Olusegun Obasanjo telling Abia State governor Alex Otti in Umuahia that he should provide infrastructure and skills and his people will find their way. Could we kindly do the same in the North so that fewer people will need Ramadan feeding next year?  

Related Articles